Events and trends in the Russian Federation over the week of November 5th – 11th
- Moscow understood the need to leave Kherson but tried to tie this process to negotiations with Ukraine. However, not having received foreign policy bonuses in the form of a truce from the retreat from Kherson, Putin and his closest entourage tried to strengthen control over potential leaders of Russian society’s radical wing. In addition, since the Russian Federation declared Kherson “its territory”, it was no longer a question of withdrawing from the occupied territories “within the SVO” but from “the territory of the Russian Federation”. Accordingly, it was necessary to clarify to the ordinary citizen what was happening. Therefore, the Russian Federation’s leadership stopped society’s shocked reaction to this retreat. However, it is impossible to neutralize the negativity and its possible future on Putin and his politics.
- Russians’ defeat in Kherson prompted supporters of negotiations with the Russian Federation in the West to try to probe the soil on this topic. Still, it also strengthened the arguments of those who advocate for continued support for Ukraine and pressure on Russia. Final decisions have yet to be made, and the latest messages from the West should not be considered a fait accompli. But negotiations will remain on the agenda of Western countries, especially in Europe, which is expecting a harsh winter.
- We will see a real decrease in Putin’s rating in a few months. Society will be frightened, waiting for a command from above, and will agree to anything, including giving up the newly annexed territory. The main problem is the Russian elites, who are not yet ready for change.
- Kadyrov aspires to become the leading Muslim radical in Russia. On November 8th, the Telegram channel of the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, posted a video with his comments on the current situation in Russia, Ukraine, and Europe. Kadyrov assures that the Chechen troops do not suffer any losses, announces a quick victory, and calls on Muslims in Europe to defend Islam, traditions, and the interests of Russia. Considering the organizational fragmentation of Russian Muslims, Kadyrov can count on the role of a secular ruler and spiritual guide, at least in the Caucasus. The strengthening of the domestic political weight of Kadyrov personally due to the attraction of Islamic radicals to his side is quite natural.
The retreat of the Russians from Kherson: political challenges
Considering the events of the last 3-4 weeks, the decision to withdraw from Kherson was made earlier. Several facts coincided at once:
- Evacuation of material values from the bridgehead on the right bank (even the hospital equipment);
- The transfer of mobilized soldiers to the right bank of the Dnipro has stopped (taking into account the reports of the Russian mass media and the history of conflicts between relatives and the leadership of the regions of the Russian Federation);
- The Russian leadership actively pedaled the topic of negotiations with Ukraine. It happened both in the media field and with the help of the leaders of several states;
- The newly appointed commander of the Russian group Surovikin announced “difficult” and “unpopular” decisions.
At the same time, we saw the continued attempts to solve the problem of supplying troops on the right bank in case there is no decision on withdrawal.
Moscow understood the need to leave Kherson but tried to tie this process to negotiations with Ukraine to demonstrate readiness to make compromises. Official Kyiv did not go to the talks, and the Russian Federation did not improve the situation with the supply of the groups on the right bank of the Dnipro. As a result, we saw the announcement of a “maneuver” and the withdrawal of troops to the left bank.
In this case, the assessment of the media field is very important for understanding this withdrawal process. Since the Russian Federation declared Kherson “its territory”, it was no longer a question of withdrawing from the occupied territories “in the framework of the SVO” but from “the territory of the Russian Federation”. Accordingly, it was necessary to clarify what was happening to ordinary citizens. There was also a need, just in case, to elect officials who would become the scapegoats at the following stages.
As a result, the following scheme was implemented:
- First and foremost: the decision itself was announced at the departmental level. The commander of the troops made a report and proposed to withdraw the troops. Shoigu agreed to it. Theoretically, this could become one of the mechanisms for removing Putin from the attack since he formally had nothing to do with this decision. Instead, there are two surnames. One is Surovikin, a new appointee supported by several speakers from the radical wing. The second is Shoigu, who was quite consistently criticized by the same radicals. At the same time, the mass media did not focus on the persons who made this decision and did not create the illusion of opposition along the Putin-army leadership axis. Instead, it was about the generals who the President of the Russian Federation empowered to make “difficult” decisions.
- Second: particular emphasis was placed on the thesis about the need to “save soldiers’ lives.” Key media groups actively picked up this thesis. In this case, there is an attempt to play on the growth of negative attitudes among the relatives of the mobilized and a series of scandals, when they demanded from the regions’ leadership to “remove our people from the front line”. For the ordinary citizen, Russian key leadership created a picture of the “concern” of the Russian military leadership. According to the authors of this thesis, it should reduce the likelihood of spreading negative attitudes (encapsulate them in the group of “relatives” and reduce possible protests to meetings in military committees).
