In a strange speech last Friday, Russian president Vladimir Putin championed the annexation of four territories in eastern Ukraine, sounding triumphant as he announced the territory grab and a little paranoid as he dove into a diatribe about transgender rights in the United States. On that first front, however, the situation on the ground may not be as glowing as Putin made it seem — since Russia doesn’t actually know what ground it illegally took from Ukraine.
In a conference call with reporters following the State Duma vote to ratify the annexation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted on Monday that Russia does not know the true borders of the newly Russian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. “We’re going to continue to consult with the people who live in these regions,” Peskov said of these areas bordering Russia and the Black Sea.
It’s not a great sign for a country to have only a theoretical understanding of the territory it has just annexed despite fighting a proxy war in the area for close to a decade. Neither is the reason for Russia’s confusion on the matter: Already suffering heavy casualties, reports suggest Russia is getting clobbered in eastern Ukraine. The day after Putin gave the speech, Russian soldiers withdrew from the railroad hub of Lyman in Donetsk. (“I didn’t hear anything about it,” one Lyman resident told the New York Times of her purported new nationality.) The retreat came after Ukrainian forces partially surrounded the small city and cut off the roughly 5,000 Russian troops stationed there, whose initial request to fall back was denied, resulting in heavy casualties.
Further south in Kherson, Russia’s Defense Ministry has admitted that Ukraine is on the advance, announcing Monday that Ukrainian tank brigades have broken through Russian defenses. “The enemy managed to penetrate into the depths of our defense,” spokesman Kirill Stremousov said. Ukrainian forces have been slowly advancing in a grinding assault toward the port city of Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall when Russia invaded in February. As the Kremlin grapples with the fallout from a disastrous mobilization of reservists that resulted in hundreds of thousands fleeing the country, Putin has reportedly rejected field requests to retreat in Kherson. “The situation is completely under control,” a Russia-installed official in the region said this week.