The Daily Telegraph
Pro-war Russians are turning on Vladimir Putin
The real threat to his rule may well come from the ultra-nationalists furious at the disastrous defeats
Any notion Vladimir Putin may have entertained that his “special military operation” to conquer Ukraine would bolster his regime by stoking nationalist fervour among the Russian people has been soundly demolished by the scale of the humiliating rout his forces have suffered.
Putin’s ultimate motivation when he invaded Ukraine back in February was to fulfil his desire to restore Mother Russia to her former imperial glory. By claiming the invasion would rid the country of the “Nazis” who threatened the wellbeing of Ukraine’s pro-russian minority, he deliberately sought to draw a direct comparison with Russia’s Great Patriotic War against Germany.
“You are fighting for the motherland, for her future, and so that nobody forgets the lessons of the Second World War,” he said in May at the annual Red Square military parade in Moscow. “There is no place in the world for executioners, killing squads and Nazis.”
Unsurprisingly, Putin’s blatant nationalist approach initially played well with the legions of hawks who share his rage at Russia’s diminished status following the Soviet Union’s collapse, and yearn for the days when the Kremlin could strike fear into the hearts of its enemies.
These ultra-nationalist groups have been at the vanguard of Putin’s drive to reassert Russian hegemony over Ukraine, as well as many other former Soviet-controlled countries, from the Baltics to Central Asia. Their jingoism has even led them to make some astonishing claims, such as the assertion made by the All-russian Officers’ Assembly early in the war that Moscow was fighting for the “preservation of a white and Christian Europe”.
But if the Russian ultras provided Putin with much-needed support in the early stages of the conflict, their absolute commitment to the conquest of Ukraine means their loyalty to the Russian leader has waned the longer the war has continued.
The first rumblings of discontent emerged after the Russian military was forced into a humiliating retreat from Kyiv in March, which was roundly condemned as a failure. Since then the motley collection of military bloggers and veterans groups that form the core of Putin’s fan base have voiced their frustration on a range of issues – from the slow progress made by Russian forces to more specific complaints about the army’s shortages of drones, ammunition and thermal imaging.
Nor can their complaints be easily dismissed by the Kremlin. As part of Putin’s attempts to silence criticism of the Ukraine campaign by prodemocracy activists, such as the prominent dissident Alexei Navalny, the hawks were given free rein to voice their support on the social media app Telegram.
Now, thanks to the devastating defeat the Russians have suffered from Ukraine’s brilliantly executed counteroffensive around Kharkiv, the hawks who once represented the bedrock of Putin’s support are proving to be his most vociferous critics. And instead of venting their disapproval of the war’s progress on the Russian generals responsible for prosecuting the campaign, their ire is being aimed directly at Putin, who is seen as the primary architect of the Russian military’s inept performance.
The extent of ultra-nationalist fury at their leader was laid bare at the weekend when, at the very moment Russian troops were being forced to run for their lives by the speed of the Ukrainian advance, Putin chose to visit a park in Moscow to preside over the grand opening of a Ferris wheel. His callous disregard for the fate of Russian soldiers prompted a torrent of abuse. As one pro-russian blogger commented: “You’re throwing a billion-ruble party. What is wrong with you? Not at the time of such horrible failure.”
The growing chorus of criticism directed at the Russian leader from the most vocal cheerleaders for the assault on Ukraine is particularly troubling for Putin, as it comes at a time when anti-war protesters are also becoming increasingly loud in their criticism of his handling of the conflict.
By far the most overt challenge to Putin’s authority to date has been the petition adopted by a group of council members in his home city of St Petersburg calling on him to be removed from office for committing treason.
Previously, such public denouncements of the Russian leader’s competence have been ruthlessly suppressed, as is evident from the Kremlin’s merciless persecution of Navalny, who is currently said to be languishing in solitary confinement in a dank prison cell.
But it is a different matter entirely when the criticism is coming from Putin’s own supporters. It is one of the more sobering facts about modern Russian politics that, if Putin were to be removed from power, the likelihood is that his replacement would come from the cohorts of Russian nationalists, not freedom-loving democrats like Navalny.
This is, therefore, a moment of genuine peril for the Russian leader – one that, unless Russia’s military fortunes in Ukraine improve dramatically in the coming weeks, will only get a great deal worse.