Fear and loathing in the Kremlin, where Putin writhes in his own trap
Ukraine’s recent dramatic successes are a challenge for Russia’s generals. Even more serious, though, is the challenge facing Vladimir Putin.
A man who tends to balk at making tough decisions finds himself confronted with a range of unpalatable options, and seems not to know what to do.
Ukraine undoubtedly outfought and outthought the Russians on the Kharkiv front. Yet the eye-catching tales of troops fleeing, leaving plates of food behind in their rush, are not the whole story. While there was undoubtedly panic on the part of some soldiers, in the circumstances a headlong retreat was sensible: it was that or be outflanked and likely captured. The real failure did not belong to the men on the ground, who in some places were outnumbered eight to one. It was in Moscow that decisions were taken that left the front woefully undefended in the first place, even though for a fortnight there had been reporting of a Ukrainian build-up.
Given the degree to which he himself seems to have been directly involved in operational decision-making, something that the Kremlin’s own propaganda machine has been hyping, then for all the undoubted failures of Russian intelligence, this is very much Putin’s defeat. The obvious comparison is a devastating one.
Tsar Nicholas II foolishly took on the mantle of commander-in-chief soon after the start of the First World War, thinking the glow of victories would rekindle his faded legitimacy. Instead, he became associated with defeat after defeat in a war Russia could not win. Today the eagerness with which Putin — a man with no meaningful military experience beyond some cursory reserve officer training at university — asserted himself as the architect of the invasion of Ukraine is coming back to haunt him too.
There is a spiteful and spirited community of Russian ultra-hawks, especially within the social media “milblogger” [bloggers, often ex-military, focusing on the war] community, whom one would have expected to be up in arms, ranging from Igor Girkin, one of the first insurgent commanders in the Donbas in 2014 under the nom de guerre “Strelkov”, through to “Reverse Side of the Medal”, a mouthpiece for members of the Wagner mercenary group. They have from the first been critical not of the war, but of what they (with reason) see as its amateurish and incompetent prosecution. They are demanding everything from a purge of the high command (including the defence minister Sergei Shoigu) to mass mobilisation, even the use of nuclear weapons.
But they have been saying this almost from the start of the war, and have relatively little political traction. What is different now is the emergence of cautious criticism on state TV and in the political mainstream. There is no consensus as to what should be done, but a growing consensus that something needs to change.
A sign of the times was that Ramzan Kadyrov, volatile despot of the Chechen region, acknowledged that “it’s a hell of a situation” and warned that if there was no change in strategy, “I will have to go to the leadership of the Ministry of Defence and the country to explain the situation to them.” One should never take Kadyrov’s statements at face value, but the way the Kremlin quickly and publicly countered that Putin was too busy to meet him suggests he struck a nerve.
Last week the presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov issued a scarcely veiled warning that while “critical points of view are currently within the framework of the law . . . the line is very, very fine”. Those who dared criticise the Kremlin “need to be careful here”.
The trouble is that Russia’s catastrophic performance in Ukraine has given critics and opportunists the chance to attack the government while wrapping themselves in the flag. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov is essentially a Kremlin stooge, happy to play the role of the fake opposition. When he advocated “maximum mobilisation” for a “full-fledged war” last week, he may have been floating a trial balloon for the Kremlin, but he was also taking the chance to outflank it.
A jumpy leader
Opportunists like Zyuganov will try to exploit moments of Kremlin weakness, more than anything else to raise the price of their service. He does not want to bring down the regime, but when it is weak, he knows it will have to offer him more perks and prestige to keep him loyal.
It is a stretch to see Putin yet facing an existential political challenge. There is no obvious focus for resistance, and too many within the elite have too much to lose to risk open opposition, especially as there is still no indication that Putin has lost the loyalty of the security forces.
However, it is worth wondering just how secure the leader himself feels. Peskov’s recent statement suggests that the president and his circle are feeling jumpy and defensive.
In the words of one Russian political analyst with close contacts to Putin’s administration, “At the best of times, he is never able to consider himself truly safe. He knows that the people who praise and serve him today could be the ones to turn on him tomorrow.”
