Rout in Ukraine sparks debate in Russia: relax or double down?

The Ukrainian lightning offensive in Kharkov last week recaptured much of the territory and humiliated the Russian army. And in doing so, it sparked a very public debate in Russia – perhaps surprisingly – about how the “special military operation,” as they still call it, is proceeding.

Those in Russia who believe the war is a misguided undertaking have spoken more urgently in the wake of the Kharkiv debacle.

Why we wrote this

The defeat of Russian troops in Kharkov has rekindled the debate in Moscow over what to do next. While critics of the war have found a new voice, those calling for escalation in Ukraine are even louder.

But nationalist critics have long complained that Russia is fighting with one hand tied behind its back, trying to defeat an ever-expanding Ukrainian army that enjoys full Western military support. While careful not to directly criticize the Kremlin or the military command, they have become more persistent since Kharkiv’s defeat. That loss, they claim, proved their point.

“People had become accustomed to the war, the fact that it continues day in and day out without generating any big news,” said Abbas Gallyamov, an expert on regional affairs. “Then, suddenly, everything changed. The status quo has been overthrown, authorities are shocked and even the army men apparently weren’t ready. There is a similar change in the public mood. Loyalists are angry and disillusioned, while the opposition is inspired and energetic.”

The Ukrainian lightning offensive in Kharkov last week recaptured much of the territory and humiliated the Russian army. And in doing so, it sparked a very public debate in Russia – perhaps surprisingly – about how the “special military operation,” as they still call it, is proceeding.

There has been a range of reactions to recent events in Ukraine, but for convenience they can be seen as two groups: ‘hawks’ and ‘pigeons’. Both see the need for drastic decisions to correct the course of the conflict – although they have very different ideas about how.

Those who believe that the war is a misguided undertaking that must be ended have existed from the beginning of the operation. Their voices have become more urgent in the wake of the Kharkiv debacle.

Why we wrote this

The defeat of Russian troops in Kharkov has rekindled the debate in Moscow over what to do next. While critics of the war have found a new voice, those calling for escalation in Ukraine are even louder.

On the other hand, nationalist critics have long complained that Russia is fighting with one hand tied behind its back, trying to defeat an ever-growing Ukrainian army that enjoys full Western military support, while using the same force with which it invaded Ukraine by nearly seven. months ago. While most hawks are careful not to directly criticize the Kremlin or the military command, their voices have become more open and insistent since Kharkov’s defeat. That loss, as they see it, proved their point.

“People had become accustomed to the war, to the fact that it goes on from day to day without generating any big news,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter and expert on regional affairs. “Then, suddenly, everything changed. The status quo has been overthrown, authorities are shocked and even the army men apparently weren’t ready. There is a similar change in the public mood. Loyalists are angry and disillusioned, while the opposition is inspired and energetic.”

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