The ultra-nationalists waiting for Putin to fall

The ultra-nationalists waiting for Putin to fall

It has not been a good week to be a Russian nationalist. First there was the collapse of the army around Kharkiv in the face of a Ukrainian offensive. Then the release of Azov regiment prisoners in exchange for one of Vladimir Putin’s personal friends.

“Finally,” exclaimed Igor Girkin, one of the most prominent nationalist Russian commentators on the war, on hearing Vladimir Putin’s order for mobilisation on Wednesday. “The leadership of the Russian Federation have come to an understanding of the total (full victory or full defeat) nature of the war in the so-called Ukraine.”

It was, he and other nationalist commentators agreed, an overdue step that might just compensate for their disastrous defeat outside Kharkiv last month. 

Yet a few hours later, he was accusing the leadership of “treason” and “s—ting on the heads” of its soldiers. Releasing 215 Ukrainian and foreign prisoners of war was “worse than a crime. Worse than a mistake.” It was, he said, resorting to capslock, “INADMISSABLE STUPIDITY.” The treachery, he added, could be traced all the way to “unnamed people at the top of the leadership of the Russian Federation”.

That is an extraordinary allegation to air in Russia and it comes from a known fringe radical. But it reflects two desperate realities facing Vladimir Putin. Almost all observers of Russia know that Putin looks weaker than at any time since he came to power more than 20 years ago. Each defeat and battlefield setback further erodes his authority. And people are already whispering about what happens when it finally evaporates altogether.

The second reality is that the main threat to his authority does not come from liberal oppositionists like Alexei Navalny, but nationalist hardliners who are far more willing to spill blood if necessary.

Girkin – or Strelkov, as he prefers to be known – is an eccentric character even by the standards of the Russian hard right. The former FSB officer rose to prominence in the spring of 2014, when he led a small band of desperado gunmen across the border into Ukraine and took control of the Donetsk region town of Slavyansk. He is an extreme nationalist who views the invasion of Ukraine as something like a crusade for Russian national survival, but bears a long-standing grudge against the Kremlin and has been predicting disaster almost since the February invasion began.

Sidelined by the Kremlin, blacklisted by state media, and known even among former comrades as an emotional man not necessarily to be taken seriously, his outbursts would not normally be newsworthy. But he is far from alone in his horror at the collapse in Kharkiv and the prisoner swap.

“Very fortunate on the day mobilisation is announced to see at liberty those who will again shoot at Russian soldiers,” wrote Rybar, one of the most influential of the anonymous war-bloggers. “It is a holiday in Ukraine.” 

Another called it an “extremely strange and short-sighted decision” that would undermine the Kremlin’s justifications for mobilisation against the “Nazi” threat coming from Ukraine.

Just weeks ago, Russian authorities had declared Azov regiment prisoners terrorists and promised a “second Nuremburg” showtrial. The British prisoners were to be put to death. “Just like the promise given to people near Kharkiv,” sneered one prominent war account on the Telegram messaging service, referencing Russian claims they would “stay forever” before being routed last month. “Maybe I am too thick to understand, but to me this looks like another f— up,” said another.

The bloggers, mercenaries, journalists and radicals who make up the Russian war-blogging community are not a political movement in themselves. And even the most die-hard of them are in no position to mount a coup if it occurred to them. But what they say should alarm Putin.

“The Igor Girkins of this world are in themselves largely irrelevant – but the fact they are out there, they are speaking and nothing is being done about them shows they are the acceptable voice of the disgruntled angry hawkish insiders,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services. “It is clear they have protection. So it is not that they could bring down Putin. But they tell us one of the ways people who could bring down Putin are thinking.”

Divided interests

Part of Putin’s problem is that it is almost impossible to simultaneously please the hawks, win the war, and maintain the support of the Russian public.

“He is manoeuvring between what we might call the rational party of war and the crazy party of war,” says Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional Russian politics at Chatham House. “Wednesday’s speech was an offering to the crazy party.” The debate around mass conscription – something not tried in Russia since the Second World War – is a perfect illustration of the balancing act.

