Russian military truck at a finish line

‘We Fight How We Can’: Russian Views on Ukraine’s Counteroffensive—How It Happened and What Comes Next

September 16, 2022
RM Staff

After Russian forces suffered their worst setback in months—driven from key towns by Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region—much of the response in Russia’s pro-war camp this week fell into three categories: spin, spleen and silence. The Kremlin mostly kept mum, minimizing Ukraine’s achievements even as Kyiv claimed it had liberated more than 2,000 square miles and vowed to press on with offensives not only in the east but in the south. (As Russian soldiers abandoned logistical hubs in eastern Ukraine, President Putin spent his Saturday inaugurating a Ferris wheel.) Russian diplomats took nearly all week to come out with comments, ultimately accusing the U.S. of prolonging the conflict through its support for Kyiv.1 In contrast, Russian and pro-Russian officials close to the fighting—mostly from the fringes of Moscow’s domain—criticized Russia’s military, as did jingoistic Russian war bloggers. This camp hardly saw Ukraine’s counteroffensive as a coup de grace but cautioned that Russia had to learn lessons from the setback, with some particularly shrill voices calling for overhauls in strategy, censure for commanders, general mobilization and even nuclear strikes. Other relatively pro-Kremlin military experts were more cautious in pointing out the army’s mistakes, while propagandists on state TV spent a few days grasping for explanations until finally settling on a tried and tested approach of the past decade: blaming the West. Finally, liberal-leaning analysts and activists spoke of systemic problems in the Russian military but did not see Kyiv’s recent success as “decisive.”

Here are some of the ways Russian newsmakers, across the political spectrum, explain the recent setbacks suffered by the Russian military in eastern Ukraine and  what they might mean for the rest of the war and for Russia:

Key among the causes:

  1. Dearth of qualified, well-trained and well-equipped military personnel: Different commentators emphasized different aspects of this problem—from uneven capabilities “at all levels” and “careless use of people” to ill-prepared recruits and more men on paper than on the ground.
  2. Unwarranted optimism among the Russian military-political leadership: One Russian, formerly a separatist defense chief in eastern Ukraine, speculated that Moscow's high command expected “only passive defense” from the Ukrainians, not “a large-scale offensive on several fronts at once.” This rosy view was particularly short-sighted since the Russian defensive lines were spread thin and poorly manned. 
  3. Hand in hand with the excessive optimism came poor planning and slow reactions early in the counteroffensive. One Donbas separatist commander argues that intelligence about the Ukrainian onslaught was available, but Russian commanders had not put in place an “effective system of responding.”
  4. When in doubt, blame the West: Pro-war Russian officials, "ultra-patriotic" bloggers and talking heads all pointed fingers at the U.S. and its allies, blaming them in part for the setbacks, but their angles varied. Some merely pointed to Western supplies of arms and intelligence (indeed, Washington and its allies not only supplied both in large quantities but reportedly helped the Ukrainians plan their offensive). Others echoed earlier claims about Kyiv’s “Western overseers,” called U.S. aid to Ukraine a money-laundering scheme and pushed the dubious claim that “huge numbers of foreigners” fought on Kyiv’s side and Ukraine would have achieved nothing without them.
  5. What about Ukraine’s role? It was surprising to see that, even among opposition-minded Russian commentators, there was precious little credit given to Ukraine’s political-military leadership for making good use of the West’s help and doing well in the planning and execution of the Kharkiv/Kherson operations.

Key among the consequences:

  1. Russian forces in the east are now more vulnerable, at least in the short term, and Russia's reputation as a strong country with a strong military has been shaken; 
  2. Redeploying troops and weapons from east to south will be more difficult while Ukraine pursues offensive actions there as well; 
  3. More likely than not, the counteroffensives in the east and south have not become the turning point in the war thus far.
  4. “Referenda” for Russian-controlled Ukrainian territories to vote on becoming part of Russia, until recently planned for Nov. 4, will probably be postponed.

To read in more detail how 20+ Russian officials, experts, journalists and others view the causes and consequences of Russia’s military setbacks in eastern Ukraine, explore our selection of quotes below.

