Vladimir Putin

Anger Over Russia’s Battlefield Defeats Bursts Into The Open, Posing A Challenge For Putin

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For weeks now, on the uncensored Telegram channels of hard-line nationalists and Russian military bloggers, there’s been a litany of angry criticism of Russia’s military commanders amid a stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region and elsewhere resulting in substantial Russian losses.

Now with the Ukrainians’ weekend victory in Lyman, a Donetsk region city and strategic rail hub southeast of Kharkiv, that criticism is bursting into wider public view, hitting the front pages of some of Russia’s biggest newspapers.

That’s a serious problem for Russia’s military brass — and potentially for the Kremlin.

“I wouldn’t predict a palace coup imminently. If there were one, we’d almost be the last ones to know about it, these things happen pretty swiftly when they do,” said James Nixey, who heads the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Chatham House think tank in London. “But obviously, there is increasing discontent in the upper Russian echelons about the course of the war, and that is being manifested in various ways, people can’t hold it in.”

“The problem is Putin’s grip in all sorts of ways is too strong for people to mobilize and consolidate and form an alliance, to move against him,” he told RFE/RL. “I personally think…the Russian elite has never been as at risk of collapse quite frankly than it is now.”

Over the 23 years Putin has been in power, Russia’s once freewheeling media has been squeezed into submission. After the February 24 invasion, he signed legislation that in many cases criminalizes independent reporting on the war, as well as criticism and dissent, by outlawing “discrediting the armed forces.”

That dovetailed with the closure of some of the country’s best-known independent outlets, like the Ekho Moskvy radio station and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Even Internet resources and social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and VK have been censored or brought to heel.

The messaging app Telegram, however, has remained uncensored by Russian regulators. The result has been a flood of information, criticism, and discussion, including about how badly the war is going for Russian forces.

And pro-Russian military bloggers have taken full advantage.

‘Send All These Bastards…Barefoot To The Front’

Inside Russia, discussions of the military’s early setbacks in Ukraine have been muted. Even after Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv in the early weeks of the invasion, thwarted by Ukrainian defenses, Russian commanders and bloggers characterized the withdrawal and shifting of forces to the Donbas — the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — as merely a tactical decision.

The Kremlin shuffled several top officers, reorganized the command structure, and even sacked several commanders.

Prior to Putin’s September 21 announcement of a “partial” mobilization, Igor Girkin, a notorious former intelligence officer who played an instrumental role when war first erupted in the Donbas in 2014, had been an outspoken critic of the Russian military for weeks, and had also spent weeks calling for Putin to order a full mobilization.

On October 2, a day after the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the withdrawal from Lyman, Girkin posted a photograph of General Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Armed Forces’ General Staff — and lambasted him. He also ripped into the top commander of the Central Military District, Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, and even Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Girkin has repeatedly derided as a “plywood marshal.”

Russian ex-intelligence officer Igor Girkin (file photo) Russia's Battlefield
Russian ex-intelligence officer Igor Girkin (file photo)

“This comrade should be celebrated for all of our victories in the current special military operation,” Girkin wrote sarcastically, referring to Gerasimov.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman head of Chechnya, has been even more outspoken in his criticism of the military brass. On October 1, he accused Lapin of failing to provide adequate communications and supplies. He also proposed taking more drastic measures, including using a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine.

His criticism was echoed directly by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman who is known for his close ties to the Kremlin and for owning the notorious private military company Vagner.

“Kadyrov’s expressive statement, of course, is not at all in my style,” Prigozhin was quoted as saying by his catering company Concord. “But I can say…. Send all those bastards barefoot, with machine guns, to the front.”

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On October 2, the tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose coverage has been reliably supportive of the Putin government and the war in Ukraine, published a frank article by its main war correspondent chronicling the defeat of Russian troops and the “typical reasons for what happened.”

“They were talked about after the retreat from the Kharkiv region: The shortage of forces, the errors of individual military officials in organizing defense,” the reporter wrote, also citing soldiers who refused to fight as one of the problems.