The Telegram nationalists have been demanding “mobilisation” since at least April, when the retreat from Kyiv led many to conclude more serious measures would be needed to prevail in this war. The calls did not just come from the Strelkovian lunatic fringe.

Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s national security council and possibly Putin’s closest adviser, gave an interview to Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official government paper, that month calling for a Second World War style mobilisation including militarisation of the economy. At the time Putin ignored them, fearing the economic and social consequences. But the disaster around Kharkiv demanded a political response. 

Even then, he tried to soften it. “We are talking about partial mobilisation,” he said in his address on Wednesday. “That is, only citizens who are currently in the reserves and, above all, those who have served in the armed forces, have military skills and relevant experience. Only they will be subject to conscription.”

It has been popular to broadly divide Putin’s Russia into four: the affluent big cities with a liberal-minded middle class; the industrial heartlands that link their wellbeing to the “stability” Putin has claimed to provide for years; dwindling and poor countryside; and the ethnic republics. 

Each of those groups had different interests and a slightly different social contract and investment in the Putin regime. Now, there are only three basic constituencies: the anti-war, the pro-war, and those who don’t care as long as it doesn’t bother them.

The first is small, fragmented and heavily suppressed. Putin does not care about their votes or their negligible political clout. They have little to no chance of influencing the Kremlin to actually halt the invasion.

They second group – the pro-war nationalists – are loudest and boldest in both their support for the war and criticism of the government. They voice opinions shared by people like Patrushev, and – perhaps more importantly – have a following among soldiers and mercenaries on the ground. In other words, they are supported by the men with the guns whose support Putin’s authority ultimately rests on.  

It is critical for the war effort that Putin keeps them onside. But their support is under strain. Galleotti monitors social media forums for soldiers and members of Rosgvardia, the national guard which is supposed to put down domestic protests. He has seen a proliferation of the mocking language Girkin coined. Sergei Shoigu, Putin’s minister of defence for the past decade, is often called ”the plywood marshal”. Putin himself is mockingly referred to as Russia’s “unique strategic advantage”. But the Russian president also knows that the number of true believing nationalists willing to kill or be killed for the sake of mystical notions about God, Tsar and the Motherland is limited.

“The impression that Putin now has the full support of the Russian public is simply incorrect,” Denis Volkov and Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment wrote in a paper drawing on a series of surveys and focus groups in the first six months of the war. “Among the active conformists, there were respondents who were prepared to get off the sofa and take part in the war themselves, but they were certainly the minority.”

The Levada centre, an independent Russian pollster, published a poll in August showing about 46 per cent of Russians voicing unconditional support for the military. The remaining 54 per cent of Russians were on the fence or opposed to the war. And most Russians say they support the idea of peace talks.

Unpredictable consequences

Vladimir Putin’s grip on power has, for more than two decades, been underpinned by a basic quid pro quo with the Russian public: you keep out of political business, and we’ll keep politics out of your business. It is an arrangement that has survived the 2008 financial crisis, the 2014 war and subsequent Western sanctions.

In conjunction with targeted repressions, it has neutered, crushed and marginalised any meaningful opposition – including a serious attempt by middle-class protesters in Moscow to overthrow him in 2011. 

Honouring that contract is why Putin insisted on calling the invasion a “special military operation” rather than a war. It is why he promised when it began that no conscript soldiers would fight, and that no reservists would be called up. It is why he resisted calling for mobilisation in spring, even after the humiliating retreat from Kyiv made clear his standing army was not up to the job. And it is why, in his speech on Wednesday, he stressed the soothing, but apparently misleading, word “partial”.

But the contract has been well and truly shattered

The consequences are entirely unpredictable. Footage of men being press-ganged into service and handed summons to enlist despite being ineligible flooded Russian social media on Thursday. One video from Dagestan in the Caucasus showed a large crowd of men remonstrating with and eventually laughing at a woman from the recruitment office.

