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Putin’s War Hawks Are No Longer In Step

KUBINKA, RUSSIA - AUGUST 15: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) attend the opening ceremony of the International Military Technical Forum ‘Army 2022’, on August 15, 2022, in kubinka, outside of Moscow, Russia. Putin hailed on Monday the Russian military’s action in Ukraine, which has triggered the massive Western sanctions, and thanked Moscow’s allies for their support. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images) (Photographer: Contributor/Getty Images Europe)

Now we know: Even in a country as tightly controlled as Russia, a string of military defeats will be followed by public squabbling and personal attacks. But then again, perhaps Russia is less tightly controlled as a battlefield loser than as the fearsome, almost unbeatable military superpower it was before invading Ukraine. As he prepares to celebrate his 70th birthday on Oct. 7, Vladimir Putin should start worrying about his continued ascendancy.

After previous setbacks, the Russian far right had already criticized the military top brass, especially Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is not an ethnic Russian and thus an easy target for the ultranationalists. But last week, when Russia lost the important town of Lyman in the Donetsk region hours after declaring it, and the rest of occupied Ukraine, part of its territory, the accusations rose to a new level.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictator of Chechnya, who has described himself as “Putin’s infantryman,” published a bitter post on Telegram, slamming Colonel General Alexander Lapin for the Lyman defeat — and Russia’s top military commander, Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, of ignoring his earlier complaints about Lapin’s conduct of the campaign. Lapin purportedly ran the defense of Lyman from Luhansk, 150 kilometers away, and bungled the communication and logistics aspects of the defensive operation. “Lapin’s lack of talent is not the worst of it — it’s that the top people at the General Staff are covering up for him,” Kadyrov wrote. “If it were up to me, I’d downgrade Lapin to private, strip him of his medals and send him to the front lines with gun to wash off his disgrace with his blood.” 

“I don’t know what the Defense Ministry is reporting to the Commander-in-Chief,” Kadyrov added.

Kadyrov’s outburst got a sympathetic reaction from Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group private military company, which has played an outsized role in the conflict. “Way to go, Ramzan, you’re the man,” Prigozhin’s press service quoted him as saying. “All these jerk-offs should be sent to the front lines with submachine guns, barefoot.” In subsequent comments, however, Prigozhin denied — with his usual sarcastic slyness — that his words referred to top generals.

A former top military commander, Lieutenant General Andrey Gurulyov, now a parliament member from the ruling United Russia party, added his voice to the chorus of criticism. The Russian military, he said, was in trouble because “everybody’s lying, reporting that the situation is good.”

It’s natural, of course, that the military leadership would get some flak for systematic battlefield mishaps. Yet it’s hardly common for the leaders of other fighting forces under Putin’s banners — both Kadyrov and Prigozhin have thousands of well-trained fighters in Ukraine — to attack the “special military operation’s” top strategic planners and commanders. Someone of Gurulyov’s rank accusing the military chain of command of pervasive “lying” is also extraordinary. Countries at war usually at least try to mask any differences among top commanders and make a show of cohesion; while it was on the retreat during the summer, Ukraine presented a united front without any visible cracks.

You won’t hear Kadyrov, Prigozhin or Gurulyov criticizing the “Commander-in-Chief” himself. On the surface, a conflict is brewing between the regular military and “freelancers” of all stripes: Chechen volunteer fighters, Wagner mercenaries, the nationalist ex-military from Colonel Igor Girkin (Strelkov) to the more moderate Gurulyov. All of them are Putin loyalists, except star Telegram commentator Strelkov, who has vowed to refrain from criticizing the president while the war is on. But anger at Putin is the next logical step if the military defeats continue.

If the chain of command is rotten and truthful information is not reaching Putin, even though it’s being reported by dozens of pro-war Telegram channels and by the “freelancers,” who but Putin bears the final responsibility for filtering out these reports and acting as if everything is still going to plan? Who bears the final responsibility for not making any personnel changes at the Defense Ministry and the General Staff? These questions are bound to arise if Russia continues losing territory that it has just claimed as its own. Even the use of nuclear weapons — with the inevitable blowback it would provoke — would not deflect them.

It won’t be Russia’s defeated, exiled and still fleeing liberals and moderates who will be asking the questions, but fighters and military leaders convinced that victory is being stolen, or has already been stolen, from them.

I’m not predicting a military coup as such. These have never been successful in Russia — from the czarist era, when the Decembrist uprising of 1825 doomed a whole cohort of young officers, to the present. Mikhail Tukhachevsky may or may not have plotted against Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, but Stalin’s ruthless purges of the top military brass rendered that a moot point. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, quickly neutralized one of Russia’s greatest World War II heroes, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, when he became a potential threat — and even, it seems, before any actual plot was conceived. The military was a driving force of the 1991 putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev — and failed miserably, with some top generals killing themselves and others going to prison. 

In post-Soviet times, General Lev Rokhlin, a hero of the first Chechen war, barely concealed plotting to overthrow Boris Yeltsin — his daughter later confirmed that he did —  and quickly turned up dead. Vladislav Achalov, a former paratroops commander, took part in the 1993 nationalist rebellion against Yeltsin, was close to the Rokhlin conspiracy and was rumored to plan a putsch against the military reforms carried out during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev; he died suddenly in 2011 at the age of 65.

But even though Russia’s political rulers and secret police have always managed to keep the Russian military in check, today’s situation is unusual in many respects. The command of the Ukraine operation is anything but centralized — rather, it has the feel of a feudal army on a crusade, with princes commanding forces of their own and generals barely coordinating their actions. This is Putin’s war, but different people have different ideas about how to fight it for him — and, of course, for themselves. That is hardly conducive to victorious action, and it undermines Putin’s control — not just of events on the battlefield, but also of the propaganda space, which he has owned for years and which he took special care to purge directly before the invasion and in its early phase. With no heroes emerging from the squabbling mob of princelings and generals, the civilian population cannot be energized to support Putin’s mobilization drive, and even his top propagandists are focused on helping people avoid it — only those, of course, who aren’t supposed to be drafted for various reasons.

The far right would like heroes to emerge. Strelkov and other telegram commentators are singing paeans to Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, who has commanded the airborne troops since June, but armies that lose as badly as the Russian military is losing today — the Russian front appears to be near collapse both in the east and in the south of Ukraine — can hardly produce inspiring examples.  They can, however, produce powerful men in command of armed forces who are unwilling to take the fall. Exactly how this may bring about the end of the Putin era is too early to say — but conditions are set for the first truly serious challenge, or series of challenges, to the power of the aging dictator who has gone too far out on a limb with this disastrous campaign.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Europe Can Fight Putin By Capping Gas Prices: Kyriakos Mitsotakis

How Does Putin Stay So Popular While Losing the War in Ukraine?: Tobin Harshaw

• Romania Fears Putin, But Putin Should Fear Romania, Too: Robert D. Kaplan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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