President Vladimir Putin is facing an increasing threat from Russian ultra-nationalist figures who are using their huge platforms on Telegram to demand a far more aggressive military mobilization in Ukraine.
For months, Putin appeared to have established broad support for the war, while successfully drowning out dissent. But following a series of military defeats, culminating in the devastating rout in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region, the president is facing pressure on multiple fronts.
Breaking with the official line, the ultra-nationalists have increasingly become a thorn in the side of Putin’s administration, causing Putin’s carefully assembled ‘power vertical’ to splinter from the inside.
Last week, Igor Girkin, a leading ultra-nationalist who led the pro-Russian separatists in 2014 trying to wrest the Donbass region from Kyiv’s control in 2014, told his 581,000 subscribers on Telegram that Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu should be executed by firing squad and that Russia should launch strikes on Ukrainian power plants.
Several people, including Girkin, have called for tactical nuclear strikes to be used on various targets in order “to drive 20 million refugees to Europe.” The tactic was encouraged again on Russia’s state-run Channel One, the leading propaganda outlet, by Igor Korotchenko, a military expert and editor of Russia’s National Defense magazine.
Others have accused the Kremlin of concealing “bad news” about how poorly the war has been going for Russia — a criticism that, until now, has largely been denied a hearing in the heavily muzzled Russian media. This week, Ukrainian officials said they have retaken more than 3,000 square miles of Russian-held territory since the start of September.
The State Duma usually rubber stamps whatever law Putin wants and is not noted for rocking the boat. So it surprised many commentators on Monday when Mikhail Sheremet, one of its members from the ruling United Russia party, said publicly that “full mobilization” in Ukraine was necessary for victory.
Igor Girkin is seen in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on July 11, 2014.
Dmitry LovetskyAP Photo
Attacks like that have meanwhile emboldened others from across the political spectrum to speak up in a way that seemed impossible just a few months ago. Earlier this week, liberal councilors in Moscow and St. Petersburg signed a petition demanding Putin’s resignation.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has responded directly to the growing clamor and the nationalists’ anger at Russia’s retreat, saying that Russians as a whole continue to support the president.
“The people are consolidated around the decisions of the head of state,” said Peskov. “As for other points of view, critical points of view, as long as they remain within the law, this is pluralism, but the line is very, very thin, one must be very careful here.”
Since first winning the presidency in 2000, Putin has folded all of Russia’s key institutions, from the media to the church and the courts, into a power vertical where the Kremlin’s bureaucratic machine stands at the top. The idea was to smother any glimmer of democracy and the influence of the oligarchs by making sure all of the key decisions went through him.
Pressure from all sides
Putin’s edifice of power has withstood pressure for over 20 years from protests inspired by liberals, ecologists, pensioners and Siberians but now it is facing its biggest threat.
As the nationalists’ most prominent figurehead, Igor Girkin has been among the most searing in his criticism of Russia’s military strategy. His comments have ranged from pessimistic, suggesting a belief that Russia could be defeated, and bravado, as he’s sought to cajole Putin into taking more aggressive action.
Addressing his followers last week, Girkin said: “The war in Ukraine will continue until the complete defeat of Russia. We have already lost; the rest is just a matter of time.’
Then, on Wednesday, Girkin said that Kremlin officials were living “on the Planet of the Pink Ponies” and that Russia must commit to total war rather than entertain any illusions that the conflict could end with “peace on parity terms.”
“Just do not stop at the objects on the Left Bank [of the Dnipro river]. Kyiv and Western Ukraine must be extinguished no less, and even more ruthlessly,” he said.
Aleksandr Kots, a pro-Kremlin war journalist with 600,000 followers, used his Telegram channel on Wednesday to say that the Kremlin was hiding terrible news from the Russian public.
“We need to do something about the system where our leadership doesn’t like to talk about bad news, and their subordinates don’t want to upset their superiors,” he said.