“You have to fight. For your fatherland. For the future,” she says.

“We don’t even have a present,” retorts one of the men. The Second World War, another adds, was a real war. “This one is just politics.”

One motorist filmed a man in plain clothes trying to hand him enlistment papers when he was pulled over by a traffic officer. He refuses them.

And because the Kremlin consciously promoted non-ideological individualism, it is struggling to offer a good reason for it. “Putin’s regime was based on demobilisation – trying to avoid any kind of ideological mobilisation,” says Petrov of Chatham House. “They were trying to push out people like Girkin. It is very dangerous for any system that cultivated such passivity to start such a mobilisation without ideological support

“Nothing is coming from below. No one’s cheering for the war. No one sees the regions that are to be taken over as part of Russia. Buryats [the ethnic Mongolians in Siberia] are never going to see [the south-eastern Ukrainian city of] Zaporizhzhia as their homeland to be defended.” 

Chaos across the country

Another defeat on the battlefield, some believe, could be fatal to Putin. 

In 1917, a Russian ruler who led the country into a failing war was deposed by fed up soldiers. There followed months of chaos in which much of the mechanisms of the state fell apart. It was the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin – ruthless, focused and steeped in Marxist theory telling them to recognise a revolutionary moment and take advantage of it – who ultimately emerged triumphant.

Modern Russia is still a long way from that scenario but it is not impossible it is moving that way. Casualties in Ukraine are heavy, but a fraction of those suffered in the First World War. The country is not running out of food. Most branches of the state still seem to function. 

Perhaps, suggests Galeotti, the system will act to protect itself – an alliance of the great and the not-so-good telling the president he must do his “final duty to Russia” by stepping down. That might end the war: unless a junta of ultra-hawks – perhaps a mixture of colonels, generals and security chiefs who believe his mistake was not to prosecute the war hard enough – get to the Kremlin first.

That may well be a lie intended to assuage the general public. 

Sharp-eyed Russian journalists quickly pointed out that the word “partial” appeared nowhere in the decree Putin signed authorising mobilisation. Novaya Gazeta, the investigative Russian newspaper now banned in Russia, cited sources close to the Kremlin saying a redacted paragraph in the decree allows recruitment of one million people. And scenes of men across Russia being pressed into service suggest that may well be the truer target figure.

Chatham House’s Petrov still finds the idea of a Russian battlefield defeat big enough to topple Putin “inconceivable”. Nuclear weapons make a disaster like losing Crimea impossible, he believes.

But the home front is a different story. Putin is the sole guarantor of the system of competing agencies and interest groups that he built to prevent precisely such a scenario. Take him away, and it is possible various factions – the hawkish security chiefs, the army, the technocrats desperately trying to keep the economy afloat – will find a way to keep the in-fighting inside the corridors of power.

But it is also possible the chaos could spill out across the country. There are always opportunists, fanatics and ambitious politicians ready to seize on uncertainty and moments of change. Disgruntled nationalists and ex-soldiers, resentful of their sacrifices in Ukraine and ready to listen to a “stab in the back” myth, could prove a dangerous force on the streets for whoever harnessed them.

Some have noticed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the once publicity averse head of the Wagner mercenary group, has begun to relish limelight. Videos – apparently leaked by Prigozhin himself – show him in full action-man mode, recruiting prisoners to fight in the war and arriving by helicopter for midnight briefings with front-line commanders. It is impossible not to notice that the real commander in chief – Putin – is almost invisible.

A disproportionate number of draftees so far have come from Russia’s ethnic minority republics. There are long-standing fears in Moscow about what Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord who runs Chechnya, would do if Putin were to fall. Would he remain loyal to his pact with Putin, to keep Chechnya inside Russia? Or would he and his henchmen, many of them former rebels, seize the opportunity for more autonomy? Some even think he might make a grab for the presidency itself, using a small standing army he is rumoured to maintain at a Moscow hotel.

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Last Update: Sat, 24 Sep 22 01:29:06