Dysfunction and self-deception stalk the Kremlin, but who will stand up to Putin? | Russia

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Earlier this week, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged that young conscripts had been sent into combat and some taken prisoner.

The admission, remarkable in itself given Russia’s cautious attempts to control the war narrative, came just a day after President Vladimir Putin assured his nation in a video address that conscripts “are not participating and will not participate” in the conflict. The flashback has prompted some to question whether the Russian leader lied in his statement or simply received inaccurate information.

“This incident reveals some of Putin’s unrealistic expectations when launching this military operation,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik.

“It seems likely that Putin sincerely thought that Russia would be able to storm Ukraine and ordered his army not to use conscripts. But that’s just one of many aspects that turned out to be different in reality.

Two weeks into the war, it has become clear that the Russian army has failed in its original plan to quickly capture major cities, including the capital, Kiev, and Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. The attack on Odessa, a crucial port city in the south, has also stalled and Russian ground advances have been repeatedly thwarted.

More than a week ago, Russia admitted that nearly 500 of its troops had been killed, a figure that has not since been updated, while US officials estimate between 5,000 and 6 000 Russian soldiers died.

“The current problems must go back to the start of this war, which was fought in great secrecy to avoid any leaks,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The Kremlin’s disastrous decision to invade was rooted in huge lack of expertise on Ukraine,” said Gabuev, who added that officials close to Putin who helped plan the invasion sincerely believed that many Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers and that the country’s leaders would offer little resistance.

“Only a very small group of generals were told about the war, and they didn’t ask tough questions that could help prepare for any scenario other than a quick Russian victory.

“All war planning has been reduced to a clandestine operation developed by a handful of people in uniform – and the president himself,” Gabuev said.

Reports of captured Russian soldiers, as well as leaked audio conversations between Russian servicemen, indicated that much of the military was not informed of the invasion until the last moment.

Russia also appears to have underestimated how united the West would be in the face of invasion.

“The Kremlin might not have foreseen how toxic Russia would become in the eyes of the West,” said Maria Shagina, international sanctions expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Shagina said that while the Kremlin was expecting sanctions, it was probably surprised by how quickly and unifiedly the West and big multinationals cut ties with Russia.

Given the military and political setbacks, hints have emerged in recent days that Putin may withdraw some of his initial high-profile diplomatic demands, including his pledge to push through regime change in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin increasingly surrounded himself with former KGB agents and old friends as the pandemic increased his isolation. Photography: Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Sputnik/EPA

On Monday, Putin’s trusted spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters that Russia was ready to halt military operations if Kiev met its list of conditions. These conditions would oblige Ukraine to cease all military action, enshrine neutrality in its constitution, recognize Crimea as Russian territory and recognize the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. The requests failed to mention the “denazification” of Ukrainian leaders, previously reported by Putin as the main motivation for the invasion.

However, most Western analysts and officials believe that an eventual Russian military victory remains the most realistic scenario given its overwhelming military might.

Despite the setbacks they have suffered, Russian forces have regrouped northwest of the Ukrainian capital, which Western intelligence suggests could be preparations for an assault on Kiev. Russian forces also surrounded the strategically important cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol, which came under increasing bombardment.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba failed to make a breakthrough during ceasefire talks in the Turkish city of Antalya on Thursday, suggesting that Russia should not not rush to find a solution to the war.

And while some in the West pin their hopes on Russian business and political elites to stop the war, Russian pundits generally agree that the invasion has yet to affect Putin’s grip on power.

“The elites have been silenced. While many are opposed to this war, no one should speak out,” Stanovaya said.

There have been silent grumbles among some of the country’s wealthiest citizens who have lost millions as a result of Western sanctions. Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch close to Putin, sounded the alarm in a series of public messages about the economic consequences of the war for Russia.

But Deripaska and others were careful not to criticize Putin directly.

Meanwhile, some senior officials also seem to be surprised by the invasion.

The Kremlin seems to have been surprised by the speed with which the big multinationals cut ties with Russia.
The Kremlin seems to have been surprised by the speed with which the big multinationals cut ties with Russia. Photography: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

According to a report by well-connected Russian journalist Farida Rustamova, “the mood in the halls of power is not at all cheerful. Many are in a state of near paralysis.

On Thursday, the business newspaper Kommersant reported that influential Russian central banker Elvira Nabiullina was considering quitting.

A source close to Nabiullina confirmed to the Guardian that the central bank boss had considered leaving her post.

“Nabiullina has been considering resigning since the start of the war. But it would have direct consequences for her and her family,” the source said.

But even as political and business elites have openly revolted, questions remain about their real power over Putin, who has increasingly surrounded himself with former KGB agents and old friends as the pandemic has increased his isolation.

“The only people who could make a difference are those in uniform who command real soldiers like [minister of defence] Sergei Shoigu and [chief of the general staff of the armed forces] Valery Gerasimov,” Gabuev said.

“But these men were directly involved in preparing for the invasion. While they may not be happy with the scale of the current conflict, they have too much to lose to do anything at this point. They are also involved,” Gabuev added.


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