Putin’s Obsession And Zelensky’s Dilemma

The Future of the War in Ukraine

Sumanta Banerjee

Ayear before Yevgeny Prigozhin led his Wagner group of mercenaries in a mutiny against his patron President Putin in June this year, a book came out in London revealing the inner secrets of Putin’s establishment that indicated that a mutiny was waiting to happen. Although abortive, and settled through a compromise for the present, the mutiny is a sign of the conflicts embedded in the various levels of the Russian administration and society that will continue to manifest in other forms to plague the Putin regime.

The book is entitled: OPPOSITION TO THE RUSSIAN INVASION OF UKRAINE: HOW MUCH OF A THREAT IS IT TO PUTIN’S REGIME? written by two researchers Nicholas Chkhaidze and Taros Kuzio and published in 2022 by Henry Jackson Society, London.

It offers a well-documented account of some important developments within Russia prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2020 (described euphemistically as ‘special military operation’ by Putin), as well as the current trends following the invasion, which indicate growing opposition among different classes of Russians against the war.

Till now, reportages and analytical articles have mainly laid stress on the external threat faced by Russia (the increasing expansion of NATO’s control over the East European states neighbouring Russia), and the danger faced by the Russian-speaking people inside Ukraine from neo-Nazi groups supported by NATO. While NATO’s nefarious plan to encroach on Russia’s borders and interfere in Ukraine’s domestic politics, needs to be condemned, one must also remember that this was not the sole factor that compelled Putin to send his troops to Ukraine. What is little known is that there were several internal factors too that led to the war. This book throws light on the domestic backdrop to the war in Ukraine, its roots having been laid within the political soil of Russia.

In a chapter entitled ‘How Russia Became a Fascist State,’ the authors trace the historical source of the present war to post-Soviet Russia’s transition from an authoritarian regime run by a cabal to a one-man dictatorship. The transition was brought about and institutionalised by Putin, who as the President in 2020 made changes in the Constitution. These changes will allow him to remain in power till 2036, thus de facto making him president for life. They hark back to the Stalinist era when the cult of personality and hero-worship of Stalin were the rules. The chapter gives detailed reports of how over the last decade an ‘Ukraineanphobia’ was built up through Putin’s speeches and the official-controlled Russian media that de-humanised Ukrainians as neo-Nazi enemies of Russia. The rhetoric often echoed the past Tzarist claims over Ukraine as a part of the Great Russian Empire. The authors suggest that Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine are a manifestation of his ambition to emerge as a champion of Russian nationalism to restore that empire.

After explaining these current internal impulses–both personal and nationalist–that are driving Putin to continue the war, the authors delve into the other side of the picture in Russia. Behind the façade of national unity put up by Putin, there are other forces that are lurking to threaten his rule. Three important chapters–‘How Putin’s Obsession With Ukraine Threatens His Regime’; ‘Disgruntled State Officials’; and ‘Is a Coup Attempt in the Kremlin likely ?’–substantiate the authors’ conclusions with documentary evidence of the dissent growing among not only the common Russians (who are being forcibly recruited to fight the war in Ukraine), but also within the Russian elite consisting of bureaucrats and military personnel.

The chapter on ‘Disgruntled State Officials’ comes up with names of important bureaucrats and diplomats, who were once Putin’s close allies and advisors, but who are now publicly condemning his Ukraine misadventure–Anatoly Chubais (former special envoy to international organisations), Arkady Dvorkovich (former deputy prime minister) and Vladislov Surkov (once advisor to Putin on policies relating to Ukraine). Many others have been either forced to resign or shunted out by Putin.

The other disgruntled elements are the ‘Siloviki’–members of intelligence agencies like FSB (successor of the Soviet KGB), GRU (the Russian military intelligence) and the military national guard Rosgvardia. Most of them are descendants of the senior ranks of the former KGB and enjoy privileges. The constraints of the Ukraine war and the Western sanctions are compelling Putin to cut down on such privileges. Thus, their comfortable and luxurious life style is being threatened.

