The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.
Ukraine’s successful counterattack means that for the first time ever in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 22 years in power, he has to deal with elites who disagree with him—on strategic decisions over Russia’s war in Ukraine and how the war may end. Having launched the war not just without any internal discussions, but without even informing key players, Putin has taken huge risks politically. If the war were going well, that gamble would have paid off, but today, as Ukraine is counterattacking and Russia is retreating, questions about Putin’s decisions are mounting. There are fears that Russia may lose outright. If the president fails to convince the elites that he remains a strong leader with a clear understanding of where he is taking the country, uncertainty may become a significant political risk to Putin’s regime.
It’s true that a portion of the Russian elites—the most powerful, ambitious, and dominating players—consider the war a disaster. But virtually everyone in the elite not only empathizes with Putin’s political motives but also shares his understanding of the situation and motives in launching the war. The political mainstream remains significantly anti-Western and anti-liberal, does not consider Ukraine a full-fledged state, and dreams of shaking up the world order as revenge for 30 years of Western arrogance. Many believe that Russia was left with no other option but to do something disastrous that would destroy the current order and provide an opportunity to rebuild it in more historically just circumstances. To put this viewpoint simply: The war may be a disaster, but it is a justifiable and understandable one.
Consequently, in the first few weeks of the war in February and March, the elites consolidated around Putin. Even those who could be considered in-system liberals or technocrats—those who viewed Putin’s actions with dread and despair—displayed submission. Many put the blame for this geopolitical nightmare not on Putin but on the West.
In the first stages, until April, many hoped that the war would end quickly—in, of course, a Russian victory, whether a peace deal with Ukraine or Ukraine’s outright defeat. Russia’s inevitable victory was questioned only in terms of its cost and duration. By the end of the spring, the understanding that the conflict could drag on for years had become conventional wisdom: Russia can’t lose, simply because Ukraine can’t win.
Or can it? A lot changed in September. Ukraine’s unexpectedly successful counterattack, its first since the beginning of the war, has sparked serious concerns and fears among Russian elites. Namely, what if Russia can in fact lose? Importantly, these doubts are focused not so much on the capability of the Russian army or its military might (although that is also cause for concern), but, more importantly, on Putin and his ability to control the situation.
Concerns started to accumulate, with a growing number of questions going unanswered. Is Russia going to annex the occupied territory? Will it hold referendums on these areas becoming part of Russia, and if so, when? Which Ukrainian regions will it take? Is it capable of retaining them? Where will Moscow find personnel to serve in the public administrations? Will the Kremlin announce an official military mobilization? To this day, the questions keep coming, yet Putin has been silent. All he has said is that everything is going according to plan and “all the goals of the special operation will be achieved”; those were the only answers the elite apparently deserved to hear. The Russian informational space, from opposition media to in-system outlets, has been awash with rumors, leaks, and assumptions apparently coming from the Kremlin. But nothing sounds convincing, and nothing has come true.
Putin’s unwillingness to explain himself, to reveal practical plans and intentions, or to address concerns and fears is one of the main reasons that his leadership is being eroded. It’s one thing to put your fate in the hands of a political leader who is a proven strongman with the capacity to stand firm in the face of geopolitical challenges. It’s another thing entirely to find yourself completely dependent on a political leader who seems to be losing yet remains stubbornly reluctant to explain anything. Putin failed to hold his annual address to the Federal Assembly, a joint meeting of both chambers of parliament, in the spring; postponed indefinitely his Direct Line (a Q&A show with ordinary Russians planned to be held over the summer); and dodges most subjects concerning the situation on the front. He started this war alone, and he is waging it alone, leaving the elites with no choice but to blindly follow and trust his shadow deliberations with a handful of nonpublic figures as isolated as the president himself.
Over the course of September, the long-running question of “How are we going to win this war?” became “How are we going to avoid losing this war?” The problem is that Putin’s initial concept—winning the war by militarily exhausting Ukraine, slowly biting off chunks of its territory, bombarding the rest of its territory, and just waiting until it gave up—stopped being remotely convincing when Ukraine launched its counterattack.
Putin has made just two public comments on the subject of a counterattack so far. In July, commenting on a possible Ukrainian counterattack, Putin said: “Let them try. … Everyone should know that, by and large, we have not started anything in earnest yet.” And last week, he said that Russia’s “restrained response” to Ukrainian “terrorist attacks” would not last forever, adding: “Recently, Russian Armed Forces delivered a couple of sensitive blows to that area. Let’s call them warning shots. If the situation continues like that, our response will be more impactful.” These interventions shed no light on how Russia intends to avoid losing the war. Many now speculate that Russia may have only two options: a nuclear threat (to the West, or tactical use in Ukraine) or a general military mobilization. The latter remains highly unlikely, while the former would spell world disaster.
