Ukrainian forces advanced on territories occupied by Russian troops and their separatist proxies, liberating towns in the southern Kherson region while also moving east toward Luhansk. Following the recapture of Russian-controlled areas in the northeast Kharkiv region in a lightning campaign last month, Ukraine is hoping to remove Russia’s last footholds north and west of the Dnieper River, crippling the Kremlin’s already dwindling ability to mount its own campaign on the strategic Ukrainian port of Odesa.
“The Ukrainian armed forces commanders in the south and east are throwing problems at the Russian chain of command faster than the Russians can effectively respond,” said an anonymous Western official who briefed my colleagues on sensitive security information. “And this is compounding the existing dysfunction within the Russian invasion force.”
Morale and unit cohesion are in shambles among Russian brigades on the front, with Ukrainian strikes on Russian ammunition and supply depots exacting a heavy toll. At home, things are looking bleak. According to some estimates, 700,000 people — roughly one out of every 200 Russians — have fled the country in the less than two weeks since President Vladimir Putin ordered a “partial mobilization” of troops to shore up his faltering invasion.
The current situation stems from the Ukrainian recapture of Lyman, a key transit hub in eastern Donetsk, over the weekend. As gunfire echoed in the distance, my colleagues traveled there and spoke with locals. “Well, they’re either hunting pheasants, rabbits, or Russians,” remarked a retired schoolteacher.
By Tuesday, motions had been passed through Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament accepting the “accession treaties” signed by Putin last week announcing the absorption of the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia into the Russian Federation — all of which were only partially occupied by Russian troops. Russian-backed separatists in these four ostensibly republics staged phony referendums to join Russia, infuriating Kiev and the international community.
Putin, for one, appears unfazed. His 37-minute speech on Friday brushed aside criticism of Russia’s violations of international law in favor of a conspiratorial rant against the agendas of the US and its European allies. He called for “a liberation anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony,” casting the annexations as a form of resistance to the West’s “parasitic,” “neocolonial system,” while also detailing the historical legacies of “plunder” and “genocide” committed by various Western powers over the centuries.
Such grumbling is typical of Putin, who strives to put Russia on an equal footing with the US and its allies. Furthermore, dogmatic “anti-imperialism” was the Soviet Union’s stock in trade for decades, as it sought to support and mobilize revolutionaries and leftists throughout the colonized or decolonizing world. In some cases, such as its support for opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime, the Kremlin found itself on the right side of history far sooner than its adversaries in the West.
But all of this pales in comparison to Putin’s war, the documented atrocities committed by his troops in Ukraine, and the overarching colonial project of using brute force to bring Ukrainians to heel while denying their nation-very state’s existence. “Putin appears oblivious to the absurdity of condemning imperialism while committing the most brazen act of imperial aggression in modern European history,” the Atlantic Council’s Peter Dickinson observed.
Putin also remains silent on his own country’s ruthless, bloody history of imperial conquest, let alone the horrors of Stalinism. While Western empires were establishing their exploitation and extraction systems in various parts of the world, Russia’s czars were waging merciless expansion wars in areas not far from the current battles in Ukraine.
Putin, on the other hand, is on his own revanchist quest to restore Russia’s empire. “He is ‘gathering in the lands,’ as did his personal icons, the great Russian tsars,” Fiona Hill and Angela Stent wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. “In this way, Putin hopes to make Russia the sole exception to the inexorable rise and fall of imperial states.”
For now — as his citizens seek to flee, his nation’s geopolitical isolation deepens and his military teeters — Putin’s mission seems more delusional than ever.