Russian President Vladimir Putin’s difficulties have become clearer than ever since the Russo-Ukrainian War began last February.
The more the Russian president wants to achieve military victories on the ground by sending additional forces to consolidate his control over regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, the less the Russians are enthusiastic about the war even as Putin’s popularity declines.
The war did not lead to real polarisation inside Russia until a few weeks ago when it became clear that a lack of soldiers had forced Putin to take the unpopular decision to call up about 300,000 reserves, meaning that every Russian home may now see a husband, brother, or son forced to go to fight in Ukraine.
While politicians and ideologues associated with the Russian nationalist right are calling on Putin to use all the resources at the country’s disposal to ensure Russia’s victory, tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators are calling for an end to the war.
Some 200,000 young Russians have travelled to neighbouring countries such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia to avoid being called up to fight in Ukraine.
This war, labelled a “special military operation” by the Russian government, was not supposed to be felt by ordinary Russians. But this is what is happening now, and it is eating away at Putin’s popularity and raising questions about his political fate.
Putin faces two challenges he has not faced since the start of the war. The first is to prevent a military defeat in Ukraine. The second is to maintain his own political survival.
The Ukrainian forces, backed by advanced equipment and weapons from the West, continue to make military progress in areas of eastern and southern Ukraine that Russia partially controlled and declared to be part of the Russian Federation.
In a major setback, Russian troops pulled back from Lyman over the weekend to avoid being encircled by Ukrainian forces. The city’s liberation gave the Ukrainian troops a key vantage point to press deeper into Russian-held territories.
After reclaiming control of Lyman in the Donetsk region, the Ukrainian forces pushed further east and may have gone as far as the border of the neighbouring Luhansk region as they advanced towards Kreminna, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in its latest analysis of the situation.
Ukrainian forces also scored significant gains in the south, raising their flags over the villages of Arkhanhelske, Myroliubivka, Khreshchenivka, Mykhalivka, and Novovorontsovka.
The Ukrainian successes in the east and south of the country came even as Russia moved to absorb four Ukrainian regions amid the fighting. The lower and upper houses of the Russian parliament voted to ratify treaties to make the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, which represent around 18 per cent of Ukraine’s territory, part of Russia.
Putin is expected to sign laws annexing the four Ukrainian territories on Tuesday, according to Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Peskov said that Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine will also not end if Kyiv rules out talks, adding that it “takes two sides to negotiate.” He said that “we will either wait for the current president to change his position or wait for the next president to change his position in the interests of the Ukrainian people.”
Moscow’s stance comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree on Tuesday formally declaring any talks between Kyiv and Moscow “impossible”. It formalised comments made by Zelensky on Friday after the Russian president proclaimed the four occupied regions of Ukraine would become part of Russia.
Russia, however, no longer has full control of the four provinces it wants to annex after Ukrainian troops reportedly advanced dozens of km in the Kherson province. The Russian military has acknowledged that Kyiv’s forces have broken through in the Kherson region. It said the Ukrainian army and its “superior tank units” had managed to “penetrate the depths of our defence” around the villages of Zoltaya Balka and Alexsandrovka.
Russia’s moves to incorporate the Ukrainian regions have been done so hastily that even the exact borders of the territories being absorbed are unclear. The Kremlin is still determining which areas of Ukraine it has “annexed,” Peskov said, suggesting that Russia does not know where its self-declared borders are.
The surprising admission came in a telephone call with journalists, during which Peskov was peppered with requests to clarify which Ukrainian territories Russia had annexed.
Putin has vowed to protect Russia’s newly claimed territories using “all means at its disposal,” indicating a potential nuclear strike.
The lack of a clear red line could ease the pressure on Putin to use nuclear weapons to halt Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the territories annexed by Moscow. Peskov said Donetsk and the Luhansk region in their entirety were part of Russia, despite Russia’s lack of total control over them.
“We will continue consultations with the population regarding the borders of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions,” he said. Asked for clarification that would define where Russia’s self-declared international borders are located, Peskov said that “this is the definitive answer for now.”
Russia does not control large parts of the Zaporizhzhia region, including the main city of the same name. Ukrainian troops are also advancing in the Kherson region.
Putin now faces his biggest challenge since becoming Russian president in 2000, and think tanks in the West are speculating about whether he might be ejected in a palace coup by powerful military officials who blame him for the way the war has been conducted.
Several top officials have publicly criticised the senior military leadership for their inability to stop the Ukrainian advance.
“I do not know what the Defence Ministry reports to the president, but in my personal opinion, more drastic measures should be taken,” wrote Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, in a sharply worded post on social media following the loss of Lyman.
He suggested the further mobilisation of Russian society or the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon as a response.
Asked about Kadyrov’s statements, Peskov said they were driven by emotion. “Even in difficult moments, emotions must be excluded while making assessments. We prefer to stick to well-balanced, objective assessments,” he said.
Of course, no one knows for sure the extent of the divisions within the Russian elite, or whether Putin is at risk internally. But many analysts caution that it should not be assumed that Russia without Putin will make the West safer.
The ideal scenario for Western countries is that the Russian elite, which does not want to jeopardise Russia’s unity and sovereignty, could sacrifice Putin, following this with democratic elections and a new Russian administration that could be negotiated with to end the war in Ukraine.
But this scenario does not take into account several factors. First, the West’s experiences in trying to intervene to change regimes have had catastrophic effects, from Iraq to Afghanistan, and from Syria to Libya.
Second, the situation in Russia is very complicated, and any disturbances could lead to civil war and attempts by republics such as Chechnya and Dagestan to seek independence in a post-Putin political vacuum.
Third, Russia is a nuclear state, with nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads, and no one wants a nuclear state to fall prey to turmoil and civil strife.
Fourth, the possibility of installing a leadership from the Russian nationalist and populist right is more likely than that of installing a liberal, pro-Western leadership.
As Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy Programme at the Defence Priorities think tank, and Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defence Priorities, put it in a UK Guardian piece, “another strongman could take over and continue the war in Ukraine. Studies suggest that only 20 per cent of personality-based autocracies become democracies. Putin could be replaced by someone from his inner circle who is even more ruthless – Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s security council, may be one candidate.”
In other words, the West cannot build a strategy based on wishful thinking.
Hence the paradox that the more Putin weakens, the more likely it is that he could be pushed to step down, as happened with Boris Yeltsin in 1999. But this does not necessarily mean peace negotiations with Ukraine or a reduction in the risk of nuclear war.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.