Does Russian President Vladimir Putin have his back against the wall? Or is that just wishful thinking?
Putin’s Kremlin isn’t your average dictatorship.
It’s run more like a network of mobsters. And Russia analysts say that makes his regime’s resilience to the unfolding fiasco in Ukraine more difficult to determine.
“The military defeats have not brought immediate political problems for the Kremlin,” Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Russian military analyst Kirill Shamiev said.
“But they have provoked grumbling within the ranks … that has undermined the foundation of the professional military: the unity of command.”
And mobsters need to look strong. Successful. Infallible.
“Putin is not close to achieving any of his war aims while the price of his gambit grows ever steeper,” writes Emeritus Professor of War Studies at Kings College London Lawrence Freedman.
“All trends – military, economic, diplomatic – continue to point in the wrong direction, and Putin has no convincing explanation for how the situation can be salvaged.
“The Russian president finds himself boxed in with no good options. He may indeed already be aware that the reckoning has begun.”
But mobsters are also good at creating internal structures that are dependent upon each other’s success. And that, more than anything else, enforces loyalty to the man at the top.
“It is a different type of system than many in the West believe,” former senior Kremlin policy advisor Andrey Illarionov told Politico.
“They think of it is a one-man show, a personal dictatorship. (But) it is a corporation of serving and former security officers – the siloviki.
“They follow particular protocols, and they have a code of order – a code of behaviour to ensure disputes don’t get out of hand. Only those who break the protocol get punished.”
Litany of errors
Putin’s performance isn’t living up to his propaganda. And that’s a severe problem.
“Failure in war can cause a government to fall,” Freedman said.
“That is often why governments keep on fighting wars: an admission of defeat could make it harder to hold on to power.”
Putin said he wanted to “liberate from oppression” Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine.
He said he wanted to “denazify” its culture. To halt NATO’s expansion.
But his efforts to topple the democratically elected government of Volodymyr Zelensky by seizing Kyiv failed. The Russian-speaking enclaves of Donbas have largely been reduced to rubble. And formerly neutral Sweden and Finland have been prompted to join a NATO that has rallied to support Ukraine’s struggle for independence.
“Much of the ground initially seized after the full-scale invasion has been relinquished,” Freedman said.
“Even Russia’s hold of the (Crimean) peninsula is no longer certain.”
But some say Ukraine’s slow counteroffensive is a sign the best Kyiv can hope for is a ceasefire. Others argue Russia’s steady retreat means the same thing for Moscow.
But the professor says a truce would only emphasise Putin’s failure.
“Being stuck with bits and pieces of Ukrainian territory with hostile populations, massive reconstruction bills, and long front lines with an undefeated Ukraine would not look like a big win especially when set against the many casualties incurred by Russian forces,” he said.
“As soon as the fighting stopped and troops started to come home, there would be a national reckoning, and it would not reflect well on Putin.”
It wasn’t even supposed to be a war. Instead, it was sold as a short, sharp “special military operation” that everyday Ukrainians would welcome with open arms.
But 18 months later, desperate generals are fighting over the scraps that remain of Russia’s once-vaunted military.
“It is on the front lines that the extent of the blunder has become inescapable and where there is the most evidence of dissent,” Freedman said.
One example is the recent removal of General Ivan Popov. He’s just one of at least 13 senior military commanders who have been sacked, arrested, or “disappeared” since the June Wagner mutiny.
Popov had tried to give his exhausted troops a rest. He wanted better food. More ammunition. And the supply of specialist radars to trace the source of debilitating artillery fire.
His superior, controversial Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, refused.
So Popov bypassed the chain of command to take his appeal direct to Putin. But this appeal – in which he asserts his troops were being “stabbed in the back” by Gerasimov – was leaked by the deputy chairman of the Russian Parliament’s Defence Committee, former general Andrei Gurulev.
