The sudden, successful Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kharkiv has been an unpleasant surprise for just about everyone in Russia — for the Kremlin, its propaganda machine, the Ministry of Defense and for millions of patriotically minded Russians. In a matter of just a few days, the Ukrainian flag has been raised over several towns and villages — and at least one major city — that had been held for months by the Russians. Television and social media showed footage of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military equipment, which the retreating army appeared to have abandoned in a hurry.
Bad battlefield news for Russia isn’t a new thing in this war; bad news that’s shared widely with ordinary Russians, with no filter, is certainly new. So is sharp criticism of the war.
And in the last few days, that’s what Russians have been seeing and hearing.
In a suddenly new information reality, the Kremlin is either unwilling or unable to hide the truth from its people. From day one, the conflict has been called a “special military operation” — by Russian President Vladimir Putin and everyone else in the Russian government and media; calling it vojna, or “war,” was made a crime early on. Now all kinds of people are saying vojna, and saying it openly. Many are saying that the vojna is not being waged well. And they are not buying the Kremlin’s explanations.
This weekend, when the Ministry of Defense described the rapid — and by many accounts chaotic — retreat from the Kharkiv region as a “planned and pre-organized regrouping of troops,” reactions ranged from amusement to outrage. Even the most stalwart supporters of Putin’s “special military operation” wanted a better answer.
“It seems that your American friends taught the Ukrainians how to fight, and [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu was not ready for this,” said Lesha, one of my childhood friends from Orel, in western Russia, speaking on condition of partial anonymity. A few months ago, Lesha told me he had no doubts about the justification for the invasion or the imminent victory of the Russian army. This weekend, he was writing to me on WhatsApp, angry and bitter about the mess in Kharkiv.
That’s a mild version of the sudden turn among Kremlin supporters. Many of the same people who have been cheerleading Putin’s plans for the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine are now calling the latest developments a “disaster” or “catastrophe.” Some are demanding a new “war council” or the sacking of Shoigu and others involved in the prosecution of the war.
And yes — now they are calling it a war. Vojna.
No one is calling out Putin by name. But the reaction of some of the loudest and most patriotic Russians to the recent Ukrainian successes testifies not only to a widespread shock and disappointment, but also to the awakening of new moods and forces that may influence the political landscape in Russia.
At a minimum, it’s a sea change that few saw coming.
Partying — while the soldiers ran
On Saturday, the day that Russian troops fled Izyum, Balakleya and Kupyansk ahead of the Ukrainian advance, Moscow celebrated City Day, a long-standing holiday marking the anniversary of the foundation of Moscow, commemorated each year on the first or the second Saturday of September. The mismatch of tone and mood was stark; fireworks, dancing and drinking in Red Square, and retreat and humiliation some 500 miles to the south.
Putin was there, along with Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, to mark the occasion and open the “Sun of Moscow” — the new, largest Ferris wheel in Europe. The much-vaunted attraction broke down several times on its opening day and was temporarily shut down on Sunday.
Perhaps it was an omen.
Whatever the case, the contrast didn’t go over well. Sergey Mironov, the leader of a pro-Putin party in parliament, took to Twitter to blast the organizers. “It cannot be and it should not be that our guys are dying today, and we are pretending that nothing is happening!”
A letter distributed by the Telegram channel Ostorozhno Novosti (literally, “Careful News”) demanded that Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor and among Putin’s closest allies, be dismissed, and that the “generals be sent to the trenches.”
The letter writers — who identified themselves only as “Russian hackers” — went on: “We consider it absolutely inappropriate and unacceptable that while our guys are dying at the front, the rotten liberal intelligentsia is firing salutes and indulging in idleness in the capital of our country. We demand from the military and political leadership to punish those responsible for the death of our guys.”
When “dissent” means support for a harsher war
For more than six months, ever since the first Russian forces invaded Ukraine, it has been considered treasonous to publicly criticize the Kremlin or the military. In the early days, the Kremlin issued decrees that made it a crime to condemn the war, or to question Putin or the war effort generally. Again — it was a crime even to call it a war.
Now the criticism is coming — as fast and as furiously as the Ukrainian advance.
Many in the West may equate dissent in Russia with the notion that the war is wrong or unjust, or that it has been prosecuted too harshly. Dissent, in this sense, means the likes of the anti-Putin figure Alexei Navalny and other pro-democratic politicians who are now either in prison or have been forced to emigrate. But there is another dissent, another opposition: those who believe wholeheartedly in the war, but who now feel Putin has not been decisive or tough enough. They categorically oppose any peace negotiations with Kyiv and demand both a harsher war against Ukraine and what they call a “real war” with the West.
These are the current voices of dissent — and after the first serious, ground-shifting defeats of the Russian army, their voices are sounding loudly and regularly for the first time. It’s a chorus of people who only a few days ago were considered Putin’s associates or his most forceful mouthpieces on Russian media.
“Because of some mistakes unknown to us, control over political processes is being lost,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, said on social media. “I guarantee you that this confusion will not last long. But right now, it’s a mess.”
