In Russia, patriotic critics speak out on Ukraine war failures

Artemy Sich has spent the past eight months trying to do his part to support the Russian war effort in Ukraine.

The Muscovite activist has organised several crowd-funding drives to buy clothing, equipment, and medicine for Russian troops. He also co-founded a social media project that provides original reporting and analysis about battlefield developments in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, he travelled to Russia’s Belgorod region to interview soldiers stationed near the border.

Sich says he supports the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine because he does not see any option left for protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Nevertheless, he readily admits that Russia’s military campaign is not going according to plan – in contradiction to President Vladimir Putin’s assessment.

Ukrainian servicemen repair a Russian tank captured during a counteroffensive operation near the Russian border in Kharkiv [File: Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters]

According to Sich, Russia failed in several ways. Moscow did not deploy enough troops, failed to target Ukrainian critical infrastructure early in the conflict, and did not prepare echeloned defences in captured territories, he said.

“Russia probably acted on incorrect assumptions, most notably underestimating the enemy’s capabilities and willingness to offer resistance,” he said.

“There was no collapse of the Ukrainian government, and consequently the Ukrainian military also did not collapse.”

Patriotic critics

Sich is part of a burgeoning group of “patriotic” critics in Russia who support the war, but are concerned by Moscow’s handling of it.

They generally avoid criticising Putin directly and instead frequently take aim at Russia’s top military brass for perceived incompetence or indecision.

For now, they oppose peace negotiations with Ukraine, saying it is too early for a ceasefire, and call on the Kremlin to seek victory through mobilisation, large-scale air raids, and sweeping military reforms.

But these critics are difficult to box into a single group.

They include war correspondents and military bloggers, novelists and historians, longtime activists and political neophytes, and Russian soldiers and mercenaries fighting on the front lines.

Putin supporters, as well as nationalist and communist opposition members, have also been lashing out in recent weeks.

What unites this otherwise eclectic movement is the belief that Russia needs to make serious adjustments to its military strategy or risk losing the war in Ukraine.

Since the start of the conflict in February, these groups have been firing up social media channels, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers.

Among them is a team of open-source analysts named Rybar, Igor Strelkov, a retired Russian military officer who commanded Donbas rebel forces back in 2014 and Vladlen Tatarsky, who is currently serving as a fighter in the Donbas and whose real name is Maxim Fomin.

Grey Zone and Starshie Eddie are two other popular accounts that operate on Telegram, VK and YouTube.

With detailed reporting and analysis of the situation on the front, their feeds have become the preferred source of information for many Russians.

And their relative editorial independence is also attractive in the current climate.

While state media presents an upbeat picture of the battlefields, pro-war commentators online question whether Russia had enough manpower to hold a 1,000km (620-mile) front line and comment openly on the Russian military’s shortages – that it lacks, for instance, sufficient quantities of drones and other key equipment.

Their criticism grew after the Ukrainian counteroffensive began in Kharkiv in early September, a move which forced the Russian military to withdraw troops from the entire region.

The subsequent Ukrainian gains in the east and the south during the next several weeks raised further alarm among patriotic critics.

“Nearly all the members of the Russian patriotic civil society warned about a potential Ukrainian offensive in Kharkiv, months before it happened,” Sich said.

“We couldn’t imagine that anyone could fail to see that this was about to happen, but it turned out that the Russian armed forces were completely unprepared for this breakthrough.”

So far, the Kremlin has shown a surprising level of tolerance.

There have been no visible efforts to silence criticism by pro-war commentators despite new legislation that threatens up to 15 years of prison for “discrediting” the Russian military.

On the contrary, state media has gradually begun to adopt some of the rhetoric pioneered by the patriotic critics.

During a recent fiery monologue, television host Vladimir Solovyov accused Russian military officials of hiding the true condition of the country’s armed forces.

“Too many scoundrels lied from top to bottom,” he said. “And not a single one of them was shot or even taken by the ear!”

Even more surprising, there are signs that the Kremlin is listening in for hints on military strategy.

People gather at a tram stop.
People gather at a tram stop in front of a board displaying a slogan that reads: ‘Glory to heroes of Russia!’ [File: Anton Vaganov/Reuters]

In September, Putin announced the “partial mobilisation” of 300,000 military reservists in a bid to replenish Russia’s fighting force in Ukraine.

On October 10, Russia launched a mass air raid campaign against Ukrainian energy facilities.

The patriotic critics had been advocating for both of these moves for months.

Denis Volkov, head of the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent polling agency, told Al Jazeera that data showed that committed hawks and opponents of the war each accounted for about 15 to 20 percent of the population.

The majority of Russians, he explained, were broadly supportive of the war, but tended to stay in line with government decisions.

So what explains this trend?

Volkov said that the Kremlin is aware that the public need an outlet to let off steam and hawks are regarded as politically loyal.

“The anger of patriots tends to be aimed at generals and mid-level bureaucrats, whereas those calling for immediate peace negotiations tend to blame the central political leadership and are opposed to Putin personally,” he said.

Sich had a different explanation.

He argued that the war and its bleak realities have forced Kremlin to recognise the value of feedback from observers that are outside the political system.

“Russia has a very adaptive regime and it became clear in September that we could no longer afford not to mobilise society,” he said.

“The government has been forced to welcome input from patriotic civil society because mass mobilisation requires you to accept the fact that there is no such thing as unnecessary help.”

Yet there are lingering questions about the sustainability of the partnership.

Volkov noted that the Russian government still has plenty of instruments to punish commentators who “step too far out of line”.

As an example, he pointed to the recent suspension of state media host Anton Krasovsky, who sparked mass controversy after he suggested drowning or burning Ukrainian children.

Sich warned that the Kremlin has long had a complicated relationship with Russian nationalists, and there was no guarantee the current detente would hold up in the long run.

“The Russian government has always been more wary of the patriotic opposition than the liberal opposition because the former group is better positioned to represent the will of the people instead of just copying Western political trends,” he said.

“For now, the Russian government is seeking to expand cooperation with the patriotic opposition, but it could very well reverse course once doing so is no longer expedient. Everyone on our side who goes for this collaboration needs to understand this.”

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