As Ukrainian forces quietly prepared a counteroffensive that would stunningly expel occupying Russian soldiers from nearly the entire northeastern Kharkiv region, Moscow was so sure of its hold on the territory that it began imposing Russian curriculum in the local schools.
With that land and those schools back under the Ukrainian military’s control after the lightning-fast advances in recent days, and with Moscow’s annexation plans foiled – for now at least – Ukraine said it had arrested Russian teachers left behind by the retreating Russian soldiers.
Moscow has acknowledged educators were arrested, but has claimed they were Ukrainian collaborators, not Russian citizens. And in a sign of the Kremlin’s reality-bending claim of authority in the region, the head of the Russian Investigative Committee, a top law enforcement body, on Tuesday ordered its own criminal investigation into the arrest of the teachers by the Ukrainians, according to the department’s Telegram channel.
It was unclear how many teachers Ukraine had detained, but the arrests were just part of the continuing reverberations of the successful Ukrainian operation, and Russia’s swift and humiliating retreat.
With the Kremlin under pressure to explain the losses and rare public assertions in Russia that the country’s military effort has proved inadequate, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman reiterated Tuesday that there were no plans for a general military mobilisation.
“At the moment, no, it’s out of the question,” the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a conference call with reporters.
Peskov also issued a warning to critics of Putin, including supporters of the war who have pushed for a general mobilisation and tougher strikes on Ukraine. The Kremlin has made it illegal to criticise the war, which it calls a “special military operation” and has cracked down on dissenters.
“As for other, critical points of view, as long as they remain within the framework of the current legislation, this is pluralism. But the line is very, very thin,” Peskov warned. “You have to be very careful here. It was clear, he added, that “Russians support the president. This is confirmed by the mood of the people”.
The mood, however, in Russia has been dark, in stark contrast to the jubilation in Ukraine in recent days, evidenced by videos of joyful residents hugging Ukrainian soldiers as they swept into villages, towns and strategic cities throughout the Kharkiv region.
As Kyiv has reasserted authority over those liberated towns and villages, the Kremlin’s plans for annexing the territory have become increasingly clear – from shaping what young Ukrainians would learn in class to preparing sham referendums.
It has also revealed how unprepared Russia was for Ukraine’s advance, leaving behind not only sympathetic educators but so many weapons and equipment that military experts have assessed that Russia will now struggle even harder to capture any more ground than it currently occupies.
In occupied southern Ukraine, amid a slower-moving separate Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia has delayed its plans to stage referendums, which would be illegal and not recognised by the international community, but Moscow planned as a precursor to annexation.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Monday that the Russian teachers faced up to 12 years in prison on charges of violating laws and customs of war, without specifying how many had been arrested.
In recent months, Russia has promised hundreds of teachers significant pay raises to go to occupied Ukraine and teach the Russian curriculum – with Russia’s take on Ukraine’s history – in the coming school year.
Ukrainian education “must be corrected”, Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov said at a June 28 meeting of Putin’s United Russia party. Teachers in Ukraine’s occupied southern region have insisted on using exclusively the Russian language during class.
But as some of Russia’s overeager invasion and annexation plans have unravelled in the war’s sixth month, Putin is facing increasing pressure at home.
The initial aims of what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” were to capture Kyiv and force a regime change. That failed after less than two months of fighting.
British intelligence said Monday that Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army, one of the most prestigious units in the Russian military, was part of the forces that withdrew from the Kharkiv region and has been “severely downgraded” after suffering “heavy casualties” earlier in the war.
“Russia’s conventional force designed to counter Nato is severely weakened,” the intelligence agency said on Twitter. “It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild this capability.”