Is Vladimir Putin’s power base collapsing amid stalled invasion?

Russian president attacks ‘national traitors’ in ‘rambling’ address to the nation

Russian President Vladimir Putin
(Image credit: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP)

Signs are emerging that Vladimir Putin’s inner circle is “crumbling” after the Russian president pledged to “purify” Russia of traitors and ordered the arrest of one of his most senior military commanders.

James Heappey, the UK armed forces minister, said this morning that the arrest of General Roman Gavrilov was a sign of “real discord” over the invasion, which has left at least 7,000 Russian troops dead, including three generals, and up to 21,000 soldiers injured, according to the latest US intelligence.

The “conservative” estimate of deaths and injuries points to the scale of the calamity of the Russian invasion, The Telegraph said. It is “greater than the number of American troops killed over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined”.

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Military purge

The heavy losses incurred by Russia’s armed forces have triggered the apparent “purge” of top military and intelligence commanders, The Telegraph said, including General Gavrilov, the deputy head of the National Guard, who was arrested on Thursday.

It is unclear why Gavrilov was arrested, Christo Grozev, the lead Russia investigator at investigative journalism organisation Bellingcat, tweeted. Sources suggested that he was detained over “leaks of military info that led to loss of life” or the “wasteful squandering of fuel”.

But “one thing is clear”, Grozev’s Twitter thread continued: “it’s doubtless that Putin recognises the deep s**t this operation is in.” He added: “it’s so bad that he changes horses in midstream – a big no-no during war.”

Last weekend, Putin also had Colonel-General Sergei Beseda, the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service, and his deputy, Anatoly Bolyukh, arrested, reportedly over intelligence failings.

"It looks like two weeks into the war, it finally dawned on Putin that he was completely misled,” said Russian investigative journalists Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, of the Washington-based Centre for European Policy Analysis. His closest advisers, “fearful of his responses, seem to have told Putin what he wanted to hear”.

Banking crisis

In a further blow, the “highly respected” head of the Russian central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, has quit after she reportedly “stood up to Putin” over the war in Ukraine and the “devastation faced by Russians from Western sanctions”, said the Daily Mirror.

The resignation of Nabiullina also signals a ”deepening crisis” for the Russian economy, said the paper. Taken together, the resignations and arrests suggest that “various officials are challenging Putin, as sanctions from the West begin to bite”.

Russia’s economy is expected “to shrink 8% this year while inflation reaches 20% as Russia buckles under the economic backlash from its invasion”, Reuters reported.

That outcome would dwarf the “plunge in prices for oil” in 2014 that followed Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The oil-price crash was enough to tip “the economy into crisis” when combined with “western sanctions and an investor stampede out of Russian assets”.

Isolated dictator

As Putin’s invasion stalls and economists fear what is to come, the Russian leader appears to have turned his “baleful glare on Russians who are against the invasion or who sympathise with the West”, said NBC News.

In a “ranting” speech to the Russian people, which was the latest to “surprise and alarm many who study Putin”, he seemed to pick on Russian elites who had fled the country, branding them “national traitors”, the broadcaster added.

“The West will try to rely on the so-called fifth column, on national traitors, on those who earn money here with us but live there,” he said. “I mean ‘live there’ not even in the geographical sense of the word, but according to their thoughts, their slavish consciousness.

“Such people who by their very nature, are mentally located there, and not here, are not with our people, not with Russia,” Putin said, adding that such individuals “cannot live without oysters and gender freedom”.

He also called for “a natural and necessary self-detoxification of society” that would “strengthen our country, our solidarity and cohesion.”

It seems that Putin, who has typically had high levels of support among the Russian public, is now “turning to a strategy of intimidation to keep Russians on side”, said CNN. His reference to “national traitors” was “chilling” in “a country where mass political repressions and the Gulag system are still within living memory”.

The speech reflected the isolation of the Russian leader, Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told the broadcaster “What we saw as the war began, and what we have seen since – including last night’s speech – is really the result of a man whose entire world takes place inside his head,” Braw said.

“There is a sort of humiliation of a country that is now seeing McDonald’s close, where Russians are flocking to IKEA to get every last item that’s available before it leaves the country,” she added. “That is humiliating, and of course, rather frightening when you think of the potential reaction among the Russian public once these consumer goods are no longer available.”

General Sir Richard Lawson Barrons, a retired British Army officer, told the i news site that Putin invaded Ukraine “on the basis of his own hubris” and because “his own particular narrative” had been “reinforced by the facts that people gave him because they thought he wanted to hear it”.

He added: “There is a conversion from reporting the facts as they are to creating a narrative which they know that Putin and his inner circle want to hear. So they have reinforced this false narrative.

“It is illustrative of someone who has been in power for a very long time and has become the source of all meaningful decisions and of whom people are genuinely frightened.”

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