Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu under criticism for military failures

RIGA, Latvia — Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu faced mounting political pressure over a series of disorderly withdrawals in Ukraine on Thursday, when powerful nationalist figures openly attacked Moscow’s military command for backlash in areas President Vladimir Putin allegedly annexed.

The Russian military on Thursday launched multiple rocket attacks on Zaporizhia, the capital of one of four Ukrainian regions now illegally claimed by Russia. The rockets hit apartment blocks, killing three people, city authorities said.

The city is not occupied by Russia, and the Kremlin has vowed to seize parts of the regions it does not control. But in the days since Putin declared the seizure of Ukraine’s lands, Russian troops have retreated on two fronts – in Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and in Mykolaiv and Kherson in the south, in flagrant violation of international law.

The growing, strident criticism of the Russian military command is being driven by hard-line nationalists, some of whom have long held grudges against Shoigu, including Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who have their own loyalist armed forces who are fighting in Ukraine.

Russia’s defense minister appears increasingly vulnerable after humiliating military failures in recent weeks, including the loss of Lyman, a strategic transit hub in Donetsk, over the weekend and the surrender of almost all territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region that Russian forces had occupied for many Months.

Shoigu, 67, has no military background but served as defense minister for almost a decade and has been part of Putin’s executive team since he became president on December 31, 1999. Up until the war, Shoigu was one of the country’s most popular politicians and was often touted as a potential successor to Putin.

He is one of Russia’s longest-serving ministers, dating back to 1991 when President Boris Yeltsin appointed him Minister for Emergency Situations. Over the years, Shoigu has remained close to Putin, sometimes accompanying the President on trips to the Siberian taiga.

A more strategic Russian retreat signals a long struggle in Kherson

But on Thursday Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Moscow Deputy Administration in Kherson, said Shoigu’s performance in Ukraine was so poor that any real officer would kill himself.

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“In fact, many people say that if they were the defense minister who brought things to this situation, if they were real officers, they would shoot themselves,” Stremousov said in a video published on Telegram. “But the word officer is incomprehensible to many.”

Videos circulating on pro-Kremlin Telegram channels on Thursday showed a group of several hundred newly mobilized Russian soldiers complaining that they were being kept in “livestock farming”, forced to buy their own food and handed out old, rusting weapons. One waved a thermometer at the camera and shouted that many of the recruits were sick with fever.

Artem Kovrignykh, 20, a former McDonald’s employee who recorded one of the videos near Belgorod in southern Russia, told independent news agency ASTRA that a Russian colonel lined up the group on Wednesday and told them they would be there the next day would be sent to Ukraine. But the men refused to go into action without training.

“We came to the Belgorod region, where the training was supposed to take place. But instead of training, we tried to survive,” he said. “We set up our own tents and found our own food. First we tried to discuss this with our officers. But nobody listened to us. We didn’t get an answer.”

In their argument with the colonel, “we explained that our soldiers are not ready,” Kovrignykh said. “We didn’t have uniforms. I have a helmet and a flak jacket. My soldiers don’t. I couldn’t send them like that. Then how would I explain to their mothers why they died?”

Most of the men were given a summer uniform, a bag, a mug, a spoon and a small thermos, Kovrignykh said: “That’s all. No dry rations, bulletproof vests, helmets or bottles. The uniforms were mostly the wrong size. Likewise the boots. Weapons lock after each reload. These are guns from the 70s and 80s.”

The video went viral on social media after it was posted by Rybar, a pro-Kremlin military blogger who has more than 900,000 subscribers. To calm the controversy, military officials sent the men to a training center.

But the critics were not mollified. The grim reports from mobilized soldiers “make your hair stand on end,” said state TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov on Thursday. “Lies at all levels should be punished. Now is the time to tell the truth.”

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The rare public attacks have shattered the ban on criticizing Russia’s military leadership and signal mounting political troubles for Putin as he seeks to deflect blame for battlefield setbacks and chaotic mobilization.

They also underscore the rivalry and poor coordination between Russia’s disparate forces on the front lines, where analysts say the operations of Prigozhin’s mercenary force appeared at times to be at odds with the strategy and goals of the traditional Russian military.

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Prigozhin dismissed those criticisms, claiming on Wednesday that his armed forces are “boosting the fighting, patriotic spirit of the fighters who are having a hard time now, who are on the front lines and protecting you all.” Politicians, journalists and other “almost liberal fools” should “go to the front,” he said, according to his press service.

An uncompromising military blogger, former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Igor Girkin, who runs a Telegram channel that has repeatedly called for tougher military action against Ukraine, criticized the Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, predicting that Shoigu would be fired would.

Defense Department leadership “will finally own up to much of what they did (or rather didn’t do) before and during the war,” Girkin predicted. “And that means somebody gets ripped off. And someone big,” he added, referring directly to Shoigu.

The pressure on Shoigu comes after a number of Russian military commanders were quietly dismissed from their posts, including Dmitry Bulgakov, a deputy defense minister who was replaced last week by Mikhail Mizintsev, who led Russia’s brutal attack on Mariupol.

The commander of the ailing Western Military Command, Alexander Zhuravlev, was also replaced last week.

As Russia loses ground in its supposedly annexed territories, the Kremlin seeks to consolidate its political clout by pushing administrative measures to incorporate the regions.

Andrei Turchak, leader of Putin’s United Russia party, announced Thursday that the party had opened branches in the illegally annexed territories and the authorities were issuing new license plates for the four regions.

The moves came despite new economic sanctions agreed by the European Union on Wednesday to punish Russia over the territorial seizures.

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When the war fails, Russia’s authoritarian grandmaster withdraws into a corner

The sanctions include import bans on Russian steel, precious metals and precious stones, further export bans on technology products to Russia, including products used in aviation, and an oil price cap on Russian crude oil shipments by sea to third countries.

Putin on Thursday acknowledged that some sectors of Russia’s economy are under severe pressure from sanctions but claimed that industrial production is slowly recovering.

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The newest: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed decrees annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine after staged referenda were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The answer: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions against Russia in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also said on Friday that Ukraine was requesting “accelerated entry” into NATO in an apparent response to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin on September 21 declared a military mobilization to call up up to 300,000 reservists in a dramatic attempt to reverse setbacks in his war against Ukraine. The announcement prompted an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly conscript men, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine launched a successful counter-offensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the war began – here is some of their most impressive work.

How can you help: Here are ways people in the US can support the people of Ukraine, as well as what people around the world have donated.

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