Western leaders and security agencies are spending huge amounts of resources on getting into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s head. It’s a futile exercise – at times when the West has thought Russia’s war in Ukraine might be losing steam, Putin has doubled down, sending his forces to bomb maternity hospitals and shelters harboring children.
Now, an apparent pause in the advancement of Russian troops has the West guessing: Has Russia’s war effort stalled? Or is it a tactical regrouping?
Either way, an incendiary Stalinesque speech on Wednesday night in which Putin called Russians opposing the war “traitors” marked a change in tone and a sign that not all is going to plan, experts said. Perhaps more worrying, many observers saw it as a sign that the head of the Russian state, facing 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, many others are protesting against it in the streets, fully aware they will be rounded up by heavily armed police even for the most peaceful of demonstrations. The Russian state has made mass protests illegal, and now, insulting the military is against the law. Still, people show up in groups, while others demonstrate entirely alone. Even lone protesters have been detained, social media videos have shown.
A journalist who jumped on camera on a state-controlled news program, holding an anti-war sign, has become a cause célèbre for free speech in Russia. A renowned ballerina has left the Bolshoi. Russian prisoners of war are calling Putin out for using propaganda to justify the war.
Putin, who has enjoyed consistently high ratings in Russia, is now turning to a strategy of intimidation to keep Russians on side, experts said. His speech Wednesday hinted darkly that those Russians who do not side with him were, in essence, traitors – chilling words in a country where mass political repressions and the Gulag system are still within living memory.
“The West will try to rely on the so-called fifth column, on national traitors, on those who earn money here with us but live there. And I mean ‘live there’ not even in the geographical sense of the word, but according to their thoughts, their slavish consciousness,” Putin said. The “fifth column” usually refers to sympathizers of the enemy during a war.
“Such people who by their very nature, are mentally located there, and not here, are not with our people, not with Russia,” Putin said, mocking them as the type that “cannot live without oysters and gender freedom.”
“But any people, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths, spit them out on the pavement,” he said.
For Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis firm R. Politik, Putin’s speech proved the leader’s plan has derailed.
“It seems to me that everything is starting to crumble with Putin. This speech of his is despair, strong emotion, impotence,” she wrote on her official Telegram account.
Pointing to the situation in Russia, Stanovaya argues that Putin is losing the battle of popularity, too.
“This is the beginning of the end. Yes, they will twist everyone’s elbows, lock them up, imprison them, but it is already all without a future … Everything will crack and slip.”
Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Putin’s speech reflected how isolated the Russian leader had become.
“What we saw as the war began, and what we have seen since – including last night’s speech – is really the result of a man whose entire world takes place inside his head,” Braw told CNN, explaining how Putin had isolated intensely during the pandemic and was now more cut off as Western sanctions batter the Russian economy.
She said that he was likely surprised and angered by how far the West has gone with sanctions, and was now worried of the backlash that would likely soon come from the Russian people.
“There is a sort of humiliation of a country that is now seeing McDonald’s close, where Russians are flocking to IKEA to get every last item that’s available before it leaves the country – that is humiliating, and of course, also rather frightening when you think of the potential reaction among the Russian public once these consumer goods are no longer available,” she said.
Putin’s ominous warning to Russians came as the UK’s Defense Ministry said the invasion had “largely stalled on all fronts.”
“Russian forces have made minimal progress on land, sea or air in recent days and they continue to suffer heavy losses,” the ministry tweeted Thursday, adding that Ukrainian resistance remained “staunch and well-coordinated.”
That chimes with the assessment from a senior US defense official, who told reporters on Monday that Russian forces in and around several key cities had made no appreciable progress over the prior weekend.
It may be wishful thinking to read so much into this pause. Russia’s military is far mightier than Ukraine’s by every measure. Any “stall” is more likely to be tactical than a sign of Russia backing down.
Nonetheless, Russia’s invasion hasn’t brought easy pickings for Putin. In 2014, Russia was able to annex Crimea in around three weeks – the same amount of time this war has raged so far. Ukraine’s resistance, propped up by weapons sent from the West, has been greater than Putin had calculated, experts said.
That’s clear by the way Russian forces are now bombing civilian targets indiscriminately. They are also showing signs of being stretched to their limits.
A public intelligence assessment report released Tuesday by the UK Defense Ministry said that Russia was calling up reinforcements from across the entire country. This includes the eastern section of the Russian Federation, troops in the Pacific Fleet and Armenia, as well as fighters from “private military companies, Syrians, and other mercenaries.”
Braw said that the stall in Russian forces’ movement was likely the result of Russia working out next steps.
“Russia clearly counted on a swift and decisive success, which didn’t happen. They face more united, better trained Ukrainian fighters than Russia appreciated,” she said. “So they went to Plan B, which was brutal warfare, but Ukraine is standing firm. They are winning back towns, they recently liberated a local mayor who was taken captive. So if that’s not working, what’s Plan C?”
At the very least, Ukraine’s resistance has put the country in a better place for negotiations with Putin than it would have been at the start of the war, Braw said.
What Putin won’t want is to lose many more soldiers, she added.
“If Russia returns from the Ukrainian war with a completely decimated military, it’s clearly pursued the wrong strategy.”