How the Kremlin has co-opted its critics and militarized the home front

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

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. 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.”

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 Lyman,” 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 chief, 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. 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 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 militarize 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. 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 militarization economy, the most critical Russian industries would be assisted and supplied by many others.

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. 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.

– edited from Foreign Affairs, December 6, 2022
PeaceMeal, Winter 2023

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Russia is a failed state

Alexander J. Motyl
The Hill, September 27, 2022

The signs are there for everyone to see: The Russian state is no longer failing; it has failed.

The first step in Russia’s disintegration was Vladimir Putin’s painstaking construction of a fascist political system centered on him and his personality cult as an infallible, vigorous and macho leader. Outsiders were impressed with what seemed to be a powerful and effective political system. In reality, Putin’s solipsistic fascism was unsustainable. It rested on Putin’s ability to project youth and vigor, qualities that inevitably diminished with age. It also increased elite in-fighting, bureaucratic empire building, systemic corruption, and individual buck-passing, thereby eviscerating the state and reducing it to a brittle shell, while at the same time transforming the economy into a source of personal enrichment for competing elites. Small wonder that the state’s vaunted military modernization was a bust.

The Putin state survived because Russian elites, like most Russians, found it to be convenient to pretend that all was well and that Russia was great again. That illusion crumbled in the aftermath of Putin’s idiotic decision to go for a quick, victorious, little war with Ukraine. The war also has delivered a body blow to the state. The military has proved to be inept. The policymakers lacked a clear plan of what they hoped to achieve. And the economy went into a slow secular decline, as a result of Western sanctions and unrestrained elite theft of scarce resources.

The war proved to be the spark that ignited the conflagration that threatens to burn down the Russian state. Putin is rapidly losing legitimacy, at home and abroad. The secret police are angry with him for blaming them for the military fiasco. The generals are angry that the war is destroying the armed forces. The pro-war faction in the policy elite blames him for being too soft. The pro-peace faction blames him for being too hard.

Russia’s foreign allies are also losing whatever respect they had for Putin. At the recent summit of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Putin publicly had to justify his actions in Ukraine to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who made no secret of Russia’s having become a very junior partner in their supposed alliance. Both Xi and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan, a country that Russian imperialists of Putin’s ilk have long aspired to seize. At a reception pointedly ignored by Xi, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took advantage of a photo opportunity to show himself seated above Putin, a signal that no Kremlinologist could possibly miss. And, adding insult to injury, Kyrgyzstan’s president showed up late for a meeting with Putin.

The Russian population appears increasingly aware of Putin’s diminishing authority and legitimacy. The initial enthusiasm for the war has visibly diminished. The soldiers, too, are demoralized and blame the leadership for their woes. An armed resistance movement appears to have emerged and is actively fire-bombing draft boards and derailing trains. A Telegram channel that caters to Russian partisans provides instructions on how to assassinate officials. Local elites throughout Russia are demanding Putin’s resignation.

With Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization of reservists on September 21, thousands went to the streets and protested and tens of thousands suddenly realized that the war had come home and worried about their sons and husbands dying on the front. Over a thousand people have been arrested; many others have bought one-way airline tickets or driven their cars to the nearest border. The flows will only increase as Russians come to realize that a secret clause in Putin’s announcement foresees the drafting of up to a million men.

The most telling mark of state failure is the loss of control over the forces of coercion. The Russian army is increasingly refusing to fight, so much so that the Duma felt the need to pass legislation specifying that desertion, surrender, insubordination and misuse of military property required tougher sentences. Given the poor condition of front-line soldiers, Moscow has taken to enlisting senior citizens, teenage graduates of military academies, mercenaries and hardened criminals. None of these groups can be expected to fight with conviction or elan, and the criminals are most likely to turn their guns against the officers who view them as cannon fodder.

Two well-organized, well-funded private armies already exist next to the inefficient and incompetent state-run armed forces: the Wagner Group, numbering 8,000 mercenaries; and the so-called Kadyrovites, some 12,000 Chechen fighters loyal to and paid by the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is believed to aspire to succeed Putin, while the duplicitous Kadyrov, though outwardly Putin’s ally, surely will stab his master in the back when the time is right. The Kremlin also has begun forming non-Russian battalions that, as history shows, often turn into the cores of future armies. With so many armed groups running around, with so much visible discontent, Russia is ripe for civil conflict, perhaps even civil war.

Yes, the fascist Russian state has failed. It kills foreigners with abandon — and now it also kills its own subjects. All that’s left to do is for Russian elites and masses to realize this fact, abandon their illusions about ever being “great” again, and take to restructuring the Russian Federation and establishing a post-Putin regime. Most of Russia’s neighbors know that the probability of the Russian state’s collapse is approaching 100 percent. Nervous Western elites, who thus far have preferred to ignore this eventuality, would do well to get on the bandwagon and prepare for a great power’s bloody demise.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark and a specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR. His article was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Fall 2022.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)