Russia’s retreat last week from Kherson, Ukraine, has created a rare public schism between pro-war allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The withdrawal of the Kremlin’s troops from Kherson came just weeks after Putin moved to annex the strategic city, and was the third major blow to Russia’s war effort since the start of the invasion.
Some of the most prominent war hawks have defended what they describe as a strategic withdrawal, while others have offered stinging criticism of the decision.
Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin, dubbed “Putin’s brain,” accused Putin of failing his obligation to defend Russian cities, and drew a parallel to a story about a king killed for failing his people.
Pro-Kremlin TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov, dubbed “Putin’s voice,” delivered an angry tirade against the withdrawal from Kherson.
And pro-Russian military analyst and blogger Boris Rozhin called the retreat a “murder of Russian hopes,” according to translations from the Kyiv Post.
“This betrayal is scratched into my heart for ages,” said Rozhin.
But others in Putin’s orbit have been defending the retreat.
Russian Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, said the withdrawal will “save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right (western) bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts,” according to Reuters.
Chechen leader and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, who had knocked Russian troops for retreats back in September, said the Kherson withdrawal was a “difficult but right choice” between “senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers,” according to the Kyiv Post.
Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s lower house, said the retreat was the right decision, for the moment.
“We will definitely come back to Kherson, we will definitely win in the foreseeable future,” Slutsky said, according to the state-run news agency Tass.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Russia’s state-controlled broadcaster RT, said keeping the Kremlin’s troops intact was more important than keeping control of Kherson.
“I know for sure that this decision was not easy for anyone. Neither to those who received it, nor to us, who understood that it would be so, and still prayed that it would not be so,” Simonyan said.
In an assessment Saturday, the Institute for the Study of War said the retreat from Kherson had ignited an “ideological fracture” between Putin and the country’s extreme hawks.
“Putin is having a harder time appeasing parts of the highly ideological pro-war constituency due to his military’s inability to deliver his maximalist goals of overthrowing the Ukrainian government and seizing all of Ukraine,” the institute wrote.
Ukrainians in Kherson have been euphoric over the retreat, reveling in their liberation after Russia seized the city about eight months ago.
Kherson is an industrial city strategically located near the mouth of the Black Sea, on the Dnieper River, and as a gateway and water supply to the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.
“Today is a historic day,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address last week.
Zelensky vowed to keep pressing Russian troops out of the country in his nightly address on Saturday.
“We will see many more such greetings,” Zelensky said. “In those cities and villages that are still under occupation. We don’t forget anyone, we won’t leave anyone.”
Kherson is now scrambling to deal with the fallout of Russia’s long occupation, facing a lack of electricity and running water, and a shortage of food and medical supplies, as the country overall deals with Russian attacks on its energy grid.