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As his troops retreat, Russian defense chief comes under pressure at home

Volunteers search the rubble of a building for survivors after a rocket strike in Zaporizhzhia on Thursday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

RIGA, Latvia — Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu faced intensifying political pressure Thursday over a series of disorderly retreats in Ukraine, as powerful nationalist figures openly attacked Moscow’s military command for setbacks in areas President Vladimir Putin claims to have annexed.

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

The city is not occupied by Russia, and the Kremlin has vowed to conquer parts of the regions that it does not control. But in the days since Putin declared the seizure of the Ukrainian territories, in flagrant violation of international law, Russian troops have been retreating on two fronts — in Donetsk and Luhansk to the east, and in Mykolaiv and Kherson to the south.

The growing, strident criticism of the Russian military command is driven by hard-line nationalists, some of whom have long borne a grudge against Shoigu, including Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, each of whom have their own loyal military forces fighting in Ukraine.

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

Shoigu, 67, has no military background but has served as defense minister for nearly a decade, and has been part of Putin’s leadership team since he was elevated to the presidency on Dec. 31, 1999. Until the war, Shoigu was among the country’s most popular politicians, and was often tipped as a potential successor to Putin.

He is one of Russia’s longest-serving ministers, going back to 1991, when President Boris Yeltsin named 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 long fight ahead in Kherson

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

“Indeed many people say that if they were the Minister of Defense, who brought things to this state of affairs, they would shoot themselves, if they were real officers,” Stremousov said, in a video posted 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 who complained they were kept in “cattle conditions,” forced to buy their own food and issued old, rusted weapons. One waved a thermometer at the camera, shouting that many of the recruits were sick with fevers.

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

“We came to Belgorod region, where the training was supposed to take place. But instead of training, we were trying to survive,” he said. “We put up our own tents and found our own food. At first we tried to discuss this with our officers. But no one listened to us. We got no answer.”

In their argument with the colonel, “We explained that our soldiers weren’t ready,” Kovrignykh recounted. “We had no uniforms. I have a helmet and flak jacket. My soldiers didn’t. I couldn’t send them off like that. Then, how would I explain to their mothers why they died?”

Most of the men were issued 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 flasks. The uniforms were mostly the wrong size. So were the boots. The guns jam after every reload. These are weapons from the ’70s and ’80s.”

The video spread widely on social media after it was posted by a pro-Kremlin military blogger, Rybar, who has more than 900,000 subscribers.

Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti reported Thursday that the unit of 299 soldiers would be sent for training in Mulino, Russia, appearing to confirm that the men in the videos were indeed mobilized soldiers. But other reports suggested that the videos might have been staged by Shoigu’s rivals to discredit the defense minister.

The dismal reports from mobilized soldiers “make one’s hair stand on end,” state television anchor Vladimir Solovyov declared Thursday. “Lies, at all levels, should be punished. Now it’s time to tell the truth.”

The rare public attacks have shattered the prohibition on criticizing Russia’s military leadership, and signaled mounting political problems for Putin as he tries to deflect blame over the battlefield setbacks and the chaotic mobilization.

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

Winter nears in Ukraine — and a battle of stamina awaits

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

One hard-line military blogger, former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Igor Girkin, who runs a Telegram channel that has repeatedly called for harsher military action against Ukraine, criticized the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, and predicted that Shoigu would be dismissed.

The Ministry of Defense leadership “will finally answer for much of what it did (or rather did not do) before and during the war,” Girkin predicted. “And that means someone will be demolished. And someone big,” he added, referring directly to Shoigu.

The pressure on Shoigu comes after a series of Russian military commanders have been 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 assault on Mariupol.

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

As Russia loses ground in its supposedly annexed territories, the Kremlin is trying to cement its political hold by forging ahead with administrative measures to absorb the regions.

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

Those steps were taken despite new economic sanctions agreed upon by the European Union on Wednesday to punish Russia over the territorial seizures.

As war fails, Russia’s authoritarian grandmaster backs himself into a corner

The sanctions include bans on imports of Russian steel, precious metals and precious stones, further bans on exports of tech products to Russia, including products used in aviation, and an oil price cap for Russian seaborne crude deliveries to third countries.

Putin acknowledged Thursday that some sectors of the Russian economy were under severe pressure because of sanctions, but claimed that industrial production was slowly recovering.

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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