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Russia's strikes on Ukraine may also have been meant to quell doubts at home

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

You can break the Russian invasion of Ukraine into two conflicts. There's the physical war - people killed, buildings destroyed - and there's the information war over what the conflict means.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On Monday, Russia launched dozens of missiles into Ukrainian cities. The places struck ranged from an energy company headquarters to a playground. It's hard to say the strikes on civilian targets affected Ukraine's military, but they may have been intended to have an effect inside Russia.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes is joining us now from Moscow. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So Russia apparently responded to the bombing of a symbolically important bridge. What else were those attacks saying?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, it seems like it was an effort to quell growing doubts here in Russia about how the conflict is unfolding. For weeks, we've seen growing criticism among hard-liners here over the military strategy. They argue Russia has essentially been losing in Ukraine because the Kremlin was fighting with one hand tied behind its back. In other words, Russia wasn't using the full force available to it. In that sense, yesterday's attacks appear not to be a one-off, but signal this conflict is escalating. There were more attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure this morning reported.

And don't forget, just hours after this Saturday bridge incident, we saw Putin promote a new battlefield commander, General Sergei Surovikin, to oversee the military operations in Ukraine. Surovikin is seen as a more ruthless military strategist based on his past experience overseeing, for example, Russia's military operations in Syria, particularly using rocket attacks.

FADEL: So what has been the response then, especially from hard-liners, to these attacks from these critics?

MAYNES: Well, nothing short of joy among nationalists and Kremlin loyalists. Ramzan Kadyrov, for example, the strongman leader of Chechnya, who was - who's really gone after the defense ministry over these recent setbacks, now says he's 100% behind this new, tougher approach. Others, like Dmitry Medvedev, who's a member of the Security Council, seem to view the attacks as basically a reboot of Russia's military campaign. You know, he's again talking about the total dismantling of the Kyiv government. And remember, that was an early goal of Putin's in the conflict. And then there's Anton Krasovsky. He's one of the more provocative propagandists on the state-sponsored RT Russia television channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTON KRASOVSKY: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here's Krasovsky on television saying this was a fantastic day, and he literally danced to the news. This is what Russians, he claimed, had been waiting for all these months, you know, proof they were winning. And he said he wanted to wake up every morning and read the same pain was being inflicted on the enemy.

FADEL: But does this then back Putin into a corner because he'll have to keep delivering on this more forceful approach? So does he run the danger of possibly looking weak again if he doesn't?

MAYNES: Well, it's true. They want Putin to go all in, but it may not be that simple. Russia has massive firepower, like the likes of which we saw yesterday. But supplies aren't unlimited. Even bombing Ukraine on a massive scale - if it inflicts damage, it kills people, but it doesn't change the situation on the battlefield. And there, you know, Russia's struggles continue. In recent weeks, it's lost large swathes of territory in areas Moscow claimed to have already annexed. And a mobilization drive and effort to inject new troops has struggled amid sloppy implementation and resistance from the public. So yesterday's attacks seem to have pushed those problems into the background. But just for now.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thank you so much for your time.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.