When hundreds of returning coffins morph into thousands, the public mood will harden quickly against Putin and the population will become even angrier

by John Dobson

‘Putin’s bad decision making and shallow support have produced one of the biggest strategic blunders in living memory”, wrote the famed political philosopher and author of The End of History, Francis Fukuyama, in the Atlantic last week. “Far from demonstrating its greatness and recovering its empire”, he continued, “Russia has become a global object of ridicule, and will endure further humiliations at the hands of Ukraine in the coming weeks”.

Few would disagree that for President Vladimir Putin, the invasion of Ukraine has been one disaster after another. His initial premise that Ukraine would collapse in the first week of the invasion eight months ago, and that the Russian army would be greeted by grateful Ukrainians, has proved to be just a sick illusion. When a neighbouring bully tries to take over your house, it’s natural to fight back, and the Ukrainians have done that on steroids.

Russia’s weakness in recent years is simply because President Putin has become the sole decision maker. Even the former Soviet Union had a politburo where the party secretary had to vet policy ideas. Now there is nothing to prevent a deranged dictator from threatening the world. When Putin sat at that long table with his defence and foreign ministers at the other end, because of his fear of Covid, he was so isolated that he had no idea how strong Ukrainian national identity had become in recent years or how fierce a resistance his invasion would provoke. Putin was ignorant of the deep corruption and incompetence of his own military, and also of the abysmal performance of the so-called modern weapons his defence industry had produced, not to mention the low quality of training of his officer corps. Small wonder, then, that the invasion is at the point of failure.

The latest catastrophe was triggered when Putin decided on a “limited” mobilisation in September, which caught Russians off-guard. Over the summer and in the first half of September, polls had recorded an uptick in the positive mood among Russian society, growing fatigue with military rhetoric, and declining interest in the war in Ukraine. Now mobilisation has irretrievably changed the lives of millions. In the latest Levada Centre poll of Russians, 47% of respondents said that the partial mobilisation made them feel “anxiety, fear and horror”, 23% felt “shock”, and 13% felt “anger and indignation”. Only 17% said they felt “pride in Russia”. Even if the mobilisation has not prompted mass protests, almost impossible nowadays in Putin’s prison country, it has undermined the public’s trust in the state and the state media. People are well aware that the mobilisation has merely created cannon fodder for the Ukrainian army to destroy as it continues to take back their territory from the aggressors.

Take the case of Andrei Nikiforov, a successful young lawyer from St Petersburg. Andrei was one of the hundreds of thousands of Russians mobilised to hold the front line in Russia’s faltering war. On 25 September he received his call-up papers. Two weeks later he was dead, killed in Lysychansk, one of the most dangerous spots near the front line. Given just a few days’ training and supplied with ancient Russian equipment, Andrei didn’t stand a chance. Today, hundreds of coffins are returning to Russia from Ukraine, bringing the remains of ordinary Russians who were promised a quick “special military operation” and were drafted to go and fight in a war. Their deaths are marking an inflexion point for Putin in a conflict where at least half a million young men have been drafted or fled their homes to avoid it. Defying the new regressive laws in Russia that criminalize all forms of anti-war activity, thousands of Russians across the whole country have nevertheless turned out to march, protesting against mobilisation and the war. To date more than 2,000 have been detained, their fate unknown. When hundreds of returning coffins morph into thousands, the public mood will harden quickly against Putin and the population will become even angrier.

Yet another problem for Putin is that Russian conscripts are now fighting each other. At least 11 people were killed and 15 more wounded at a military training ground in the Belgorod region in south-western Russia last week, when according to the Russian defence ministry, two conscripted “volunteers” opened fire on other troops. Baza, a Russian news site, reported that the two shooters were nationals from a “former Soviet Republic” and were “eliminated” in return fire. This mass shooting illustrates the growing tensions among Russian troops, particularly between the Christian Slavs and the Muslim minorities, issues which have plagued its army since the start of the war. Multiple videos have recently emerged showing scores of men from ethnic minorities being subject to poor conditions at training centres as they waited to be sent to the front line. Politicians in Moscow care little about the fate of ethnic minorities conscripted from former Soviet Republics thousands of miles away, despite Putin’s warnings that ethnic tensions could tear Russia apart. In the past he has compared the potential break-up of Russia’s 22 Republics to that of the collapse of the Soviet Union 31 years ago. Tensions have risen sharply between the 9 Muslim Republics and Moscow because of the disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority troops being slaughtered in Russia’s war with Ukraine. The Kremlin declines to publish any details of deaths of its military personnel, now put at 65,850 by Kyiv, but the vast majority are believed to consist of non-Slavs, which raises the real possibility that the war could bring about Putin’s warning, the break-up of Russia itself.

The latest clue to the deep trouble Putin finds himself in was his declaration of martial law last week in the four Ukrainian regions Russia claims to have annexed, but only partially occupies: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. This gives Russia’s puppet leaders in these regions the powers to curtail the freedoms of civilians, repurpose industries, and press-gang Ukrainians into Russia’s armed forces to fight against their fellow countrymen.

In a clear sign that his “special military operation” is now affecting the whole of Russia, Putin decreed that the security across the whole country will be tightened at three levels. In those regions close to the border with Ukraine, such as Belgorod, Bryansk, Krasnodar and Rostov, as well as in annexed Crimea, a “medium level of response” has been declared. Measures include boosting security and public order, and restrictions on the movement of traffic, including entry into and exit from these regions. The next level down is “heightened readiness”, which applies to central and southern regions of Russia, including Moscow, which will involve vehicle searches, traffic restrictions and “tighter public order security”. The lowest security level applies to the rest of the country—in effect northern Russia, Siberia and the Russian Far East. Here regional governors have been ordered to “meet the needs of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”, which, in effect, hands greater powers to the military.

How will the Russian people react to these new measures? For a start, even the dimmest member of society will have difficulty in believing the Kremlin’s assertions that “all is going to plan”. As their freedoms are further restricted to the level of North Korea and their living standards collapse, people will inevitably lose faith in their President and rise up against him, despite the difficulties of doing so. It’s also unlikely that the Russian people will continue to be content to see men, young and old, dragged off the streets and put into uniform to face almost certain death because of the incompetence of the generals. After eight months of a war against people, whom Putin has defined as their “brethren”, and with no end in sight, more and more are asking the basic question: “why”?

In his Atlantic article, Fukuyama concludes that “it is an open question whether or not Putin himself will survive a Russian military defeat”. But many disagree. Putin cannot survive his crass error of judgement. He’s already toast.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat