How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
In late September, following devastating Russian setbacks in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s controversial “partial mobilization” of the Russian population, the Kremlin faced an explosion of popular discontent on social media. Notably, some of the most vocal criticism came from the government’s core supporters: ultranationalists and military hard-liners who felt that Russia was not fighting as well as it should. By the beginning of October, the recriminations were coming close to Putin’s own circle, with Ramzan Kadyrov, the notoriously brutal head of Chechnya, issuing a long diatribe on Telegram, the messaging app. According to Kadyrov, a Russian general who had lost a crucial town in Donetsk was “being shielded from above by the leadership in the General Staff.” Other leading figures close to Putin—including Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs Wagner Group, the military contractor with close ties to the Kremlin—echoed similar complaints.
But just as the situation appeared to be getting out of control, the criticisms died down. By November, most of the hard-liners had been brought in line and were no longer assailing Russia’s war strategy. Meanwhile, the military itself has quietly been handed control over many parts of the Russian economy, giving the government and the Ministry of Defense broad new powers, even in the private sector. Taken together, these developments highlight the growing influence of the military, and those close to it, in the way that Putin wields power at home. Rather than making the regime more vulnerable, as some Western observers have suggested, the setbacks in the war in Ukraine over the past few months have offered Putin an opportunity to expand his hold over Russian society, and even over his military critics.
Almost since the invasion began last February, Russian hard-liners have been criticizing the Kremlin’s war strategy. Many hawks were dismayed by the chaotic invasion and Russia’s serial failures during the first months of the war, and they were not buying the Ministry of Defense’s narrative that it was acceptable to lose so many Russian troops to a supposedly inferior enemy. Nor were they happy when Ukraine began to regain ground, first around Kyiv and then farther east. What was more striking, however, was how this pushback was made public.
By the time of the invasion, any debates about the army in the Russian media and the Duma had long been suppressed, and after February 24, the Kremlin also introduced more sweeping censorship of any discussion about the war. But the Internet was still available, and Telegram quickly became the go-to alternative for military commentators. Owned by a Russian company and used primarily as a messaging app, Telegram has long had an unusually significant role in Russia, particularly through its network of channels on which prominent users can broadcast to large numbers of subscribers. It was also one of the very few social media platforms that was not immediately blocked by the government when the war started.
As a result, when it became clear that the invasion wasn’t going according to plan, interest in Telegram skyrocketed. Ultranationalists and other hard-liners, always distrustful of the media, flocked to military commentators on the platform to learn what was really happening. On these channels, they could find a relatively honest and open debate about the problems the army was facing in Ukraine, as well as grassroots efforts to help Russian troops. Some Telegram channels, for example, reported on equipment shortages at the front and started crowdfunding to acquire radios, medicine, drones, body armor, and night-vision devices. These campaigns, in turn, drew more people to the platform, with the most popular military channels soon drawing hundreds of thousands of subscribers each.
These channels brought together a large constituency that supported the war but was dismayed at how it was being fought. One of the most prominent channels was run by Igor Girkin (known as Igor Strelkov), a hardcore nationalist and Federal Security Service veteran who became defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014. (In November, Strelkov was convicted in absentia by a Dutch court for his role in shooting down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.) Strelkov had long been pushing for an all-out war with Ukraine, and when the invasion faltered, he launched a vicious attack on Russia’s generals. And although he has long been considered an outcast by the military establishment, Strelkov was able to maintain close knowledge about the situation on the ground because military rank and file respected and trusted him. Drawing on his own sources, he posted regular battlefield updates and openly reported Russian military failures, mistakes, and retreats that sharply contradicted the Kremlin’s heroic narrative about the “special operation.”
Russian war reporters sharply contradicted the Kremlin’s heroic narrative.
