Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing domestic criticism for his war. Image: Twitter

Russia’s battlefield setbacks in Ukraine are shaking support for Vladimir Putin’s management of the war among supporters, if not support for the invasion itself.

Pioneer critics are visible online with their critiques, and some are quite acerbic. “There are NO thermal imagers, NO bulletproof vests, NO reconnaissance equipment, NO secure communications, NOT enough copters, NO first aid kits in the army,” wrote one blogger on Telegram, a Russian social network. “What’s the matter with you?”

A blogger named Yuri Podolyaka told his 2.3 million followers on Telegram that if the military continued to hide its battlefield losses, Russians will “cease to trust the Ministry of Defense and soon the government as a whole.”

“The events in the direction of Kharkiv can rightfully be called a catastrophe,” wrote another Telegram contributor. “Signs of things to come were known long before. They were seen and reported on. But they do not fit into the format.”

A commentator on a television broadcast critical of the conflict used the word “war” to describe it instead of Putin’s favored euphemism, “special military operation.” The last TV personality who had criticized the war almost six months ago had ended up in jail.

If such opinions came from liberal dissidents – for instance, followers of jailed political opposition leader Alexei Navalny – the commentators would have been swiftly arrested and would be facing long jail terms. But these critics are supporters of Putin and of the war.

Some have connections to intelligence agencies and the military. In a Russia where information on the war is tightly controlled, such open criticism is a stunning development.

Blame is rarely directed at Putin himself; Russian critics have a long tradition of steering clear of personal attacks on maximum leaders. This is simply the latest version of the well-worn old Russian habit of excusing crimes of Soviet leadership: If only Stalin knew, his apologists would say.

But dozens of Russian municipal councilors didn’t mince words when they signed a petition demanding that Putin should resign because of “harm” done to “the future of Russia and its citizens, due to the invasion.”

“We, the municipal deputies of Russia, believe that the actions of President Vladimir Putin harm the future of Russia and is citizens. We demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin from the post of President of the Russian Federation!” the petition read.

Ukrainian T-64BM tank crews on the move in a file photo. Image: Creative Commons BY

The current Ukrainian offensive, in which troops have recovered a bulge of territory from Russian forces in northeastern Ukraine, was the result of a combination of three elements that have characterized Ukrainian resistance: the arrival of new, accurate mid-range missiles from NATO (especially the US), which are able to pinpoint targets; superior intelligence supplied by NATO about Russian troop movements; and six months of gritty resistance against Russian advances.

A mirror opposite of these factors dogs the Russian effort to bring the war to a close even though it was expected to end in a few days when launched in late February: NATO-supplied weaponry is superior to Russia’s; somehow, Russian intelligence fails to track Ukrainian offensive movements; and Russian soldiers are occasionally, but evidently, unwilling to put up a fight.

To be sure, it is risky to write off Russian capabilities. Moscow still possesses damaging weaponry that has devastated Ukrainian military targets and civilian infrastructure. Shortly after Ukraine’s recent recovery of territory, Russia launched rockets at civilian power plants in an apparent spasm of anger.

Moreover, the war has been characterized by reversals of fortune on both sides. Back in late February, Russian troops had expected they would quickly conquer Kiev, along with the northeast city of Kharkiv and the Azov Sea city of Mariupol. But they failed to take Kiev and Kharkiv – and it took weeks to conquer Mariupol.

Ukrainian officials then started suggesting that their troops were winning the war. Putin fired some of his generals. The replacements concentrated troop formations, slowly pushed Ukrainian troops toward the west, and unleashed barrages of artillery on Mariupol to wear down its defenders.

In July and August, as the Russians methodically, if slowly, took territory from the Ukrainians, talk of Russian victory replaced unreal expectations of a quick Ukrainian triumph.

Now, the war worm has turned again. A certain euphoria has set in, at least in the Western press. “It’s Time to Prepare for a Ukrainian Victory,” wrote The Atlantic Magazine. “Ukraine is Winning,” asserted the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. “Putin is Losing His War of Choice in Ukraine,” wrote the Washington Post.

There’s no doubt that the Ukrainian offensive has upset confident predictions about the war’s likely trajectory. And it has raised the question of whether setbacks have drained the confidence of Russian troops.

For Russian soldiers, it is probably no comfort to engage in a rapid retreat, to leave even food behind and to view a landscape of smashed tanks and trucks along the road back.

The remains of a Russian tank destroyed in Mariupol, Ukraine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A Russian decision to pull some troops from the Kharkiv region triggered the Ukrainian counteroffensive, a NATO official said. The Russians apparently took at face value Ukrainian disinformation that Kiev’s troops were focusing solely on an offensive along the Black Sea shore near the town of Kherson. The Russians sent reinforcements down from the north.

The wily Ukrainians then operated in small units, bypassing clusters of Russian forces, crashing through some thin Russian lines and blocking reinforcements from coming to the rescue, the NATO official said.  

The Ukrainians aimed first at key Russian outposts: first the town of Balakliya, which was encircled before defenders could flee; then to Kupyansk, a transport center; and then south along the Oskil River.

To prevent the arrival of reinforcements, Ukraine destroyed a bridge across the Oskil. The way was then cleared to Izium, which had become a Russian military logistics and regional headquarters after the Russians failed to conquer Kiev.

The first Kremlin response was declaring that its troops had pulled out of the Kharkiv region to go south, and that the loss of territory was unimportant.

Pro-Putin commentators weren’t buying it, though. Ramzan Kadyrov, puppet leader of Chechnya, a Muslim province in Russia, took the If-Only-The-Leader-Knew line: “If today or tomorrow changes are not made in the conduct of the special military operation, I will be forced to go to the country’s leadership to explain to them the situation on the ground,” he said.

What is to be done, then? The invaders launched rockets on Ukrainian power plants and threatened to cut off all oil and natural gas supplies to Western Europe. But neither of those is likely to turn the tide of battles and restore confidence.

It might be enough to conquer the entire Black Sea coast and especially the port of Odesa. If not, fears persist that Putin might try to extend the war into Eastern Europe and get the West to negotiate and block out the Ukrainians, who want a full Russian withdrawal.

Damage at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power facility. Photo: International Atomic Energy Agency, CC BY-SA

Putin could try to offer a ceasefire on the grounds that a Ukrainian nuclear power plant, which his troops occupy, is in danger of exploding. A hiatus would give the Russians time to regroup and maybe rethink their strategy.

The ultimate unthinkable alternative is for Putin to make good on his nuclear war threat, which he has brandished on occasion.

It would be preferable if the generals he has fired and a couple of KGB officers he took off the job during the early part of the war somehow mounted a coup. But it’s not clear yet that a palace coup is likely or possible.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.