But apart from the disgruntlement among these upper sections of Russian society, it is the common Russians who are likely to be increasingly resentful of Putin’s war. Comparing the domestic repercussions of Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan in the past, with the discomfiture of the Russian people with their President’s present war in Ukraine, the authors write: “ In the 1980s the USSR could not hide the high level of casualties in Afghanistan from the Soviet people….Putin’s regime will also be unable to hide the ramifications of his invasion of Ukraine from the Russian people, which will have major consequences for the stability of Putin’s regime and his ability to hold on to power.”

After accumulating all these factual information about the increasing opposition to Putin from the upper echelons of the Establishment as well as disenchantment with him among civil society within Russia which pose a threat to Putin, the authors enter into the next zone with the chapter: ‘Is a Coup Attempt in the Kremlin Likely?’

They speculate that it is the powerful members of the Russian military apparatus (e.g. FSB, GRU and ‘Siloviki’) who have suffered most due to Putin’s misadventure, who may plot a coup to dislodge Putin.

The speculation in the above-mentioned book made a year ago appears to come true today as the war in Ukraine enters one-and-a-half year of Putin’s ‘special military operation.’ The Russian army is facing increasing military disasters. High level of casualties and huge losses of military equipment are having a detrimental impact on Russian morale. Till now, at least twelve high ranking generals are reported to have been killed. Discontent among the top military brass came out in the open, after General Ivan Popov, a commander who was in charge of military operations in the crucial Zaporizhzhia region (which shelters a nuclear plant) in Ukraine, accused his government’s Defence Ministry of betraying his troops by not providing sufficient support. Putin retaliated by dismissing him in July. Ivan Popov has now gone public with a statement exposing the military mismanagement in conducting the war. (Re: CNN, July 13). Is it not surprising that Popov’s dismissal comes less than three weeks after the mutiny mounted by the Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin–who made the same allegations against Putin’s Defence Ministry, accusing it of betraying his soldiers by denying military aid?

Soon after, on July 21, the Russian police raided the house of Igor Girkin, a former intelligence officer who helped Putin during his operations in annexing Crimea in 2014. But recently, Girkin had fallen foul of Putin, because he made personal attacks on him accusing him of cowardice and failing to mount enough offensive to win the war in Ukraine. The police accused him of “engaging in extremist activities.” (Re: New York Times).

What are Putin’s problems? Has he run out of sophisticated weapons that can contest with the latest state-of-the-art armaments that are being poured into Ukraine by NATO? Is the Russian armoury stacked with Soviet-era weaponry, which are of little use in today’s warfare? His opponents behind the closed walls of Kremlin are blaming him for his incompetence and are baying for his blood as evident from the recent developments described above.

Such rivalries leading to palace coups are not unknown in the history of Russia, whether under the Tzars, or the Soviet regime, or the post- Soviet era. Let us recall a few such major coups that took place there during the last several decades. In March 1953, after Stalin’s death, a power struggle broke out in Kremlin among the old guards. Lavrentiy Beria, who was the secret police chief under Stalin’s rule, took over as a minister in charge of internal affairs. Soon after however he was ousted by a cabal consisting of Molotov, Malenkov and Khrushchev who took over Kremlin. They arrested Beria and executed him in December 1953. But soon again the trio split. The more enterprising and younger Khrushchev forced the two veterans Molotov and Malenkov out of the race, and occupied the throne in Kremlin. In an ironical twist, some ten years later, in another palace coup, in October 1964 Khrushchev was ousted by his erstwhile protégé Leonid Brezhnev. The decades that followed saw one president succeeding another–Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin, all through palace coups.

It is important to note that the Communist regime in Russia, as well as the post-Soviet rulers, never institutionalised electoral contests among different political parties to test popular opinion and allow the election of rulers. Instead, they encouraged individual leaders of their own ruling party to build up their respective constituencies and acquire power by crushing opponents–whether from the political stream or civil society. In such a system of authoritarian politics, rivalries are bound to emerge among leaders of the ruling party. The ruler is more likely to fall to challenges from inside his palace gates, than to popular upheavals outside. Putin is facing these challenges from within the palace of Kremlin.

