Ukrainians, Russians and much of the rest of the world are still trying to make sense of Moscow’s decision last week to abandon the southern city of Kherson. Do not, for certain, underestimate the significance.
Through the fog of war, we are beginning to see more clearly the significance of the Russian army’s stunning retreat from Kherson, territory that Vladimir Putin had declared his own with an annexation ceremony just a month before.
Yes, events are accelerating. The war in Ukraine now appears suddenly to be heading toward its inevitable conclusion, and Putin toward his demise.
But the consequences extend even further, and could turn even darker as a weakening Russia’s destiny hangs in the balance.
An inevitable ending
Perhaps there’s no better illustration of where the Kremlin has arrived than the following observation by Kirill Martynov, editor of Novaya Gazeta.Europe, the exiled independent Russian media. Martynov points out a curious collision that has occurred within the Russian legal code in the wake of the liberation of Kherson:
"For supporting the surrender of Kherson, they will put you in jail under Article 280.1 (four years in prison for separatism) and for condemning the surrender of Kherson, you will be convicted under Article 280.3, for discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. That is, if you condemn the surrender of Kherson, you will be jailed under one point of this law, and if you support the surrender of Kherson, you will be jailed under another point."
George Orwell would be proud — though the self-imposed dilemma is also a clear sign of the desperate crossroads where Russia finds itself.
Rotting from the inside
Since heavy weaponry started pouring into Ukraine and its army has been stubbornly conquering city after city, Ukrainians have become increasingly confident about a victory and liberation of our territories up to and including Crimea. And confident that after its defeat, after Putin, our overbearing neighbor to the north would finally be tamed.
And yet this new sense of hope is accompanied by a new fear — it’s a different fear than that which gripped us in the first weeks after the war began. It is the fear of what will happen inside Russia.
I saw this fear in the eyes of the Russian journalist I met at the war-related conference in Bulgaria exactly one day before the liberation of Kherson. The doom with which she looked to the future was due neither to her own personal drama nor a patriotic yearning for her homeland (she had to leave Russia at the prospect of imprisonment).
"There is no hope of changing the minds of people who’ve believed in propaganda in Russia,” she said. “Neither defeat in the war nor a change of leader will affect them. They are lost. Russia faces terrible times, and our darkest future is yet to come."
And it will be up to the whole world, not just Russians or Ukrainians, to confront the forces that will rise from this darkness.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a flag-raising ceremony in Kherson
A video execution
We have recently seen a glance at what’s to come in the video circulating of the execution of the Russian prisoner Evgeny Nuzhin. A faceless Russian convict, sentenced to 24 years for murder in 1999, he was recruited recently by Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, to join the mercenary group Wagner to fight in Ukraine.
Soon after, Nuzhin surrendered to the Ukrainian army, testified against the Russians, became an Internet hero for a while, before somehow (reports say he was exchanged for 20 captured Ukrainian soldiers) he was back in the hands of fighters of the Wagner group. The video in question shows Wagner recruits executing Nuzhin by smashing in his head with a sledgehammer. Prigozhin said the video was a good reminder to all recruits about what happens to traitors to the Russian cause.
All three have enough greed, power, and influence to take over the job.
This brings us back to Kherson, which had been captured by the Russian army soon after the Feb. 24 invasion began, then annexed as part of the Russian Federation just over a month ago. The fact that it is back in Ukrainian hands signals the beginning of the end of not only the war, but modern Russia itself.
It may be a crime by law to criticize the army’s surrender in Kherson, but you can be sure plenty are talking about it around Russia. Chief among them are the armed jackals that Putin has fattened over the years: Prigozhin of the Wagner group is one, but there is also Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Kremlin’s man currently in charge of the war, General Sergey Surovikin.
No, none will not succeed in taking Putin's place because Putin is the place. But all three have enough greed, power, and influence to take over the job of running the country.
"If the 30,000 elite Russian troops withdrawn from near Kherson come to the Donbas, and if their offense is even slightly successful, the main beneficiary of this decision will probably be the Wagner group. With far-reaching domestic Russian political consequences," writes Russian journalist Yulia Latynina. "Thus, the only possible step from the military point of view (the surrender of Kherson) may have far more important consequences than a simple retreat. It could help push the transition of power in the country into the hands of a triumvirate (Surovikin Kadyrov, Prgozhin), expected by many, with Putin's tacit consent."
Ballet for Brezhnev
Before our eyes, the empire is passing from the hands of a madman to the hands of narrow-minded murderers, each with a very limited understanding of the world outside the Russian state’s way of doing business: devour it before it devours you.
Since the Soviet era of Leonid Brezhnev, there has been a tradition in Moscow: If something extraordinary and unexpected happens in the country, Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake is shown on television instead of the news. This was the case following the deaths of several Soviet leaders, as well as during the August 1991 coup d'état.
The terrible war in Ukraine is not yet over, and there’s no way to know exactly when it will end. And yet, we do now know the outcome, with a premonition about that darkness to come. It will be long, long night after the ballet.