A former colonel and many Russian military commentators have become increasingly vocal in their disapproval of the way the war in Ukraine is being conducted from Moscow. A secondary phenomenon or a dangerous primary trend of Vladimir Putin?
It’s really hard to pass the pill. “Do you have to be stupid not to understand that in the third month of the war, we are not doing it like this?” Meanwhile, another commentator and former soldier in Donbass, Vladlin Tatarsky, “want to “judge the” military genius” responsible for this disaster.
The disaster in question relates to the unsuccessful attempt of the Russian army to cross the Donets River in early May. The maneuver was considered one of the biggest failures of Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine, since more than fifty armored vehicles were destroyed on this occasion.
It would be costly to the forces on the front, but perhaps also to the official propaganda from Moscow, which wants the “special military operation” to proceed unhindered. “At least three prominent military commentators with a combined audience of over one million people on Telegram are attacking developments in the war,” CNN found on Wednesday, May 18.
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Military analysts, war veterans, and journalists [russes] There is growing criticism of the situation in Ukraine,” said Mark Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence, a Russian security consulting firm.
Then there is Mikhail Khodarenok, a retired Russian colonel who used to use Russian televisions. The guest of Monday, May 16 of the popular program “60 Minutes”, allowed himself a full attack on the conflict, warning that the situation in Ukraine risks “turning from bad to worse” for Russia, which finds itself isolated in the face of “the coalition of countries that support and supply Ukraine” with equipment.”
A picnic left the committee that came to discuss the “special military operation” speechless. Even the announcer, Olga Skabieva, listened in silence despite her reputation as a fierce guard of the Kremlin’s Temple of Propaganda.
No immediate censorship
But just one former colonel dodging television says little about general Russian sentiment about the war. Same for the handful of soldiers or ex-soldiers who have become commenters on Telegram. Despite its influence on this social network, Telegram cannot be considered a mass medium capable of forming opinion.
However, the attendant of these two phenomena attracts attention. Joanna Zostik, a specialist in the politics of communication in Russia at the University of Glasgow, summarizes.
The novelty also lies in the fact that “these statements were not immediately censored, although they are partial criticism of the military’s good standing, which is punishable by imprisonment. Rather, the length of the sentence increased at the beginning of the war,” said Stephen Holl, a specialist in Russian politics at the University of Bath. to Moscow.
Indulgence can be explained in part by the characteristics of these destroyers of military options. “These are not ‘liberals’ who are against war in principle, but mostly conservatives or ultra-nationalists who would like to see Russia hit Ukraine even more to its knees,” Peter said. Rutland, an expert on Russian nationalism and economics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “Freedom of expression is better protected,” this specialist continues.
Thus, one of the fiercest critics of Russian military strategy is Igor Strelkov, the former de facto commander-in-chief of all pro-Russian forces in Donbass, known for his ultra-nationalist positions.
Telegram, troop morale thermometer
As Mark Galeotti says, Mikhail Khodarinok and ex-soldiers of Telegram should not be combined. In the case of the former colonel’s television outing, “It is impossible that the organizers of the show did not know what he was going to say. And in a way, you can understand that they did. He allowed them to speak because his criticisms benefit, in the end, the propaganda of Vladimir Putin”, confirms this longtime observer of the mysteries of politics Russian.
Mikhail Khodarinok’s view was, in fact, to argue that Ukraine is far from exhausting its resources of ready-to-fight men, while Russia failed to win the war quickly due to massive support from the West for Ukraine. “This amounts to an indication that the war is likely to continue, which is consistent with the message the military leadership has recently attempted to convey,” Mark Gallotti notes.
Another reading of the former colonel’s television performance is to remember that “his broadcasts are, in fact, only directed at one viewer: Vladimir Putin,” Stephen Holl notes. Mikhail Khodarinok will then be a kind of experimental hunting for part of the military apparatus “to see how the Russian president reacts to a more pessimistic rhetoric that will prepare for negotiations to end the conflict on the terms under which Russia does not want to get everything it wants”, notes this academic.
For him, this is also the reason to tolerate criticism on Telegram. But for Marc Galeotti, the movement on the social network is more “original”. “It allows us to get a sample of the growing frustration of ordinary soldiers, which must be shared by a portion of the senior officers in the army,” he asserts.
Thus Telegram is a kind of troop morale thermometer. Russian censorship will allow those few voices to speak out to make sure the temperature doesn’t rise too high. The danger seems to be limited to them because their words will not reach the majority of Russians, who do not use this messaging system.
Danger to Putin?
However, allowing this more pessimistic view of the advance of troops in Ukraine to spread on the social network is not without danger. First, “It’s a platform frequently used by young people, who are likely to be called to war. Given this rather bleak description of the situation on the ground, they would probably be very reluctant to participate,” notes Joanna Zostic. Or at least if we force them not to go there with a gun.
Another potential problem for Vladimir Putin is that this internet background noise “frustrates the divisive strategy that the Kremlin has traditionally used to counter any opposition,” explains Mark Gallotti. In fact, the proliferation of messages on Telegram “allows to give a sense of belonging to individuals who can have the impression that they are alone in their criticism,” this specialist identifies.
Peter Rutland asserts that it is more serious “because they are soldiers, and Vladimir Putin cannot lose the support of the army.” For example, “we can read letters from members of the National Guard expressing their frustration with being used in mechanized teams in Ukraine when they were never trained for it,” notes Mark Gallotti. These soldiers are also the ones who are supposed to protect the Kremlin from possible popular uprisings. Peter Rutland asks: “And what would happen if a broad social movement broke out in the capital and the army, having lost confidence in its commanders, refused to intervene?”.
A question that modern Russian history has answered once: In 1991, a coup attempt by the staunch supporters of the Soviet Union failed when the military refused to suppress protesters who opposed the coup. Then the lack of support from the military hastened the end of the regime.