Russian elites are increasingly speaking out against the war in Ukraine
People walk across Moscow's Red Square near St. Basil's Cathedral and Spasskaya Tower on September 21, 2022. © Evgenia Novozhenina, Reuters

A growing list of failings and military defeats in Ukraine have spawned angry outbursts from members of the Russian elite, who generally still support Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" but are more actively blaming army chiefs for the many reversals.

Public criticism of the army was very rare before September saw a series of high-profile battlefield reversals for Russian troops.

The Russian invasion that began on February 24 had been presented to Russians as a sacred, patriotic mission to unite Ukraine under the umbrella of a Greater Russia. Even speaking ill of the armed forces could lead to a long stay in prison after a new law passed in March restricted criticism and media coverage.

Russian elites are still stopping short of questioning the merits of the Kremlin's official viewpoint or the operation. But a series of spectacular military setbacks and problems with the realities of plans to mobilise hundreds of thousands of reservists to the front have led some usually circumspect public figures to levy criticisms at Russia's military hierarchy.

The head of the lower house of parliament's defence committee, former general Andrei Kartapolov, said on Wednesday that the army should "stop lying", even as Russia's official daily briefings speak of enormous losses supposedly suffered by Ukrainian forces without mentioning the high-profile failures of Russian troops on the battlefield.

Kartapolov went on to suggest that the Kremlin's propaganda efforts were also falling short.

"The people know. Our people are not stupid," the former general said.

"And they see that we do not want to tell them even part of the truth. That can lead to a loss of credibility," he told online celebrity presenter Vladimir Solovyov, an ultra-patriot.

Celebration amid discontent

Solovyov, who is under EU sanctions, said certain members of the army's top ranks should consider suicide for their mishandling of the offensive.

"The guilty should be punished. We don't have capital punishment, unfortunately, but for some of them it would be the only solution," he said, adding: "They don't even have an officer's sense of honour because they are not shooting themselves."

War reporter Alexander Kots, writing on his Telegram channel, offered a bleak assessment of the future for Russia. "There won't be any good news [from the front] in the near future."

The air of defeatism was all the more striking given that Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the illegal annexation of four eastern Ukrainian regions, formalised in Moscow after staged referendums, with a concert on Moscow's Red Square last week.

"Victory will be ours," blared the president from a giant video screen amid a sea of Russian flags.

A rare admission of 'errors'

Despite the growing misgivings, public criticism still rarely targets the all-powerful Putin or even his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.

But when pro-Russian Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov hit out at Russia's generals, urging the use of nuclear weapons and hinting that Putin had been ill-informed, the Kremlin was forced to react.

"In difficult moments, emotions must be excluded ... We prefer to make measured and objective evaluations [of the situation]," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded.

Putin was eventually moved to admit publicly to "errors" in the effort to mobilize 300,000 reservists after an avalanche of documented cases of people without army experience, or the ailing and elderly, being called up to the front.

The announcement of the "partial" mobilization sent shockwaves through Russian society and prompted thousands to take to the streets in protest, leading to a wave of more than 2,000 arrests and international condemnation.

Russia's top lawmakers – Valentina Matviyenko, the chairwoman of the Federation Council upper house, and Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower chamber State Duma – also publicly expressed concerns over the mobilisation in late September.

Matviyenko said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that she was aware of men who should be ineligible being summoned to serve, calling such errors " absolutely unacceptable” and adding: “I consider it absolutely right that they are triggering a sharp reaction in society.”

Elsewhere at home, Russia's political opposition has been virtually wiped out with its main leader, Alexei Navalny, languishing in jail.

What remains of the Russian opposition operates mostly from abroad. But even that is no guarantee of safety.

On Thursday, a lawyer for Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza said his client is now under investigation for treason and faces a possible sentence of up to 20 years for speaking out against the war at events in Lisbon, Helsinki and Washington. In comments to Russian news agencies, lawyer Vadim Prokhorov said the speeches were "public, open criticism" and "did not pose any threat". Kara-Murza was arrested in April and remains in pre-trial detention.

Other opposition leaders, as well as journalists critical of the Kremlin, have simply been murdered.

But according to Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally, there is renewed hope of rebuilding a movement within Russia amid rising popular discontent with the war.

"The millions of people who remain in Russia are hostages of Putin and do not want to fight," said Volkov, who announced the re-launch of an activist network in the nation's regions on YouTube.

"The struggle can take different forms, with different levels of risk," he said. "We can put out information, offer legal aid, do voluntary work or sabotage the work of military commissariats, some of which burn very well."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)