It would be wrong to assume that the ostensible Russian leadership knows about Putin’s plans and intentions. Anyone citing insiders or Kremlin leaks overlooks that these perspectives do not reflect Putin’s real views, only the suggestions of those who may be working around him. These insiders may only guess, divine, interpret, or rely on obsolete instructions. A striking example is the Kremlin’s apparent preparations to hold referendums in occupied Ukraine. Summarizing media leaks and talks with my own sources, it appears that at the end of August, the presidential administration was working on the basis of June assumptions that by September, Russia would have secured its control over major parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions—those that the Kremlin had recognized as independent entities on the eve of its invasion—and would therefore hold votes there. In the first few days of September, it became painfully obvious that the political agenda was at odds with the military situation on the ground, and that the military agenda was significantly behind. All plans were paused at the last moment, several days before the envisaged referendum date (Sept. 11).
The power vertical fails to act consistently: While domestic policy overseers, who are responsible for referendums, are ready to launch preparations for the votes, military divisions struggle to secure physical control over the territories, and the front line is moving. The FSB agency objected to the referendums over security concerns. Every official body has its own agenda and political priorities, which often contradict the goals of others or the overall goals of the military operation. Putin appears to be failing to bring it all together.
The military setbacks and ensuing uncertainty and fears that Russia may lose the war have also aggravated internal splits. The current challenging situation on the front has deepened the schism between two large groups: The first can be summarized as “let Putin do what he considers necessary,” and the second one as “it’s time to do something, since the Kremlin is failing to react appropriately.” The first group consists of technocrats and senior officials in the presidential administration, the cabinet, and the central bank: They are all trying to focus on their supposedly peaceful agendas and can only watch the development of the military situation without being able to impact it. Some seek political dividends (such as First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko), some (including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and central bank head Elvira Nabiullina) focus on their direct duties, ignoring the war atrocities. They are passive and diligent.
The second group, which may be frustrated into action, is much more visible and vociferous. It is made up of very different players, including those who are directly involved in military affairs (such as the armed forces, security services, national guard, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces, and billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenaries), and the United Russia ruling party, the in-system opposition (Communists, Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia—For Truth), and various public figures from the dominant conservative camp. All of them are either begging Putin to inflict a crushing defeat on the Ukrainian army as soon as possible or are preparing to act on their own initiative, such as the Chechen leader Kadyrov, who has called for self-mobilization, or billionaire Prigozhin, who is recruiting prisoners to go and fight. This part of the elite is eager to propose their own political agendas to fill the vacuum that Putin is leaving on how Russia can win the war.
Meanwhile, the setbacks caused an outcry among pro-war activists and bloggers. When Russia lost control over an important part of the Kharkiv region, social networks exploded with anguished cries that “Russia is losing,” “it’s a disaster,” and “where is Putin?”—as well as calls to investigate Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the General Staff for treason, and for an urgent full mobilization. This camp is strategically loyal and ideologically close to the authorities, and it does not have a significant political impact on the opinions of the populace. It has no structure or political organization and appears to be harmless for the Kremlin. But in the current situation, this group has become extremely dangerous, as it may shape the mood among the elites, spread awareness about the reality of the situation, and fuel fears that Russia may lose. Panic can be highly contagious.
For 21 years, Putin was a highly convenient political leader for Russia’s ruling elites: His popularity guaranteed political stability and predictability, while his reluctance to carry out any reforms ensured the conservation of the status quo. While his high approval rating still safeguards against political destabilization from ordinary Russians, he has suddenly been transformed into a destroyer: a leader of a country with a very uncertain future.
But make no mistake. It’s not anti-Putin sentiment that has been rising. The current political demand is for a decisive, bold, well-informed, and competent strongman—and for Putin these latter two attributes are currently in doubt. They want a leader who can guide, confront challenges, mobilize when needed, and give hope of a better future. The elites want the old Putin to return to his duties as a full-fledged political leader, connected to reality and his surroundings, but they don’t know if he still even exists. There is no risk of an anti-Putin takeover, since there is still no alternative to him, and the elites remain hampered by their fear of the secret services and Putin’s omnipotence. But growing uncertainty, nervousness, and fears that Russia could lose the war will push the elites to act more independently and more boldly against their enemies. Putin’s politically fading star is the biggest threat to the regime—much more dangerous than any possible opposition or mass protests.