Girkin and Kots, as well as war bloggers such as Boris Rozhin and German Kulikovsky, are believed to be untouchable due to the krysha — protection — afforded them by figures in the senior echelons of the military and security services.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the tyrannical leader of the volatile Chechen republic, is the wild card in the deck.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, left, meets with Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Moscow on Feb. 3, 2022.
Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP
Speaking on his Telegram channel on Thursday, Kadyrov said: “There is no need to wait for the Kremlin to declare martial law. Each regional governor is quite capable of preparing, training and staffing at least 1,000 volunteers.”
Chechnya has already prepared a law allowing the drafting of men born in 1995-2004, while Kadyrov has called on regional governors to carry out “self-mobilization.”
Even the Communists are acting up after two decades of obsequious obedience. Their veteran leader Gennady Zyuganov is seemingly frustrated with toeing the official line 26 years after allegedly having the presidency stolen from him by Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin. ,
Speaking on Tuesday, Zyuganov said: “Most of all, we need maximum mobilization of our strength and resources” in order to win what he called a “war” against the US, Europe and NATO.
A day earlier, his Communist comrade Mikhail Matveev caused a stir when the suggested that governors and deputies sign up for the front as volunteers.
The Governor of Khabarovsk Mikhail Degtyarev, who had been attending the Eastern Economic Forum, complained to the Russian news outlet RIA Novosti that he would like to fight in Ukraine as a volunteer, but could not vacate his position. Degtyarev is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, a loyal Kremlin faction formerly led by the notorious ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovksy, who died in April.
Residents in his Far East region quickly created a petition “to help the Governor fulfil his dream and go fight in the Donbass.” The petition has already been signed by tens of thousands of people, but Degtyarev has yet to resign.
‘Harming the the future of Russia and its citizens’
Criticism of the war effort is also coming from the liberal side of the political spectrum although many of its senior leaders are either in exile or have already been rounded up.
Earlier this week, St. Petersburg councillor Ksenia Thorstrom shared a petition for Putin’s resignation that had been signed by two dozen fellow liberal councillors in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “We, the municipal deputies of Russia, believe that President Vladimir Putin’s actions harm the future of Russia and its citizens,” it said.
Emergency workers move the body of a Ukrainian soldier during an exhumation in the recently retaken area of Izium, Ukraine, on Sept. 16, 2022. Ukrainian authorities had discovered a mass burial site that contained hundreds of graves.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo
A week ago, representatives from St Petersburg’s Smolninskoye region, went further and called on federal lawmakers to open a treason case Putin in order to remove him from office for launching the invasion of Ukraine.
Unlike the response to other political factions, the reaction by the authorities against the liberals has been swift. The Smolninskoye District Court ruled that the municipal council should be dissolved and subsequently charged the deputies with “discrediting” Russia’s military.
Councilor Nikita Yuferev, who was fined and threatened with prison after attaching his name to the petition, tweeted: “Now the Governor of St. Petersburg will decide whether to disperse us to hell or not.”
Yet the public discourse has changed dramatically since the war began seven months ago.
Back in April, Aleksei Gorinov, a municipal councilor from one of Moscow’s districts, was jailed for seven years after he lightly criticized the invasion of Ukraine during a discussion about a children’s drawing contest.
A fractured alliance
The Kremlin has had tricky relations with fringe ultra-nationalists who are typically difficult to control despite the authorities best efforts to infiltrate them. The National Bosheviks, a movement led by the writer and dissident Eduard Limonov, had to be confronted in 2001 for plotting to invade Kazakhstan in a bid to foment a rebellion there by ethnic Russians. Limonov, who was arrested, denied the charges.
Since 2014, nationalists like Girkin had been advocating for Russia to conquer more territory to create “Novorossiya”—a notional territory that encompasses eight Ukrainian oblasts, including the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and much of eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, supposedly to protect Russian speakers in the eastern provinces and to encourage what he called an urgent “de-Nazification” of the country, realized one of the nationalists’ top priorities.
Burned Russian tanks litter Vokzalna Street in Bucha, where a column of Russian military vehicles making their way toward Kyiv was destroyed by Ukrainian forces; Bucha, Ukraine, April 4, 2022. The bodies of more than 450 people killed during Russia’s occupation of Bucha have been discovered.
