Putin’s Retreat & Kyiv’s Dangerous Hope

President Vladimir
Photo: Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik/AFT/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
November 15, 2022

On Wednesday, November 9, as Americans counted their ballots, the Russians announced what everyone in that part of the world knew was coming since August: the Russian army was abandoning Kherson. The southern Ukrainian city, which sits at the mouth of the Dnipro River as it empties into the Black Sea, was once a shipbuilding capital and is still a strategic stronghold, one the Ukrainian army had had in its sights for months. 

The city fell within the first week of the Russian invasion and there were rumors that some of its residents weren’t exactly mad about it. This was, after all, a largely Russian-speaking city that felt an affinity with Russia and continued to do so even after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine the first time, in 2014. But after eight months of Russian occupation, Russia lost the city in more ways than one. When Russian forces arrived in the city, they shot live ammunition at those residents who came out to peacefully tell them they weren’t welcome. People of all kinds began to disappear—activists, journalists, politicians. There were reports of torture. Russia tried to absorb the city by blasting it with propaganda beamed in straight from Moscow, by demanding that schooling be done in Russian and business be done in rubles, not hryvnias. 

And all it did was turn the locals against them. By the time the Russians left and Ukrainian forces swept in two days later, on November 11, the city celebrated, late into the night, for days and days. They lifted Ukrainian soldiers off the ground and carried them on their shoulders, they wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags and sang Ukrainian songs in the city’s squares, they danced in jubilation, showing the entire world how happy they were to be rid of the army that had come in February to liberate them from Kyiv’s supposed neo-Nazis. They had no electricity, no water, no heat, no cell service, no internet connection, one man beamed to the camera, “but we have no Russians and I’m extremely happy! We can survive anything, but we are free.”

The Putin Delusion

In Russia, of course, the news hit a little differently. The Kremlin had been girding itself for the loss of Kherson for weeks, evacuating civilians deeper into Russian-held territory and trying to prepare the Russian population, going so far as to issue guidance to its propagandists on how to talk about the retreat. They even dug up a pseudohistorian to justify the move, which appeals especially to Putin, who has loved to get lost in pseudohistory of late. Ahead of his forces’ decisive victory at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, the pseudohistorian posited, Peter the Great actually had his forces beat a tactical retreat without which he could have never defeated the perfidious Swedes at Poltava, which led directly to his victory in the Great Northern War. The analogy here was obvious: by leaving Kherson, Vladimir the Great was simply ensuring his eventual triumph over the Ukrainians.

But no one bought it. Vladimir Solovyov, one of Putin’s chief propagandists, was furious at this betrayal in what he described as nothing short of “a holy war.” Another television host, asked to comment on the defense ministry’s decision to abandon Kherson, said he couldn’t say anything to criticize it because he would be arrested and jailed for “discrediting” the Russian military and, he added, “I don’t want to go to jail.” The patriotic, Kremlin-friendly channels on Telegram lit up with rage and sorrow (though some tied themselves in knots, explaining that the photos of celebrating Khersonians were actually staged). 

While others complained about the generals’ inability to learn from their mistakes and others said that Putin must’ve been misled, Alexander Dugin, the nationalist ideologue who created the notion of the pan-Slavic “Russian world” for Putin, dared to go where no one else had until that point: after Putin himself, placing the blame squarely at his feet. What was the point, Dugin wondered, of giving the country’s leader “the absolute fullness of power” if he hadn’t delivered on his implicit promise of saving the Russian people? Shouldn’t there be “the fullness of power if he’s successful, but also the fullness of responsibility if he fails?” Dugin asked. “How else is it fair?”

Putin, for his part, knew he had shat the bed. He was noticeably absent from the G20 summit unfolding in Indonesia this week, which Volodymyr Zelensky pointedly addressed (via telelink) as the “G19.” After getting scolded and publicly humiliated at the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Putin knew it would be best not to tempt a repeat of that performance, this time with Joe Biden present. Instead, the Kremlin made it known that he was simply too busy with other business to attend the kind of confab he used to love. (Putin was famously furious at getting booted from the G8 in 2014.) But a man who grew up in the mean streets of Leningrad knows that if you get your ass handed to you the first time you show up to a fight with a limp, you don’t go back for more when both your legs are so obviously broken.

“Nothing’s Impossible”

So what happens now? A fight within the Biden administration is now breaking out into the open between the State Department and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley. Even as the White House has been quietly pushing Zelensky to be open to negotiating a settlement with Russia—or to at least appear to be so—it is publicly denying doing so. National security advisor Jake Sullivan has been telling reporters, “The United States is not pressuring Ukraine,” and emphasizing the military aid Washington continues sending to Kyiv. 

That’s true enough, and while Milley, according to people close to him, is concerned that the U.S. is getting more deeply involved in a conflict with a nuclear-armed and increasingly desperate Russia, all without a diplomatic off-ramp in sight, it seems that the Ukrainians aren’t very open to being pressured at the moment. If there had been hope that the capture of Kherson would allow the Ukrainians to return to the negotiating table from a position of strength, that seems unrealistic now. From their vantage point, after all, what would Ukraine have to gain, having beaten expectations yet again? Why not keep the momentum going and try to liberate the rest of the country—the Donbas and even Crimea? Having seen what was left after the Ukrainian army pushed Russian soldiers out of Bucha and Izyum, how can Zelensky agree to knowingly leave Ukrainian citizens under the rule of a country that is now known to commit war crimes against them? 

U.S. government sources tell me that, militarily, it’s hard to see how Ukraine liberates Crimea. “Nothing’s impossible,” one official told me, “but this is close.” Nevertheless, as Ukrainians see it, they keep proving the doubters wrong and doing the impossible, pushing back the Russian army at every turn. How can you tell a country like that to stop fighting for its survival? Sure, America could turn the money off, but that doesn’t mean Ukraine will stop fighting. It just means it will continue by other means, just like they fought the Soviets for years, without any aid from anybody. The U.S. isn’t the only power that can decide to end the war, and so far, the two most important actors, Ukraine and Russia, don’t seem anywhere close to done.