Even more radical was Strelkov’s associate Vladimir Kvachkov, a 74-year-old former colonel in the Soviet special forces with a long record of right-wing violence, who joined Strelkov in blasting Russia’s military command. Soon, Strelkov and Kvachkov could be found on YouTube and Telegram presenting their analysis of Russia’s disastrous war and challenging the official accounts of the Russian retreat. Still, for much of the spring and summer, Moscow didn’t take them seriously. That changed in September, after Ukraine launched its dramatic counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region. Strelkov’s Telegram channel grew to more than 600,000 subscribers, and he was now joined by a growing chorus of other critical voices.
First were the so-called voenkors, Russian journalists who were embedded with the army. Traditionally, voenkors have been fiercely loyal to the Kremlin, but in this war they developed an even stronger rapport with soldiers on the frontlines. Most of them have their own Telegram channels, where their unalloyed reports have gained huge followings. A channel maintained by Alexander Kots, a correspondent for the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, now boasts 680,000 subscribers; another, called WarGonzo, run by veteran war journalist Semen Pegov, now has 1.3 million subscribers. For many Russians, channels like these are the true voice of the army, which has made their discussion of Russia’s military setbacks all the more potent.
By fall, the voenkors were joined by an even more influential strain of criticism from people close to the Kremlin itself. Take Kadyrov, who has long enjoyed close ties to Putin. In a series of posts on his Telegram channel, the Chechen leader issued blistering assessments of the war, although he refrained from criticizing Putin personally. It was in this vein that he issued his October 1 tirade. When Lyman, a crucial railway hub in the Donetsk region, was taken back by the Ukrainians, Kadyrov singled out the Russian commander who had been responsible for the town’s defense. “I cannot stay silent about what happened in Liman,” he wrote, placing the blame squarely on the military’s top leadership.
Coming from a longtime Putin ally, these comments posed an unusual challenge to the official military narrative. And other insiders supported him. Most notable was Prigozhin, Putin’s chef, a former Soviet-era convict, and for the past decade the leader of the notorious Wagner Group—whose fighters have also played an important role in Ukraine. By this point, Kadyrov’s comments were being amplified by voenkors and other ultranationalists, who added stark new reports from the frontline. Meanwhile, as Putin’s mobilization got underway, Russian social media was filled with videos from around the country showing angry and crying people who had no interest in joining a deadly war. Caught between the Telegram critics, who wanted Russia to fight harder, and many ordinary Russians, who were increasingly concerned about a war that was a debacle, the Kremlin looked as if it might be losing its grip on Russian opinion.
On October 8, Putin finally acted. In a major shift, he reorganized Russia’s chain of command, appointing Sergei Surovikin as the overall head of Russian forces in Ukraine. On paper, Surovikin is an unlikely choice: his thuggish record includes seven months in prison for his involvement in the failed coup d’état of 1991 and criminal charges for weapons smuggling, as well as accusations that he beat up a colleague. But Surovikin has one thing in his favor: the Telegram warriors approve of him. As soon as the announcement was made, veterans and military correspondents praised his appointment; Kadyrov and Prigozhin also supported him. Only Strelkov kept his critical stance, reminding his subscribers of Surovikin’s checkered career. Such was the change of tone on Telegram that when Ukrainian forces humiliated Russia by bombing the bridge to Crimea, a vital Russian supply route, the voenkors were largely silent and Strelkov accused them of turning into Kremlin propagandists.
Even as the voenkors pulled back on their criticism, however, the Kremlin took further steps to end dissent. On October 14, it became known on Telegram that Russia’s General Staff had asked prosecutors to investigate nine military critics, including Pegov and Strelkov, for violating a new law against spreading “knowingly false information” about the army. (This is a law that the Kremlin has used frequently to silence critics since the start of the invasion: in the spring of 2022, one of the authors of this article was put on Russia’s wanted list on similar charges.) The investigation was meant to send a warning to others on Telegram, and it did. Military correspondents immediately gave up criticism of the military leadership, reporting instead on generally positive news about the mobilization and “improvements” in logistics, training, and other matters.