Russian Views on Causes of Russia’s Setbacks/Ukraine’s Success in East

Daniil Bezsonov, deputy minister of information for the Moscow-backed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), after admitting that the city of Izyum had been abandoned by pro-Russian forces: "Of course, this is bad. Of course, this is the result of mistakes by the high command. … But there’s no need to look for hidden meanings. It's not about throwing a game or betrayal. It’s just that we fight how we can. At all levels. Some better, some worse.” (Telegram, 09.10.22)

Igor Girkin (Strelkov), former DNR “defense minister”:

  • “[Barring treason in the ranks of the General Staff,] most likely … our ‘big generals’ firmly believed that the adversary would humbly wait [to see] where and when they would deign to deliver their next strike… That is, they expected only passive defense from the enemy in most areas … and, at most, ‘one big offensive on one front.’ That’s what happened on the Kherson front in the second half of August… [However,] suddenly it turned out that the enemy was capable of a large-scale offensive on several fronts at once—including a place where, instead of a front, we had a thin, stretched-out chain of posts and outposts lined up in a row in the complete absence even of tactical reserves… When choosing from two wonderful answers to the question, ‘What was it—treason or cretinism?’, I vote for the latter.” (Telegram, 09.13.22)
  • “For more than six months I have been openly and regularly declaring that if we continue to fight the way our troops have been fighting under the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry, then we will eventually suffer a crushing defeat in this war. Period.” (Telegram, 09.13.22)
  • As if agreeing with Bezsonov’s “we fight how we can,” Girkin tweeted a TikTok video seemingly shot by Russian soldiers with the superimposed words “here’s how we fight.” In it, one soldier approaches the camera, dragging an automatic rifle along the ground. He asks his two comrades, one at a time, “You need it?” After both say “no,” the soldier—standing near a small building painted in the Russian flag’s white, blue and red stripes—throws the gun onto the ground with the words “get the f*** out of here” and gives it a couple of kicks, to the delighted guffaws of the guy filming. (Twitter, 09.12.22)

Alexander Khodakovsky, Donbas separatist commander:

  • “The reason for what is happening, first and foremost, is not a lack of people but careless use of people—that is, how [poorly] the process is organized. If this approach stays in place, the shortage will be constant, no matter how many people you mobilize, and Russia will be hit by a wave of killed-in-action notices without getting its desired result, which will lead to a serious crisis. … [T]he main scourge of the military agency [i.e., the Defense Ministry] … is its attempts to create complete secrecy, which means lack of oversight.” (Telegram, 09.12.22)
  • “[Reports] that a Kharkov offensive was being prepared came from various sources; this wasn’t unexpected. How it [the information] was assessed, what reactions there were to it, what preparations were made and were they made at all—this is a different question. … [T]here wasn’t an effective system of responding—when, upon receiving the signals, the cogs start spinning, everything starts moving and the resources, whatever they may be, are made as ready as possible.” (Telegram, 09.11.22)

Dmitry Kiselyov, pro-Kremlin talk-show host who warned, as Moscow was annexing Crimea in 2014, that Russia could turn the U.S. “into radioactive ash”: Under a studio backdrop that said “Regrouping,” Kiselyov said that “under an onslaught from the adversary’s superior forces allied troops”—propagandists’ term for the Russian military and its DNR/LNR2 auxiliaries—"were forced to leave previously liberated settlements, including Balakliya and Izyum,” under pressure from “superior enemy forces.” In a segment called “We’re Fighting,” a close-up showed a Russian soldier sporting a patch with a quote from Siberian punk star Yegor Letov: “Everything’s going according to plan.”  (Reuters, 09.12.22, Mediazona, 09.12.22)

Alexander Kots, a pro-Kremlin war correspondent, wrote that, since Ukraine and the U.S. are sharing intelligence and the West is providing weapons, “it’s no longer Ukraine itself that’s fighting us but the whole NATO team. Anyhow, everyone knows that the thread breaks where it’s weakest. It’s important to draw lessons from what’s happened.” (Telegram, 09.12.22)

