It has been almost three months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine war and initial enthusiasm about the swiftness of the so-called special military operation has gone.
Russian casualties have reached the record level of 30,000 killed and many more wounded and taken prisoner, double the number lost over a much longer 10 years by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The Kremlin’s official propaganda is shifting its focus, portraying victory taking longer because Russia is fighting the West and not just Ukraine.
Earlier this month retired military Colonel Mikhail Khodarenok warned on an important Russian television talk show the war would drag on longer and with the growing supply of Western equipment to Ukrainian forces, Russia’s military situation would deteriorate. He pointed out Western military equipment is far more sophisticated than that which Russia can use in its war in Ukraine.
Khodarenok warned against wishful thinking, reminding Russian viewers that Ukrainians are doggedly fighting a defensive war and could mobilise up to a million soldiers under arms.
Furthermore, he added, Ukraine is supported by a major coalition of 40 countries while Russia is internationally isolated.
His outbursts prompt us to ask why he was allowed to state these unpalatable truths on television which is tightly controlled by the Kremlin?
In the face of growing opposition to the war, the retired military officer injected realism in into what are usually abstract, highly optimistic and aggressively xenophobic Russian television debates.
Russian protests against the war against Ukraine have existed since the invasion was launched but these have been suppressed by Moscow’s dictatorship.
Squeezing out lawful forms of protest has pushed Russians into undertaking more radical actions as part of a growing underground movement. One avenue has been attacks against the official ‘Z’ symbol using graffiti or by physically destroying them. Another is 15 military enlistment conscription centres have been set ablaze by lone activists using Molotov cocktails.
Numerous arson attacks have also taken place throughout Russia targeting fuel depots and military buildings and bases. With nobody taking credit for these arson attacks it is impossible to know who are behind them but clearly these are more sophisticated than activists throwing Molotov cocktails.
These arson attacks could be only undertaken by either Ukrainian special forces and intelligence agents or former Russian military personnel who have become radicalised against the war. It is even possible they are working together.
Dodging the draft
Opposition to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is also taking place in other ways.
The traditional way, as in the 1980s to avoid being sent to Afghanistan, is to avoid the draft by hiding, not turning up, or more dangerously by openly refusing and being imprisoned.
Units in the national guard and elite paratroopers have refused to be sent to Ukraine. These national guard officers have claimed their legally-defined functions can only be undertaken within Russia.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Russian officers and soldiers have deserted in Ukraine. Some have become prisoners of war, while others have returned to Russia where they have gone into hiding.
Desertion is one explanation, the other being capture in battle, why Ukraine has accumulated a large amount of Russian military equipment. In fact, Russia is a bigger ‘donor’ of tanks to Ukraine’s army than the West — and why Ukraine has more tanks today than when Russia invaded.
Another important area of opposition is cyber warfare where hundreds of Ukrainian civilian and intelligence and Western volunteers are fighting their Russian cyber counterparts.
Hackers, including from the Anonymous Collective, have cyber-attacked Russia’s IT infrastructure, government websites such the ministries of defence and foreign affairs and big state enterprises. Huge amounts of data have been leaked.
The Anonymous Collective has successfully hacked Russian television channels, traditionally mouthpieces for the Kremlin’s propaganda, by inserting slogans denouncing the war and the war crimes the Russian army is committing in Ukraine.
Will this lead to instability in the Kremlin and a coup attempt against Putin?
Post-communist states do not have a tradition of coup d’états that exist in Latin America and southern Europe. Nevertheless, it is clear that the detention of senior military and intelligence officers and former ‘grey cardinal’ Vladislav Surkov are signs that Putin is becoming jittery.
His KGB mindset and years of isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic have made the Russian president even more paranoid about Western-backed plots and colour revolutions.
The crunch will come in September when sanctions will start to be felt in a major way and the savings of most Russians will have been eaten up.
Eight months into the war, with casualties growing at the current rate to close to over 60,000, Russians will be psychologically unprepared for the fact the special military operation will in fact be a long and brutal war during which they will continue to be internationally isolated.
There are many imponderables in Russia’s war in Ukraine but one thing is for sure and that is Putin will not rule Russia indefinitely, as he envisaged he would from changes in the Russian constitution made three years ago.
That would be good for Russians, Ukrainians and the West.