Russians struggle to make sense of Ukraine war after Kherson withdrawal

On a snowy afternoon in Moscow this week, a trickle of people streamed into a large hall beneath the Kremlin walls, past armed riot police, to see an exhibition on what Russia still describes as a “special military operation” in Ukraine after nine months of war. .

Amidst images of bombed-out Ukrainian cities and the bloody corpses of civilians portrayed as heroic victims of the conflict, visitors watch a triumphant video about Russia’s recent annexation of four Ukrainian regions.

Except, since the show opened earlier this month, Russia has withdrawn from the capital of one of them, Kherson, leaving behind billboards proclaiming “Russia is here forever.” The city had fallen under Russian occupation in March, in the early days of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion.

The propaganda display left Katya, a middle-aged Moscow schoolteacher, who had brought a group of 11-year-old students, with more questions than answers. She said that she was wondering why they were all casualties.

“No one understands anything,” he said as he walked out of the exhibit hall, past the riot guards. “First we came to Kyiv and then we left, and how many people died? Then we take Kherson, and then leave it again. And how many people died?

People visit the exhibition Ukraine.  At the turns of the era in the Moscow Central Manege exhibition hall

People visit an exhibit about what Russia calls its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine at the Manege Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow © Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Even the military,” he said, referring to the veterans of previous Russian wars in his family, “know how war works. But even they don’t understand this strategy.”

For many in Moscow, the withdrawal from Kherson has sown confusion and raised questions about the costs of the war for Russia. Above all, the news has added to the general, simmering anxiety people have felt since late September, when Putin announced conscription and brought the war directly into Russian homes for the first time.

“Everyone is in an unstable state, nervous, anxious,” Katya said about her friends, colleagues and relatives. “Everyone is depressed.”

Although life goes on as usual in Moscow, with bustling cafes and restaurants, the latest survey by the independent pollster Levada Center, released last month, found that 88 percent of people were “concerned” or “very concerned” about the events in Ukraine. Only 36 percent of Russians said they believed the country should continue to fight, while most thought it was time for peace talks.

However, if the Russians are increasingly preoccupied with war, they seem to have little attachment to the newly occupied territories that Moscow annexed with great fanfare after holding bogus referendums there. As a result, many have reacted with indifference to the loss of a place like Kherson.

People visit the exhibition Ukraine.  At the turns of the era in the Moscow Central Manege exhibition hall
An exhibition at the Manege Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow © Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Of course, it is quite surprising how easily the Russian authorities said goodbye to Kherson,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik, wrote in a social media post. “And people don’t seem to be clinging to the new ‘territories,’ either.”

He pointed to a recent Levada poll that asked Russians to name important events they remembered from the news. Only 9 percent recalled the referendums and annexation, in which their country claimed to have expanded by more than 135,000 square kilometers, even though the event occurred while the survey was being conducted.

The Kherson withdrawal will not affect Putin’s ratings, Lev Gudkov of the Levada pollster told Russian-language broadcaster RTVi. Over time, it may erode faith in the president as a leader, he said, but for now, “censorship and propaganda will work to soften the significance of this event and the severity of this local defeat.”

State media explained the withdrawal as a difficult but necessary decision, taken to save the lives of thousands of Russian soldiers. Commentators from the ultranationalist pro-war camp took issue with the decision and this explanation, but criticism from this minority has been muted of late, following stern warnings from the Kremlin.

Still, discontent simmers in private. A former senior official said that losing Kherson just six weeks after Putin declared it part of Russia indicated the Kremlin’s lack of strategic planning. “They are just handling this completely wrong. They cannot think two steps ahead. It is completely reactive,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the risks of articulating public criticism. “It is completely humiliating: this was the only provincial center that Russia had and they delivered it in a month and a half.”

The vast majority of Russians would only really care if Ukraine tried to regain control of Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Kyiv in 2014, said Alexei Venediktov, editor of the Echo of Moscow radio station. The peninsula has developed an almost mythical status among Russians, particularly as a much-loved vacation spot. For most, “Crimea is sacred,” Venediktov said.

But other regions and cities that Russia has claimed have little emotional resonance. “Donetsk, Luhansk, some kind of Mykolayiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia – where are they?” Veneditov said.

However, there is a sense of unease among Moscow’s elites, said the journalist, who remains in contact with many people in positions of power despite the forced closure of his radio station in March.

Mainstream political and business circles do not like turmoil, he said, and are disturbed by the way military setbacks are bringing hardliners and fringes like Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov and paramilitary leader Evgeny Prigozhin. “If everything just froze in place right now. . . they would be pleased.

But few in Putin dare speak out against the invasion, a Russian oligarch has said under Western sanctions. “Technocrats have no instruments. It is a very stable situation. Security is under Putin’s control. He makes his bodyguards ministers and governors. And the change in public opinion is not happening. Millions of people who are against the war have left.”

Upon entering the exhibition hall next to Red Square, visitors are greeted with an immersive 360-degree video projection of the skyline of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Smoke rises from destroyed apartment blocks in the city, which experienced the heaviest Russian shelling of the war, killing thousands.

The subsequent rooms rewrite the history of Ukraine and its relations with Russia, as well as the history of the war itself, attempting to draw Muscovites into the alternate reality that pervades state news. The brutal bombing of Mariupol this spring, for example, is spelled out on a plaque on the wall: the city’s 600,000 inhabitants were “taken hostage by the Ukrainian army,” which “destroyed its own citizens” while “snipers fired even children.”

In a final all-white room, filled with portraits of Russian soldiers killed in the war, visitors are invited to leave messages in a guest book. It’s a mixed bag: children’s scribbles, expressions of gratitude to Putin, calls for a much larger and all-out conflict. And only once: “NO TO WAR!”

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga

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