On a Russian talk show, retired colonel stuns colleagues by saying invasion isn’t going well
By Neil MacFarquhar and Anushka Patil
A military analyst on one of Russian state television’s most popular networks left his fellow panelists in stunned silence Monday when he said that the conflict in Ukraine was deteriorating for Russia, giving the kind of honest assessment that is virtually banished from the official airwaves.
“The situation for us will clearly get worse,” Mikhail M. Khodaryonok, a retired colonel and a conservative columnist on military affairs, said during the “60 Minutes” talk-show program on the Rossiya network.
It was a rare moment of frank analysis in a country where criticizing the war effort can result in a prison sentence and broadcasters have generally adhered to the Kremlin’s talking points.
The problems that Khodaryonok referred to, sometimes obliquely, included low morale, the array of Western countries aligned against Russia and the amount of fighters and matériel that Ukraine was assembling.
“We are in total geopolitical isolation, and the whole world is against us, even if we don’t want to admit it,” said Khodaryonok, noting that Russia’s “resources, military-political and military-technical, are limited.”
He urged Russians not to take “informational sedatives.” The clip was first highlighted by Francis Scarr of BBC Monitoring, which tracks Russian broadcasts. Khodaryonok did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
Aside from questioning Russia’s position, it was a remarkable moment because Khodaryonok noted that Ukraine seemed to have momentum. Russians mistakenly tended to try to extrapolate the problems of a few soldiers in the Ukrainian army to denigrate its whole military, he said. In reality, they were ready to field 1 million men if given sufficient weapons, were highly motivated and would be receiving an increasing quantity of military support from the United States and Europe, he added.
News talk shows in Russia are generally a shouting match, with the half dozen panelists each vying to drown out the others. On this episode, however, the other panelists stood in stunned silence. Only Olga Skabeyeva, the host, who religiously follows the Kremlin line, interrupted with official talking points in sometimes tense exchanges.
She attempted to point out that support from China and India was just as good as support from Europe, that perhaps professional soldiers were superior to conscripts and that Russia “had no choice,” the standard Kremlin justification for its invasion by presenting Ukraine as a threat.
Khodaryonok seemed to be careful not to say anything openly critical of the Russian side, repeatedly stressing that the entire situation was “not normal.” When it came to morale issues, for example, he reached back into history and noted that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin had said that high morale was an important factor for battlefield success. He did not refer directly to recent indications that the Russian army is suffering from morale problems.
In March, Russia criminalized denouncing its war effort, including even referring to it as a war rather than a “special military operation.”
Khodaryonok has been critical of the Russian military operations in the past. In an unusual column published in early February, before the invasion, he cautioned against it, saying that it would not be the cake walk that many Russian analysts expected and that it was not in Russia’s “national interests.”
He predicted accurately that the Ukrainians would fight hard to defend their country and that the West would provide extensive arms. “There will be no blitzkrieg in Ukraine,” he wrote in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, a Russian weekly newspaper supplement on military matters.
Even earlier, about a year after Russia dispatched its military to Syria in 2015 to prop up President Bashar Assad, he wrote a column for an internet news service, Gazeta.Ru, suggesting that the Syrian army was an unworthy ally, pointing out its lack of military success and corruption.
Concerning the war in Ukraine, however, he has previously praised the Russian effort.
In comments on his Telegram channel posted only a week ago, he said that military theorists for years to come would study the special operation as something “unique.” He said Russian advances in the eastern Donbas region were due to the discipline, training and morale of its military, as well as the effectiveness of its artillery. He also repeated the unfounded Russian claim that the Ukrainian side fostered Nazis.