Russians routed in Ukraine, but is Putin in danger of losing power?

Russians routed in Ukraine, but is Putin in danger of losing power?
Russia has been humiliated after Ukraine routed its forces. Will that spark a backlash against Putin that could see him ousted from power? / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 12, 2022

Exactly 200 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the defenders of the country managed to pull off a stunning rout of Russia’s forces, retaking an estimated 3,000 square kilometres of territory right up to the Russian border.

The war is not over, but a classic feint that threatened the central city of Kherson drew off Russian forces from Donbas, where Kyiv concentrated its best troops and modern US weapons to strike a hammer blow that scattered Russian defenders and caused chaos.

Social media rapidly filled with emotional footage of local residents rushing out to meet the advancing Ukrainian forces with cheers, flags and tears of relief as they were liberated.

Basking in the success of the counter-offensive, Ukraine's Defence Ministry wryly commented on Russia's abandonment of its military hardware as it retreated in disarray.

"Russia is trying to maintain its status as the largest supplier of military equipment for the Ukrainian army, and even to improve its status, knowing that lend-lease will soon come into effect."

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into an abject failure, but does it threaten his position?

“No exaggeration to say that the apparent scale of the collapse of the Russian army poses potentially the biggest threat to Putin’s rule since he came to power 22 years ago. Hardliners are furious, security chiefs unwilling to be made scapegoats. Next week [could] be very interesting,” Marc Bennetts, the Times correspondent in Moscow, tweeted.

Social media was abuzz after municipal deputies in the Moscow district of Lomonosovsky publicly called for Putin to resign and called him a “traitor” in a statement released online.

In a very rare public show of dissent, the deputies said that "everything went wrong" after Putin returned to his second term of office and that they believe a change of power is necessary for the sake of the country.

The deputies claim that Putin’s aggressive rhetoric and his subordinates have thrown Russia back into the Cold War era, in an assessment largely shared by Western commentators. They also poured scorn on economic data that shows Russia’s economy has doubled in size under Putin’s tutelage and that the quality of life has materially improved.

"Your views, your management model are hopelessly outdated and impede the development of Russia and its human potential,” the deputies said in their statement. The deputies appealed to close Putin confidant Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, saying that the system of local self-government does not actually work in Moscow, and dual power has developed at the district level, which hinders any initiatives of local residents and their representatives.

A similar protest earlier this week by seven deputies from St Petersburg’s local government ended with a summons to the local police where they were fined, RFE/RL reports. The lawmakers demanded that Parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, charge Putin with high treason over his decision to launch his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

“One of the goals declared by the President of Russia is the demilitarisation of Ukraine, and we see that exactly the opposite is happening. It’s not that we fully support the goals declared by President Putin, but simply within the framework of his own rhetoric, he harms the security of the Russian Federation," Palyuga explained in an interview with The Insider. “We want to show people that there are deputies who do not agree with the current course and believe that Putin is harming Russia. We want to show people that we're not afraid to talk about it."

The loss in Ukraine was so large that even the military authorities had to admit to the setback, saying the Russian forces had withdrawn from several key cities and were “regrouping”. However, state-controlled media carried almost no reports on the scale of the losses and Muscovites in particular were distracted by the annual founding-of-the city celebrations, as life on the street in the rich Russian cities has changed little since the war started.

However, the news of the big setbacks was seeping out and the Ministry of Defence was placed in the humiliating position of having to admit that it was pulling out of the Kharkiv region and abandoning Izyum, a key Russian-held city and a major logistics base for Russian supplies in the region.

“To achieve the declared aims of the special military operation to liberate Donbas, the decision has been taken to regroup Russian troops located in the Balakliya and Izyum areas in order to boost efforts in the Donetsk area. With that aim, over the last three days an operation has been carried out to draw down and redeploy the Izyum-Balakliya forces to the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Russia’s military spokesman said in his latest update of the military action.

As the troops pulled back, Russia struck civilian infrastructure in Kharkiv on the evening of September 11, plunging the city into darkness.

The retreat is a major failure and the tone on Russia’s political chat shows immediately changed. A top Russian political pundit, Boris Nadezhdin, was on the evening shows and raised some uncomfortable questions as the blame game got underway.

“The people that convinced President Putin that the special operation will be fast and effective, we won’t strike the civilian population, we will come in with our National Guard along with Kadyrovites, will bring things to order. These people set us all up,” Nadezhdin said. “Someone told him that Ukrainians will surrender, that they will flee, that they’ll want to join Russia.

“Now we are at the point where we have to understand that it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using those resources and colonial war methods with which Russia is trying to wage war… A strong army is opposing the Russian army, fully supported by the most powerful countries, in the economic and technological sense, including European countries… I'm suggesting peace talks about stopping the war, and moving on to deal with political issues… Either we mobilise and have full-scale war, or we get out,” Nadezhdin went on to conclude.

Putin remains popular

Putin is not threatened by a popular revolt, as he has once again played the “enemy at the gate” nationalist card that was so effective in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, and his approval rating, like then, has rallied on the back of Kremlin war propaganda.

Putin’s approval rating is hovering above 80%, and 50.7% of those polled approved of the Russian government’s work, according to the most recent poll from state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) released at the end of last week.

Putin’s rating inched back up 0.8 percentage points to 80.3% in just the last week, but before the rout of Russia’s forces in Ukraine was reported.

"Asked if they trust Putin, 80.3% of the respondents answered in the affirmative (down 0.8 percentage points over the past week). Thus 76.8% approved of the president’s activities (down 1.3 pp over the past week)," the pollster said, Tass reported.

In addition, 50.7% of those polled (down 0.1 pp) approved of the Russian government’s work, while 51.5% (down 0.3 pp) approved of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s endeavours. At the same time, 61.5% of the respondents said they trusted Mishustin (down 1 pp over the past week).

If regime change is to come, it is much more likely to be a palace coup, led by disgruntled members of the siloviki, or security services faction in the Kremlin.

However, Putin has long cultivated his relations with the FSB, which remains the core of his powerbase, and has been careful never to do anything that undermines this organ. Filled with hardliners, the security fraction has supported the war in Ukraine. But the unknown now is how they will react to Russia's crushing defeat in this battle. The kneejerk reaction will be to crack down even harder on dissent inside Russia and escalate the economic war with the West, say many pundits.

Russia has reached a crossroads where it is very difficult to say what will happen next. Analysts, pundits and even the Kremlin have been caught out by the speed and scale of the Ukrainian rout of the Russian forces. Analysts that have been following events closely from the start have had to admit they were taken totally by surprise by the events of this weekend.

“Ukraine's counter-offensive in the northeast – liberating in a day territory that took Russia a month or more to conquer – is breath-taking. Inspiring, even,” tweeted Sam Greene, the Professor of the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) at Kings College in London. “But it should also be sobering. Apart from anything else, it reveals just how much we struggle to analyse this war.”

“Focusing on objectives rather than achievability does not mean that we should ignore reality. Quite the opposite: the reality is that much of what we think we know about achievability is a fiction. Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of Donetsk seemed a fiction just yesterday,” Greene added.

In what may be unrelated news, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brought up the topic of peace talks again in an interview on September 11.

“Russia does not reject negotiations with Ukraine, but their further delay by Kyiv will complicate the possibility of reaching an agreement with Moscow,” Lavrov said in an interview with Rossiya-1 TV channel on Sunday.

Lavrov noted that Putin conveyed Moscow's position during a meeting with the State Duma and faction leaders. "The president told the meeting participants that we do not deny [the possibility of] negotiations, but those who do should understand that the longer they postpone this process, the more difficult it will be for them to negotiate with us," the minister said.