Putin’s disaster in Kharkiv is his biggest challenge yet. This left him with few options

Experts say Russia’s crackdown on Ukraine’s Kharkiv region represents the biggest challenge to Putin’s career, and the Kremlin leader is running out of options.

Moscow has tried to spin the hasty withdrawal as “regrouping”, but in a sign of how bad things look for Russia, the military has been publicly criticized by some high-profile Kremlin loyalists including the Chechen leader that of Ramzan Kadyrov, who supplied thousands of fighters to the offensive.

But the current situation could cause even bigger problems for Putin, Russian political analyst Anton Barbashin said.

“Kyiv’s withdrawal was framed as a gesture of goodwill, something they had to do to avoid civilian casualties,” he told CNN. “Part of the propaganda has always focused on the Donbas region as the main priority, but now that the Russian forces have somewhat withdrawn from the Kharkiv region and the Luhansk region, it will be more problematic to explain it if Ukraine is in fact, push further and I. saw no reason why they wouldn’t.”

The Kremlin said Monday that Putin was aware of the situation on the frontlines, and insisted that Russia would achieve all the goals of its “special military operation” — the phrase Moscow uses for its war in Ukraine — to control all Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

But that operation will be made more difficult by Ukraine’s gains in nearby Kharkiv. And setbacks there have fueled criticism and finger-pointing among influential Russian military bloggers and Russian state media personalities.

Strangely, even Putin himself was criticized. On Monday, representatives from 18 municipal districts in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kolpino called for Putin’s resignation, according to a petition with a list of signatures posted on Twitter.

There are no good options left

Experts say Putin will now face growing pressure to respond with force. Influential Russian nationalists and pro-war voices are increasingly calling for radical measures, including full mobilization and intensified strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, some even suggesting the use of tactical weapons nuclear.

“Generally there is a fairly open sense of fear among Russian pro-war analysts and voices,” Barbashin said.

The Kremlin has so far rejected the idea of ​​a mass mobilization and Russia observers believe that Putin is unlikely to call for one, knowing that such a move would likely be unpopular and would be seen as an admission that the “special military operation” is, in fact, a war.

Putin signed an order last month to increase the number of military personnel to 1.15 million, adding 137,000 service personnel, but analysts said it would likely be difficult for Russia to recruit.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based analytical group, pointed out on Sunday that some authorities in the region have faced criticism over their push to recruit contract servicemen and volunteers to fight in Ukraine.

The full extent of Ukraine’s recent gains — and its ability to hold them — is still unclear. But experts say that if the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues at a similar pace, Putin will find it difficult to present himself as a strong strategist.

Destroyed Russian military vehicle with "Z"  The sign written here is seen after the Ukrainian army liberated the town of Balakliya on September 11, 2022.

“This is the biggest challenge that he faces as president and that Russia faces as an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Barbashin said.

The natural concern is that he might take radical steps to assert his authority.

“[It] puts pressure on Putin to assert leadership through significant personnel changes or change the conduct of the war,” Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, told CNN.

Haring said Putin may make some personnel changes but high-profile ousters are not usually his style.

Putin could also listen to hawkish voices from inside Russia and step up attacks on arms shipments and critical infrastructure, or launch more cyber attacks, but in doing so risks he has a stronger revenge.

“[It’s] not a good choice, because it could harden Ukraine’s strong resolve and risk escalating in the west,” he said.

The best option for Putin right now is to press for negotiations and delay, Haring said.

Moscow has already taken some tentative steps in that direction. In a surprise statement on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Moscow may be willing to negotiate with Ukraine. “The president told the participants in the meeting that we do not deny the negotiations, but the makers must understand that the longer they delay this process, the more difficult it will be for them to negotiate with us,” he said. Lavrov was quoted by Tass as saying.

'Everyone ran away.'  Ukrainians in the villages of Kharkiv describe Russia's retreat

Haring said the push for negotiations would allow Russia to stop Ukrainian progress and “continue shadow mobilization and regroup.” However, Kyiv has made it clear that it will reject negotiations that would involve Ukraine giving up any of its territory.

What experts say is inevitable is that the Kremlin will try to deflect blame for the botched operation. Today, the propaganda machine largely sticks to the standard narrative.

“The Russian media narrative blames NATO and the West for providing the support that led to Ukraine’s dramatic advances in Kharkiv and the Donbas,” Haring said.

However, if the war courts in eastern Ukraine do not change quickly, Putin may find it difficult to shift the blame elsewhere.

“The narrative, until six months ago, anyway [Putin] is a genius. He’s smarter than everybody else, he’s a KGB agent … I think they’re going to try and excuse it, but I think at the end of the day, most people blame him,” Ben Hodges, Former Commanding General of US Army Europe, told CNN on Monday.

Barbashin agreed, saying it would be difficult for Putin to deflect blame for the botched operation.

“Blame for economic problems is easier to pass, but foreign policy has always been his domain, he has been in power for almost a quarter of a century and I don’t think you can convince the majority of Russians not to he’s the one making the calls. the shots,” he said.

It is unclear what the Kremlin will do next. What is clear, however, is that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine — and whatever he chooses to do next — will define his legacy. After this weekend, that legacy was battered more than ever.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Denis Lapin, Uliana Pavlova contributed reporting.