- Finally, the coverage in key talk shows (on NTV channels, Russia — 24, Pervyi) about the planned nature of what is happening and the possible strengthening of potential in other areas.
The high-profile decision, authored (publicly) by Surovikin, also neutralized possible sharp criticism from non-systemic politicians who claim to strengthen their role. Prigozhin and Kadyrov, who actively supported the new appointments in command of the “SVO” a few days earlier, did not have the opportunity to come up with sharp theses and endorsed the decision to withdraw the troops. It is important that they did it publicly, becoming one of the key speakers. The reaction of key Telegram channels from the “military” network is also indicative. In contrast to the situation with the Kharkiv region, Lyman (where the Russian troops tried to gain a foothold and resist), this time for a “planned withdrawal”, they supported a “reasonable decision”, discounting the costs of the previous stages of the war.
The topic of military defeats and the war in Ukraine remained localized in the triangle of “military leadership-Putin-non-systemic politicians (looking for the support of radicals”).
Thus, without receiving foreign policy bonuses (in the form of a ceasefire) from the retreat from Kherson, Putin and his closest entourage tried to strengthen control over potential leaders of the radical wing of Russian society. Not having a ready-made algorithm for the “inclusion of radicals in the political system” today, they are working to prevent the development of an uncontrolled situation on the right wing of the political field.
The defeat of the Russian Federation near Kherson: a trigger for peace negotiations or the war to the end?
The withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson and the entire right-bank part of the region in the south of Ukraine coincided with the appearance in the Western media of a whole series of reports/articles/comments on the topic of the likely resumption of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. This has led to speculations about whether the retreat of the Russians near Kherson is a prerequisite for such negotiations and whether the Western partners will incline Ukraine to negotiations after the return to the control of the city itself and most of the region by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
On November 6th, Washington Post published an article that noted the possibility of resuming peace talks after the Ukrainian Armed Forces return to Kherson. In 2 days, already after the retreat announced by the Russians, a similar publication appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Two days later, the same publication appeared on the Politico website. In parallel, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to the US president, made a secret visit to Kyiv. He could have raised the topic of negotiations during a meeting with the Ukrainian leadership. Even US President Joseph Biden hinted at the possibility of negotiations several times, particularly in his speech on November 10th in Washington, DC. Similar signals also came from Europe: French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking at a climate conference in Egypt, noted that Ukraine and Russia would eventually have to sit at the negotiating table.
However, all these messages mean that the West has yet to decide whether to compromise with Russia. The situation around Kherson can undoubtedly be used by both critics and supporters of negotiations with the Russian Federation. The first will insist on continuing the “war to the end” and providing Ukraine with the additional military, financial, economic, and humanitarian aid for this purpose. The latter will talk about the need to take advantage of the retreat of the Russian Federation, their “moment of vulnerability,” to return the parties to the negotiating track, in which Ukraine will now be in a winning position.
Currently, there are three basic scenarios for further actions in peace negotiations.
- Some of the Western elites who are in favor of negotiations will try to initiate them, taking advantage of the retreat of the Russian Federation from Kherson, but will fail, faced with the opposite positions of Kyiv and Moscow, as well as the lack of a compromise on the Russian Federation within their establishment. In this case, they will be forced to continue to support Ukraine and weaken Russia further, dragging the war throughout the entire winter and part of the spring of 2023.
- The Western elites will agree among themselves that they want to freeze the conflict for a while, agree on a ceasefire regime for at least a few months before winter to take a break, accumulate resources, stabilize their economies, allocate additional funds for the settlement of internal problems, adjust further actions. Such a pause is very much wanted in Russia, as it will give Moscow time to regroup its troops, redeploy reserves and review its next steps.
- The West will not negotiate with Russia, and due to their failure at Kherson, it will increase aid to Ukraine to further pressure Moscow and incline it to territorial concessions to Kyiv, taking advantage of Russia’s vulnerability after a series of military defeats and increasing sanctions pressure in the winter period.
Undoubtedly, negotiations will remain on the agenda of Western countries, especially in Europe, which is expecting a tough winter. The socio-economic and financial troubles in the EU will prompt some politicians to call for negotiations with the aim of a truce and an operational pause. Much will depend on the ability of Western countries to build up ties with other countries, compensating for losses from the consequences of the Russian Federation’s war in Ukraine. In this context, the visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China at the beginning of the month was indicative. In addition, negotiations began between the US and the EU on coordinating efforts to provide non-military aid to Ukraine.
Thus, the situation around Kherson can be viewed from different angles and used by various political forces for their own purposes. However, a final decision has yet to be made.