Last summer, in a chauvinist and historically revisionist screed, Putin telegraphed his intent to become an tsarist in-gatherer of the Slavic lands, stating incorrectly that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” Well, he certainly has treated both the same, with murderous contempt. The result of his imperialist folly could well be seeing a European capital burnt to the ground. What unintended consequence might that have for his regime? A strange thing happened on the way to this war. Those highly skeptical that Putin would ever pull the trigger given the obvious disastrous consequences have started murmuring this week about unimaginable scenarios of palace or military coups.
Small cracks in the edifice are now dimly discernible. Thousands of Russians have taken to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg and other cities to denounce the war, facing arrest, beatings or worse. Journalists and activists have signed an open letter to much the same effect. Even the imprisoned leader of Russia’s hollowed-out opposition, Alexey Navalny, a man for years the Kremlin has tried to paint as a terrifying ubernationalist in a fine twist of Freudian projection, has tweeted his disgust from confinement in a labor camp, noting that this campaign is a distraction from Russia’s rot within. “Putin and his senile thieves,” Navalny wrote, are the true enemies of Russia, “and its main threat, not Ukraine and not the West.”
Perhaps even more significant are reports that Russian diplomats have begun messaging journalists to relay how distraught they are by having to mouth flagrant falsehoods. Others appear on television interviews looking uneasy and anxious and certainly acting as if they don’t believe a word of what they’re saying (or in some cases, reading). Might there be similar wobbliness within the Russian military and special services?
According to the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a Russian NGO, a good number of servicemen were deceived into fighting; some were beaten if they objected. “We’ve had a flurry of calls from scared mothers all over Russia,” the deputy chairman of the Committee told a Russian news outlet. “They are crying, they don’t know if their children are alive or healthy.” Ukrainians captured an entire platoon of the reconnaissance unit of Russia’s 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade in the city of Chernihiv. Their commander suggested his forces had been duped. “‘Nobody thought that we were going to kill,” he said. “We were not going to fight—we were collecting information.” On Telegram, another captured Russian is shown ringing his mother back home on an iPhone. She seems surprised to discover her son is in Ukraine—as does he. He tells her he was only following orders and when she asks why he got caught, he answers, “Mom, I don’t know the territory.”
Burton Gerber, a former CIA Soviet section chief who revolutionized asset recruitment in the Warsaw Pact and U.S.S.R. zones, told me this week he thinks Putin’s Russia is an even more auspicious hunting ground for Western spies because, as he put it rather euphemistically, “a society that has loosened for a certain extent and then doesn’t progress in that loosening creates more disappointment.” So maybe that’s how America knew Russia’s detailed war plans more or less as they were being drafted. A leaky ship eventually sinks. And Putin, a former KGB case officer, is no stranger to the self-cannibalizing paranoia of counterintelligence, especially if he feels his services have sold him a bill of goods about “cakewalks.” [Continue reading…]