German Kulikovsky, editor of Starshe Eddy, a pro-Russian Telegram channel: “We are fighting against the most advanced system of technical intelligence in the world. It is not omnipotent … but NATO can track major movements of troop formations near the front and eagerly shares this information with the Ukrainians.” (Telegram, 09.11.22)

Ruslan Leviev, opposition-minded analyst and founder of Conflict Intelligence Team: “Previously, we were not sure that the problems known to us—that we gleaned from intercepts, saying there was a lack of working equipment or negligence of commanders [in individual units]—have been this systemic… But now it turned out that the 11th Army Corps [the main force responding to the Ukrainian counteroffensive] was completely incapable of defending the front line. … [The counteroffensive] also revealed that the organizational structure of the 1st Tank Army was completely broken due to a large number of casualties and prolonged participation in hostilities.” (WP, 09.13.22)

Pavel Luzin, opposition-minded military expert, was asked why Russian commanders didn’t act on reports that Ukrainian forces were preparing to attack Balakliya: “First and foremost, this is about a lack of forces, a monstrous shortage of military personnel. … Besides that, there is a problem with intelligence. Electronic intelligence is limited. Aerial reconnaissance is carried out by drones, but they get shot down. And our two optical reconnaissance satellites yield such [low] resolution [images]… Besides that, these satellites pass the same point only once every 16 days: There’s no chance to quickly receive data. And to use open data for intelligence … you need people with brains and a system that allows this data to circulate freely within the military hierarchy.” (Meduza, 09.11.22)

Sergei Mironov, head of the parliamentary faction Just Russia – For Truth: “NATO is fighting against Russia with the hands of Ukrainians. It is they who direct the military operations of the armed forces of Ukraine against our troops.” (Duma.gov.ru, 09.13.22)

Boris Nadezhdin, a former liberal member of Russia’s parliament, said Putin had been misled by intelligence services, which apparently told him the resistance in neighboring Ukraine would be brief and ineffective. (WP, 09.13.22)

Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s envoy at the U.N., denied early on that Ukrainian forces had achieved a breakthrough during the counteroffensive, alleging that President Volodymyr Zelensky “tried to create at least a semblance of Ukraine’s ability to attack”—against the advice of his military leadership—so that Kyiv could “beg” for more Western weapons. (Lenta.ru, 09.09.22)

Gleb Pavlovsky, political scientist and former Putin advisor: “The quality of strategy development has been horrendously low [on the Russian side]. Ukraine has surprised the [Russian] General Staff with its well-thought-out strategy.” (TV Rain/YouTube, 09.13.22)

Zakhar Prilepin, a writer and co-chair of the Just Russia – For Truth party, who served in a separatist military unit in Donbas, warned against overestimating the significance of Western support and lamented the deficiencies of Russian manpower—poorly armed reservists, too few sympathizers on the ground in occupied territory, sparsely staffed military units in the cities: “In short, if we just had people, fighters, personnel, then no satellites or British think tanks could have done anything. And all those analysts and satellites of theirs were noticing approximately the same thing: THERE’S NO F***ING PEOPLE THERE; ATTACK BEFORE ROTATION [of personnel] BEGINS!” (Telegram, 09.11.22)

Olga Skabeyeva, another pro-Kremlin propagandist, host of the daily 60 Minutes talk show: Skabeyeva cited DNR head Denis Pushilin, saying that near Svyatohirsk, in eastern Ukraine “right now there are already more mercenaries from Poland, a NATO member-state, than Ukrainian soldiers. And there’s more and more evidence surfacing that in the area of Kharkov—where [U.S. Secretary of State Antony] Blinken said everything had gone well for the Ukrainians—it was a foreign contingent fighting, made up of former regular troops from NATO countries. The dogs of war were seen in Balakliya, Izyum and today in Kupyansk. There, Americans and Britons personally tore down Russian flags, after which [they] committed an outrage against [this] symbol of our statehood, tearing up the flag and wishing death to Russia. And all this is happening some 100 kilometers from Belgorod.” (Rossiya 1 TV via the BBC’s Francis Scarr, 09.14.22)