Erin Trieb for Insider
Nothing more demonstrated to the ultra-nationalists that Putin was wedded to their cause than when he convened a Security Council meeting in February, just days before the invasion, to rubber stamp recognition of the Donbass and Crimea as independent states.
Putin all but declared war on Ukraine by warning that Kyiv would bear responsibility for “ensuring bloodshed” if they did not stop the violence against ethnic Russians in the east of its country.
In extraordinary footage broadcast from a Kremlin marble hall, each member of the Security Council was compelled by Putin to say on the record whether they supported the controversial decision.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin squirmed uncomfortably and muttered that he did, while Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s fearsome foreign spy service, stammered nervously and got confused after being grilled by Putin.
The political theater and the subsequent invasion convinced the ultra-nationalists that Putin and the ruling elites were now firmly on their side.
The democratic stooge
The ways in which the debate in Russia has shifted in recent days and weeks can be seen on state-controlled television talk shows. Months ago, calling the Russian action in Ukraine a “war,” rather than using Putin’s phrase of “special military operation” could have landed a commentator in trouble. But these days, lawmakers make that point openly.
Panel discussions on stations like NTV and Rossiya-1 have long featured a token democratic stooge who is kicked from pillar to post for being a NATO apologist, or in the pocket of the US. However, panelists and hosts are now struggling or unable to silence that lone voice, who’s now seen as the only one making any sense, in the face of Russia’s overwhelming military setbacks.
In a clip that has gone viral, liberal Moscow municipal deputy Boris Nadezhdin appeared on a NTV talk show and declared that “it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using those resources and colonial war methods with which Russia is trying to fight.”
Nadezhdin, a one-time ally of murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, called for peace talks aimed at halting the war before being interrupted by Sergey Mironov, head of the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party. Mironov declared that there can be no negotiations with “Zelenksy’s Nazi regime,” and that the only option is that it’s destroyed.
With that, the show suddenly erupted into a genuine debate, with another participant seemingly backing Nadezhdin by highlighting the military’s failings.
Contrast that clip with an appearance made by Nadezhdin on the same show in April, when the other participants ganged up on him for brazenly suggesting that the Soviet Union had “occupied Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe.”
“We didn’t occupy anyone, we freed them,” one of the panelists corrects Nadezhdin.
By Thursday, leading propagandist Vladimir Solovyov was wondering aloud why Nadezhdin hadn’t been thrown in jail. One of his guests on the Rossiya-1 channel bravely weighed in, suggesting there must be many people who think like Nadezhdin if he’s free “to say it on a federal television station.”
To this, Solovyov, who has been sanctioned and had his Italian villa seized, quipped that if Russia is democratic, it may be a sign that the Kremlin’s control over the media — a key pillar in Putin’s power vertical — is weakening.
A demonstrator holds a sign reading ‘No war!’ in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 24, 2022. Hundreds of people gathered in the center of Moscow on Thursday, protesting against Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Many of the demonstrators were detained.
Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo
It’s not unheard of in Russia for radical hawks to use the media to test the waters for radical policies.
What’s different about this moment is that a growing number of these figures are now off-leash — openly undermining Putin and warning that he will be replaced if he does not order more extreme action against Ukraine.
The widespread purging of liberals and journalists that occurred in the early days of the Ukraine war is relatively straightforward in Russia. But cracking down on ultra- nationalists is more dangerous and may have dire consequences – especially if Russia loses the war.
Meanwhile, as the Russian economy is slowly grinding towards Brezhnev-era zastoi (stagnation), ordinary Russians are fed up with rising grocery prices, being on unpaid leave from their jobs, and being blocked from traveling to the West.
“People are keeping their heads down and trying to block out the news,” said Maxim, who declined to give his full name out of fear for his security.
“Some of my friends have lost their jobs, and everyone is tightening their belts. Any mobilization would be the tipping point because nobody here wants to fight this stupid war – apart from the raving nationalists.”