Even Vladimir Putin’s allies are starting to talk about the war against Ukraine
A surprise Ukrainian counter-offensive over the weekend appears to have caught Russia on its feet – and could have consequences for Russian President Vladimir Putin both during the war and at home.
Within days, Ukrainian forces liberated more than 150,000 people and 3,100 square miles of territory in the country’s Kharkiv region from Russian occupation, according to Ukrainian government officials. The Ukrainian push forced Russian troops to quickly abandon key supply centers and military equipment. Video circulated on social networks shows some residents emerging from their homes and embracing Ukrainian soldiers. Russian forces have responded with strikes on critical infrastructure, but it is unclear whether they will be able to regain a foothold in the region.
As Washington Post Russia reporter Mary Ilyushina says Today Explained Sean Rameswaram, Ukrainian troops defeated an exhausted and disorganized Russian army with the help of Western intelligence and weapons.
Although it is too early to tell whether this breakthrough represents a turning point in the war, it appears to have made some Putin supporters skeptical of the possibility of winning his “special operation”. Some have argued for a more aggressive Russian response, even pushing for general mobilization and the use of weapons purchased from North Korea. As Ilyushina puts it, the “generally unanimous chorus of pro-Kremlin and state propagandists” was in disarray.
Today Explained spoke to Ilyushina to understand these different responses, what they tell us about the political factors weighing on Putin, and how all of this might affect his response to the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Below is an excerpt from the conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s plenty more in the full podcast, so listen up Today Explained anywhere you get podcasts including Apple podcast, Google Podcasts, Spotifyand embroiderer.
How embarrassing is all this for Vladimir Putin?
It’s quite embarrassing because his main brand, and the one he’s been building for 20 years, is that he knows what he’s doing. He always does the job. In this case, we even see people who are extremely pro-Kremlin, extremely pro-this invasion, saying that they don’t like the way Russia has proceeded. We have heard people like the leader of the Russian Communist Party say that Russia is not really fighting in a “special operation” anymore and that this is a real war. And the very use of the word “war” to describe this mission has essentially been banned by Russia. People are fined or even imprisoned for speaking out about the war. They have to call it a “special military operation”. So we certainly saw a lot of criticism coming from the very pro-Putin, very hawkish camp. It’s a brand new development that we’ll have to see if it will push the Kremlin to change anything about how it approaches this invasion.
Tell me more about what we have heard in terms of criticism of this war in Russia.
Last weekend, just as news broke that Russia had lost much of this land and had retreated, the usually fairly unanimous chorus of pro-Kremlin and state propagandists was really in disarray. Some people chose to ignore the news altogether because they didn’t know how to handle it. Some media, like the official Kremlin newspaper, simply didn’t mention it. Some very prominent TV shows have started saying that, look, Russia is not only fighting against Ukraine, it is fighting against the whole NATO alliance. That’s why they have such a hard time doing it. They want Putin and the Kremlin to be even more aggressive, retaliate against Ukraine, hit civilian targets and do more. They believe that the way Russia is waging this war now is not enough. They want a general mobilization. They want the whole country to be placed on this warpath and they want to pull out all the stops. So there are a lot of really mixed messages in the camp that are generally very pro-Putin and toe the party line.
Some of the liberal and opposition forces also tried to seize the opportunity. There was quite a remarkable effort by local lawmakers to collect signatures from regional officials demanding Putin’s resignation and charging him with treason. They already face administrative offenses and fines, and the police have opened an investigation. [Those opposition forces] say their goal – which they believe they have achieved – is to tell anti-war Russians still in the country that they are not alone. They know that Putin is not going to read this request and say, “Listen, yes, exactly. You’re right, I should stop doing that. But they want to send the message that there is still resistance. And even if there are big risks in presenting this resistance to the public, they are always ready to do it.
Tell me more about Vladimir Putin‘s decision not to conscription, not to conscript more Russians into this war.
In terms of general mobilization, the problem with that is that it would be really unpopular because a lot of Russians are trying to turn a deaf ear. They try to live their life normally. put the whole country [under a draft notice] would not only mean recruiting all eligible men, it would mean resetting the entire economy and turning the whole country into this war machine that only works for the advancement of the front line. And that would have a lot of repercussions because what Putin has been promising the Russians for a long time is this notion of stability. “As long as you stay out of politics, you can have your house, your job, you can, you know, live a normal life.” This is something many Russians cling to. And it would be a pretty huge political decision to change all that and remove that. So Putin resisted that, and instead looked for really alternative and creative ways to recruit people. There is the concept of shadow mobilization happening in Russia.
What is Shadow Mobilization?
So this means that there are several private military companies, basically mercenaries, who are fighting on behalf of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, but not officially with the Ministry of Defense, even though it gives them orders and places them where they need it. They were responsible for a lot of the very crucial gains that Russia made in this campaign. The use of private military companies also gives Russia some plausible deniability, because there are conscripts fighting and they don’t really have to recognize them among the casualties.
Another thing they have done is to recruit people from the prisons. So there are many reports of these private military companies going into prisons and offering deals to people if they go to the front line. In six months, if they survive, they will get a pardon. And they’re specifically looking for people who have been charged with murder, violent crimes. This is how they avoided a draft. Will that be enough – again, a big question.
Do the Russians have any idea that their prisoners, murderers and thieves are waging this war for them in Ukraine? !
I think a majority don’t know that. It’s obviously not covered by the national media because it’s very controlled. There are many human rights organizations working to help these convicts, as the convicts do not enjoy any safeguards. Mercenarism is prohibited in Russia. It’s illegal; nothing is written on paper. So their rights are also violated by this.
But many of these human rights groups have been recognized as foreign agents in Russia, so they cannot operate on a larger scale and effectively inform the general public about what is happening. And that’s really hard to do. So I think the majority don’t know that.
Do we have any idea of Putin’s plans to regain a foothold in Ukraine, if any?
The planning is really not public in any way. We don’t even know who the overall commander of this operation in Ukraine is. We know there is the Ministry of Defence, but there is someone who is supposed to manage all of this on the ground and really be on the ground. Russia has not even publicly announced who this person is. So it’s all really, really secret. We can glean information from social media, through some of the soldiers speaking out or some of the intelligence assessments on the other side. But it is quite difficult to analyze what Russia will do next.
We know they have reserve forces, but they are also needed in other directions. It is therefore not known exactly whether they will be sent to Kharkiv to regain their footing. Many of their battalion battle groups have been depleted throughout this campaign, and they’ve been kind of a chopped salad. Russia collected them from different parties and tried to bring these groups together. But that means the chain of command is really disrupted. And it’s hard to control all these groups because they really don’t have any combat experience together. It is therefore difficult for them to respond quickly and effectively to all these targets.
How important is all of this, after all? I mean, this conflict escalated a little over six months ago. It felt like Ukraine surprised the world by making it last six months, although there were certainly a number of low points for Ukraine throughout. But now it looks like they’ve taken over?
All things aside, this is obviously very important. What now seems clear is that Russia thought Ukraine was a truly weak country that would not rally and that Ukrainian forces have spent the past eight years training with Western officers to no avail. But Ukrainian forces have actually learned a lot and become much stronger than they were in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. So I think all of those things weren’t taken into account, which is showing now. It shows.
What will happen next is obviously difficult to predict, especially when we have very little information from Moscow. But I don’t think Moscow should be underestimated either. It may be too early to say this is the end or the turning point. But we should not underestimate Moscow either.