Vladimir Solovyov, yet another talk show host and pro-Kremlin propagandist (who called the war in Ukraine a “confrontation of NATO against Russia and the entire free world”), claimed that American and British soldiers were covertly fighting alongside Ukrainian troops: “In the process of preparing the battle-ready Ukrainian troops, it turns out they’ve been rapidly turning darker in color and becoming fluent English speakers. They’re becoming indistinguishable from the mercenaries… Some of them have a Southern drawl, others speak with a British accent. Stop pretending already.” (The Daily Beast, 09.13.22)

Maria Zakharova, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman: “[Washington] provided the Kyiv regime with intelligence and … weapons. Excuse me, but that’s no longer just consultations, that’s not psychological or moral support; that’s direct involvement.” (TASS via M24.ru , 09.15.22)

Russian Views on Consequences of Russia’s Setbacks/Ukraine’s Success in East and Next Steps

Alexander Borodai, State Duma deputy and one-time DNR prime minister: “Our defeat has three components. [1] The purely military: the loss of personnel, as well as equipment, weapons and gear. [2] The political component is divided into two points. The first is a domestic political defeat: The public realized with surprise that our army is not invincible. And the foreign policy defeat, which must be described in more detail. There are many countries in the world that are unhappy with American diktats and see us as the vanguard of the struggle against the dictatorship of the United States… Now they are growing convinced that we are, to put it mildly, not strong enough—and [they] stop seeing us as such. Accordingly, the terms of our cooperation with them will become worse and tougher for us. And finally, the third component is moral [i.e., perceptual or psychological]. Having come to … the Kharkiv region, we announced to the population …  that Russia is here forever. And many of them, despite their apprehensions, agreed to cooperate with us. Now those people … are being subjected to genocide by our adversary, [who is] physically destroying them.” (Tsargrad, 09.13.22)

Pavel Felgenhauer, opposition-minded military commentator said that, while taking back territory has been a “morale booster” for Ukrainian forces, "their success is not [a] decisive success." (Yahoo, 09.13.22)

Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin, said that, given the relative strengths and losses of the two sides, Western aid to Ukraine is well short of what is needed to win the war: "The military aid delivered to Ukraine is not more than $3 billion per month. Overall expenditure [by] Ukraine plus the coalition looks like $7 billion a month… [Russia spends] $15 billion to $27 billion a month… In the war of attrition, the crucial underlying factor [for] who might win the long war is the ratio in military expenditure." (VOA, 09.08.22)

Ramzan Kadyrov, Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya whose troops have been fighting in Ukraine:

  • “I would declare martial law… We must not wait until the leadership of the state announces mobilization, we must all mobilize.” (Meduza, 09.14.22)
  • I’m no strategist, unlike the Ministry of Defense, but mistakes have been allowed to happen… If today or tomorrow changes are not made to the strategy of how the special operation is conducted, I will feel obliged to speak to the Ministry of Defense and the country’s leadership and explain the reality of the situation on the ground to them. It’s a very interesting situation. It’s astounding, I would say.” (Spectator, 09.14.22, Guardian, 09.11.22)

Mikhail Khodarenok, a retired colonel, said it was "unquestionable" that the towns lost by the Russian forces in the east during the Ukrainian counteroffensive were of "exceptionally high importance." (Express, 09.12.22)

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, billionaire and former political prisoner: “There is a real panic in the circle of the so-called patriots. … A conflict … between the hardcore patriots and the so-called Kremlin realists is now underway. Putin feels this because it is a rupture within his support group… It is a dangerous conflict for Putin… This affects his personal security.” In the wake of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Putin can either order a full mobilization, escalate with nuclear weapons or “give in,” which would entail his departure from the Kremlin. (YouTube, 09.15.22)

Alexander Kots, pro-Kremlin war correspondent: “The sooner we understand that it is pointless to conduct a Special Military Operation against NATO, and that we need to wage war, the better.” (Telegram, 09.12.22)

German Kulikovsky, editor of Starshe Eddy, a pro-Russian Telegram channel: “We can do two things. First, change our own approach toward maskirovka [military deception] … and, second, [change our] approach toward Ukraine's military capabilities. In order to act on intelligence information, you need to have combat-ready armed forces. … [W]e are able to cut off [Western supplies to Ukraine] and we must do it if we plan on winning. As for the United States—just threatening them with nuclear weapons is clearly not enough. It’s about time to demonstratively test something; we’ve got the testing range. To help understand the consequences.” (Telegram, 09.11.22)

