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Putin under pressure

Russia’s war against Ukraine is coming home.

By Katie Stallard

On 9 May 2000, two days after his inauguration ceremony, Vladimir Putin presided over his first Victory Day parade. By the Russian president’s later standards it was a tame affair. There were no tanks, no intercontinental ballistic missile launchers rumbling through Red Square. Instead the 47-year-old leader watched stiff formations of elderly veterans and Russian soldiers marching past to mark the 55th anniversary of the German defeat in the Second World War, or as it is known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War. Afterwards he delivered a rousing speech about Russia’s past, and its future.

“As the greatness of our motherland is immortal,” Putin told the crowd at a gala reception in the Kremlin, “the pride of the nation and Russian patriotism are immortal.” Russia had always been a “victorious country”, he declared. “And so it will remain forever.”

Twenty-three years later there is not much to celebrate. Putin now presides over a diminished country with a failing economy. His military turned out to be much better at marching in lockstep through Red Square than fighting in Ukraine, where it has been humbled by the pride and patriotism of the Ukrainian forces fighting to defend their country.

Ahead of Victory Day this year, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, filmed the bloodied bodies of Russian fighters killed in the battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut earlier that day and vented his fury at the military leadership in Moscow. “Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is the f***ing ammo?” Prigozhin yelled in a video posted on social media on 4 May; Sergei Shoigu is the Russian defence minister, Valery Gerasimov the chief of the general staff. Dressed in military fatigues and with a rifle slung across his chest in another video the next morning, Prigozhin addressed Putin directly, threatening to abandon the city unless he received more ammunition. (He later reneged on his threat.)

It was not a good week for Putin. Prigozhin’s rant followed a spectacular attack on the Kremlin in the early hours of 3 May. Two small drones exploded, minutes apart, above the golden dome of the Senate Palace, which houses Putin’s official residence, in what the Kremlin claimed was a thwarted assassination attempt. That much, at least, was evidently false. Putin spends most of his time at his compound outside Moscow, or at his other palatial residences, and the payload on the drones was not big enough to pose a meaningful threat to his life. But it was a clear demonstration that whoever carried out the attack had the capacity to evade the capital’s supposedly formidable air defences and reach the symbolic heart of Putin’s regime.

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Rumours swirled about who was responsible. Among the early theories was that it was a “false flag” operation staged by Russia to justify a new escalation in Ukraine. But while Russia intensified its bombing raids in the following days, the regime appeared to play down the incident at home, with Russian state television declining to show footage of the explosions. If it really had been a set-up, then surely the images of the attack would have been playing on repeat.

Despite vehement denials from Kyiv, it seems more likely that the drone strike was exactly what it first appeared to be: a daring attack by Ukrainian forces, or a pro-Ukrainian group, designed to bring the war home to Russia and show Moscow’s vulnerability. In an apparent sign of Russian authorities’ nervousness, policemen in the capital were hastily equipped with binoculars to scan the skies for approaching drones during the Victory Day parade, which the Kremlin insisted must go ahead as planned.

[See also: “Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants]

During the early phases of this war, it was possible for many Russians to pretend that it wasn’t happening. Putin encouraged this approach by insisting that he was waging a “special military operation” against Ukraine and denying that he had any plans to call up Russian citizens to fight. Even when he finally announced a large-scale mobilisation in September 2022, he described it as a “partial” draft and claimed that it would be limited to those with prior military experience. Now the conflict is becoming harder to ignore. A series of attacks inside Russia in recent months have made clear that the carnage will not be confined to Ukrainian territory.

In December Ukrainian drones struck military bases in Ryazan and Engels, deep inside western Russia, which Kyiv claimed had been used to stage attacks on its infrastructure. In February an apparent Ukrainian drone crashed near a gas distribution facility in Kolomna, just over 100km southeast of Moscow. Another drone, this time carrying 17kg of explosives, was found near Noginsk, 34km east of the capital, in April. That same month, the pro-Kremlin military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who had previously celebrated the deaths of Ukrainians, was killed in a bomb attack at a café in St Petersburg – Putin’s hometown.

Then, in early May, two freight trains were derailed by explosions close to the borders of Ukraine and Belarus; the Kremlin blamed pro-Ukrainian sabotage groups. On 6 May the Russian nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin, a fervent advocate for the war, was seriously injured in a car bombing attack in western Russia that killed his driver. Darya Dugina, the daughter of the ultranationalist Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin, was killed in a car bombing outside Moscow in August 2022 in an attack that the US believes was authorised by officials within the Ukrainian government. (Kyiv has denied the accusation.)

Taken together, these incidents demonstrate an increasing willingness and capability to strike inside Russia, although Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, denies that his country is behind the attacks. The incidents also risk exposing the lie behind Putin’s carefully constructed strongman persona. While he has spent the past two decades pretending to be an invincible leader who wrestles tigers, rides bare-chested through the Siberian wilderness, and devotes himself to rebuilding Russian military strength, his calamitous invasion of Ukraine has revealed the dysfunction – and corruption – that still defines Russia’s armed forces. One might well ask whether Putin’s generals and his security services are likely to prove any more effective at guarding their own territory than prosecuting the war against Ukraine.

[See also: In its pursuit of Russian regime change, the West is doomed to repeat the errors of the Iraq War]

When Putin conjured that vision of national greatness at his first Victory Day parade as president 23 years ago, many Russians welcomed the contrast to the humiliation of the decade that had come before. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic chaos that followed under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin presented himself as the man who would restore stability to Russia and reclaim its rightful place in the world as a great power.

Instead he has plunged his country into renewed crisis, sending tens of thousands of his citizens to their deaths, and inflicting horrors on Ukraine. He is no closer to winning the war now than he was last February, but his military – and the Russian economy – has been considerably depleted. His new strategy seems to be to dig in and hope that Ukraine and its Western supporters give up first, hence the extensive trench networks his troops have built in anticipation of a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the coming days.

Yet a weakened Putin could prove to be a more dangerous Putin. On 7 May Russian officials began evacuating civilians from the area around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, which Russian forces currently control. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that the situation at the plant was becoming “increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous”. Unable to achieve his expected victory, Putin has already proved that he is prepared to resort to nuclear threats to rattle the West if he believes that the alternative is a humiliating Russian defeat. As the former Kremlin adviser Sergey Karaganov warned my New Statesman colleague Bruno Maçães at the start of the war, Russia – and by extension Putin – “cannot afford to lose”.

[See also: Vladimir Putin is afraid of his own people]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?

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