After all, this is a president who had not one, but two seemingly solid authoritarian regimes collapse around him at a formative stage of his life: East Germany, where he was serving as a KGB officer in Dresden, and the USSR two years later.
The recent funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Putin blamed for the collapse of the USSR, must have reminded him of how fast a leader can lose control of events, while the size of the crowds who mourned the reformist Soviet president demonstrated that there remains a large contingent of Russians who believe in a different vision for their country from the one that Putin is offering.
No easy way out
If Putin is getting worried, his particular problem is that there are no good options left for him. This is precisely when, in the past, he has tended to be paralysed. He vacillated over how to deal with mass street protests in 2012, and was equally indecisive in his response to the furore over the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015.
Does he now feel that to wrest back momentum in the war he has to escalate? The current campaign of strikes on Ukraine’s power grid is a partial response, but it is eating through his dwindling stock of long-range precision missiles. Only 20% of the Iskander missiles that have been the mainstay of this campaign reportedly remain.
If he declared a mobilisation tomorrow, it would probably take three months before the reservists, many unfit and unwilling, would be deployable – in time for winter, when any major military operations are barely feasible anyway. Such a move would also alarm a population that has been told everything is going to plan. So far, the brunt of the fighting has been borne by ethnic non-Russians, who are largely kept to the political margins, but mobilisation would sweep up many Russians, too.
As for the much-feared threat of firing a tactical nuclear weapon, he could order a demonstrative strike in Arctic waters or hit an isolated target such as Snake Island, off Odesa, with the threat that he would then target Ukrainian cities. This would only be effective if he is genuinely willing to follow through, though. He must know that this would force the West to adopt a strategy of seeking to eliminate or unseat him. China and India would be angry (Putin acknowledged both countries’ concerns about the war for the first time at a summit in Uzbekistan last week), and it could so alarm his own elite that they felt they had to act. If the generals refused to follow orders on this, where, he must fear, would it end?
Nor is there any real scope for de-escalation. The Ukrainians are on a roll, and unwilling to make concessions. While Putin has some scope to redefine quite what “victory” means, even his most creative propagandists would be hard-pressed to spin the loss of the Donbas, let alone Crimea, as anything more than a humiliating reverse.
Trying to cling on
Putin can continue to hammer Ukraine’s infrastructure so long as he has the missiles. He can amp up the cyberattacks being launched on Ukraine and the West (and there is already some evidence that this is happening). He can try to recruit more soldiers wherever he can, including convicts from prison. None of these will substantively change the situation on the ground, though.
Likewise, he can sack Shoigu and pillory some scapegoats, but it is a little late to think this will have much effect on morale at home, let alone the war effort. Shoigu’s real failing has not been mismanaging the war so much as not standing up for his generals and doing anything to stop Putin and his spook allies from wreaking havoc on Russia’s strategy.
Putin has little choice but to hang on, hoping that somehow Ukraine’s will breaks or, more likely, that the West’s does. For now, this may seem the most rational option, certainly the safest. Yet it does nothing to assuage the hawks or the technocrats, nor does it offer ordinary Russians, who are just beginning to feel the pinch (the majority now have no savings at all) any real hope.
Memories of the Tsar
Instead, there is a desperate offer of bread and circuses. Last weekend’s lavish public celebrations in Moscow for the celebration of its founding saw 30,000 fireworks launched in an unconscious parody of war. The government is offering subsidies for faltering businesses, pensions are being raised and civil servants are getting a 10% pay increase.
All this is just a stopgap, though, and a pricy one, at that. The striking thing is that there seems to be no viable route out of this crisis for Putin, and an awareness of that is growing, at least within the elite.
We may be some way from March 1917, when generals and grandees forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate, but it is noteworthy that a large part of the reason for that was their sense that the commander-in-chief had nothing to offer beyond a vain hope that “one more push” would somehow turn around a war Russia was evidently losing. One hundred and five years later, Putin seems able to offer nothing more himself.