Pavel Luzin, opposition-minded military expert: “For forced mobilization, you need villages—and there are not [enough] villages in Russia. How will you forcibly mobilize people in Yekaterinburg, in Perm, in Novosibirsk? Run down the street and gather men? They’ll just cut all these ‘gatherers’—and that's it.” (Meduza, 09.11.22)

Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political commentator and former Putin advisor, also demanded more definitive action, scoffing at the Kremlin’s efforts to put pressure on the West’s energy supplies: “Stop dreaming that Europe will freeze this winter and that we won’t have to do anything, that it will happen by itself. No. Europe won’t freeze. People will just put on a few more hats and scarves. Nothing will happen by itself. And you will just end up having to take serious action.” (Spectator, 09.14.22)

Boris Nadezhdin, a former liberal member of Russia’s parliament, also called for fighting to end and negotiations to begin, adding that talks on a cease-fire “are possible always and everywhere.” But resolving other issues, especially the status of the DNR, LNR and Crimea would be far more difficult: “Negotiations on these issues? They are now absolutely unrealistic, because there is a position like this: ‘We will defeat you. No, we will defeat you.’” (WP, 09.13.22)

Vladimir Pastukhov, senior research associate at UCL: “As for the counteroffensive, I would not speak of the collapse of the Russian army or that it cannot resist or even that it has exhausted its offensive potential. I think it is too early to speak about it. What has collapsed are the illusions of a significantly large branch of the elite that this war will be somehow special, … that it will be waged by a small force on the territory of the adversary.” (YouTube, 09.15.22)

Zakhar Prilepin, hardline writer, politician and ex-combatant: “Constant personnel circulation is needed… Look at the speed with which Stalin moved [military commanders] Zhukov, Rokossovsky, Timoshenko and anyone else—this whole great galaxy.” (Telegram, 09.12.22)

Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT, warned against “careless overconfidence” and hinted that it was necessary to strike civilian infrastructure. Her fellow TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov backed her on this, adding that the “American strategy of waging war presumes the destruction of infrastructure,” including civilian infrastructure. Solovyov called Russian strikes on power stations and blackouts in several regions of Ukraine—occurring in real-time during the live broadcast—"a warning,” saying approvingly that “such squeals started coming from the other side that it was a pleasure to hear,” and calling for “all the necessary conclusions” to be drawn while continuing this “difficult but important man’s work.” (Mediazona, 09.12.22)

Olga Skabeyeva, pro-Kremlin talk-show host:

  • "According to Ukrainian media, Britain is demanding that Zelensky move the war into Russian territory and finally enter Belgorod Region. But Zelensky realizes that for him this would be suicide." (BBC’s Francis Scarr, 09.14.22)
  • Skabeyeva opened her Sept. 12 morning broadcast by describing the previous day’s Russian bombing of Ukrainian power stations and resulting power outages across eastern Ukraine as “a turning point in the special military operation.” (Reuters, 09.12.22)

Maria Zakharova, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman: "If Washington decides to supply longer-range missiles to Kyiv, then it will be crossing a red line and will become a direct party to the conflict… [Russia] reserves the right to defend its territory." (Reuters, 09.15.22)

Gennady Zyuganov, leader of Russia’s Communist Party, called for a general mobilization to boost the military’s manpower and for the conflict to be openly called a war instead of a “special military operation”: “War and a special operation are fundamentally different. You can stop the special operation; you cannot stop the war, even if you want to… Maximum mobilization of forces and resources is required.” (WP, 09.13.22) (WP, 09.13.22)

Footnotes

  1. The Russian Foreign Ministry has also warned Washington that sending “longer-range missiles” to Ukraine would be crossing a red line.
  2. LNR = Luhansk People's Republic, the second Moscow-backed breakaway territory in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the people quoted. Photo from Russia's Defense Ministry (Mil.ru), shared under a CC 4.0 license.