Dysfunction and self-deception stalk Kremlin but who will stand up to Putin?

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Earlier this week, Russia’s defence ministry acknowledged that young conscripts had been sent into battle and some taken prisoner.

The admission, notable in itself given Russia’s careful attempts to control the narrative about the war, came just a day after President Vladimir Putin assured his nation in a video address that conscripts “are not participating and will not participate” in the conflict. The backtracking prompted some to question whether the Russian leader lied in his statement or was simply provided inaccurate information.

“This incident reveals some of the unrealistic expectations Putin had when starting this military operation,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik.

“It looks likely that Putin genuinely thought Russia would be able to take Ukraine by storm and instructed his military not to use conscripts. But this is just one of the many aspects that have turned out differently in reality.”

Two weeks into the war, it has become evident that the Russian army has failed in its initial plan to quickly seize major cities – including the capital, Kyiv, and Kharkiv in north-eastern Ukraine. The attack on Odesa, a crucial port city in the south, has also stalled, and Russian land advances have been thwarted repeatedly.

More than a week ago, Russia admitted that almost 500 of its soldiers had been killed, a figure that has not since been updated, while US officials estimate that between 5,000 and 6,000 Russian troops have died.

“The current problems should be traced back to the inception of this war, which was conducted in high secrecy to avoid any leaks,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The Kremlin’s disastrous move to invade was rooted in giant lapses of expertise about Ukraine,” said Gabuev, who added that officials close to Putin who helped plan the invasion sincerely believed that many Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers, and that the country’s leadership would offer little resistance.

“Only a very small group of generals were informed about the war, and they didn’t ask difficult questions that could help prepare for any scenarios other than a speedy Russian victory.

“The whole war planning was reduced to a clandestine operation developed by just a handful of people in uniform – and the president himself,” said Gabuev.

Reports from captured Russian soldiers, as well as leaked audio conversations between the Russian military, have indicated that much of the army was not informed of the invasion until the last moment.

Russia also appears to have underestimated how united the west would be in the face of the invasion.

“The Kremlin might have not anticipated just how toxic Russia would become in the eyes of the west,” said Maria Shagina, an international sanctions specialist at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Shagina said that while the Kremlin expected sanctions, it has probably been surprised by the speed and unity with which the west and major multinational corporations have cut ties with Russia.

Given the military and political setbacks, hints have emerged over the last few days that Putin may retract some of his initial far-reaching diplomatic demands, including his commitment to pushing through regime change in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has has increasingly surrounded himself with former KGB agents and old friends as the pandemic increased his isolation.
Vladimir Putin has has increasingly surrounded himself with former KGB agents and old friends as the pandemic increased his isolation. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Sputnik/EPA

On Monday, Putin’s trusted spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told Reuters that Russia was ready to halt military operations if Kyiv meets its list of conditions. Those terms would require Ukraine to cease military action, enshrine neutrality in its constitution, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory and recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The demands omitted to mention the “denazification” of the Ukrainian leadership, previously flagged by Putin as the main motivation for the invasion.

However, most analysts and western officials believe that an eventual Russian military victory remains the most realistic scenario given its overwhelming military power.

Despite the setbacks it has experienced, Russian forces have been regrouping north-west of the Ukrainian capital, in what western intelligence has said could be preparation for an assault on Kyiv. Russian forces have also surrounded the strategically important cities Kharkiv and Mariupol, which have come under increasingly intense bombardment.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, failed to make a breakthrough during ceasefire talks in the Turkish city of Antalya on Thursday, suggesting that Russia is not rushing to find a solution to the war.

And while some in the west have pinned their hopes on Russia’s business and political elites stopping the war, experts in Russia generally agree that the invasion has not yet affected Putin’s grip on power.

“Elites have been silenced. While many are opposed to this war, none are expected to speak out,” said Stanovaya.

There has been some quiet grumbling among some of the country’s richest citizens who have lost millions following western sanctions. Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch close to Putin, has raised alarm in a series of public posts about the war’s economic consequences for Russia.

But Deripaska and others have been careful to not criticise Putin directly.

Meanwhile, some senior officials also look to be taken aback by the invasion.

The Kremlin appears to have been surprised by the speed with which major multinational corporations have cut ties with Russia.
The Kremlin appears to have been surprised by the speed with which major multinational corporations have cut ties with Russia. Photograph: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

According to a report by the well-connected Russian journalist Farida Rustamova, “the mood in the corridors of power is not at all happy. Many are in a state of near-paralysis.”

On Thursday, the Kommersant business news outlet reported that the influential head of Russia’s central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, was considering resigning.

A source close to Nabiullina confirmed to the Guardian that the central bank head had considered leaving her post.

“Nabiullina has thought of resigning ever since the war started. But it would have direct consequences for her and her family,” the source said.

But even if the political and business elites did openly revolt, questions remain about what real power they have over Putin, who has increasingly surrounded himself with former KGB agents and old friends as the pandemic increased his isolation.

“The only people who could make a difference are those in uniform that command real soldiers like [minister of defence] Sergei Shoigu and [chief of the general staff of the armed forces] Valery Gerasimov,” said Gabuev.

“But those men were directly involved in the preparation for the invasion. While they might not be happy about the scale of the current conflict, they have too much to lose to do something at this stage. They are also implicated,” Gabuev added.

Pjotr Sauer

Source: Guardian

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