“Despite his image as a strongman that the military could rely on, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been slow to address the root causes of the civil-military conflict,” writes Shamiev, who added this was “prompting claims that it all boils down to the president’s preference for loyalty over competence”.
“The reality is more complex. There are no good options for resolving this conflict.”
In Popov’s case, what was an internal military spat over scarce supplies suddenly became political – and public. And to Putin, that’s more dangerous than poorly equipped, exhausted troops.
“What is happening, therefore, is far more than a choice between loyalty and competence,” Shamiev said.
“To win the war, Moscow needs both, which is a tough challenge.”
Especially in a mobster culture.
Any criticism will be interpreted as an allegation of incompetence.
All allegations of incompetence are an act of disloyalty.
Enter the ‘siloviki’
“Russian elites know full well that the war was a terrible blunder and is going badly,” Freedman said.
“They have not been inclined to do much about it because they fear Putin and a chaotic world without him.
“They are sufficiently patriotic to believe that despite all the additional stress, the system can somehow be made to work and that the country will pull through.”
Most of them, that is.
The fate of war hero and ultranationalist social media celebrity Igor Girkin is a sign of things fraying at the edges.
The former Federal Security Service (FSB) intelligence officer played a significant part in the surprise annexation of Crimea in 2014. He went on to organise insurgency operations in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas. And he’s since been convicted for a central role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 which killed all 298 passengers and crew – including 38 Australians.
But, frustrated at the fiasco in Ukraine, he dared tell his 800,000 Telegram followers that Russia “won’t survive another six years with this talentless coward in power”.
He was promptly arrested on charges of “public calls for extremism”.
But former Kremlin advisor Illarionov warns not to expect a widespread crackdown on unhappy Russian ultranationalists. Nor for the Wagner mutiny to trigger a more general revolt.
Instead, the “siloviki” will fall back on their mobster protocols.
“In the end, the corporation sorted it out,” the Politico article argues.
“The siloviki have no intention of relaxing their grip on the Russian state,” Illarionov added.
But there is little doubt that Putin has been spooked.
He has moved quickly to shore up his grip on power.
He’s taken personal command of Russia’s National Guard. He’s drafted the 7000-strong Grom (Thunder) special forces unit out of the Interior Ministry to add to their strength. And he’s given them tanks, aircraft and artillery to defend Moscow.
“Prigozhin’s recent uprising was a systemic blow that sent the military’s fear of losing control over its troops skyrocketing,” Shamiev said.
The jaws of defeat
Controlling the troops is one thing. As is maintaining the siloviki.
But there’s also the matter of Russia’s general population.
It has mainly remained accepting over the past 18 months, thanks partly to a brutal crackdown on even the merest hint of dissent.
But Putin is losing his war of choice. At great cost to his public.
“The problem with losing goes beyond the failure to achieve objectives or even having to explain the expenditures of blood and treasure for little gain: loss casts doubt on the wisdom and competence of the government,” Freedman said.
“The choice would be unpalatable for Putin: he must either confirm that Russia is losing an unnecessary war or persist in waging an unwinnable war.”
That, said Shamiev, leaves Putin with only one card to play on the home front: loyalty.
“The Russian military is convinced that the absence of loyalty is the ‘killer criterion’ that could undermine the military as an organised force and thereby jeopardise Russia’s national interests,” he argued.
Without loyalty, more disillusioned troops, politicians and people of public profile will speak out against the conduct of the war.
“That will, in turn, undermine political stability in Russia as more politicians like Gurulev will exploit military problems for their own benefit,” he added.
“Unless President Putin steps in and resolves the conflict – both in Ukraine and at home – Russia’s damaged civil-military relations will only get worse.”
Loyalty will therefore continue to trump competence.
And that’s likely to be a problem in the unfolding war of endurance.
Putin’s last great hope is for Europe to be worn down, Freedman said. And for his US supporters to take power in the next presidential election.
“Putin can simply try to hang on, but given the mounting pressures, he needs a strategy to show that Russia still has a path to victory,” he concluded.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel