Russia in a training exercise in Belarus days before its invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Screenshot / BBC

None dare calls it war.

On Saturday, Russia’s media censorship bureau banned news outlets from calling the war in Ukraine, well, a “war.” Also forbidden are the words “assault” and “invasion.”

The bureau, uneconomically called the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, said print, Internet and broadcast outlets face fines up to five million rubles, the equivalent of about $60,000, or possible closure altogether for violations of the ban.

The preferred label is “special military operation,” the phrase provided last Thursday by President Vladimir Putin when he launched the, err, event.

The decree was one of several odd events that suggested that Russia’s invasion was not going as well as expected in the Kremlin. There was also indication that the decision to invade was not unanimously endorsed by officialdom.

Three days into the invasion, Russian troops had not yet conquered major cities that its troops had assaulted, including Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, nor Kharkiv and Mariupol bordering the contested region of Donbass. And it wasn’t clear that beyond that the Russians and their allies had yet progressed far beyond the Donbass enclaves.

The Russian assault on Kiev from the west and north has been aided by missile, jet bomber and artillery strikes on residential areas. Ukrainian forces claim to have shot down a troop transport plane in southern Ukraine that may have carried dozens of Russian soldiers.

In the far west, Russians fired missiles at Lviv on the border with Poland. The city has been the funnel for about 120,000 refugees fleeing into Poland.

Subtle changes in Putin’s daily rhetorical pep talks indicate the invasion’s success has been slower than expected. On Thursday, he urged Ukrainian soldiers to throw down their arms and go home. On Friday, he urged them, instead, to overthrow the Ukrainian government.

He has also tamped down talk of negotiations. On Friday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky offered to discuss with Russia a “neutral status” for Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a front line in Donbas on June 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ukrainian Presidency / Anadolu Agency

He was apparently referring to the kind of deal reached among Western allies and Russia in 1955 over formerly Nazi-annexed Austria. Austria is still formally neutral and is not a member of NATO, although it belongs to the European Union.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Ukrainians could negotiate if its soldiers laid down their arms, according to Russia’s TASS news agency. On Saturday, the Kremlin announced there would be no talks because Ukrainians refused them.

But there have been signs that not everyone in the Russian government is fully on board. On television, Putin curtly shut down discussion from a top intelligence chief about opening negotiations with Ukraine over the future of breakaway eastern provinces in Ukraine.

Andrey Kortunov, who heads the government-linked Russian International Affairs Council, said Putin risks a cataclysmic decline in popularity if the war drags on. He said colleagues he knew at the Russian foreign ministry were “very surprised, shocked and even dismayed” by Putin’s actions.

The difficulties in taking major cities and generally pressing the offensive forward suggest that the Russians have “lost the initiative,” claimed Lawrence Friedman, a professor at King’s College in London.

“If you’re defending your country, you have higher morale,” said Friedman. The Russians seem to have been overconfident. They haven’t taken a major city yet. It’s not turning out at all like Putin expected.”

Great Britain’s Defense Ministry said, “The speed of the Russian advance has temporarily slowed, likely as a result of acute logistical difficulties and strong Ukrainian resistance.”

A US Pentagon official told American reporters that Russia’s thrust into Kiev has been “slower than expected,” due to resistance in the city.

None of that, of course, spells the end of Ukraine’s agony. At least 120,000 refugees have entered Poland, and thousands of others have crossed the borders of other Eastern European states bordering the country.

Russian troops are camped on the border of Ukraine. Photo: Twitter / Fars News Agency

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Russian troops still await on the border inside Russia. Putin, who oversaw part of the brutal war against breakaway Chechnya, is capable of unleashing much more mayhem. Russia’s army bombarded Grozny, the Chechen capital, for several days to drive out first civilians and then Islamic rebels.

But this weekend, the focus in Moscow has been to cover up a dreary face as the government ordered news media to stop publishing, “untrue information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the death of civilians in Ukraine… as well as materials in which the ongoing operation is called an attack, invasion, or a declaration of war.”

Significantly, the Kremlin has yet to announce casualty numbers.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.