“And reserves that arrived late, and the lack of coordination between various units on the ground, and the lack of modern reconnaissance equipment,” he went on.

“The risk of encirclement or shameful captivity became too great, and the Russian command made a decision to fall back,” he wrote.

Under a headline reading “The Surrender of Lyman Has Become A Political Problem,” the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta published a column on October 2 that said “for the first time since the start of the special military operation, army commanders are openly named in comments, allegedly guilty of problems arising at the front.”

The paper also quoted an incredulous Andrei Gurulyov, a former general and commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army who is now a lawmaker in the the lower house of parliament.

“I don’t understand why they didn’t correctly assess the situation all the time, didn’t strengthen the group,” he was quoted as saying. “The problem is a basic lie, a report of a good situation…. The whole problem is not on the ground, but [at the Defense Ministry], where they still do not understand, they still do not own the situation.”

“Until something else entirely emerges in the General Staff, nothing will change,” he said, according to the paper.

Even on the country’s main state TV channels, which serve as the primary source of news for the vast majority of Russians, the tone in recent days has grown more sober. The main evening broadcasts on October 2 avoided explicit mention of the Lyman defeat and withdrawal.

Russian state media presenter Dmitry Kiselyov (file photo)
Russian state media presenter Dmitry Kiselyov (file photo)

On Rossia-1, which is watched by millions of viewers, the bombastic host of the flagship Sunday evening show, Dmitry Kiselyov, spoke of a “difficult” situation in the Donbas.

And on an evening talk show on Rossia-1 whose shouting debates have long been reliably supportive of the Kremlin and scathingly critical of the West, Vladimir Solovyov, an acerbic pro-Kremlin TV host, warned that even as mobilization continues, Russians shouldn’t expect good news in the short term.

“This means that for a certain period of time, things won’t be easy for us. And right now we shouldn’t be expecting good news,” Solovyov said. “We need ‘long will’ and strategic patience.”

In Ukraine, officials have gleefully noted the recriminations now bubbling to the surface. In a video posted on October 1, President Volodymyr Zelensky himself highlighted the backbiting: “By the way, they have already begun to bite each other there: they are looking for the guilty, blaming some generals for the failures,” he said.

A Russian Admission Of Defeat Or Concession ‘Is Not In The Cards’

The Russian defeat at Lyman, and the strident criticism, contrasted with the triumphant production that the Kremlin staged the day before Lyman fell, when Putin hosted an elaborate ceremony to proclaim the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, including the one where Lyman is located.

“The main takeaway [of the speech] is that Putin isn’t going to stop, no matter the costs. The speech was incoherent and scattered, suggesting that there is no clear strategy,” said Margarita Zavadskaya, a political scientist at the Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Helsinki. “The Russian regime is manifesting its personalist nature and a sheer lack of any constraints.”

The criticism also coincides with rising nervousness for many Russians about the conflict in Ukraine, particularly Putin’s abrupt call for the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of reservists and others to fight. That has led to a massive exodus of Russian men, and women, fleeing the country.

It has also led to a documented uptick in anxiety and alarm among Russians, according to multiple public opinion polls.

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The mobilization order, said Nixey, of Chatham House, suggests that Putin is completely isolated from the realities of how badly the Russian campaign in Ukraine is going.

“I don’t think it’s ignorance, the recent events of mobilization suggest that more accurate information is being fed into Vladimir Putin,” Nixey said. “He’s being told it’s not going too well, and so he’s making moves to shift the dial.”

“I do think the Kremlin is sensitive of the populace and is looking for ways to ensure that its compliance continues in a deteriorating situation, on the battlefield,” he said.

“The least likely option of all is any kind of Russian admittance of defeat or concession or even really going to the negotiating table. That is not in the cards at the moment,” he said. “A long, drawn-out war is preferable to the Kremlin than a short one, one in which there is no possibility to sell a victory.”

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