By mid-March, less than a month into the full-scale invasion by Russia, it was immediately clear that Putin’s ambitious campaign was not going to plan. What was expected to take a mere three days on February 24 is now on day 277 on November 27. In that time Russian forces have faced a series of humiliating retreats, and lost more than half the territory seized at the start of the invasion.
When Russia’s top military brass announced in a televised appearance that they were pulling troops out of the key city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, one man missing from the room was President Vladimir Putin.
As Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Sergei Surovikin, Russia’s chief commander in Ukraine, stiffly recited the reasons for the retreat in front of the cameras on November 9, Putin was touring a neurological hospital in Moscow, watching a doctor perform brain surgery.
Later that day, Putin spoke at another event but made no mention of the pullout from Kherson – arguably Russia’s most humiliating withdrawal in Ukraine. In the days that followed, he has not publicly commented on the topic.
Putin’s silence comes as Russia faces mounting setbacks in nearly nine months of fighting. The Russian leader appears to have delegated the delivery of bad news to others — a tactic he used during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kherson was the only regional capital Moscow’s forces had seized in Ukraine, falling into Russian hands in the first days of the invasion. Russia occupied the city and most of the outlying region, a key gateway to the Crimean Peninsula, for months.
Moscow illegally annexed the Kherson region, along with three other Ukrainian provinces, earlier this year. Putin personally hosted a pomp-filled Kremlin ceremony formalizing the moves in September, proclaiming that “people who live in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia become our citizens forever.”
Just over a month later, however, Russia’s tricolor flags came down over government buildings in Kherson, replaced with the yellow-and-blue banners of Ukraine.
The Russian military reported completing the withdrawal from Kherson and surrounding areas to the eastern bank of the Dnieper River on November 11. Since then, Putin has not mentioned the retreat in any of his public appearances.
Putin “continues to live in the old logic: This is not a war, it is a special operation, main decisions are being made by a small circle of ‘professionals,’ while the president is keeping his distance,” political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in a recent commentary.
Putin, who was once rumored to personally supervise the military campaign in Ukraine and give battlefield orders to generals, appeared this week to be focused on everything but the war.
He discussed bankruptcy procedures and car industry problems with government officials, talked to a Siberian governor about boosting investments in his region, had phone calls with various world leaders and met with the new president of Russia’s Academy of Science.
On November 15, Putin chaired a video meeting on World War II memorials. That was the day when he was expected to speak at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia — but he not only decided not to attend, he didn’t even join it by video conference or send a pre-recorded speech.
The World War II memorial meeting was the only one in recent days in which some Ukrainian cities – but not Kherson – were mentioned. After the meeting, Putin signed decrees awarding the occupied cities of Melitopol and Mariupol the title of City of Military Glory, while Luhansk was honored as City of Labor Merit.
Independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin attributed Putin’s silence to the fact he has built a political system akin to that of the Soviet Union, in which a leader – or “vozhd” in Russian, a term used to describe Josef Stalin – by definition is incapable of making mistakes.
“Putin and Putin’s system … is built in a way that all defeats are blamed on someone else: enemies, traitors, a stab in the back, global Russophobia – anything, really,” Oreshkin said. “So if he lost somewhere, first, it’s untrue, and second – it wasn’t him.”
Some of Putin’s supporters questioned such obvious distancing from what even pro-Kremlin circles viewed as a critical developments in the war.
For Putin to have phone calls with the leaders of Armenia and the Central African Republic at the time of the retreat from Kherson was more troubling than “the very tragedy of Kherson,” said pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov in a post on Facebook.
“At first, I didn’t even believe the news, that’s how incredible it was,” Markov said, describing Putin’s behavior as a “demonstration of a total withdrawal.”
Others sought to put a positive spin on the retreat and weave Putin into it. Pro-Kremlin TV host Dmitry Kiselev, on his flagship news show Sunday night, said the logic behind the withdrawal from Kherson was “to save people.”
According to Kiselev, who spoke in front of a large photo of Putin looking preoccupied with a caption saying, “To Save People,” it was the same logic the president uses – “to save people, and in specific circumstances, every person.”
That’s how some ordinary Russians can view the retreat, too, analysts say.
“Given the growing number of people who want peace talks, even among Putin’s supporters, any such maneuver is taken calmly or even as a sign of a possible sobering up –- saving manpower, the possibility of peace,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.
For Russia’s hawks – vocal Kremlin supporters who have been calling for drastic battlefield steps and weren’t thrilled about the Kherson retreat – there are regular barrages of missile strikes on Ukraine’s power grid, analyst Oreshkin said.
Moscow launched one on November 15. With about 100 missiles and drones fired at targets across Ukraine, it was the biggest attack to date on the country’s power grid and plunged millions into darkness.
Oreshkin believes that such attacks don’t inflict too much damage onto Ukraine’s military and don’t change much on the battlefield.
“But it is necessary to create an image of a victorious ‘vozhd.’ So it is necessary to carry out some kind of strikes and scream about them loudly. That’s what they’re doing right now, in my opinion,” he said.