Russian President Vladimir Putin has a problem.
For more than two decades now, Putin’s expanding grip on power has been predicated on his portrayed strength and justified as essential to Russia’s existence. Over time, as the political opposition and the independent media were gradually whittled away, Kremlin propagandists fostered a sense of inevitability underpinning his continued stewardship.
“Russian society, just as the Russian army, is decaying and falling apart because of corruption.”
From the start, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been presented to the Russian public — and the country’s political elite — in very similar terms: This war was necessary to secure Russia’s future existence, it was well-planned and executed, and it will be won. And with near-total control over the information space at home, there has been very little chance for these narratives to be challenged.
All of that has changed over the past week.
Ukraine has conducted twin counteroffensives to retake territories occupied by Russia — and achieved success that appeared to stun outside observers as well as the Kremlin.
The scale of the Russian military’s and political leadership’s setbacks in Ukraine have become too vast for even state media and pro-war activists to ignore.
“The special military operation has completely failed,” Igor Girkin, who gained notoriety as one of the main leaders of Russia’s initial efforts in eastern Ukraine back in 2014, said in a video this week. “Since March, we have had a full-fledged war. But until now, Russian authorities, the defense ministry, and general staff have behaved as if there’s no war.”
Last week, he declared the war “already lost,” and warned his audience of nearly half a million viewers that the war would continue until Russia’s total defeat.
Girkin is himself a controversial figure among the marginal but increasingly vocal group of right-wing pro-war bloggers and activists who have thrived on the Telegram messaging service since the start of the war. Their views have traditionally run parallel to official state media messaging but are not firmly under the Kremlin’s control. With Russian forces on the retreat, more and more they are accusing the leadership of betraying the troops.
“The Kremlin is worried about this panic sentiment,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The pro-war activists are seen as allies, they are part of the broad pro-Putin consensus in Russia, the disagreement is just about tactics. So, the Kremlin actually has limited means to deal with this camp. They can’t turn against them and suppress them the same way they did the liberal opposition.” [Continue reading…]