Putin’s Precarious Position
It seems clear that the Ukrainians have largely stymied the Russian invasion but we should always be cautious about the information coming from the various fronts because the information is often unreliable and potentially pure propaganda. Similarly, the thinking and decision-making by Putin and his closest advisers has always been opaque and leaves open the real possibility of misreading certain statements or events. With those caveats in mind, here are some thoughts about what appears to be some real danger for Putin:
There is increasing evidence that Putin’s insane and disastrous decision to invade Ukraine has left him in an unusually precarious position. The war is going terribly. There is steady and somewhat widespread internal opposition to the war even as its worst aspects are being hidden from the Russian people. But what is even more astonishing is the dissent coming from within Putin’s bureaucratic state and its functionaries.
It was astonishing to see former Russian military leaders still living inside the country and still with strong ties to Russian active-duty officers warn that the invasion would be far costlier than Putin had led Russians to imagine. Those warnings suggested at least some degree of trepidation within Putin’s top military leadership about the Ukrainian invasion. One retired colonel presciently wrote that the idea of a quick Russian victory in Ukraine indicates “complete ignorance of the military-political situation and the mood of the broad masses” in that country. Even more extraordinarily, the colonel summarized by noting, “Finally, the most important thing: An armed conflict with Ukraine is currently fundamentally not in Russia’s national interest”. Indeed, the idea that 190,000 Russian troops could gain control of a well-armed country of over 44 million with its own army of over 1 million active and reserve troops is something only a leader apparently as totally out of touch as Putin seems could actually believe.
Those warnings seem more than apt as the invasion has basically ground to a halt and Russian forces have resorted to bombing civilian areas into oblivion, a tactic they have used in Chechnya and Syria. It appears that the Russian forces have lost a significant number of men and equipment. Their supply lines are strained, ill-functioning, and prone to attack from the Ukrainians and they are still unable to control the skies. Morale of their troops, who were lied to about the nature of the military operation and the probable response of the Ukrainians, is reportedly incredibly low. Some analysts now believe that Ukraine will actually win this war or at least be able to fight the Russians to a stalemate.
The disaster for Putin on the ground in Ukraine is only being matched by the unfolding disaster for the Russian economy. Due to the sanctions and the isolation of the country by most of the world, analysts expect the Russian economy to shrink by around 15% this year, effectively wiping out the last 20 years of growth. The ruble is worthless, the stock market is closed, and the central bank has restricted the amount of foreign currency withdrawals.
Putin’s misreading of both the Ukrainian resistance and the response of the West and the world seems to have been mirrored at home. The outbreak of the war prompted widespread demonstrations that the security services seemed unprepared for. Those demonstrations still continue but now face severe crackdowns from the security services with thousands being arrested and even describing the invasion as a war being criminalized. Even facing such danger, Russians across the country still are out protesting the war. Putin shut down virtually all independent voices and media outlets and tried to ensure that all news of the disaster in Ukraine would be delivered through the state propaganda outlets. Even so, the protests against the war continue across the country.
What’s more shocking is that criticism of the war is now coming from multiple voices within the state propaganda apparatus. While still using the language of Putin’s war propaganda, one state TV pundit declared, “I don’t see the probability of denazification of such an enormous country. We would need to bring in 1.5 million soldiers to control all of it. At the same time, I don’t see any political power that would consolidate the Ukrainian society in a pro-Russian direction…Those who talked of their mass attraction to Russia obviously didn’t see things the way they are. The most important thing in this scenario is to stop our military action”. Putin publicly pledged that no conscripts were going to Ukraine but, again shockingly, within a day the Russian Ministry of Defense publicly contradicted that claim, saying it had “discovered” some conscripts supporting the Russian forces inside Ukraine.
Open defiance of Putin has extended to certain Russian vassal states. The Belorussian military is so far refusing to send its troops into Ukraine although they are allowing the Russians to use their country as a staging ground for attacks against Ukraine. Kazakhstan is reportedly sending aid to Ukraine and has used a treaty technicality to avoid recognizing the so-called breakaway republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Putin is already lashing out because the leader can only be betrayed. He has fired at least eight generals. Add to that the three other generals as well as other senior military officers the Ukrainians claimed to have killed and the attrition at the top of the Russian military is significant. Putin has raged at the supposed failures of the FSB and reportedly has arrested and imprisoned two senior FSB leaders who were responsible for foreign intelligence. Putin had already publicly humiliated the Director of Foreign Intelligence during that insane “cabinet meeting” prior to the invasion when the Director showed either ignorance of Putin’s plan or reluctance to go along with it.
Relatedly, the US intelligence in the lead-up to the war was remarkably prescient and some Russian intelligence estimates have been leaked to the West. While that may indicate exceptional spy-craft by the West, the more likely explanation is deep internal resistance to the planned invasion and attempts to thwart it by preparing the West for what was planned. Certainly, Putin believes there are moles within as the foreign intelligence directorate was raided by Putin’s own security service and probably led to the reported arrest of those two FSB leaders.
As Putin becomes more frustrated, he is likely to become more radical and extreme. Beyond the further targeting of civilians and non-military infrastructure, that includes the deployment of biological and/or chemical weapons and even tactical nukes. It will also include attempts to bring NATO into the war, as the attack on the Ukrainian base near Poland and the threats against the West’s supply lines into Ukraine indicate. But it will also include even more blame-shifting, persecution, and witch hunts within the state system of those who have betrayed him.
Obviously, I’m no Russia expert, but all of the above points to a deep resistance to Putin’s war within the state bureaucracy itself, not just from the traditional opposition forces. For an autocrat like Putin, there is always a risk when you start firing and/or arresting generals and leaders of the security services. Those resisting know the war is unwinnable and they also know that the full extent of the damage from Russia’s financial isolation is yet to be seen. Any escalation in the war, especially directly confronting NATO, will bring even more pain and stress to the state system. In addition, the Chinese military and economic aid the Russians apparently need after less than three weeks of war will probably come with strings attached. If this internal opposition, especially within the security services, starts to believe that the entire kleptocratic system that keeps them going is soon to collapse, they will act against Putin. Whether that ever happens at all or before Putin turns Ukraine to rubble or before he starts World War III remains to be seen. But the chances that it will happen are far greater than they probably ever have been for Putin.