Kremlin elites are poised for Putin’s grip on power to falter
Vladimir Putin’s blustery speech on Wednesday morning was meant to sow panic in the West, with its threats of total war, including the use of nuclear weapons, to defend Russia’s land grab in Ukraine. In reality, it signals panic in the Kremlin.
The unexplained 12-hour delay in its release — television schedules had been cleared for the previous evening — was symptomatic of the disarray. So too was Putin’s glassy-eyed countenance, awkward posture and stilted delivery. Military, diplomatic and political setbacks are multiplying. Out of touch, out of options and out of luck, Putin is entering the end phase of his reign.
Readers distracted by Britain’s funeral obsequies may have missed some events elsewhere. The past two weeks have been the worst in the Russian leader’s 22 years in power. His a biggest gamble — the onslaught he launched on Ukraine in February — is proving a humiliating failure.
Every assumption was wrong. Ukrainians did not greet Russians as liberators. They fought back. Foreign countries did not abandon Ukraine as a corrupt and hopeless cause. They rallied behind it, with humanitarian help, financial aid and, most importantly, modern weapons.
The result was first stalemate, then retreat. Ukraine now has the military edge, regaining swathes of territory in recent weeks. Since February, at least 80,000 Russian soldiers from the initial 120,000-strong invasion force have been killed, wounded or captured. In a week of fighting this month outside Kharkiv, Ukrainians ripped apart the elite 4th Guards Tank Division, part of the 1st Guards Tank Army, the Russian army’s best armoured formation. A hundred tanks were wrecked or captured, in what some military observers regard as a feat of arms comparable to the Israeli counter-attack in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Ukrainians joke that their biggest supplier of military aid is now Russia.
Victory for Ukraine against its much larger adversary is not inevitable, but it is no longer inconceivable. Every week hundreds of soldiers arrive from western-led training, much of it organised by Britain. The extraordinary logistical capabilities of the US military — a kind of Amazon Prime for soldiers — are deployed in getting ever more weapons and ammunition to the front line.
Just as that advantage intensifies, Russia’s woes are compounding. Modern armies run on plentiful, reliable supplies of spare parts, food and munitions. Along the 600-mile (1,000km) front line precision strikes from modern weapons, on targets selected by western intelligence, are straining Russia’s rickety logistics system to breaking point. Every time Russia builds a bridge across the Dnipro river — vital to maintain supplies to its embattled troops on the western bank — Ukrainian strikes destroy it. Ill led, unmotivated and poorly equipped, Russia’s soldiers increasingly face the choice between surrender, mutiny, desertion or death.
The diplomatic carnage is even greater. Carefully cultivated European allies in places such as Hungary and Germany have proved useless: the EU imposed harsh sanctions in response to the war. Germany is tiptoeing towards a boost in military capability not seen since the Cold War. Rumours of the death of the transatlantic relationship proved exaggerated. Nato, dismissed as “brain-dead” by President Macron in 2019, proved anything but. Spurred on by the war in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have hurried to join the alliance: a huge strategic setback for Russia.
Above all, the Biden administration, supposedly cautious, annoyed with Europe and distracted by China, has delivered game-changing amounts of military aid to Ukraine. The main result of Putin’s war has been to restore the US role as the dominant security power in Europe. It is hard to imagine a bigger setback.
Russia deployed its biggest economic weapon — interrupting gas supplies to Europe — and destroyed an export market built over decades, with no political gains. The latest twists are particularly humiliating. Putin’s absence from the world line-up at the Queen’s funeral highlighted Russia’s international isolation. The UN general assembly in New York underlined it, with an all-but-invisible Russia facing unprecedented criticism from world leaders. Biden slammed Putin’s “reckless disregard” for Russia’s non-proliferation commitments. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, decried Kremlin “desperation”.
What is the point of blood-curdling rhetoric when blood remains stubbornly uncurdled? Even the Kremlin’s favoured arenas are hostile. Kazakhstan, a once-loyal central Asian ally, now publicly distances itself from Russia. China, Turkey and India have complained about the war. The notoriously unpunctual Putin now experiences the humiliation of being kept waiting by other leaders, even from (seen from Moscow) pipsqueak countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan.
