Everything that now happens in this war, including the murderous missile attacks on Ukrainian cities on 10 October, has to be understood in terms of the logic of Vladimir Putin’s exposed position as a failed war leader. The Russian president is desperately trying to demonstrate to his hardline critics that he is up to the task. The opening salvos of this week, ending yet more innocent lives for no discernible military gain, will not make Ukraine less determined or able to win this war. They will have the opposite effect.
The trigger was damage inflicted on the Kerch bridge by Ukrainian forces on 8 October. The bridge was built at considerable expense to connect Crimea to mainland Russia and opened by Putin with great fanfare in 2018. The attack on it combined a symbolic blow with painful practical consequences. Although some road and rail traffic will still pass through, the loss of so much capacity adds to the headaches for Russian logisticians. This link is vital to keeping Crimea and, through Crimea, forces in southern Ukraine supplied. News of the attack left the normal suspects on Russian state media unsure about whether to be angrier about the shoddy security that allowed the attack to happen or the audacity of the Ukrainians in mounting the attack. Vladimir Solovyov, a TV host who has been increasingly despondent of late, demanded to know “when will we start fighting”. He added, channelling his inner Machiavelli, that “it’s better to be feared than laughed at”. When, on the night of 9 October, Putin declared this to be a terrorist act against vital civilian infrastructure (despite its evident military value) it was clear that he shared this sentiment.
Putin’s statement claimed that in response “high-precision weapons” were used against “Ukrainian infrastructure, energy infrastructure, military command and communications”, as both an answer to the “crimes of the Kyiv regime” and a warning against further “terrorist attacks on the territory of the Russian Federation”. Some infrastructure targets were hit but so were, in Kyiv alone, a playground, a symbolic glass bridge in a park (which survived), and the German consulate. As Kyiv is Ukraine’s main decision-making centre it is telling that none of these weapons hit anything of political or military significance.
Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the state-controlled RT, who had called the bridge attack a “red line” for Russia, expressed delight at the landing of our “little response”. Yet while the response might satisfy urges for vengeance, its impact will be limited unless it becomes part of a persistent campaign. Alexander Kots, a war reporter, has expressed his hope that this was not a “one-off act of retribution, but a new system for carrying out the conflict” to be continued until Ukraine “loses its ability to function”. Dmitri Medvedev, the former president, who once appeared to be a serious figure, has expressed his conviction that the goal of “future actions” (but not current?) must be the “complete dismantling of the political regime in Ukraine”.
Such hopes are contradicted by the harsh reality of Russia’s position. Putin’s statement highlighted retribution, yet Russia lacks the missiles to mount attacks of this sort often, because it is running out of stocks and the Ukrainians are claiming a high success rate in intercepting many of those already used. This is not therefore a new war-winning strategy but a sociopath’s tantrum. Putin’s anger is not only with the material consequences of the Kerch bridge attack, but that it showed him unable to defend Russian territory. For a man who built his career by cultivating an image as a resolute and ruthless strongman, nothing is more undermining than to appear weak and helpless. It is not Ukraine’s political regime that is most at risk but Russia’s.
In most countries, and not just democracies, leaders who fail badly in war will not stay in power for long. Yet the consensus view has been that Putin will avoid this fate. This view is starting to be challenged without anyone having much of an idea about how he might go and what will replace him.
Confidence in Putin’s durability reflects his success over the years in rigging elections, marginalising critics through imprisonment, exile and death, putting loyalists in key state positions, and retaining popular support in Russia. At least until the start of 2022 he was associated with the return of order and prosperity, and with restoring Russia to its rightful position on the world stage. His control over the media meant that news of adverse developments could be muffled and their impact blunted. Even when these developments became impossible to ignore it still seemed that Putin would be able to extricate himself and Russia from this morass by declaring victory in Ukraine and withdrawing Russian forces, perhaps after cutting a deal that left him with something to show for all the trouble. That opportunity has now passed.
For a long time Putin’s control over the media allowed him to ignore the growing gap between his claimed ambitions and the situation on the ground. It was evident from the start of the “Special Military Operation” on 24 February that all was not going to plan. Yet despite many subsequent setbacks Putin continued to claim that success would eventually be Russia’s. This official optimism lasted to the end of August. Ukraine’s offensives had yet to show much progress and Russia had not given up on its own. Putin could hope that the prospect of a long cold winter ahead would lead Europe to abandon its support for Ukraine, pushing it to end the war on Russian terms.
