LONDON — Russian President Vladimir Putin has a problem.
For more than two decades, Putin’s growing grip on power has been based on his portrayed strength and justified as essential to Russia’s existence. In time, as the political opposition and independent media were gradually wiped out, Kremlin propagandists harbored a sense of inevitability that underpinned its continued stewardship.
“Russian society, like the Russian military, is in decline and falling apart through corruption.”
RUSSIAN SOLIDER PAVEL FILATYEV said:
From the outset, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been presented to the Russian public — and the country’s political elite — in very similar terms: this war was necessary to secure Russia’s future existence, it was well planned and executed, and he will be won. And with near complete control of the information space at home, there has been very little chance of these stories being challenged.
That has all changed in the past week.
Ukraine has launched a double counter-offensive to retake the Russian-occupied territories – achieving success that seemed to stun outside observers as well as the Kremlin.
The scale of the misadventures of the Russian military and political leaders in Ukraine have become too great for even the state media and pro-war activists to ignore.
“The special military operation has completely failed,” Igor Girkin, who rose to prominence as one of the key leaders of the first Russian effort in eastern Ukraine in 2014, said in a video this week. “Since March we have had a full-fledged war. But so far the Russian authorities, the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff have behaved as if there is no war.”
Last week, he declared the war “already lost” and warned his audience of nearly half a million viewers that the war would continue until Russia’s total defeat.
Girkin himself is a controversial figure among the fringe but increasingly vocal group of right-wing pro-war bloggers and activists who have thrived on Telegram’s messaging service since the war began. Their positions traditionally parallel official state media coverage, but are not firmly under the Kremlin’s control. As Russian troops withdraw, they increasingly accuse the leadership of betraying the troops.
“The Kremlin is concerned about this sense of panic,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The pro-war activists are seen as allies, they are part of the broad pro-Putin consensus in Russia, the disagreement is only about tactics. So the Kremlin actually has limited resources to deal with this camp. They cannot turn against them and oppress them in the same way as the liberal opposition.”
Even soldiers who fought in what the Kremlin calls its “special operation” are returning home, refusing to go back to the front and disputing the official story of the war. As Ukraine retakes territory, videos appear online showing massive amounts of equipment left behind by retreating Russian soldiers.
While television has told the public that they fought a good, clean war, soldiers tell their friends, families and fellow citizens stories of a chaotic, unclear and arduous operation.
“Russian society, like the Russian military, is decaying and falling apart because of corruption,” Pavel Filatyev, a Russian soldier who has published a scathing memoir about the first two months of the war, told NBC News. “So the Russian military often doesn’t act carefully, they act unprofessionally and a lot of mistakes are made.”
He fled Russia last month after publishing his 141-page report of the war on the Russian social media network VKontakte. NBC News interviewed him in Paris, where he is now seeking asylum. He said he was stationed in Crimea for exercises before the start of the war on February 24 and that his unit had been sent to the southern region of Kherson without sufficient supplies and ammunition.
“Everyone steals as much as possible at every level,” Filatyev said when asked about the reason for the shortage of equipment. “On paper, everything is great. Our soldiers must be well fed and happy. But in practice, somewhere along the line, the extra food was stolen and sold, the same with boots and even body armor.”
His account of the war paints a picture of an army left in the dark about Putin’s intentions before the war began, and underarmed and mismanaged after troops were sent to Ukraine. Ultimately, according to Filatyev, the blame lies solely with Putin.
“If you go to Avito and type in bulletproof vests, where do you think they come from?” he said, referring to a Craigslist-style service in Russia. “Soldiers steal and sell them. Obviously, higher-ranked people can sell more, such as ammunition. And at the top, it’s clear that the corruption is through the roof… because Putin just doesn’t seem to be ruling the nation effectively.”
Reports like Filajev’s cast doubt on the Kremlin’s ability to do one thing that many in Russia now seem to agree is necessary to win the war: mobilize in one form or another.
In recent days, this sentiment has begun to spill over from fringe radical Telegram channels to official sanctioned discourse on Russian television. A notable incident occurred on a Sunday talk show in which guests openly criticized the war and its objectives, with some panelists claiming that Russia will now lose the war unless Putin calls for a full mobilization of the Russian military, which consists of a mix of paid soldiers and conscripts.
But the Kremlin understands that this would be an unpopular decision with the pacified and apathetic Russian public.
It said this week that there has been no mobilization yet and openly warned those perceived as patriotic dissenters to cross the border.
“Critical views can be considered pluralism as long as they remain within the bounds of the law,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday in response to questions about growing public criticism of the course of the war. “But the line is very, very thin. You have to be careful here.”
A private mercenary group that Western military analysts say fought on behalf of the Kremlin in Ukraine appears to play a more central role, even recruiting prisoners to join the war in exchange for their release. NBC News has contacted the Kremlin for comment on the matter.
The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, meanwhile, called for regional governors across the country to begin some sort of regional mobilization — an apparent attempt to spare the Kremlin the political troubles of a large and loud general mobilization.
Radical right-wing bloggers calling on Putin to take off the gloves in Ukraine pose no direct threat to the regime, Stanovaya said. But their presence in the discourse sends a message to the political elite who support Putin, undermining their trust in the leader as the only figure capable of providing stability – the currency of post-Soviet Russian politics, she says. .
“Putin’s biggest threat is himself,” she said. “The problem is his leadership. The Russian elite are used to seeing Putin as a strong man, someone who takes on challenges and always knows where he is going in the country. Now he seems hesitant, he is not convincing at all and he is unclear about Russia’s goals and plans,” she added. “How is Russia going to win this war?”
It’s a question more people ask in Moscow.