The worse the war goes, the angrier its architect becomes. But his options are few and bad. Putin is stuck in a rhetorical prison of his own making. The lies and myths about the neo-Nazi grip on Ukraine, foreign plots to plunder Russia and western degeneracy helped to whip up domestic opinion behind the war. But they do not help win it. Reality is biting, with uncomfortable, unanswerable questions. If the “special military operation” is going according to plan, as Putin insists, why the need for new sacrifices? If Ukrainians and Russians are indeed one people, why are the little brothers fighting off the fraternal embrace so fiercely? If the West is so feeble, why has it not crumbled? If it is so formidable, why pick a fight?
The war aims shift confusingly, shredding credibility. Is the goal to liberate Ukraine or to punish it? Is the territorial prize just the Donbas, or the Tsarist-era Novorossiya, which stretches all along the Black Sea coast? As the story changes, even the most loyal Russians cannot deny that someone has blundered. With all the reins of power in his hands, Putin cannot escape blame for his country’s mistakes.
The military options look bleak. Declaring total war is easier than waging it. With a GDP smaller than Italy, Russia is in no state to engage in a real trial of strength with the US and its allies, who are at least ten times bigger and richer. Putin can still pick on small countries — Georgia and Moldova are the nearest targets. But any military confrontation stretches scant resources even more thinly. Attacking Nato countries verbally costs nothing. But a real war risks a devastating response.
Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal is a ticket to the top table of international diplomacy. But loose talk blunts its impact. In his threat to defend Russian territory by “all means at our disposal” this week, Putin plaintively declared: “This is not a bluff.” That tacitly recognised that previous bluffs have been called. Western countries did initially worry about escalation. Some even thought Ukraine was doomed. They have changed their minds.
Though nuclear weapons remain (as for Britain) a last-ditch deterrent against all-out attack, they are all but unusable in other circumstances. Any nuclear strike against a Nato country, especially now, risks a devastating (though not necessarily nuclear) counterattack. Russia’s dependence on western-made electronic devices and software, for example, creates a colossal vulnerability. Companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google could between them, if they wished, remotely disable almost every computer in Russia within hours. Imagine every iPhone in Russia, for example, being treated as “stolen”.
Any breach of the nuclear taboo, even a “demonstration” detonation of a small warhead in a remote location, will prompt condemnation and isolation, including from nominally friendly countries such as China. Putin’s finger may hover over the nuclear button, but pressing it would be suicidal.
Putin can further destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure by bombing civilian targets. But experience so far shows that such destructive cruelty strengthens, rather than dents, Ukrainians’ will to resist. Turning round Russia’s fortunes on the battlefield by other means is dauntingly difficult. Russia was not properly prepared for this war. Recovering even from losses already incurred will take years. This week’s hastily announced Soviet-style mobilisation of 300,000 people may have propaganda value. But in practice it will work no better than the previous stunt: barrel-scrapings from Russia’s homeless shelters and prisons. The real shortcomings in Russia’s armed forces are in quality, not quantity. Hordes of sullen new recruits are no substitute for missing expertise and training. Newly announced penalties for desertion, mutiny and looting only signal the depth of the rot.
Widening conscription also comes at an alarming political cost. Russians who for years have tolerated the regime’s corruption and repression are angry in earnest when their personal wellbeing is at stake. Random round-ups of military-age men this week sparked spontaneous protests across the country, while tickets to any destination with visa-free access for Russians sold out within hours of Putin’s announcement. Google searches in Russian for “how to break your own arm” have rocketed, as men of military age seek any means to avoid the call-up. Ukrainians go home to fight for their country. Russians will risk anything not to.
Conscription has the heaviest footprint in the provinces and among poorer Russians, highlighting the dispensations granted to big-city elites. A prank played on the playboy son of Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, highlighted the ruling caste’s ingrained sense of privilege. The caller, Dmitry Nizovtsev from Popular Politics, an online opposition outlet, pretended to be a conscription officer, curtly ordering 32-year-old Nikolai Peskov to present himself for military service at 10 the next morning. The hapless Peskov replied by giving his surname, adding haughtily, “I’ll be sorting this out at another level” and citing “political nuances” for his refusal to turn up. Ordinary Russians face lengthy jail sentences for such defiance.
Putin’s only real hope is that the western willpower will crumble as winter bites and nerves fray. The problem here is that the squishiest countries are the ones that matter least. A change of government in troubled Slovakia, for example, is not a game-changer. Nor will a new coalition government in Italy, with some Kremlin-friendly far-right members, make a decisive difference.