This optimism has now evaporated and it is impossible to pretend that all is well. The costs of this doomed enterprise are being felt at home, marked by those left dead, wounded and traumatised by the fighting, and the flight of men fearful of facing a similar fate if they are sent to the front. Those in the West who doubted that Ukraine’s fight back could lead to all occupied territory being liberated assumed that Putin could be persuaded to agree to some compromise deal, one that would leave him with some of Ukraine’s territory if not as much as he wanted. Yet at no point has Putin given any encouragement to such views. It has become very difficult to imagine a “face-saving” deal as there is not much face left to be saved. Humiliation has occurred. Moreover Putin has put himself in the position where agreeing a peace deal involving even partial withdrawal from currently occupied territory would mean abandoning territory that he claims to have acquired for Russia. And Ukraine has rejected any talk of a partial withdrawal.
The annexation of four regions in Ukraine’s east generated more embarrassment than enthusiasm as Ukrainian forces keep taking back more territory. The mobilisation intended to generate the extra combat power required to regain the military initiative was chaotic, further destabilising Russian society and politics.
It no longer seems preposterous to suggest that Russia can lose this war. The images of late February, of Ukrainians making Molotov cocktails, have been replaced by those of highly professional forces on the move. The Russian army is a shadow of its former self, and its former self was less than it claimed. Well over seven months into the war its best units have been torn apart. Their replacements are often cobbled together using whoever happens to be available. Years of defence production have been lost, with valuable equipment captured by the enemy. Many senior commanders have been killed and the officer corps has been shredded. Troops at the front are having a harrowing experience and are consequently demoralised. The race is now on to establish defensive lines that can be held and cope with an enemy that has superior intelligence, equipment and morale. Moscow now faces the prospect of the attrition of its armed forces continuing apace as its occupation becomes increasingly untenable.
Although nervousness has now displaced bravado in the Russian debate it has not yet reached the stage of challenging the rationale for the war or urging a credible way out. The major preoccupation is with allocating blame for the incompetence with which the war has been fought up to now. Solovyov complained about the “genius idea of the General Staff”, accusing military leaders of squandering the vast budgets they had received over the years. Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian administration in Kherson, after promising that Russian forces were not so much retreating as regrouping, still complained about incompetence verging on treachery. “Indeed,” he observed, “many people say that if they were the minister of defence [Sergei Shoigu], who brought things to this state of affairs, they would shoot themselves, if they were real officers.”
Two critics to watch are those deploying their own private armies – Ramzan Kadyrov with his Chechens and Yevgeny Prigozhin with his Wagner group. Kadyrov has said that General Aleksandr Lapin, the commander of the Central Military District, should be demoted to private and sent barefoot to the front, while Prigozhin has referred to military leaders as “pieces of garbage”. With Moscow in a febrile state, they see themselves as key players in shaping either the next stage of the Putin era or whatever it is that follows him. Prigozhin has his own means of recruitment (he was the one filmed offering prisoners opportunities to escape their sentences by fighting at the front) and seems to have deployed them to meet his own strategic objectives without regard to the wider needs of the Russian operation. His forces have been conducting the only serious offensive operation, against Bakhmut in Donetsk, where it has been the familiar story of modest progress in a narrow area at heavy cost. One explanation may be that Prigohzin is keen to demonstrate that he can succeed even while the rest of the army is falling back.
[See also: When Russian missiles rained on Kyiv]
The main response to military failings so far has been to replace senior commanders. Thus the commander of the Black Sea Fleet was fired after the sinking of the flagship, Moskva, as was, last month, the deputy defence minister in charge of logistics, and the commander of the Western Military District who had lost Kharkiv and begun to lose Luhansk. The most important change is that General Sergei Surovikin has been named the overall commander of Kremlin forces engaged in Ukraine. Up to June he was in command of Russia’s Aerospace Forces (an amalgamation of the Russian Air Force, the Air and Missile Forces, and the Space Forces), after which he was put in charge of forces in southern Ukraine. Before that he was a notorious commander of Russian air operations in Syria, which were conducted with notable indifference to humanitarian consequences, and which no doubt appeared to Putin as a recommendation.
The other interesting item in his biography is that he was an active member of the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, when he was responsible for the deaths of three anti-coup demonstrators. This led to one of his two spells in prison. The other was for arms trafficking. Prigozhin, no stranger to criminality himself, was quick to praise the appointment. “Surovikin is the most able commander in the Russian army”, he gushed, adding that Surovikin was a “legendary figure, he was born to serve his motherland faithfully”. Some see him as an ultra-nationalist rival to General Lapin for Valery Gerasimov’s position as chief of the general staff.
