By Mark Trevelyan
LONDON (Reuters) -Russia's leading war hawks on Wednesday swiftly rallied behind the decision to abandon the Ukrainian city of Kherson, putting a brave face on one of Moscow's most humiliating retreats in nearly nine months of war.
The pullout proposed by General Sergei Surovikin, appointed last month to take overall charge of Russia's war effort, means Moscow is giving up a strategic city just north of annexed Crimea, the only Ukrainian provincial capital it had captured since its Feb. 24 invasion.
With Ukraine threatening to pin Russian forces against the west bank of the Dnipro River where they cannot easily be supplied, the shaven-headed Surovikin proposed to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that Russia adopt new defensive lines on the opposite bank in order to preserve soldiers' lives.
A grim-faced Shoigu agreed and ordered his troops to withdraw.
The decision - described by one Russian military blogger as "a black page in the history of the Russian army" - was nonetheless quickly defended by some of the most high-profile proponents of the war as a wise and necessary action.
"After weighing all the pros and cons, General Surovikin made the difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers," said Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who has frequently urged a more aggressive approach to the war and has even called for the use of low-grade nuclear weapons.
Another increasingly outspoken war hawk - Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group which is fighting for Russia in Ukraine - was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying: "The decision taken by Surovikin is not easy, but he acted like a man who is not afraid of responsibility."
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state media outlet RT, went even further, comparing the retreat to the decision by General Mikhail Kutuzov to abandon Moscow to Napoleon in 1812 for the sake of preserving his army and saving Russia.
In recent weeks Simonyan has harshly criticised Russia's chaotic military mobilisation, while both Kadyrov and Prigozhin - before Surovikin's appointment - blasted the conduct of the war and ridiculed some of the generals in charge.
Their chorus of supportive comments on Wednesday suggested a concerted attempt to close ranks behind the top military leadership at a perilous moment in the war and to put on a united front.
But their comments barely disguised the bitter taste of the retreat.
"I know for sure that this decision was not easy for anyone. Not for those who took it, nor for those of us who understood it would be so but still prayed it wouldn't happen," RT's Simonyan said.
Russia is giving up both a symbolic prize - a city founded by 18th century Empress Catherine the Great - and a strategic foothold in the south of Ukraine, weeks after proclaiming its annexation, along with other Ukrainian regions, and declaring it would be part of Russia "forever".
Depending on how safely and efficiently Russia can pull out its men and equipment, the withdrawal may put it in a stronger position to maintain other front lines in the south and east of Ukraine, said military analyst Rob Lee.
But he said that ceding Kherson to Ukraine would put Russian-annexed Crimea within range of Ukrainian guided missile systems and U.S.-supplied HIMARS rockets.
The city's loss is a major blow to President Vladimir Putin, Russia's commander-in-chief, who has so far been spared public criticism as hawks like Prigozhin and Kadyrov focused their wrath on his generals.
Putin has kept his distance from unpopular military decisions. As Shoigu and Surovikin announced the retreat on Wednesday, Putin was congratulating employees of a leading scientific institute on its 75th anniversary.
But despite Wednesday's show of unity, Prigozhin's comments hinted at a potential reckoning to come.
It was necessary, he said, "to draw conclusions and work on mistakes. And after that, to understand who is right, who to blame and what is the essence of the problem".
(Reporting by ReutersEditing by Andrew Osborn)