Vladimir Putin still holds absolute power inside the Kremlin, but signs of dissension over the disastrous course of the war with Ukraine are emerging inside the Russian security services.
The most intriguing sign is a much-circulated newscast on Russian state television, in which a retired colonel insists over the lame protests of the show’s hosts that Ukrainian soldiers are “professionals” who “intend to fight to the last man,” that the Russian army’s position “will frankly get worse,” and that “we are in full geopolitical isolation” as “virtually the entire world is against us.”
The retired colonel, Mikhail Khodaryonok, is a heavy hitter. As the former head of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian armed forces’ General Staff and the editor of a leading journal that has published several highly influential articles over the past decade on how to modernize the military, Khodaryonok maintains strong ties with active-duty senior officers.
More than that, he was an outspoken skeptic of the invasion a few weeks before it occurred—and was then forced to recant his views on the eve of the attack. Some took his initial remarks as evidence of turmoil within the military, then took his backpedaling as proof that Putin was crushing all dissent.
Now the colonel’s reappearance on Russian TV may reflect a renewed boldness among critics within the military—and perhaps within the state broadcasting network for putting him on the air. At least one reputable Russian journalist is reporting that a long-standing rivalry between the military officers’ corps and an elite division of the intelligence service, whose members have held enormous sway over Putin’s views, is intensifying.
This rivalry recently led Mark Galeotti, a longtime Russia watcher, to muse that Putin’s most potent opponents may come not from the ranks of liberal democrats but rather from military nationalists.
As Putin mobilized troops on the Ukrainian border in late January, Khodaryonok wrote an article in the widely read Independent Military Review deriding the notion—which he said was held by many senior political officials in Moscow—that Russia could conquer its neighboring country in short order.
This view, he wrote, reflected “complete ignorance of the military-political situation and the mood of the broad masses” in Ukraine. It ignored the fact, of which he said there should be “no doubt,” that Western nations would respond to an invasion by sending Ukraine massive quantities of arms on the level of the Lend-Lease Act that helped the Allied armies in World War II. He recalled that Josef Stalin’s spies and soldiers “fought the nationalist underground in Western Ukraine for more than 10 years” and argued that today’s resistance fighters would be fiercer still.
“Finally,” the colonel concluded, an “armed conflict with Ukraine is currently fundamentally not in Russia’s national interest.”
In retrospect, Khodaryonok’s warnings were prescient on all counts. However, three weeks later, he appeared on Russian TV to walk back his views, assuring the audience that Russian commanders had prepared methods “that will plunge the enemy into amazement.” As I wrote back in February, the public recantation, which was almost certainly forced, recalled the sort of harsh discipline that Stalin imposed on his critics, and suggested that Putin wanted to frighten other would-be dissenters into silence.
Khodaryonok’s recent TV appearance, where he reprised his earlier views in full force, might be seen as a sign of renewed confidence among Putin’s critics.
A May 14 article by Roman Anin, a prominent Russian investigative journalist, reports that Putin is “in his own world,” physically isolated and listening only to a small group of officers in the Fifth Service of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, many of them former colleagues from his days as a KGB agent. (Anin worked for years at Novaya Gazeta, the last of Russia’s freethinking newspapers, which won a Nobel Prize after Putin shut it down. He now writes for an independent site called Vazhnye Istorii, which translates to “Important Stories.”)
Anin quotes an FSB official as saying that the Fifth Service has “misinterpreted and fantasized” about Ukraine for many years, for instance believing that the people in the provincial regions had no loyalty to the central government in Kyiv and would “run toward Russia” with the slightest push.
Anin’s key point is that many officers elsewhere in the FSB, as well as in the military, are “thirsty for the blood” of the Fifth Service elite and are “waiting for criminal cases to be filed against them.” The problem, though, is that Putin believes their reports—and the Fifth Service gears its reports to what it knows Putin wants to believe.
In other words, Putin and his advisers are trapped in a spiral loop of fantasy; they may truly believe that Russia is winning the war, or maybe that a few slight adjustments in tactics would turn the tide.
This is one reason the war could slog on for a long time to come. However, it also suggests that a few officers inside the system are trying to shatter the fantasy, and shake Russia’s leaders out of their dream state. Khodaryonok seems to be the chief shaker, at least publicly. The question is whether any of this matters—whether the internal dissidents can gain traction, or whether the Fifth Service’s grip on Putin and Putin’s grip on national power are too tight to break.