The Kremlin has also begun to reward voices that are prepared to toe the party line. On November 17, having given up his criticism of the war, Kots was appointed to Russia’s Human Rights Council, a body that enjoys some access to the Kremlin and which Putin has recently filled with loyalists. A week later, the Kremlin awarded Pegov, who has also curbed his harsh reporting, the Order of Courage. And the regime has even managed to tamp down on Strelkov. After reports surfaced of the investigation against Strelkov and others, Strelkov seems to have reached some kind of accommodation with the Kremlin. The Kremlin allowed him to leave Moscow to help form his own “volunteer battalion” and join the fighting; in return, he stopped commenting on the war. By November, his Telegram channel had gone silent.
The Kremlin has not stopped bringing its military critics into line. In an effort to give the military more clout in Russian society, it has also taken significant steps to mobilize the economy. On October 19, Putin established the Coordination Council for Material Support of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, a body charged with organizing federal and local authorities’ activities, as well as the “healthcare system, industry, construction, transport, and other sectors,” in support of the war in Ukraine. Behind its bureaucratic-sounding name lies a clear purpose: all federal ministries and regional governments must now prioritize providing the army with supplies, military equipment, and other resources—in effect, redirecting the civilian bureaucracy to support the military and the war. Denis Manturov, Russia’s industry and trade minister, has been put in charge of arms and military equipment deliveries for the council according to the “specific orders of the Ministry of Defense.”
In fact, Russian officials have talked about militarizing the economy since the early stages of the war. In June, First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov, a hard-liner who was trained as an economist, explained what this “mobilization economy” would look like: Russian society would be focused on “specific targets” and the private sector would be required to meet those goals. Most important, he said, an elite body would be assembled to restructure the economy for this purpose. According to Belousov, in a mobilization economy, the most critical Russian industries would be assisted and supplied by many others. As an example, he referred to Stalin’s economic management during World War II, in which the entire Soviet economy was shaped around meeting the country’s military needs.
The generals now have a decisive say in the Russian economy.
But it was not until July that the Kremlin began to put these ideas into practice. Under a law adopted by the Russian parliament, the government acquired expansive controls over the wartime economy, including the power to implement “special economic measures” to appropriate the production of private companies as needed. As a result, private companies can now be required to fulfill military contracts on demand, and their employees must work overtime to meet production targets. The effect of these measures seems likely only to grow in the coming months. In late November, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that the government plans to increase defense purchasing by 50 percent in 2023.
Unsurprisingly, the business sector has not entirely welcomed the law. In theory, it could help businesses by giving them lucrative military contracts. In reality, however, it has added to the Defense Ministry’s growing influence over civilian life. Even without a full militarization of the economy, for example, the mobilization of 300,000 Russian men has had large-scale consequences in the private sector. Take Russia’s acute shortage of IT specialists, many of whom have gone into exile since the war started. Concerned by the brain drain, the Digital Development Ministry and Russia’s central bank announced in September that employees of accredited IT companies, telecom operators, and banks may qualify for mobilization deferrals. But the promised deferrals appear to be largely meaningless: despite qualifying for a draft deferment, one IT specialist at Raiffeisen Bank was mobilized, only to be killed by mortar fire in Ukraine three weeks later.
The Kremlin may have put a further civilian draft on pause for now, but already, the call-up of hundreds of thousands of men and the new laws giving the military control of domestic industries have had far-reaching effects. The generals now have a decisive say in the economy. They can also mobilize any number of employees in any corporation, which makes them more powerful than ever. Along with the silencing of military critics and regaining control of the narrative, these steps have given the Kremlin an effective way to close ranks.
And here may be a stark reality that the West needs to acknowledge. Just because Putin is losing on the battlefield in Ukraine doesn’t mean that he is losing control at home. If anything, the most recent stages of the conflict have allowed the Kremlin to extend its reach over public opinion and the civilian economy. The chances that domestic pressure could force Putin to seek to end the war are slimmer than the military situation suggests.
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