On one of Russian state television’s most popular weekly programs, anchor Dmitry Kiselyov described the last week as “probably one of the most difficult,” and said Russians and their allies in the east had been forced to retreat “under the onslaught of superior enemy forces.” That, for Kiselyov, was an unprecedented acknowledgment of Russian failing.
On another Sunday template of Russian TV, host Vladimir Solovyov blasted the Russian military effort — without naming names. “It seems it’s time to get rough,” Solovyov said. “It’s just time to get rough.”
What they mean by “getting rough”
On Sunday, I checked the Telegram channel of Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian writer, politician and founder of the nationalist party A Just Russia — Patriots For Truth. Prilepin has been a preacher of the idea of a “Russian world” and a regular backer of Putin’s war on Ukraine.
Above all, he has been a Kremlin cheerleader. But here was Prilepin’s Telegram channel this weekend:
“The events in the Kharkiv region can rightly be called a catastrophe. … Now even the blind and deaf must see the truth that the ‘special operation’ has ended long ago. The war has begun.”
In other words, a special operation will no longer suffice. War is needed. With all that entails.
Prilepin is a longtime evangelist for the concept of a Russian world, the idea championed by ultranationalist Alexander Dugin, whose daughter Daria was killed in Moscow two weeks ago. Prilepin personally participated in the fighting in the Donbas and believes that “the whole of Ukraine should become part of Russia.” On Saturday, his Telegram channel included the following clear definition of what he and others believe has gone wrong, and what war — vojna — must entail:
“Now everyone is wondering how this could have happened. The answer is, in principle, banal — catastrophic incompetence, the desire to hide the real state of affairs, ignoring the growing threats. Events were brewing for months, before the eyes of the whole country, when the situation was going downhill. A change of approach to the war in Ukraine is needed. Mobilization and militarization of the economy and industry. Creation of a political center for managing the country and the war.”
That latter phrase is something entirely new — “a political center for managing the country and the war.” One wonders what Putin thinks when he sees such messages from people he has counted as strong supporters (assuming he does see them; he’s not a big fan of social media).
But there’s no avoiding the critics now. In the past few days, thousands of similar messages have flooded “patriotic” Telegram channels. Call it the “make Russia great again” constituency — a huge group of Russians that has swallowed Putin’s rationale for the invasion and in many cases the idea of a Russian world, and a group that cannot fathom what’s happening now.
Their basic question: How can the military of Ukraine — a vassal state of Russia, in this thinking — run roughshod over Russian soldiers, the forces of the second-largest army on earth?
In a sense, theirs are the voices of a monster created by the Kremlin’s own propagandists, who have spread the gospel of Russian superiority with relentless fervor and hammered home the message that Ukraine had to be tamed, “denazified” or destroyed. Now these people are demanding — with the same fervor — the punishment of Russian generals who have surrendered their positions. And they are calling for a total and totally unforgiving war.
It’s impossible to know the size of this monster, but this much is clear: These days in Russia, their voices are heard far louder and more frequently than the voices calling for peace. And while a protest in the name of peace still invites arrest and jail terms, the police are not coming for the “total war” crowd — even as they lambaste the commanders, and the Kremlin itself, for their failings.
Silence in the Kremlin
Putin has yet to answer these critics or to say anything specific about the Kharkiv rout. And so for the first time in nearly seven months of war, I observe on the one hand, Putin’s silence, and on the other, a sharp activation of the hawks who tell Putin in plain language what to do. Mostly, they are telling him to punish people who until recently only the president had the right to criticize publicly, and telling him to do whatever is need to vanquish the Ukrainians once and for all.
Only last week, Putin told the world that Russia had “lost nothing” in the war to date. The lightning Ukrainian advance undercuts that message and many others, and every day of silence plays against him and into the hands of these radical patriots.
I have no doubt that in Russia, including in Putin’s entourage, there are people who are waiting for something else — negotiations and an early conclusion of a peace with Ukraine. As someone who has worked as a political observer in Russia for a long time, I know some of the proponents of peace personally. The problem is that, unlike the “patriots,” they remain silent.
For Putin personally, there is a more serious problem: His popularity is now fading among both the “patriots” who want a harsher war and those in the silent peace camp. Unless his forces can manage an equally stunning reversal of fortune on the battlefield — and that looks highly unlikely — he will inevitably have to take decisive action and make a choice as to whether to step back or strike harder. And if the latter, how exactly to do so.
I will not make predictions; I will note only that he is in a situation that he himself has described before: the position of a cornered rat. In a series of interviews published two decades ago, Putin described time spent in a drab communal apartment in St. Petersburg.
“I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered,’” Putin wrote. “There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me.”
The young Putin got away unscathed. Today, in the wake of recent news from the front lines and the withering criticism at home, it is not far-fetched to think that Putin may soon find himself in precisely such a position. Cornered, but armed with much more than a stick, as he contemplates his next move.
Tamara Ivanova contributed reporting. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.