Bad news from the Donbas, the region that covers most of in eastern Ukraine, continues to make its way back to Russia. Even in a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel, news of the renewed Ukrainian assault on the Russian-held town of Lyman was recently posted.
In Russian mainstream media, the fighting in eastern Ukraine is omnipresent.
“On the front of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, desperate fighting continues,” was how prominent Russian news anchor Dmitry Kiselev started his weekly news show on Sunday. “The past week has probably been one of the worst so far.”
At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced that thousands of Ukrainian fighters have been wounded and killed. He called Russia’s large-scale retreat around Kharkiv a successful regrouping operation.
But experts on some of the country’s biggest political talk shows — airing at prime time and watched by millions across Russia — aren’t buying into this version of events.
Surprising criticism on live TV
Karen Shakhnasarov, the director general of Russia’s largest film studio Mosfilm, said, “We need to admit that we suffered a defeat in the Kharkiv area. We need to admit it! Because a defeat is meaningful when you admit to it and draw conclusions from it.”
Widely circulated on Twitter is a video from NTV, a state-owned television channel, where a former politician stated the war could not be won.
“We are now at the point when we have to understand that it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using those resources and colonial war methods with which Russia is trying to fight,” said Boris Nadezhdin, a former Russian parliamentarian.
“The Russian army is fighting against a strong army that is fully supported by the most powerful countries in the economic and technological sense.”
Sparking new discussions
Calls for a mass mobilization of the Russian population to join the army are getting louder. On Tuesday, the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, spoke to Russia’s lower house of parliament, saying the special military operation had escalated into a full-scale war.
“War and special operations differ radically,” he said. “A special military operation can just be ended. But you can’t just stop a war, even if you want to. You must go all the way.”
“War only has two outcomes: either victory or defeat.”
The Kremlin was quick to quash any demands for a full-on mobilization, with President Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stating this is currently not on the agenda.
Mobilization likely highly unpopular
Russia expert Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at the UK’s UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, said even a partial mobilization is a “big deal.”
“It would mean that firstly, the war isn’t going to plan.”
“And secondly, it’s going to alarm a lot of people for whom the war is a long way away,” he added. Until now, the war is being fought by professional soldiers, who are largely ethnically non-Russian. A mass mobilization would draw in many more ordinary Russian families.
“If you start moving to a mobilization, you’re going to get Russians in the main cities getting swept up, and you’re going to get a lot of wives, daughters, mothers and girlfriends very concerned about what’s going to happen.”
The Russian government is keen to project an image of normalcy in daily life despite the war in Ukraine
But the Russian army remains desperately low on personnel. Due to this, soldiers can’t be rotated off the front lines to rest.
At the same time, professional soldiers whose contracts are ending are refusing to renew. To solve such manpower issues, right-wing propagandists have been calling for a mobilization for months.
So far, their calls had been falling on deaf ears in the Kremlin.
Mobilization over winter not likely
Galeotti believes a mobilization is possible but currently unlikely.
“It’s going to take about three months from the point where you declare mobilization to the point where you have troops, maybe 100,000-plus, actually available,” he says.
Three months from now would be the middle of the winter when offensive operations are hardest, Galeotti said.
“I think it’s more likely that if we see a mobilization, it’ll be later so that they have the forces for a spring offensive; or more likely, to resist a Ukrainian spring offensive.”
But the word mobilization is beginning to pick up traction. Despite criticism of the military, the general tone in the media remains patriotic. It may be possible that the Russian public is being prepared for the next escalation in the war.
Edited by: Kate Hairsine, Sonya Diehn