Calls for resignation and a treason trial: Russia’s head of state Putin is facing massive criticism in the face of military setbacks in the Ukraine war and the crisis in his own country. Does the Kremlin boss have to fear an uprising?
Until a few days ago, Russia’s head of state Vladimir Putin was considered almost untouchable. No one close to the former KGB agent dared question his authority or even challenge his position. Anyone who belongs to the power elite around Putin or holds any state office knows that anyone who does not submit to the regent in the Kremlin is lost. He ends up in prison or in exile, his career is over, his livelihood is probably gone and even his very life is no longer safe.
Loyalty to Putin now seems to be crumbling in some places. The Ukrainian army’s recent gains in territory in the fight against the Russian attackers, some of whom had to flee and left tanks behind, has led to a rethink even among staunch Putin loyalists: They openly criticize Putin – and even call for his ouster. Such a thing would have been unimaginable until recently.
Political scientist Andreas Heinemann-Grüder from the International Center for Conflict Studies in Bonn sees this development as the beginning of a new era. “The first cracks in Putin’s edifice of lies and loyalty to the regime are becoming visible,” said the conflict researcher to FOCUS online. The new thing is: “The criticism comes from those loyal to Putin, not from the opposition, who are already imprisoned or driven into exile.”
The violent Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been considered a loyal “Putin’s bloodhound” for years, sharply criticized the Russian war strategy and verbally attacked the military leadership. “If changes are not made today or tomorrow in the conduct of the military special operation, I will be forced to go to the state leadership to explain the situation on the ground,” Kadyrov said on Telegram.
For Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, the statement by Kadyrov, who supported Putin in the Ukraine war with his own soldiers, who were considered particularly brutal, indicates tensions in his own ranks. “If Kadyrov is already allowed to criticize the defense minister, he is counted out.”
Former Russian MP Boris Nadezhdin also gave up all reluctance and publicly credited Putin. In a live broadcast on Russian state television, he questioned the propaganda of an effective “special operation” in Ukraine. Russia must finally abandon the idea of using mercenaries and “colonial warfare” to subdue Ukraine, he said.
On the other hand, Putin also responded with resentment and rejection. Local politicians from city councils in St. Petersburg and Moscow called for Putin’s impeachment. The reasoning included: “The rhetoric that you and your subordinates use has long been riddled with intolerance and aggression, which in the end actually threw our country back into the Cold War era.” And further: “Russia will be back feared and hated, we are again threatening the whole world with nuclear weapons.”
MPs from St. Petersburg had previously approached the Russian parliament and demanded charges against Putin – for high treason. Their application states that Putin has failed on all fronts. The Kremlin boss weakened the Russian army through the war in Ukraine, plunged the Russian economy into a crisis, united NATO and strengthened the Ukrainian army.
There are two reasons why people in Russia are increasingly and openly rebelling against Putin and the Moscow power center: the massive setbacks by the Russian army in Ukraine and the negative effects of the war in Russia itself Let Russia collapse significantly and thrown back to the level of 2018.
The key questions are: what effect does the criticism leveled at Putin have within the power apparatus and, above all, with the Russian people? Were the verbal attacks on the Kremlin boss just isolated actions that quickly fizzled out again, or are we at the beginning of a development that could become dangerous for Putin and ultimately even cost him his office? And what does that possibly mean for the course of the war in Ukraine?
“The idea that the majority of Russians are renouncing their loyalty to the regime and turning away from Putin may seem like wishful thinking, and yet the people and Putin’s courtiers are opportunistic,” political scientist Heinemann-Grüder told FOCUS online.
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To this day, most Russians have lived in a media bubble “that considers the war in Ukraine either a perfidy by the Americans, a staging by the Ukrainians, or a re-enactment of the heroic deeds of World War II,” says the expert. “The war is ignored by around three quarters of Russians, and yet more and more know or suspect that the Russian troops in Ukraine are not welcomed as liberators from fascism. They are pro-war and therefore Putin supporters only as long as they are looking at the TV and not in the fridge.”
The Ukrainian counter-offensive of the past few days can no longer be concealed in Russia’s media, and the consequences of the Western sanctions policy can be felt all over the country. “Thousands of scientists, journalists, computer scientists and engineers are leaving the country. This is eroding Russia’s infrastructure and ability to innovate, increasing Putin’s internal repression costs,” the expert said. “The Ukraine war could usher in the endgame of the regime and thus the endgame of Putin.”
Regarding the possible scenarios remaining for Putin, the scientist explained: “An unconditional surrender with an agreement between the victorious powers like that which occurred after the Second World War is illusory. And yet Putin can become so paralyzed militarily, economically, domestically and internationally that he has to choose between victory in Ukraine and maintaining the regime at home.”
Heinemann-Grüder sees Putin battered: “Even Russia’s partners feel his weakness, including Turkey, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, the Central Asian states and Egypt. In the meantime, Putin even has to look for arms supplies in Iran and North Korea.” His conclusion: “Putin has lost the escalation dominance. Averting defeat is already an end in itself.”
The scientist believes that the sluggish course of the war in Ukraine, marked by serious defeats, will have consequences for those responsible around Putin. “The culprits have to be found, layoffs are likely even in the inner circle. The repression, also against oligarchs who used to be loyal to the Kremlin, is likely to increase, and fear is replacing loyalty.”