Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Breeds Dissent in Russia

Over the weekend, the Ukrainian army launched a dramatic counteroffensive, reclaiming over 1500 square kilometres of the frontline in the North-east. The counteroffensive’s success has brought Putin losses on the home front as well. Officials and the public alike have been critical of their country’s inability to hold onto gains in Ukraine, as the war drags on past the 200-day mark.

Vladimir Putin has spent decades building up an image of competence and might – his war in Ukraine is no different. He’s gone to great lengths to control the narrative, shaping it into a righteous crusade where victory is inevitable.

But the rapidity of his army’s collapse in the face of Ukraine’s counteroffensive is poking holes in this picture. And people on both sides of the political spectrum are voicing their opinions like never before.

For pro-Russia supporters of the war, this latest failure is evidence that the official ‘business-as-usual’ attitude has led to an under-commitment to the war. Putin is determined to avoid a nationwide draft, leaving large swaths of the frontline where Ukrainians are outnumbering Russian soldiers.

“We won’t support this government in the 2024 elections,” a popular pro-war account on the social media app Telegram told its 400,000 followers. “It’s been a long time coming, but this is the last drop.”

Many nationalists were especially of the decision to push ahead with celebrations over the weekend, commemorating Moscow’s 875th birthday. “We won’t support this government in the 2024 elections,” a popular pro-war account on the social media app Telegram told its 400,000 followers. “It’s been a long time coming, but this is the last drop.”

The post criticises the anniversary celebrations in Moscow, saying that “individuals in charge of the federal agenda” have lost touch with reality. The post was viewed over 200,000 times.

“It cannot be and it should not be that our guys are dying today,” said Sergei Mironov, leader of a pro-Putin party in Parliament, “and we are pretending that nothing is happening!”

On the other side of the spectrum, the retreat in Ukraine newly emboldened Putin’s critics to speak out. Dozens of elected officials from across Russia signed a petition started on Monday that demanded Putin’s resignation.

Putin instituted his most stringent crackdown on dissent since taking power when the war started, criminalising any criticism of the war. In fact, under the new law, even calling the war anything but a “special military operation” was illegal.

It’s this context that makes the petition so significant, despite it going largely ignored by state-controlled media. Vasily Khoroshilov, a Moscow politician and signatory, said the petition’s purpose was to send a message of support to powerful opponents of Putin.

The petition was posted on Twitter by municipal deputy Kseniya Thorstrom, asking for more signatures from other deputies. She is careful to note the text of the petition does not ‘discredit’ anyone.

Even state-controlled media channels have filled with debate about the correct course of action for Russia. Last Friday, municipal lawmaker Boris Nadezhdin said on the state-owned NTV channel that it is “absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using those resources and colonial war methods with which Russia is trying to fight”.

Nadezhdin went on to suggest the Kremlin should move to negotiate for peace, to the vehement disagreement of others in the studio.

Speaking to the New York Times, Putin’s former speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov remarked that “Strength is the only source of Putin’s legitimacy. And in a situation in which it turns out that he has no strength, his legitimacy will start dropping toward zero.”

No one is under the illusion that this counteroffensive will bring Putin to his knees. But as more Russians die in Ukraine, and suffer under sanctions at home, maintaining morale and stability will not get any easier.

Cover photo by Olga Nayda on Unsplash.

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