The only governments that really matter from a military point of view are also unshakeable in their support for Ukraine: the US for its arsenal, Poland for its proximity and Britain for its useful supporting role. Everything else, in the end, is symbolic. At most, Russia may hope that disunity in Europe leads to some slackening of sanctions. But that shows no sign of happening: the EU’s immediate response to Putin’s bellicose speech this week was to consider more sanctions, not fewer.
As pressure mounts, rivets are popping in the Kremlin’s political machine. One danger is that anti-conscription protests mushroom, swamping the riot police’s ability to crack heads and clear streets. Russia is too big a country to police uniformly. A climate of fear can lift quickly when dissent goes unpunished.
Rebellion in the establishment is visible too. Alla Pugacheva, a Soviet-era singer with a huge following, is under investigation for an Instagram post in which she decried “our boys dying for illusory goals, which have turned our country into a pariah state and made life a burden for our citizens”. Such criticism would have been unheard of a year ago.
Still more ominous are signs of defiance among two strongmen whose personal militias play a big part in stiffening the military efforts in Ukraine. The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has complained about the conduct of the war, while ostentatiously sending new forces to fight Ukrainian “satanists”. Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs the powerful Wagner mercenary group, has released a video of a stirring recruitment speech to Russian prisoners, and another of a meeting in the small hours with his military commanders. The implication from both is clear: Putin cannot run the war, but I can.
The far right in Russia is another threat. For these ultra-nationalists, the problem is not the country’s crippling imperialist delusions but Putin’s failure to realise them. Participants in Russian television talk shows speak freely about the need to flatten Ukraine and wreak havoc on the West. The recent fatal car bombing of Darya Dugina, daughter of the far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, indicates the stakes at play. Below the superficial stability of the Putin regime bubble murderous rivalries and hatreds. Russia’s far right has in the past been the creature of the security services, used as a safety valve for dissent, and as a bogey to deter westerners from putting too much pressure on the Russian leadership. But it may now have taken on a life of its own.
The West’s biggest mistake has been to see Putin as the leader of the regime rather than its product, and now its most vulnerable element. The Russian leader’s grip on power rests not on institutions and processes but on the perception of strength.
For most of the past two decades, success has bred success. After the chaos of the Yeltsin years Putin rode the oil and gas boom to the semblance of prosperity and stability, bringing the oligarchs to heel and re-establishing Russia’s status as a great power. His physical fitness, punchy rhetoric and mental sharpness made him seem indispensable. Now the same process is running in reverse. Putin looks tired and old, a loser not a winner. In the mafia-like world of Kremlin politics, disrespect spells danger, weakness is corrosive.
To people whose wealth and safety depend on the continuation of the status quo, the man in the Kremlin increasingly looks like a liability, not an asset. His ability to act as an arbiter between Russia’s feuding clans is weakened too. As a result, calculations of risk and reward are shifting. Once you think the boss is on the way down, why take a chance on his behalf? Better to move quickly and ensure you are on the winning side.
Succession in Russia has been messy since the Romanov era. If he is lucky, Putin may follow Boris Yeltsin into dignified but powerless early retirement. Less fortunate would be an enforced departure, as experienced by Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. The reformist Soviet leader, toppled by hardliners, lived out his days under informal house arrest.
“If I were Putin I would be cautious about taking holidays,” says Keir Giles, a veteran Russia-watcher and author of the forthcoming book Russia’s War on Everybody, which highlights the aggression baked into the Kremlin’s attitude to the outside world. Putin’s inner circle, Giles says, will face the choice between “leaping for the lifeboat or clinging to the sinking ship”. It is easy for Putin to retreat to his palace in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast. But returning to Moscow is another story.
A change at the top of the regime would not change its approach: looting at home, masked by jingoism abroad. But it might make life easier for them in dealing with critics at home and abroad. Russia’s next leader, or leaders, could blame Putin for past mistakes — such as mismanaging the war in Ukraine — while maintaining the anti-western approach that chimes with now-ingrained attitudes among much of the Russian population. A change at the top might also allow a new regime to seek a ceasefire and a negotiated end to the war. With Putin gone, war-weary western countries might falter in their resolve and put pressure on Ukraine to make some territorial concessions.
When will all this happen? Western forecasts about Russian political developments are notoriously cloudy. As Giles notes: “Even people who have studied Russia for a lifetime can’t predict when it will come crashing down. But it will be blindingly obvious in retrospect.”