The world’s No. 1 political prisoner, Alexei Navalny, isn’t brewing a coup against Putin from his supermax cell, and millions of persecuted, silenced, and exiled Russians opposed to the war aren’t taking up arms against the regime. But with the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a new and dangerous antagonist is on the horizon, and this time Putin has reason to be anxious. The call is coming from inside his house.
Trained and nurtured by the regime, militant Russian ultra-nationalists have long been the ideological shock troops at the forefront of Putin’s “Russian world,” his set of Fascist beliefs that posit a historic Russian civilization reaching far beyond its current borders. They took part in annexing the Crimean Peninsula, fought in the Donbas for the last eight years, and welcomed Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. But after three months of military failure, they’re starting to ask questions. As a Russian special-forces veteran who goes by the name “Razvedos” put it bluntly on YouTube, “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, please decide, are we fighting a war or are we masturbating?”
These nationalists don’t care about the wanton destruction or tragic loss of human life in Ukraine. What infuriates them is the lack of professionalism in how Russia is doing it. With total indifference to the newly enacted law against the “discreditation of the Russian armed forces,” they are publicly thrashing Putin, his intelligence services, the minister of defense, and every general responsible for some of the worst military blunders in the history of modern warfare.
“Either there will be a mass mobilization, or we lose the war, ” states Reverse Side of the Medal, a Telegram channel linked to the Wagner Group, the private Russian mercenary organization. “Shamefully indecisive,” said Aleksandr Sladkov, a Russian reporter in the Donbas with extensive ties to the military.
In a video shared on Telegram, wives of Russian-aligned fighters in Luhansk and Donetsk are screaming at their local officials as they try to find out the fate of their husbands, who were pushed to the Russian border by the Ukrainian Army but denied entry into Russia due to their lack of citizenship, effectively becoming sitting ducks.
As a Russian special-forces veteran put it bluntly, “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, please decide, are we fighting a war or are we masturbating?”
One of the most vocal critics is Igor Strelkov, the cherubic terrorist wanted by Dutch authorities for downing a Malaysia Airlines flight eight years ago, killing 298 innocent people. A former F.S.B. officer and an ardent fan of military re-enactments, Strelkov briefly served as the minister of defense of D.N.R., the self-declared proxy republic established on occupied Ukrainian territory, before the Kremlin removed him from power. Strelkov’s closest associates, the warlords Russia installed in the region, were killed, and according to him, it wasn’t the Ukrainian security services responsible; it was the Russian ones.
While journalists and anti-corruption activists such as Navalny could be labeled as “foreign agents” and jailed, the same trick doesn’t work against people in military fatigues asking Putin for better guns. It’s a problem for dictators: they have to deliver when they promise their loyalists a victory. And while official propaganda claims that the Ukrainian Air Force has been destroyed for the fifth time in a row, those in the trenches operating outdated guns and being pounded by the latest in Western military hardware know that the official narrative is far from the truth.
Even the Russian-TV bubble is being punctured. “Stop drinking media tranquilizers,” said the retired air-defense commander Mikhail Khodarenok last week on national television. He delivered a stark warning that the war is going badly, the Ukrainians are ready to fight to the last breath, and Russia needs to get out of a situation where the entire world is against it. The show’s host, propagandist Olga Skabeeva, said that most people in the world actually support Russia. However, even at the recent Collective Security Treaty Organization summit—the Russian-led military alliance of six former Soviet states—only Putin and the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko mentioned Ukraine. The rest avoided commenting on the war.
Fueled by Navalny’s investigations into the lavish lifestyles of Putin’s elite, these new dissenters accuse the Russian military-political leadership of widespread corruption and criminal negligence leading to the deaths of thousands of their comrades. Add to that the Kremlin’s silent acceptance of Sweden and Finland applying to join NATO, and its reluctance to announce a mass mobilization, and you have a leadership that, in the eyes of the ultra-nationalists, is unfit for its own vision of Russia.
The outrage in military-linked circles is still growing, too. There are reports of Chechen mercenaries killing wounded Russian soldiers to hide the true extent of Russian losses, which only fuels the fire. Some are asking Putin directly why he’s not willing to punish the brass responsible for the recent loss of an entire battalion in a botched attempt to force a river crossing. But Putin is silent.
Heads may roll, purges may come, but one thing remains clear: Putin is not fulfilling the social contract he offered Russia on the day of the invasion, one in which the corruption of his elites and a decline in the living standards of ordinary people brought on by sanctions are justified by a sense of restored pride in the nation.
For people like Strelkov and his followers, many of whom are being shelled as we speak, Putin’s striking incompetence as a military leader paints a picture of a Russia in need of a firm, incorruptible iron fist. One that will dispose of formalities and use every weapon in its arsenal to destroy its foreign and domestic enemies.
And while the liberal, educated masses who oppose Putin’s bloody, dictatorial rule dream of a peacetime tribunal that will bring the Russian aggressors to justice, Strelkov and his like have far more subtle ways of righting Russia’s wrongs. Considering the amount of blood on their hands, putting a bullet in a frail dictator’s head won’t be a problem for them. Instead, it might be the solution.
Andrew Ryvkin is a Russian journalist and screenwriter who was forced to emigrate after Putin’s invasion