But in the meantime, the world is facing a humanitarian crisis. Apart from the daily loss of lives and dislocation of people which are confined to the war-torn areas, other parts of the world are threatened by the economic fall-out of the war–destabilisa-tion in trade relations, stoppage of grain exports from Ukraine, among other commercial disruptions.

The main question is–how long can Putin afford to continue the war, in the face of both growing internal discontent within Russia and mounting external military threat from NATO, as well as condemnation by international human rights bodies? His vengeful scorched earth policy of bombing Ukraine resulting in deaths of innocent citizens has created a humanitarian crisis. It has attracted denunciation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) which, on March 17, 2023 issued arrest warrants against him accusing him of war crimes over abduction of children from Ukraine. A panicky Putin fled from attending the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in July, since the host country South Africa being a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC would have been obliged to arrest him once he landed there.

Quite predictably, the US and its NATO allies are exploiting this global body’s indictment of Putin as a sought-after criminal who is at large and needs to be apprehended for war crimes. Curiously enough, these same US and NATO forces committed similar war crimes for decades in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other places, bombing civilian inhabitants–and yet they were allowed to get away by the International Criminal Court.

But then, as the old saying goes: “Two wrongs don’t make a right”. Just because NATO’s crimes went unpunished, should one use the same precedent to excuse Putin’s crimes?

Putin’s opponent, President Zelensky of Ukraine should also equally share some blame for continuing the war that has wreaked havoc upon the common people of both his homeland, and the neighbouring areas of Russia–who are being bombarded daily by the two warring contestants, Russia determined to take over Ukraine on the one hand and NATO equally determined to pour arms to defend Zelensky against the take- over.

But that apart, coming to the latest NATO summit that was held at Vilinius in Lithunia on June 11-12, reports suggest that the members of this military alliance are divided over the question of how long can they afford and continue to offer military aid to Ukraine. Besides, the US decision to send cluster bombs to bolster Ukraine’s anti-Russian offensive, has alienated its European allies who are signatories to an agreement that bans cluster bombs.

Conflicts have also come up between Zelensky and the US and European powers which have been backing him. Zelensky’s mounting demand for more weaponry and baby cry asking for entry into NATO, have become an irritant for these European states, who are no longer sure how long the dragging war in Ukraine will continue. It is draining their internal resources–in terms of military and financial aid that they are pouring in to sustain the war. At the NATO summit in Lithunia, an exasperated UK minister Ben Wallace rebuked Zelensky for demanding more arms, saying: “We are not Amazon”–referring to the global agency which delivers commodities at a throw away price on orders from consumers.

Back home Zelensky is facing dissent from within his own establishment. On July 21, his minister for culture resigned over a controversy about funding his projects. The same day, Zelensky dismissed the Ukrainian ambassador to UK, Vadym Prystaiko, for publicly criticising him.

Thus caught between Putin’s egoist goal of winning the war in Ukraine on the one hand, and the US-led NATO’s determination to defeat Putin on the other, the world public cannot hope for an immediate solution to this conflict between two European powers which are fighting a proxy war over Ukraine.

But even as people continue to politically debate at global flora and international media over the query: ‘Who first threw the stone–Putin or Zelensky ?’, from a humanitarian view the world has to ensure the protection of the victims of this war–the common Ukrainians who are being pulverised by Putin’s airplanes, and on the other side of the border their civilian counterparts–the common Russian citizens who are being indiscriminately targeted by Zelensky’s drones that are supplied by NATO. One cannot ignore the basic issue–the devastation of lives of innocent non-combatant Ukranians and Russians and their displacement caused by this continuing war.

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several proposals had been floated from different quarters for a negotiated settlement–without showing any light at the end of the twisting tunnel. There seem to be two options only. It has to be either a return to the status quo ante (withdrawal of the Russian forces to the pre-war position thus allowing Ukraine to retain its old territory), or an acceptance of the present status quo (allowing the Russian forces to retain the areas that they now occupy, and the Ukraine forces to stick to the areas that they govern and have recovered from Russian occupation).



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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023