Guest Essay

Putin Is in Trouble

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Ms. Laruelle is a professor at the George Washington University and the author of “Is Russia Fascist?”

In the wake of a stunning counteroffensive in which Ukrainian forces reclaimed thousands of square miles of territory, Russia is uneasy.

The country’s political talk shows, usually so deferential, have given the floor to more critical voices. Opponents of the war have weighed in — about 40 officials from municipal councils signed a petition requesting the president’s resignation — and previously loyal figures have begun to mutter about the regime’s failings. In a sign of general discontent, Alla Pugacheva, Russia’s most famous 20th-century pop star, has come out against the war. Six months of consensus has started to crack.

That consensus wasn’t as cast-iron as it might have seemed. While many Western observers tend to view the Russian regime as a monolith, the reality is more complex. Though the war has significantly reduced the scope for dissent, there are still several competing ideological camps within the ruling elite capable of making their voices heard. For example, the so-called systemic liberals, mostly concentrated in state financial institutions and among oligarchs, have expressed concerns about the war’s consequences for the Russian economy. But it is another group, emboldened by the Kremlin’s failure to deliver victory in Ukraine, that is putting ever more pressure on the regime.

Call it the party of war. Made up of the security agencies, the Defense Ministry and outspoken media and political figures, it encompasses the entire radical nationalist ecosystem — and its adherents have been mounting a sustained critique of the Kremlin’s handling of the war in Ukraine. Powerful, well positioned and ideologically committed, they want a much more aggressive war effort. And judging from Mr. Putin’s address on Wednesday — where he announced the call-up of roughly 300,000 troops, gave his support to referendums in the four occupied regions of Ukraine on joining Russia and repeated the threat of nuclear escalation — they seem to be getting their way.

The party of war has been very vocal since April, when it became clear that the Russian Army was unable to conquer Kyiv and overthrow the Zelensky government. Moscow’s more modest goal — conquering the Donbas and securing a land bridge to annexed Crimea — appeared to be an intolerable retrenchment. Throughout, Russia’s hawks have benefited from an unexpected sounding board: the many Telegram channels, some of which have up to one million followers, run by war journalists embedded with the Russian Army. In a stream of constant commentary, the channels criticize the government’s indecisiveness and call for a full-scale conquest of Ukraine and the mass mobilization of the Russian population.

Through the summer, the level of criticism was manageable for the regime. But things began to change in August, when Darya Dugina, the daughter of one of Russia’s best-known imperial ideologists, Alexander Dugin, was assassinated in Moscow. The perpetrators and purpose of the attack are unknown. But the effect was clear. By bringing the conflict into one of the capital’s fanciest neighborhoods, the murder confirmed the hawks’ dim view of the war effort. Since Ms. Dugina’s death, the party of war has been using her “martyrdom” to renew calls for a full-scale war in overtly eschatological tones.

The military reversal of recent weeks has played into their hands. The infamous Chechen head of state, Ramzan Kadyrov, has called for “self-mobilization,” inviting regional elites to recruit at least 1,000 citizens each, raising about 85,000 new troops in total. The Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, another key figure on the nationalist right, called for a “maximum mobilization of forces and resources” and for the Kremlin to refer to the conflict as a war, rather than a “special operation.” And Yevgeny Prigozhin, the de facto head of a shadowy mercenary outfit known as the Wagner Group, has been recruiting prisoners to be sent to the front.

Their criticism has clearly cut through. While stopping short of mass conscription, Mr. Putin’s “partial mobilization,” as he put it, of some 300,000 troops is a major boost for the party of war. Likewise, plans to hold referendums in Ukraine’s occupied territories — Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, Kherson and Zaporizka in the south — are designed to redraw the terms of the conflict, in ways congenial to the president’s hawkish critics. There are signs too that Mr. Putin may escalate domestically, turning even more to repression.

The administration, for example, is stepping up indoctrination for schoolchildren and has instituted new restrictions on supposedly pernicious content in art. The security services, for their part, are laser-focused on stamping out dissent, arresting and jailing any form of opposition. In universities, students and professors are under growing pressure to cut links with their Western counterparts. Already extensive, these efforts could be pursued yet more doggedly, dragging many more Russians into the dragnet.

Such an approach is not without its risks. Among citizens, interest in the war and the accompanying rally-around-the-flag effect are waning. More intense repression coupled with an encroaching sense of the war’s human costs, as more of the country’s men are drawn into service, could turn them off it entirely. Young and educated Russians may leave the country in greater numbers than they already have.

There’s also no assurance that hard-liners in the ruling elite will accept domestic repression as a substitute for military success abroad — or that the influx of troops will substantially alter the dynamics on the battlefield. With an overdrawn and exhausted army, Mr. Putin must still find a way to deliver a military result that can be framed as at least a partial victory. It doesn’t help that the country’s major backers, China and India, have begun to voice concerns.

Even amid such difficulties, it would be a mistake to foresee a collapse of the regime, ensconced for two decades. But Mr. Putin, like any leader, depends on legitimacy to ensure his rule. And in the weeks and months ahead, he may discover that the ground beneath his feet has started to shift.

Marlene Laruelle is the director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University and the author of, among other books, “Is Russia Fascist? Unraveling Propaganda East and West.”

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