Last month a group of councillors in St Petersburg, Putin’s birthplace, wrote a letter accusing him of ‘high treason’ and calling on him to step down.
‘When you’re in a hole, stop digging”, goes the old saying. President Putin is in a hole over Ukraine and he is still digging furiously. A man of short stature, he will soon be out of sight. When Putin gave the order to attack Ukraine on 24 February this year, he fully expected to march triumphantly into Kyiv within the week, greeted by adoring crowds. Instead, here we are 229 days later and, astonishingly, Russian forces control less territory than they did at the end of the first week of the conflict. They continue to lose ground while Putin’s critics back home are getting more agitated and vociferous. Even the Russian Defence Ministry had to admit that things aren’t going Moscow’s way, when the spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said last week: “Superior enemy tank units succeeded in wedging into the depths of our defence in the Kherson region.” Russia is clearly losing the war and it is only a matter of time before its forces are routed.
Konashenkov’s comment came on the same day that the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament controlled by Putin’s puppets, unanimously backed the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions into Russia, something that Vladimir Putin had announced with great fanfare the previous Friday. The annexation followed a series of sham referendums in the four Russian-controlled regions. In two, Donetsk and Luhansk, more than 98% of the ballots were in favour of joining Russia. In Zaporizhzhia, the vote in favour was a mere 93%, while in Kherson it was a nail-biting 87%. In a video circulating on social media, Putin, who reached the age of 70 last Friday, is seen saying that he was “surprised” by the results, which at least shows he has a sense of humour.
In Putin’s Russia, the result of any referendum is known long before voting takes place. This is a long tradition in the country. Back in 1940, when a vote was taken in Latvia to endorse the country’s absorption into the Soviet Union, ballot papers were completed in the full gaze of officials. Voters were given a ballot paper on which was printed “Yes” in huge letters, and “No” in tiny print. Everyone knew what was expected of them. Those who voted “No” were dragged off and beaten. The Soviet news agency TASS duly reported that 97.5% were in favour of annexation. The only problem was that the announcement was made a full twelve hours before the counting of ballots began.
So now we have the topsy-turvy world in which Putin, by annexing four regions of Ukraine only partially held by his troops, will claim that Ukrainians, by defending their own land and their own people, are somehow attacking Russia. Will he now raise the stakes by calling this an existential threat to Russia that requires an extraordinary response, perhaps even a nuclear one, echoing a threat he has repeatedly made since the invasion began? On 21 September, Putin said that he would use “all weapons systems available to defend the territorial integrity of Russia”, before adding “it’s not a bluff”. Right on cue, last week a train used by a secretive Russian nuclear division was spotted in central Russia heading for Ukraine. There were also reports at the same time that a Russian submarine carrying a nuclear-capable underwater drone was travelling towards the Arctic. Defence analysts believe that both moves should be seen as a warning to the West to stop meddling in Ukraine.
But far from slowing down, in recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have rocked the Kremlin by causing an embarrassing retreat of Russian forces from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. They have also made substantial gains in the southern Kherson region, forcing Russian units to pull back from several settlements. The triumphalism of Vladimir Putin’s proclamation a week ago is looking increasingly premature, and there is a growing feeling of despondency and doom in Russia, even among those closest to the president as their troops face humiliation after humiliation. Russian forces have been constantly out-manoeuvred, out-fought and even out-thought by the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian military has found a way that is far more deft and flexible than that employed by the Russians, who are heavily reliant on their creaking supply lines. The Ukrainians deploy quickly to cut off, encircle and destroy units piece by piece. Those Russians who stay to fight are obliterated by shells and missile fire. It’s not surprising that thousands of Russian troops have called the “surrender hotline” set up by Kyiv, in the hope of staying alive.
Also looking shaky is the “partial mobilisation” ordered by President Putin last month. According to Defence Minister Shoigu, Russia has so far mobilised 200,000 troops, but the recruitment drive is being overshadowed by the huge number of Russians trying to escape the draft or being given shoddy out-of-date equipment when they join up. The Kursk regional governor has described conditions in several military units as “simply awful”, even down to the shortage of uniforms. Social media chatter, which includes videos from the men themselves, reveals grim conditions: poor food, old weapons and a lack of basic medical supplies. Media posts from wives discuss sending sanitary towels to pad the men’s boots and tampons to pack their wounds. So much for Putin’s proud claim that he has rebuilt the Russian military into a professional fighting force in which patriotic citizens will want to serve.
With these conditions and the near certainty of death, it’s not unexpected that Kazakhstan alone has reported that more than 200,000 Russians, mostly young professional men, have crossed its borders in the past two weeks. Another 93,000 have crossed into neighbouring Georgia, according to the Russian news outlet Fontanka. Mongolia, which borders Russia in the Far East, said last week that 16,000 had arrived there. Altogether some 370,000 young Russians have fled their home country rather than face the possibility of being drafted. Cynics are saying that if President Putin declares a full mobilisation, something he may be forced to do on account of the huge losses, Russia would suddenly become empty of young men, all having fled to neighbouring countries.
The chaotic implementation of the mobilisation and the continued retreat at the front have started to be overshadowed by doubts in Russia over what price it is prepared to pay in order to bring Ukraine to heel. The longer the conflict rages and the more resources the Russian regime throws into the furnace of war, the more divided Russia’s elites become, and the more serious those divides. In a further sign of cracks appearing in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, the former army general and now MP, Andrei Kartapolov, said last week on Russian TV that the Kremlin’s defence ministry should “stop lying in its daily updates on the war”. “People in our country are not stupid”, he said, “it could lead to a loss of trust”. Last month a group of councillors in St Petersburg, Putin’s birthplace, wrote a letter accusing him of “high treason” and calling on him to step down.
But even if Vladimir Putin’s deputies conclude that they want him out, removing him from power will be not be easy. They’ve all got a stake in the system and raising your head above the parapet is dangerous for your health. Nevertheless, more and more are seeing Putin’s decisions as unacceptable high-stakes gambles, where he is prepared to let thousands more Russians die for his lost cause, while risking his relationships with the few allies he has left. They now know that there is no reverse gear on the out-of-control Putinmobile, and probably not even a brake.
Russia’s defeat in Ukraine is looking more and more inevitable, and with it comes the prospect of nuclear weapons being used as a last resort. Putin has indicated that he will accept no off-ramp and is prepared to keep going until the bitter end, turning everyone into radioactive dust unless he is allowed to win in a way he deems satisfactory. After all, the alternative of a Russian defeat would mean the collapse of his regime. This nuclear threat by Putin is creating great alarm among the ruling elite who are now looking seriously at the only remaining solution—removing him from power.
Vladimir Putin had an economic model that actually worked. He had a strict hierarchical system that also worked. Now, this is no longer the case, all because of his misjudgement in invading Ukraine. He has sacrificed the whole country, the whole political and economic model for nothing and there are plenty of people near him who will instantly drop any allegiance and be happy to get rid of him.
The end is nigh for Vladimir Putin. Should he in desperation press the red button as a last resort, be aware that the end will be nigh for all of us.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.