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Putin’s Russian Critics Are Growing Ever Louder

The most pointed criticisms of the war are coming from those charged with fighting it.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin puts on ear phones during a press conference at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on December 2, 2010 after Russia was chosen to host the 2018 World Cup.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin puts on ear phones during a press conference at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on December 2, 2010 after Russia was chosen to host the 2018 World Cup.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin puts on ear phones during a press conference at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on December 2, 2010 after Russia was chosen to host the 2018 World Cup. SEBASTIAN DERUNGS/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

A year into the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in no mood to end the war despite heavy casualties and reversals on the battlefield. In a long-winded address last week, he said nothing about why the so-called special military operation that was supposed to culminate in the collapse of the Ukrainian state within days had dragged on for a year. Instead, he called upon Russians to prepare for the long haul. “Step by step, carefully and consistently we will deal with the tasks we have at hand,” he said

A year into the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in no mood to end the war despite heavy casualties and reversals on the battlefield. In a long-winded address last week, he said nothing about why the so-called special military operation that was supposed to culminate in the collapse of the Ukrainian state within days had dragged on for a year. Instead, he called upon Russians to prepare for the long haul. “Step by step, carefully and consistently we will deal with the tasks we have at hand,” he said

The Russian elite and lawmakers present at the event clapped and nodded and gave a standing ovation when he referred to the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine as Russian territory. He conveniently omitted important details, such as the fact that Russian forces have long been forced to retreat from Kherson and are now incurring their heaviest death toll since the onset of the war, with more than 800 soldiers dying in a week or sometimes even in a single day.

It’s unclear how many at the gathering sincerely bought Putin’s pitch about a coming Russian victory. But what’s indisputable is that criticisms of the war among the men fighting it are growing ever louder. 

Most of the criticism has tended to come from those who believe Putin and his military have not pursued the war decisively or effectively enough. These critics tend to be allies of Putin, and their comments amount to a jockeying for greater influence within the state by presenting themselves as better strategists than Russia’s own generals—although some suggest this also amounts to indirect criticism of Putin himself, since he placed those generals in charge in the first place. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former Soviet Union convict and current chief of the mercenary Wagner Group; Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal Chechen leader; and Igor Girkin, who came to be known as Igor the Terrible for massacring Bosnian Muslims and was later accused of downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, have all openly criticized the Russian military. These men are driven by personal ambition, yet their views reflect recognition among Russians tasked with fighting the war about how Putin’s invasion has not gone according to plan. 

Prigozhin publicly stated that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov deliberately halted ammunition supply to Wagner mercenaries fighting in Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine, and accused them of treason. He also accused the Russian army of taking credit for advances made by Wagner in the town of Soledar—the first Russian success in months. Of the Bakhmut offensive, he wrote, “within a radius of 50 km, plus or minus, there are only Wagner PMC fighters.”

In the tussle between the defense ministry and Prigozhin, Putin at first seemed to lean toward the professionals—until recently, Wagner was recruiting prisoners to beef up its forces—but ultimately Prigozhin turned out to be the winner. A day after his public critique, Wagner was sent the ammunition Prigozhin demanded and, according to some reports, the ministry of defense was forced to swallow its pride and publicly salute the paramilitary group’s “courage.” In a Telegram statement through his press service, Prigozhin thanked people “in high places” for the decision, saying “hundreds, if not thousands” of men defending their homeland had been saved. “Their mothers and children will not receive coffins with their bodies,” he said.

For years, Prigozhin has been recruiting and sending mercenaries to fight in Syria, Libya, and other countries on Putin’s behalf. But experts say he has increasingly been seeking a role as a public figure, even speaking like a politician rather than a private businessman. Although Wagner’s clear link to the Kremlin, Prigozhin’s mercenaries have never been formally recognized by the Russian state; and in Ukraine, too, Wagner was meant to stay in the shadows, carrying out operations the state could deny while providing prisoners as cannon fodder. 

But Prigozhin is now targeting top echelons of the defense ministry for criticism while portraying himself as a straightforward nationalist trying to protect Russia’s honor and his men. Over the last few months, Prigozhin admitted his connection not only to Wagner (after previous denials), but also to the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm behind the disinformation campaign that sought to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

“I was never just the financier of the Internet Research Agency,” he said in a press service post. “I thought it up, I created it, I managed it for a long time.” 

Several Russia experts told Foreign Policy that Prigozhin has lately felt indispensable to Putin, especially since Russian forces’ failure to make inroads in Ukraine and rout from previously occupied areas. He has presented himself as the heroic face of the war—because he knows Putin needs him more than ever. 

Joana de Deus Pereira, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute-Europe think tank, pointed out Prigozhin’s unique approach. “Prigozhin is doing what nobody in high circles has done yet,” she said. “He is visiting the dead, the wounded, and acting like a politician.’’

Prigozhin is not only “doing the dirty work on the battlefield,” but also presenting himself as a national face during the war, Deus Pereira said. “This is a political stunt that I don’t think the Kremlin had thought about. He wants to increase his political influence and enter the Kremlin. The elite will never accept that,” she said.

Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, professor of Russian politics at King’s College’s Russia Institute, said the rise of leaders who control armed men outside state structures is threatening to the elite establishment. “That’s destabilizing,” she said, “because it reflects the failure of the state.” 

 “Probably, such a situation cannot but disturb and irritate both other influential figures in Putin’s entourage and the president himself,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian businessman and opposition activist, said to FP through his press secretary Maxim Dbar.

Sharafutdinova said that, while Prigozhin is not a threat to Putin at the moment, his growing prominence has caused concern in Moscow. “This is a time of acute uncertainty,” she said. “People at the helm of power could lose the war.

“It could then come to—who is the more popular leader, who is seen as having done more for the sake of victory in this war? The contest could catapult some people in the front line as possible options of who could emerge as the next leader.”

Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, isn’t currently seeking to replace Putin either—but he has questioned the president’s acumen, suggesting that Putin does not have an accurate picture of the reality in Ukraine. “If today or tomorrow no changes in strategy are made, I will be forced to speak with the leadership of the defense ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground to them,” Kadyrov said in an audio message posted to Telegram in September. 

Experts say Kadyrov, a former rebel turned Russian ally ruling Chechnya, a Russian republic in the Caucasus, is a huge asset for Russia. Chechen delegations have been sent to occupied regions in Ukraine, ostensibly to aid in converting Ukrainian state structures to Russian ones—but also to deploy Kadyrov’s expertise in suppressing unruly masses through violence.

Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy that Kadyrov is driven by business interests: “He wants to loot occupied territories. We know of reports that some individuals affiliated [with] him have even seized factories in Mariupol.” Deus Pereira agreed, saying that Kadyrov wished to expand his influence and be made in charge of occupied areas. 

That may not sit well with others—such as Girkin, a Russian army veteran and former defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, who also goes by the alias Igor Ivanovich Strelkov. He has claimed credit for Russia’s conquest of Crimea, saying it was triggered by his 2014 attack on the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. He has also criticized Putin’s Dec. 9, 2022, claim that the progress of the special military operation was stable. Experts said Girkin believes Putin had stopped short and should have called for a full mobilization. 

Any of these men could be made to mysteriously disappear, like other critics before them. But attacking the defense minister and the army chief are still not considered a capital offense if you have already earned Putin’s ear. Nonetheless, their salvos display growing infighting among Russia’s elite in the face of the failures of Russian forces on the battlefield. 

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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