Either way, experts said Wednesday night’s fiery Stalinist speech in which Putin called Russian opponents of the war “traitors” was a change of tone and a signal that not everyone was going to plan. Perhaps most disturbingly, many observers saw this as a sign that the Russian head of state, facing a setback in Ukraine, would take a vengeful turn at home and crack down more forcefully than ever on any sign of dissent.
While some Russians support the war, others are protesting against it in the streets, knowing full well that they will be arrested by heavily armed police even at the most peaceful demonstration. The Russian state has made mass protests illegal, and now, insulting the military is against the law. However, people appear in groups, while others pretend completely alone. Even lone protesters were arrested, videos on social media showed.
Experts said Putin, who has consistently enjoyed high ratings in Russia, is now turning to a strategy of intimidation to keep Russians on the sidelines. His Wednesday speech implied grimly that those Russians who don’t stand with him were, in essence, traitors — words chilling in a country where mass political oppression and the gulag regime remain in living memory.
“The West will try to rely on the so-called fifth column, on patriotic traitors, on those who make money here with us but live there. I mean ‘living there’ not even in the geographical sense of the word, but according to their ideas and sleeping consciousness,” Putin said. Usually to enemy sympathizers during wartime.
“These people who by their nature are mentally there, not here, not with our people, not with Russia,” Putin said, mocking them as the kind who “cannot live without shellfish and gender freedom.”
“But anyone, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, simply broadcasting them like mosquitoes that accidentally flew into their mouths, spitting them on the sidewalk,” he said.
For Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis firm R Politik, Putin’s speech proved that the leader’s plan had been derailed.
And she wrote in her official account on Telegram: “It seems to me that everything is beginning to fall apart with Putin. His speech is despondency, strong emotion, impotence.”
Referring to the situation in Russia, Stanovaya argues that Putin is losing the battle for popularity as well.
“This is the beginning of the end. Yes, they will twist everyone’s elbows, lock them up, and imprison them, but everything with no future … everything will crack and slip.”
Elizabeth Brau, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Putin’s speech reflected how isolated the Russian leader had become.
Brau told CNN, explaining how Putin has been deeply isolated during the pandemic and is now even more isolated as Western sanctions hit the Russian economy.
She said he is likely to be surprised and angry at how far the West has come with sanctions, and is now worried about the backlash that is likely to come soon from the Russian people.
“It’s a bit of a humiliation for a country now seeing a McDonald’s shutdown, with Russians flocking to IKEA to get the last available item before they leave the country – which is humiliating, and of course also frightening when they think about the potential reaction among the Russian public once these consumer goods are no longer available” .
“The Russian forces have made little progress by land, sea and air in recent days and are still incurring heavy losses,” the ministry wrote on Twitter on Thursday, adding that the Ukrainian resistance remained “strong and well-coordinated.”
That aligns with the assessment of a senior US defense official, who told reporters on Monday that Russian forces in and around several major cities had made no significant progress over the previous weekend.
It may be wishful thinking to read a lot in this pose. By all accounts, the Russian army is much stronger than the Ukrainian army. Any “stall” is more likely to be tactical than a sign of Russia’s backsliding.
However, the Russian invasion did not bring Putin easy choices. In 2014, Russia was able to annex Crimea in about three weeks – the same amount of time this war has broken out so far. Experts said the Ukrainian resistance, backed by weapons sent from the West, was greater than Putin had thought.
This is evident by the way Russian forces are now indiscriminately bombing civilian targets. They also show signs of stretching to their limits.
The General Intelligence Assessment report released on Tuesday by the British Ministry of Defense stated that Russia is calling in reinforcements from all over the country. This includes the eastern part of the Russian Federation, troops in the Pacific Fleet and Armenia, as well as fighters from “private military companies, Syrians and other mercenaries.”
Brau said the cessation of Russian troop movement was likely the result of Russia taking next steps.
“It is clear that Russia counted on quick and decisive success, which did not happen. They are facing Ukrainian fighters who are more united and better trained than Russia appreciates,” she said. “So they went to Plan B, which was a brutal war, but Ukraine remains steadfast. They are winning cities, and they recently freed a local mayor who was captured. So if that doesn’t work, what is Plan C?”
Brau said the Ukrainian resistance, to say the least, has put the country in a better place to negotiate with Putin than it had at the start of the war.
She added that what Putin would not want is to lose more soldiers.
“If Russia returns from the Ukrainian war with a completely decimated army, then it is clear that it followed the wrong strategy.”
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