Foreign Policy: Russians unravelling before our eyes

    WORLD  08 June 2023 - 06:00

    The Foreign Policy has published an article arguing that a wave of fresh humiliations has the Kremlin struggling to control the narrative. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    Something extraordinary happened in Moscow on May 30: In broad daylight, the city was attacked by a swarm of drones—anywhere from five to 25 or more, depending on the Russian source.

    It was not a symbolic gesture, like the single, small drone that hit the flagpole on top of the Kremlin palace containing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office, but several strikes in different parts of the capital. None of the drones exploded—as Kommersant reported, they were meant for unspecified targets but fell on residential buildings after being either shot down or electronically jammed.

    It was the first time Moscow had been hit by an aerial attack since it was bombed by the German Luftwaffe in 1941.

    Unfortunately for Russians, it was only the first humiliating incident in a long week filled with many more. By the next day, the attack all but disappeared from the Russian state media’s headlines, and Moscow carried on as if nothing had happened.

    Residents grumbled about malfunctioning taxi apps because GPS services had been switched off in an attempt to disorient any further drone swarms. Local news outlets quickly moved on to reviews of the latest rooftop restaurant openings, with a few acerbic commentators asking if congregating on a top-floor deck makes you an even easier target.

    Then it got even more disturbing from the Russian perspective—and downright bizarre. Two groups calling themselves the Russian Freedom Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps—and claiming to consist of Russians fighting to liberate Russia from the Putin regime—crossed the border from northern Ukraine into Russia’s Belgorod region.

    At several spots along the border, the fighters encountered weak resistance and took over villages, as most Russian army units long ago abandoned the northern border areas for eastern and southern Ukraine. There, the bulk of the Russian army—or what’s left of it—now awaits the main thrust of Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive.

    One of the ostensibly Russian militias briefly took over a border village, captured some Russian conscripts, and invited Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov to a prisoner exchange. Surprisingly, he agreed—but then failed to comply. Shebekino, a Russian town about 5 miles from the border with a prewar population of almost 40,000, has been cordoned off and is being hastily evacuated, with locals complaining bitterly about Moscow’s indifference to their plight.

    Kyiv is cheekily claiming it has no control over the Russian guerillas, mirroring the claims that Russia itself made about the groups of armed men who took over Ukraine’s Donbas region in the spring of 2014. To add insult to injury, Ukrainian Twitter users promptly proclaimed the “Bilhorod People’s Republic”—using the Ukrainian spelling for Belgorod.

    Some of them joked that more than 100 per cent of the region’s Russian residents had already voted in a referendum for the republic’s creation, parodying Russia’s establishment of its two illegal puppet states in the Donbas. Ukrainian hackers broke into several local networks and broadcast a fake announcement by a poorly imitated Putin, announcing an evacuation, a military mobilization, and the imposition of martial law in Belgorod and other Russian border regions. Meanwhile, the two groups of fighters released a stream of videos showing them inside Russia and promising Russians they would be liberated from the Putinists.

    Combined with the Moscow drone attack, it’s now clear that Russia’s war has come home to roost, with Russian forces seemingly unable to occupy Ukraine and defend Russia at the same time. The incidents come at a time of heightened anxiety for Russia, as its offensive in the Donbas has stalled and Ukraine has begun a series of probing attacks in the east and south while shelling Russian targets behind the lines using new, longer-range Western missiles.

    The Ukrainians have also been stepping up their drone attacks on oil refineries, airfields, and other critical sites deep inside Russia.

    And the Russians seem to be unravelling. Exhibit A is the stunning escalation of the bitter conflict between Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry. On Sunday, Prigozhin published a video showing a Russian army lieutenant colonel—commander of the 72nd mechanized brigade in eastern Ukraine—who had been captured and interrogated by Wagner mercenaries. On camera, the commander confesses to having ordered his troops to fire on a Wagner unit. Russians firing on each other, private mercenaries capturing a high-ranking officer of their own country’s army—it all begins to feel a bit like a disintegrating state.

    Even if the Moscow drone attacks and cross-border incursions do not have much of an impact on the general course of the war, their psychological effect on Russia has been devastating. The mood on the propaganda talk shows on state television, which usually veers between cheerily patriotic and fully genocidal, has lately been tilting toward defeatism.

    On One’s Own Truth, a daily talk show on Kremlin-controlled NTV, RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan invoked the specter of 1917, when the Imperial Russian Army was routed by the Germans and Austrians in World War I, soldiers rebelled, and the regime collapsed. At a public forum on June 1, a high-profile parliament member of Putin’s United Russia party, Konstantin Zatulin, cast doubts on the war’s progress with unusual candor, calling its goals “unrealistic.” His party promptly announced it was investigating his remarks for possible censure.

    Amid the panic, some members of Russia’s extreme nationalist right are no longer content heaping vicious abuse on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov, and other top brass. Now, they have begun to directly attack Putin for his supposed indecision. Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a former mercenary linked to the Russian security services, who was convicted in absentia for war crimes by a Dutch court, has been mocking Putin for his lack of leadership on a daily basis to his audience of more than 800,000 Telegram channel subscribers.

    The Angry Patriots Club, a militant ultranationalist group co-founded by Girkin, is reportedly under investigation for “discrediting the military” under a law introduced in March 2022 to silence and outlaw any remaining independent voices. The Russian authorities are in a bind: If they don’t prosecute the most vocal critics of the Russian leadership, it will be seen as weakness and could pave the way for more unfiltered discontent. But if they do, they risk sparking further anger from the right-wing nationalists, who are even more invested in the war than the Kremlin itself. This comes at a time when paramilitaries such as Wagner are already in protracted conflict with other military factions and openly defying Russia’s top command.

    Where is Putin as Russians unravel? On the day of the Moscow drone attack, he first went silent. He gave no emergency address to the nation, and only mentioned the attack much later in the day in a hastily staged interview on the sidelines of a creative industries convention he was attending.

    True to form, he spent almost seven minutes ranting distractedly about civilizational clashes, NATO encroachment, and his usual pet peeves, only briefly mentioning the actual drone attack by praising the efforts by Moscow’s air defence to repel it. The next day, as Belgorod district residents waited in vain for the nation’s leader to soothe their panic, Putin rambled incoherently in response to questions about his sleep patterns and the Russian Santa Claus at a virtual meeting with families. Neither he nor Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov—hated by the pro-war zealots for his evasiveness—has commented with substance on any of the week’s most notable developments on the front lines.

    In Putin’s narrative of the war that Russians are not allowed to call a war, there is no room for setbacks. That narrative never included the possibilities of the war lasting this long, Ukraine returning to the offensive, drones attacking Moscow, and Russian fighters claiming to liberate Russian territory. In an unprecedented crisis of Putin’s own creation, his grip appears to be unravelling.


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