Ukraine’s rapid advance sparks first divisions in Russia’s political discourse

Following the success of the counteroffensive, politicians and TV presenters are raising questions about the armed forces, the Kremlin’s military experts and even the decision to launch the so-called ‘special operation’

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov during the Vostok 2022 military exercises in the Russian city of Vladivostok.
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov during the Vostok 2022 military exercises in the Russian city of Vladivostok.Mikhail Klimentyev (AP)

The rapid advance of Ukrainian forces in the east of the country has opened the first fissures in Russia’s official political discourse, which until now has closely followed the Kremlin’s official line. Some state commentators have openly called for the execution of the commanders who defended the now-lost territory, while other political figures have lambasted the experts who allegedly convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch the “special operation” in Ukraine. Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the east also comes as Russian opposition leaders step up their attacks against Putin: some 30 councilors from the country’s two largest cities have addressed Parliament to propose the leader be dismissed on charges of high treason.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive, which quickly gaining ground over the weekend, took Russia by surprise. On Saturday, as Kyiv announced it had retaken key posts such as Kharkiv, Putin was inaugurating Europe’s biggest Ferris wheel in Moscow, where the capital’s residents danced and drank to celebrate the city’s 875th anniversary. As Ukraine continued to announce further gains in the east, the Russian Ministry of Defense remained silent before finally announcing an “orderly withdrawal” in the Kharkiv region. Russia has lost other significant cities, such as Izium, as well as a key railway thoroughfare for the army’s supplies.

In Russia, several sectors have begun to dispute the official justification for the withdrawal, with criticism building against the lower ranks of Putin’s government. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, has been one of the most vocal critics. In a message sent on his Telegram channel, he argued that “[the Russian army] has left and given away several cities.” He added: “I am not a strategist like those in the Ministry of Defense, but mistakes were made.” Kadyrov warned that immediate changes were not made to the “special military operation,” he would attempt to speak directly not only with the ministry, but with Putin himself.

Russia’s armed forces are under enormous pressure. So far, Putin has held back from declaring the general mobilization of the population, despite calls from the ultra-right. The Russian people value the armed forces even more than the Kremlin, according to polls, but the idea of mass mobilization is very unpopular.

Meanwhile, journalists close to Putin have been placing the blame on Russia’s army commanders. One of the heads of Kremlin propaganda, Russa-1 TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov, stated on Telegram: “Many leaders in uniform – I would not dare to call them commanders – are worthy of dishonorable dismissal, a criminal trial or even execution, and I could name a few.”

The success of Ukraine’s counterattack has put the Kremlin advisers and army commanders in the spotlight. In a debate on the popular NTV channel, which Putin took over as soon as he entered office, several analysts and politicians questioned the recent development of Russia’s operations.

“[The] people who convinced President Putin that the special operation will be fast and effective, we won’t strike the civilian population, we’ll come in, and our National Guard, along with Kadyrovites [a Chechen separatist militia formed under the former head of the Chechen Republic, Akhmad Kadyrov], will bring things to order. These people really set all of us up,” said Boris Nadezhdin, former State Duma deputy. “Are you sure these people exist?” the host asked. “Of course. The president didn’t just sit there and think, ‘Why don’t I start a special operation?’ Someone told him that the Ukrainians will surrender, that they will flee, that they’ll want to join Russia,” the analyst replied.

The frankness of the debate surprised Russia. The deputy and leader of the political faction A Just Russia, Sergey Mironov, maintained the line that there can be no negotiations with “the Nazi regime of Zelenskiy,” but the other guests immediately criticized him. The political expert Victor Olevich argued that “it is said that everything is going according to plan, but no one would have thought six months ago that the plan would be to withdraw now.” Another well-known commentator, Alexei Timofeyev, recalled that Russia’s state media had ironically warned that if Russian troops reached Odessa “they would risk receiving very big hugs from the population.” “These errors have been criminal, catastrophic. Why should we continue to listen to the opinion of these experts?” he demanded.

One of the best-known faces of Russian propaganda has also come under fire. Before the war, Margarita Simonian, the director of the state media organization Russia Today, said on TV that Russia “would defeat Ukraine in two days.” Tuesday marked the 202nd day since the start of the offensive, and Russian troops are withdrawing on several fronts.

Calls for Putin to be impeached

Several opposition politicians have been arrested for opposing the war, but criticism of Putin continues. With the national parliament strictly controlled, Russian politics largely take place in the district councils of the country’s big cities. Last week, a group of councilors from St. Petersburg caused an uproar by officially asking the Duma to be impeached for high treason. By Monday, the group had at least 30 signatures from 18 districts from Moscow and Kolpino.

“It is an intelligent and careful text. I hope that we will not be prosecuted for any reason because we have not done anything illegal. We complied with federal laws for this procedure and we presented arguments to verify, according to the Constitution, whether an impeachment procedure can be applied to him,” explained Nikita Yuferev, one of the initiative’s promoters, by telephone.

“We want to address Putin’s supporters so that they will think. If they believed that the expansion of NATO was a threat to Russia, now with their decision of 24-F [February 24, the day the offensive began] it turns out that the Atlantic Alliance has grown, and with the addition of Finland, its border has doubled,” he added. “We consider that the initiative adopted by Putin has increased the risk for the Russian Federation and its population. Now Ukraine is a danger, because as a result of 24-F it has received weapons valued at $38 billion.”

“Our arguments are that Putin was wrong,” said Yuferev. “And the situation of our soldiers, the economic crisis and the problems of the young generation cannot be ignored. The Russian economy is seriously suffering,” he added.

The idea was proposed by another comrade from his district of St. Petersburg, Dmitri Paliuga. Yuferev had addressed the Presidential Administration on March 2 to request the end of the offensive, but received no response. “Later, in August, I wrote to the president with a personal letter asking him to end the special operation on humanitarian grounds,” Yuferev explained. “There was already UN data confirming that there were six million Ukrainian refugees and more than 5,000 dead, including more than 300 children,” recalled the politician. “They told me they would read the letter.”

Paliuga will be tried on Tuesday “for discrediting the president of the Russian Federation.” “It seems that the plan is clear: make a decision with me and then punish the rest of the councilors,” he said on his Twitter account, where he reported that the police had called him. “They asked me if I regret having made this decision about [Putin’s] betrayal. I’m glad I took it! I am proud of every council member! I have received a lot of messages from strangers. There are many of us!” he added.

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