Even Supporters Question Putin’s War Gone Off-Track

Russia’s battlefield setbacks in Ukraine are shaking support for Vladimir Putin’s management of the war among supporters, if not for the invasion itself.

Many critiques are visible online, and some are quite acerbic. “There are NO thermal imagers, NO bulletproof vests, NO reconnaissance equipment, NO secure communications, NO enough copters, NO first aid kits in the army,” wrote one blogger on Telegram, a Russian social network. “What’s the matter with you?”

A blogger named Yuri Podolyaka, told his 2.3 million followers on Telegram that if the military continued to hide its battlefield losses, Russians will “cease to trust the Ministry of Defense and soon the government as a whole.”

Wrote another Telegram contributor, “The events in the Kharkiv direction can rightfully be called a catastrophe…Signs of things to come were known long before. They were seen and reported on. But they do not fit into the ‘special operation’ format.”

If the such opinions came from liberal dissidents—say, followers of jailed dissident Alexei Navalny—the commentators would have been swiftly arrested and face long jail terms. But these critics are supporters of Putin and of the war. Some have connections to intelligence agencies and the military. In a Russia where information on battle is tightly controlled, such open criticism is a stunning development.

Blame is rarely directed at Putin himself; Russian critics have a long tradition of steering clear of personal criticism of maximum leaders. It’s the latest version of the well-known Russian habit of excusing crimes of the Soviet past: If only Stalin knew, his apologists would say.

But 35 Russian municipal deputies signed a petition demanding that Putin should resign because of “harm” done to “the future of Russia and is citizens, due to the invasion.”

“We, the municipal deputies of Russia, believe that the actions of President Vladimir Putin harm the future of Russia and is citizens. We demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin from the post of President of the Russian Federation!” the petition reads.

The current Ukrainian offensive, which has recovered a bulge of territory from Russian forces in northeastern Ukraine, was the result of a combination of three elements that have characterized Ukrainians resistance: the arrival of new, accurate mid-range missiles from NATO and, especially, the US, which are able to pinpoint targets; superior intelligence supplied by NATO about Russian troop movements; and six months of gritty resistance against Russian advances.

A mirror opposite of factors dog the Russian effort to bring the war to a close—it was expeted to end in a few days when launched in late February: NATO-supplied weaponry is superior to Russia’s; somehow, Russian intelligence fails to track Ukrainian offensive movements; and the occasional, but evident unwillingness, of Russian soldiers to put up a fight.

It is risky to write off Russian capabilities. Moscow still possesses damaging weaponry that has devastated Ukrainian military targets and civilian infrastructure. Shortly after Ukraine’s recent recovery of territory, Russia launched rockets at civilian power plants in an apparent pique of anger.

Moreover, the war has been characterized by numerous reversals of fortune on both sides. Back I late February, Russian troops had expected to quickly conquer Kyiv, along with the northeast city of Kharkiv and the Black Sea port of Mariupol. They failed to take Kyiv and Kharkiv, and it took weeks to conquer Mariupol.

Ukrainian officials started suggesting that their troops were winning the war. Putin fired some generals. The replacements concentrated troop formations, slowly pushed Ukrainian troops toward the west, and unleashed barrages of artillery on Mariupol to wear down its defenders.

In July and August, as the Russians methodically, if slowly took territory from the Ukrainians, talk of Russian victory replaced unreal expectations of a Ukrainian triumph.

Now, the combat worm has turned again. A certain euphoria has set in, at least in the Western press. “It’s Time to Prepare for a Ukrainian Victory,” wrote Atlantic Magazine. “Ukraine is Winning,” asserted the Center for European Policy analysis in Washington. “Putin is Losing His War of Choice in Ukraine,” wrote the Washington Post.

There’s no doubt that the Ukrainian offensive upset confident prediction about the war’s likely trajectory. It has raises the question of whether setbacks has drained the confidence of Russian troops. For Russian soldiers, it is probably no comforting to witness a rapid retreat, to see a landscape of smashed tanks and trucks along the roads, and leave even food behind.

A Russian decision to pull some troops from the Kharkiv region triggered the Ukrainian counter-offensive, a NATO official said. They apparently took at face value Ukraine disinformation that Kyiv’s troops were focusing solely on a southern offensive along the Black Sea shore near the town of Kherson. The Russians sent reinforcements down from the north.

The wily Ukrainians operated in small units, bypassed clusters of Russian forces, crasned through thin Russian lines and blocked reinforcements from coming to the rescue.  

The Ukrainians aimed first at key Russian outposts. First the town of Balakliya, which was encircled before defenders, then Kupyansk, a transport center, and then south along the Oskil River. To prevent the arrival of reinforcements, Ukraine destroyed aged a bridge across the Ospil. The way was then cleared to Izyum, which had become a Russian logistics center and regional headquarters after the Russians failed to conquer Kyiv.

Pro-Putin commentators weren’t buying it. Ramzan Kadyrov, puppet leader of Chechnya, a Muslim province in Russia, too the If-Only-Putin-Knew line: “If today or tomorrow changes are not made in the conduct of the special military operation, I will be forced to go to the country’s leadership to explain to them the situation on the ground,” he said.

What is to be done? The first Kremlin response: to declaring that its its troops had pulled out of the Kharkiv region to go south, and that the loss of territory was unimportant.

Then, the invaders launched  rockets on Ukrainian power plans and to cut off all oil and natural gas supplies to Western Europe. But neither of those are likely to turn the tide of battles and restore confidence.

It might be enough to conquer the entire Black Sea coast and especially the port of Odessa. If not, fears persist that Putin might try to extend the war into Easter Europe on the ground that NATO has in effect invaded Russian territory by supplying missiles to the Ukrainians that were used to bombard military target in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

The ultimate threat, of course, is to make good on his nuclear threats, which Putin has brandished in the past. It would be less disruptive if the generals he has fired in the past somehow mounted a palace coup.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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