Putin will have mixed feelings about becoming beholden to these characters. Dictators tend to get worried about men in uniform turning out to be even stronger than they are. But for the moment Putin needs them to keep his critics on side and improve Russia’s military performance. The need to calm his critics also explains why he has lashed out against Ukrainian cities. The hardliners have been demanding attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure for some time and they now have got what they wanted. But they will inevitably be disappointed with the results. The electricity will be turned back on, the rubble cleared, and Ukraine’s armies will continue to press forward. These attacks could well be repeated, because it is part of the mind-set of Putin and his generals that enemies can be forced to capitulate by such means. But stocks of Kalibr and Iskander missiles are running low. According to Ukrainian accounts over half of the missiles launched on October 10 were shot down by their defences, and improved defensive systems, for which the Ukrainians have been lobbying for months, should be in place in November. What still matters most is the coming weeks of battle. This will determine how much the Ukrainians can “de-occupy” their land but also the mood in Moscow and Putin’s personal position.
The Washington Post has reported that US intelligence has picked up at least one member of Putin’s inner circle grumbling about the mismanagement of the war effort. US officials were quoted as reporting “growing alarm from a number of Putin’s inner circle”, and that “a lot of people… are convinced this isn’t going well or the right course of action”. It would be surprising if this was not the case. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, has acknowledged disagreements around the big decisions, such as mobilisation. “There is disagreement over such moments. Some think we should act differently. But this is all part of the usual working process.” He denied that there were any splits, and so far there have been no reports of any challenges to Putin from among the inner circle.
This is a personalist dictatorship with key members of the elite beholden to the man who gave them their positions, and the privileges that go with them. Such regimes can be brittle because they allow little scope for direct challenges until the situation becomes unbearable for other members of the elite. There is no longer a royal family or a ruling party to structure questions of political succession. Putin has failed to identify a chosen successor and there are no obvious candidates to take his place. Sergey Radchenko, in Foreign Affairs, recently offered a list: Medvedev, with his genocidal rhetoric but who is no longer taken seriously; Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the State Duma, who controls the legislature; Mikhail Mishustin, the prime minister, an able technocrat who occupies the position from which Putin launched his presidential bid; Sergei Kirienko, a former prime minister who has the thankless task of overseeing occupied Ukrainian territory; Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard; Alexander Kurenkov, minister of emergency situations; and then the outsiders, Kadyrov and Prigozhin. There is no figure here that the malcontents can gather around.
It still seems likely that a crunch point is most likely to come when the military position starts to appear unsustainable – because units keep on retreating, or can no longer be supplied, or are becoming mutinous, or a combination of all three. Russian history provides little guidance as to what might then happen. The Russian military tradition is one of strict subordination to the civilian authorities. There have only been a few occasions when members of the military have been prominent in trying to effect change at the top. Three come to mind: the Decembrist revolt of 1825 in the aftermath of the sudden death of Tsar Alexander 1, in which officers trying to encourage reforms were smashed by loyalist units using heavy artillery; the March 1917 Russian revolution, which overthrew the Tsar, only to be overthrown in turn by the Bolsheviks; and the shambles of the 1991 coup against Gorbachev, which was led by the KGB but in which there was active military participation, including, as noted, Surovikin. If there is a lesson from these occasions, it is that a successful coup requires unity among the plotters, a credible leader, sufficient guns, a modicum of public support or at least acquiescence, and a plausible programme to address the problems that have prompted the coup in the first place.
Even if something does break in Moscow the risk is that it won’t be clean. Instead of Putin being replaced by a new leader who appreciates the situation and wishes to negotiate the withdrawal of Russian forces it is likely that there will be a messier situation, with different groups jockeying for position and possibly clashing with each other. There will be ultra-nationalists in this mix and some, including Prigozhin, with their private armies, but not many moderates. Even if a new leader was ready to do a deal they would be constrained by Putin’s legacy, not least his illegal annexation of Ukrainian provinces. This legacy would have to be repudiated and reversed for there to be a serious negotiation. That would be a difficult move for any would-be leader unsure of his position. While it may seem that Putin’s departure has become a necessary condition for a proper peace settlement it is unlikely to be sufficient.
If hardliners take power having objected not so much to the war but the way it has been prosecuted they will face the same corrosive issues – of shortages of men and equipment, messed up logistics and stretched command networks. They will face a country unsettled and anxious, possibly on the edge of the sort of chaos that has engulfed Russian society in the past at the end of failed wars.
Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece was originally published on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.