One month into the invasion of Ukraine, some Russian and pro-Russian figures are casting about for explanations and people to scapegoat as they attempt to justify why things may not be going entirely according to plan.
The reality of the war’s progress remains obscured by propaganda and fog of war, though NATO officials said on Wednesday that up to 40,000 Russian soldiers have either died, been injured, captured, or are missing in action. Russia assembled a force of around 200,000 along Ukraine’s borders in the run-up to the invasion.
Kremlin officials strongly deny that anything could possibly be amiss with the campaign, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying on Tuesday that “everything has gone strictly according to plan.”
But others close to the operation apparently feel the need to tell a different story.
“There’s no mass mobilization and nothing is heard about it’s preparation. It’s impossible to win this war without that,” wrote Igor Girkin on his Telegram channel on Wednesday, critiquing the number of troops Russia has committed to the invasion.
Girkin, who also goes by Igor Strelkov, is a former Russian FSB officer and historical re-enactor who played high-profile roles in Russia’s 2014 Ukraine campaign, participating in the seizure of Crimea and in instigating a war in Ukraine’s east.
He ended up serving, for a short time, as defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two Kremlin proxy governments created in the region.
“The [Donetsk People’s Republic] armed forces are moving forward a little, however, the Ukrainian Armed Forces regularly counterattack,” Girkin wrote. “ The enemy also has very serious losses, but their mobilization reserve is much more significant, by many times.”
Girkin was dismissed from his position in the Donetsk proxy statelet in August 2014, weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down and as Ukrainian forces were regaining lost ground. He hasn’t had a formal position in the region since, but has taken to criticizing Kremlin policy towards its statelets.
He added that many Donetsk troops — some of whom were reportedly forcibly mobilized by Russia during the current invasion — were untrained, and being used for “frontal attacks” on Ukrainian lines.
“I don’t rule out that in the depths of the Defense Ministry completely different plans are afoot, other than gaining victory,” Girkin wrote. “Perhaps there (where it’s warm and still completely safe) they continue to soothe themselves (and not only themselves, their ‘superior’) with illusions about how ‘the enemy is running away, airplanes and rockets will do their job and we won’t have to strain ourselves beyond the present.'”
It’s important to note that Girkin’s complaints aren’t those of someone opposed to the Kremlin’s policy: if anything, he’s criticizing the plan for not being effective enough, perhaps with the hint of a suggestion that he would have done a better job, were he still in a position of authority. His complaints — and his position in the botched Russian takeover — are distinct from those that have surfaced from the Russian military, such as in one recent report that a senior Russian military official called the war “tragic” in the presence of U.S. officials.
Another pro-Russia figure involved in the country’s 2014 campaign against Ukraine has also suggested that mistakes were made.
In this case, it’s a Ukrainian who appears to have been tapped to participate in a potential post-war Kremlin puppet government: Oleg Tsaryov, a former Ukrainian MP who fled for Russia in 2014.
“Some leaders of military operations, not having battle experience, are shirking their command, showing cowardice,” Tsaryov told a pro-Russian news site in Moscow on Wednesday. “It’s necessary to analyze the reasons for the passivity of certain units, not moving forward, and make personnel decisions in these cases.”
Tsaryov, the FT reported last month, denied reports made public by Western intelligence agencies that he was under consideration to be a potential post-war leader of Ukraine.
“I’m a sanatorium director in Yalta,” he told the newspaper, referring to the Crimean resort city.
Two weeks later, as the invasion began, Tsaryov was heralding the “denazification of Ukraine” and telling followers on social media that he had entered the country.
Now that things have gone south, however, Tsaryov has admitted that the campaign “has not been as fast as one might have wanted.”
More recently, he’s taken to blaming the views of the Ukrainian people on western “information operations.”
“The information front matters quite a lot,” he said on Wednesday. “Especially, in Ukrainian conditions, where the west and their subordinate nationalists apply huge efforts to create their needed structure in society.”
Tsaryov suggested that the problem could be solved, if only the will existed in Russia for it to happen.
“Soldiers know how to resolve this question technically, but they need the command,” Tsaryov said.
Ukraine is being pummeled, and its population has coalesced around resisting Russia’s invasion. As that’s become more and more clear, Tsaryov has begun to suggest that, perhaps, Ukraine doesn’t need a puppet government (of the sort Western intelligence claimed he would take part in) after all. Perhaps Russia should just absorb Ukraine.
“I will not speak as is customary for public officials. I will not observe politesse,” he said in Moscow. “I will say it directly — Ukraine, as a state, should not exist. These are Russian lands, and they should return to Russia.”