- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2023

No end in sight: One year into Vladimir's Putin war in Ukraine

Second of three parts

The West hoped its heavy military backing for Kyiv, the force of world opinion and the economic pressure campaign on Moscow would be enough to halt the war in Ukraine, but arguably the most critical forces confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin are much closer to home.

Prominent right-wing Russian nationalists, many of them early cheerleaders for the invasion, have become harshly critical of their military’s performance. Their influence and public profiles have risen over the past year to a point where they appear poised to shape Russia’s future and, if necessary, might have the ammunition needed to push Mr. Putin out of power.

A palace coup in Moscow, once seen as a theoretical path toward ending the war, now could bring about the opposite. Indeed, a Putin ouster this year could result in an even more ruthless, militaristic leader — perhaps someone willing to drag Russia into a full-blown war with NATO or even unleash the country’s nuclear stockpile.

Not all analysts agree with that bleak assessment, but it has become clear that right-wing forces inside Russia occupy a unique, unprecedented place in the relatively short post-Soviet political history. They are Mr. Putin’s strongest public supporters and fiercely support the war, but they have become the most vicious critics of how Russia has prosecuted the conflict on the ground and of a leadership structure that they view as incompetent.

SEE ALSO: Part One: Chaos wrought by Russia in Ukraine reveals chilling reality: How far will Putin go?

Blunt criticism of the war has also become common on Telegram and other social media platforms, suggesting a deep undercurrent of frustration within Russian society. A community of critical Russian bloggers first brought to light many of the army’s biggest blunders in the war.

The criticism has put the Russian president in a fragile, perhaps vulnerable position. From the standpoint of sheer political survival, cutting his losses in Ukraine simply isn’t an option.

“It’s a trap for Putin. Because with these groups of people, you have to be a winner,” exiled Russian journalist Mikhail Rubin said. “These people support him, and he depends on them. … They can be only with the president as a winner, not with the president as a loser.

“He cannot disappoint his new supporters,” Mr. Rubin told The Washington Times.

Alex Younger, who headed the British MI6 intelligence service from 2014 to 2020, told the BBC in October that the Russian leader is in a precarious position.

“He’s in danger of being outflanked by the very political constituency he created,” he said. “The chauvinistic, nationalistic, arguably fascistic right wing that was his support base is now castigating him for not going far and hard enough.”

SEE ALSO: Putin blames the U.S. and its Western allies for the war in Ukraine

Mr. Putin appears unyielding and unapologetic on the eve of the war’s anniversary. He portrayed Ukraine and its Western allies as the aggressors in his much-delayed State of the Nation address Tuesday to an audience of Russian lawmakers, state officials and military veterans.

“Western elites aren’t trying to conceal their goals, to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ to Russia,” Mr. Putin said in a grievance-filled address carried on all of Russia’s state TV channels. “They intend to transform the local conflict into a global confrontation.

“It’s they who have started the war. And we are using force to end it,” Mr. Putin said.

Within those right-wing circles, foreign policy analysts and Russian political watchers say, Mr. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and bring it back into Moscow’s orbit was not only correct but also necessary for the nation’s long-term survival.

Ultranationalist Russian intellectual Alexander Dugin, sometimes referred to as “Putin’s brain,” has framed the conflict in the most existential of terms.

“There are two possibilities. First, it will end when we win …,” he said in a December interview with the Indian news outlet TV9 Bharatvarsh. “And the second possibility is that this fight will end with the end of the world. Either we win, or the world will be destroyed.”

High-stakes power struggle

With the stakes so high, Mr. Putin is in a position where defeat in Ukraine is unacceptable lest his nearly 2½-decade grip on power come to an unceremonious end.

Depending on how the war plays out this year, analysts say, right-wing leaders could use the campaign for the Russian presidential election in March 2024 as an opportunity to paint Mr. Putin as the core reason for the country’s battlefield failures.

Kremlin watchers fear that Mr. Putin will push Russia deeper into a brutal, bloody war no matter the human or financial consequences, especially if political pressure from his right flank reaches a fever pitch over the next 12 months.

“This war appears to be a very important project, personally, for Putin. It feels to me like it’s some sort of saving-face issue. He really risks losing face, so he’s doubling down as long as his resources allow,” said Maria Snegovaya, a senior fellow with the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The often-unpredictable Mr. Putin has tied his political fortunes to Russian hard-liners who have spent years pushing for this kind of aggressive militarism. The Russian president’s speeches justifying the war have echoed the heated rhetoric of his right-wing critics.

“We are again and again being forced to resist the aggression of the collective West,” Mr. Putin said in a speech this month marking the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in the Battle of Stalingrad. “The legacy of generations, values and traditions — this is all what makes Russia different, what makes us strong and confident in ourselves, in our righteousness and in our victory.”

It’s not clear whether Mr. Putin can rely on the loyalty of even his closest associates.

Russian insiders point to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the ruthless mercenary Wagner Group, as an indispensable Putin ally and perhaps the most direct threat to his power. Having played a central role in Russia’s military campaign in Syria and with his hired-gun soldiers now active in Ukraine, Mr. Prigozhin is seen as an important pro-war voice in Russian society.

