President Vladimir Putin is grappling with the most serious internal crisis of his 23-year rule: an increasingly public dispute within the Russian elite over who is to blame for the defeats in Ukraine.
Since Boris Yeltsin handed over the Kremlin leadership to him on the last day of 1999, Putin has built around himself a fiercely loyal new elite of former spies, businessmen and technocrats who have agreed to settle all disputes in private.
However, the former superpower’s humiliating defeats at the hands of a much smaller Ukraine have weakened Putin’s authority and heightened a sense of crisis in Moscow, one not felt since the chaos of the 1990s and which he had promised to extinguish.
“Putin’s authority is being eroded by military failures in Ukraine, and there is a very real sense that a defeat in Ukraine would fatally undermine his authority,” said Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian at the School of Advanced International Studies. JohnsHopkins.
“Putin’s Russia has never been in a state of acute crisis, but now there is a sense of acute crisis because every day, as Russia’s position worsens on the battlefield, Putin’s position deteriorates.”
Since 1999, Putin has weathered a series of crises, from the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 and the hostage crisis in a Moscow theater in 2002 to the anti-government protests of 2011-12, but no other situation has been a threat. as clear as the possible defeat in the Ukraine.
More than seven months after Putin ordered the invasion, defeats on battlefields some 1,000 kilometers from Moscow have once again undermined the authority of the Kremlin chief just as he celebrates his 70th birthday.
The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment, but Putin sees the war in Ukraine as a much broader conflict with the West, which he says humiliated Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse and is now plotting to divide the country.
The war, however, has forced Putin to spend vast amounts of political, economic, diplomatic and military capital.
Much will depend on how Russia fares this winter. “Putin is a hostage of the military situation,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, director of the political consultancy R.Politik. “He weakened a lot after February 24.”
A greatly weakened, or even desperate, Putin could usher in a far more dangerous phase of the war, and he has warned the West that any attack on territory annexed by Russia could provoke a nuclear response.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters on Thursday that Russia’s position – that a nuclear war should never be waged – had not changed.
President Joe Biden said this week that Putin’s nuclear warnings had brought the world closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cold War Cuban missile crisis, when the Soviet Union and the United States came close to a nuclear war.
At home, however, Putin faces dissent within the elite, which was caught off guard by both his February 24 invasion of Ukraine and the September 21 mobilization – the first since World War II – unless a year and a half before the 2024 presidential elections.
The loss of the Lyman stronghold, which endangers the western parts of the Russian-annexed Luhansk region, angered two close hardliners, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Kadyrov and Prigozhin ridiculed high-ranking generals, saying that the Army was riddled with nepotism and that high-ranking officers should be sent to the front line barefoot to atone for their sins.
“Kadyrov’s criticism probably reflects a power struggle under the rug in Moscow itself: it is not only he who is issuing such opinions,” Radchenko said.
Public anger against high-ranking generals and, by implication, against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, poses a problem for Putin: does he fire top brass in the middle of a war and risk the wrath of the military, or does he risk taking the blame himself?
Shoigu, one of Putin’s closest allies, was appointed in 2012. The two men regularly vacationed together in the forests and mountains of the Tuva region where Shoigu hails from.
Another focus of Kadyrov’s criticism is Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of staff. Both Shoigu and Gerasimov would have to authorize any Russian nuclear attack, as well as any potential substitutes.
“There are more and more cracks in the elite,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter.
“If the army manages to stabilize the front line, it may take longer, but there will come a point where Putin will neither be able to end the war nor continue it.”