War’s unpopularity inside Russia puts Putin in trouble; read the review

After a surprising counteroffensive in which Ukrainian forces retook more than 2,500 km² of territory, the Russia is restless. Political talk shows in the country, normally so fawning, have opened the door to more critical voices. Opponents of the war came forward: about 40 officials from municipal legislatures signed a petition calling for the president’s resignation. And formerly loyal figures have begun to complain about government failures. In a sign of widespread discontent, Alla Pugacheva, Russia’s most famous pop star in the 20th century openly criticized the war. Six months of consensus begin to crumble.

This consensus was not as strong as it might have seemed. While many Western observers tend to regard the Russian regime as monolithic, the reality is more complex. Although the war has significantly reduced the scope for dissent, there are still several competing ideological camps within the ruling elite capable of making their voices heard.

For example, so-called systemic liberals, mainly concentrated in state-owned financial institutions and among oligarchs, expressed concerns about the consequences of the war for the Russian economy. But this is just one of the groups that, emboldened by the Kremlin’s failure to win Ukraine’s victory, is putting increasing pressure on the regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in a televised address
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a televised address

Let’s call them the war party. Comprised of security agencies, the Ministry of Defense, and political and media figures who express positions publicly, it spans the entire radical nationalist milieu — and its members have built up an ongoing critique of the Kremlin’s handling of war in ukraine.

Powerful, well-positioned and ideologically committed, they want a much larger war effort. And judging by Putin’s speech on Wednesday — in which he announced the call-up of approximately 300,000 soldiersexpressed support for referendums in four occupied regions in Ukraine to deliberate on their integration with Russia and repeated the threat of nuclear escalation — it looks like they’ll get what they want.

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The war party has been quite noisy since April, when it became clear that the Russian army was incapable of conquering Kiev and overthrowing the government of Volodmyr Zelensky. Moscow’s most modest goal — to win the Donbas and gaining land access to the annexed Crimea—seemed an intolerable pullback.

During all this time, hardened Russians have benefited from an unexpectedly resonant platform: the numerous Telegram channels, some of which have up to 1 million followers, maintained by journalists linked to the Russian army. In a steady stream of commentary, these channels criticize the government’s indecision, call for a full-scale conquest of Ukraine and a mass mobilization of the Russian population.

Over the summer, the level of criticism was tolerable for the regime. But things started to change in August, when Daria Dugina, the daughter of one of Russia’s best-known imperialist ideologues, Alexander Dugin, was murdered in Moscow. The perpetrators and motives of the attack remain unknown. But its effects were clear. By taking the conflict to one of the capital’s most sophisticated neighborhoods, the assassination confirmed the war’s dim view of the war effort. Since Dugina’s death, the war party has used its “martyrdom” to renew calls for full-scale war in overtly eschatological tones.

The military retreat of recent weeks has played in their favor. The infamous Chechen head of state, Ramzan Kadyrov, called for “self-mobilization”, inviting regional elites to recruit at least 1,000 men in each region, bringing the contingent to 85,000 new troops. Communist Party leader Gennadi Ziuganov, another leading figure on the nationalist right, called for “maximum mobilization of forces and resources” and for the Kremlin to refer to the conflict as war rather than “special operation”. And Yevgeni Prigozhin, the de facto commander of the shadowy mercenary firm known as the Wagner Group, has been recruiting prisoners to send them to the front.

Billboard promoting military service with the image of a military man and the slogan "Serving Russia is a real job"in St. Petersburg
Billboard promoting military service with the image of a military man and the slogan “Serving Russia is a real job”, in Saint Petersburg

His criticisms were clearly heard. Putin, while not calling for a mass conscription, has given the war party a big boost with his “partial mobilization,” as he puts it, of 300,000 troops. Similarly, the plans for referendums in the occupied Ukrainian territories — donetsk and luhansk in the east; Kherson and zaporizhzhia in the south — are designed to redefine the terms of the conflict in ways befitting the positions espoused by the president’s bellicose critics. There are also signs that Putin may escalate the repression domestically, appealing even more to repressive mechanisms.

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The government, for example, is stepping up indoctrination of children in schools and has instituted new restrictions on allegedly harmful content in art. The security services, for their part, are fully focused on dissent, preventing and arresting opposition in all its forms. In universities, students and professors are increasingly pressured to sever connections with foreign interlocutors. Already extensive, these efforts could be pursued even more doggedly, catching many more Russians in the net.

Such an approach has its risks. Among citizens, interest in war and its consequent nationalism wanes. More intense repression and a bitter sense of the human costs of war as more Russians are drafted into the military could alienate them completely. Young, educated Russians are expected to leave the country in even greater numbers.

Nor is there any guarantee that hardliners in the ruling elite will accept repression at home as a substitute for military success abroad—or that the injection of soldiers will substantially alter battlefield dynamics. With an army overextended and exhausted, Putin has yet to deliver a military result that can be framed as at least a partial victory. It doesn’t help that the country’s biggest allies, China and India, have begun to express concerns.

Even in the midst of such difficulties, it would be a mistake to predict the collapse of the regime established two decades ago. But Putin, like any other leader, depends on legitimacy to secure his power. And in the weeks and months ahead, he may find that the earth beneath his feet has begun to shake. / TRANSLATION BY AUGUSTO CALIL

*Marlene Laruelle is director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University and author of, among other books, “Is Russia Fascist? Unraveling Propaganda East and West”

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