Mr. Prigozhin’s outspoken criticism of the Russian military’s battle plan has led to a major rift with the Kremlin.

Earlier this month, Mr. Prigozhin sat down for an interview with Kremlin-affiliated Russian military blogger Semyon Pegov, also known by the online alias WarGonzo. Western war analysts say the Kremlin appears to have arranged the “ambush” interview as a way to discredit Mr. Prigozhin and chip away at his influence.

“The WarGonzo interview itself was likely a Kremlin ambush of Prigozhin aimed at calling public attention to Wagner controversies. Prigozhin likely saw this interview as an opportunity to elevate his name but instead found himself on the defensive throughout,” Kateryna Stepanenko, a researcher with the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War, wrote in a series of Twitter posts analyzing the interview.

“Prigozhin falsely denied ever criticizing the Russian conventional military & inaccurately presented his critiques as similar to the commonly expressed frustrations among Russian milbloggers,” she wrote. “Prigozhin also denied having political aspirations.”

The unfolding Putin-Prigozhin drama is just one example of the finger-pointing and undercutting that has gripped Russian politics.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the grizzled Chechen war veteran who now serves as the head of the Chechen Republic, has offered his own thinly veiled criticism. He said Russian forces are capable of accomplishing much more in Ukraine — if given competent commanders and clear marching orders.

“We have a force capable of reaching and taking Kyiv,” he said recently, according to English-language media translations of his comments. “Today, if there is an order from the supreme commander in chief, our units of the Ministry of Defense, the national guard, the police, it doesn’t matter, even non-departmental, all units, every single one of them, are ready. And then — as the president decides.”

Igor Girkin, a popular Russian military blogger who played a key role in Moscow’s forced annexation of Crimea in 2014, blasted Russian leadership in December after a series of Ukrainian airstrikes inside Russian territory. It was a massive symbolic blow that undermined Russia’s supposed status as one of the world’s top powers.

The “fish’s head is completely rotten,” Mr. Girkin, a former officer with Russia’s Federal Security Service, said in a video released on his Telegram channel.

The criticism has also come from the rank and file. In November, The Grayzone, a Russian military blog, published a letter supposedly written by members of the Russian Pacific Fleet’s 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade who blasted military commanders after a disastrous attack on Ukrainian positions in the Donetsk province.

“As a result of the ‘carefully’ planned offensive by the ‘great generals,’ we lost about 300 people killed, wounded and missing in the course of four days. [And] half of our equipment,” the Russian troops wrote, according to English-language media accounts.

A wartime president

The criticism of the Russian war machine has been remarkably blunt, but much of it has focused on the military in a general sense or on embattled Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Rarely has Mr. Putin been targeted by name.

Should prominent right-wing figures fully turn on the Russian president ahead of the March 2024 election, it could mark a turning point in the war and a dangerous moment for the planet because Mr. Putin could take desperate measures to retain his credibility.

Those fears are grounded in Mr. Putin’s veiled threats of his willingness to use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine. Although Western intelligence officials maintain they have seen no evidence that Moscow is willing to go that far, a major shift in Mr. Putin’s political fortunes may alter the calculus.

With Russian forces having failed to capture any major Ukrainian city and struggling to hold territory they effectively controlled before the war, Mr. Putin is under increasing strain to show that his gamble has paid off.

“In 2024, next February, he will be conducting [an] election campaign. By that time, he needs to show success in Ukraine both to the people and the hawks in his entourage. That’s a very important starting point for him,” said Mr. Rubin, the exiled Russian journalist.

“That’s the point where these people, the right wing, will have a possibility, in my mind, to put strong, strong pressure on him. That’s the critical point. That’s the point where he’s really vulnerable,” he said. “I’m afraid of this time. If he’s afraid he cannot show results, what would he do? A nuclear attack? I strongly believe not. But for the right wing, it would be their time.”

Some analysts caution against counting out Mr. Putin too early. The longtime Russian leader has shown a remarkable ability to stay a step ahead of the forces moving against him — evidenced perhaps by the Kremlin’s apparent effort to marginalize Mr. Prigozhin just as he was beginning to emerge as a possible threat.

“Putin has traditionally shown himself to be masterful at managing all these power structures and competing factions in Russia,” said Dr. Kenneth Dekleva, a former State Department regional medical officer/psychiatrist who served for five years in Moscow and is currently a senior fellow with the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations.

Dr. Dekleva pointed to some polls that show a large number of Russians agreeing with Mr. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and the rationale behind it.

Still, some estimates say as many as 1 million Russians have left the country since the start of the war. That suggests the war remains deeply unpopular, at least in some circles of society. Other surveys suggest the same.

In December, the Latvia-based news outlet Meduza claimed to have seen internal Kremlin data showing that just 25% of Russians supported continuing the war and 55% wanted peace talks with Ukraine.

For regional officials, a new government in Moscow may make little difference, especially given the increasing likelihood that such a government might ramp up the war in Ukraine, not end it.

“It doesn’t really matter whether it’s going to go worse or better. It is worse than worse enough or bad enough now,” Estonian Defense Secretary Kusti Salm said during a recent visit to Washington.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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