Putin grows increasingly isolated as Russia’s war in Ukraine falters


When Vladimir Putin visited Minsk last week to discuss increased cooperation, a sarcastic joke by the host, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, seemed very true. “The two of us are accomplices, the most dangerous and malicious people on this planet. We have only one dispute: Who is bigger? That’s all,” Lukashenko said.

As Putin approached New Year’s Eve, the 23rd anniversary of his appointment as acting president of Russia in 1999, he seemed more isolated than ever.

More than 300 days of brutal war against Ukraine have blown away Russia’s decades of carefully cultivated economic ties with the West, turning the country into an outcast, while efforts to The Kremlin’s effort to replace those ties with closer cooperation with India and China seems to be getting longer and longer. war continues.

Putin, who began his career as a Soviet KGB agent, has always kept his advice to himself, relying on a close circle of old friends and confidants while seemingly not Never completely trust or confide in anyone. But now, a new gulf is emerging between Putin and much of the country’s elite, according to interviews with Russian business leaders, officials and analysts.

Putin “felt he lost his friends,” said a Russian state official with close ties to diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Lukashenko is the only person he can seriously visit. All the rest only see him when necessary.

Although Putin gathered the leaders of the former Soviet republics for an informal summit in St. Petersburg this week, but across the region, the Kremlin government is weakening. Putin is expected to discuss regional issues with Chinese President Xi Jinping via videoconference on Friday morning in Moscow, but Xi made clear in September his “concerns” about fight.

Narendra Modi of India this month wrote one article for the influential Russian daily Kommersant calling for an end to the “era of war”. “We have read all this and understood, and I think he [Putin] also read and understand,” the state official said.

Even the Pope, who at the start of the war showed interest in the Kremlin’s views, this month compared the war in Ukraine to the Nazi genocide.

Among Russia’s elites, questions are growing about Putin’s tactics through 2023 following a series of humiliating military retreats this fall. A split is emerging between those in the elite who want Putin to halt his military offensive and those who believe he must escalate further, according to the state official, and Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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Despite a massive media attack over the past week, with Putin holding a series of carefully choreographed televised meetings with senior military officials and officials from the military-industrial complex, as well as a Q&A session with a select group of loyal journalists. Members of the Russian elite interviewed by The Washington Post said they cannot predict what might happen next year and said they doubt Putin himself knows how he can act.

A Russian billionaire who still maintains contact with senior officials said: “The people around him are very disappointed. “He clearly didn’t know what to do.”

Russian state official said Putin’s only plan seems to lie in “continuous efforts to force the West and Ukraine to start [peace] negotiations” through airstrikes on critical Ukrainian infrastructure and other threats. Putin repeated this tactic this week by declaring on Christmas Day that he was ready to negotiate peace even if Russia launched another major missile attack just days later on Thursday, making power supply outage in some areas. “But,” the official said, Putin is willing to talk “only on his terms.”

Billionaires, state officials and some analysts have pointed to the postponement of Putin’s annual National Speech, when the Russian president usually lays out plans for next year, and the cancellation of his weekly marathon press conference. His year is a sign of Putin’s isolation and an attempt to protect him from direct questions because he has no map for the way forward.

The press conference in particular could prove risky as hundreds of journalists are often brought to Moscow from remote regions of Russia, which have been hit hard by recent casualties and partial mobilization.

“In the address, there should be a plan. But no plan. I think they don’t know what to say,” the billionaire said. “He is in isolation, of course. He doesn’t like talking to people. He has a very narrow circle, and now it is even narrower.”

During a question-and-answer session with a number of journalists, Putin countered such assertions about postponing his speech to parliament. He said he had addressed key issues in a recent series of public meetings and was “very complicated for me and the administration, to put it all back into one official address without repeating self.”

But his comments on the war lacked detail. He did not go so far as to say that the conditions in the four Ukrainian territories he claimed to have annexed, illegally, were “extremely difficult” and that his government would try to end the conflict. as fast as possible”.

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Putin again sought to blame the US and NATO for prolonging the war, in an almost tacit admission that he had lost control of the process. “How can he tell us that everything is going to be planned, when we are in the 10th month of the war, and we are told that it will only be for a few days,” he said. state officials said.

Mr. Stanovaya said Putin appeared tired in recent appearances. And even if he has a secret plan of action, most of the Russian elite are losing faith in him, she said.

“He was a figure in the eyes of the elite who seemed incapable of giving answers to questions,” she said. “The elite don’t know what to believe, and they’re afraid to think about tomorrow.”

She continued: “To a large extent, there is a feeling that there is no way out, that the situation is irreparable,” she continued, “that they are completely dependent on one person and cannot affect anything.”

Alexandra Prokopenko, a former adviser at the Central Bank of Russia who resigned and left Russia a few weeks after the invasion began, said in an interview that her former colleagues “try not to. See war from the perspective of winners and losers. But they know that there is no good way out for Russia right now.”

“There is a feeling that we cannot achieve the political goals that were originally set out,” the official said. “This is clear to all.” But no one knew how much damage Russia could suffer before the leaders believed their very existence was in jeopardy, he said.

Underscoring further the growing gap between the president and the business elite, Putin also canceled his annual New Year’s Eve meeting with the country’s billionaires, officially citing the risk of contagion.

With a big question mark hanging over the next year, two camps have emerged among the elite: “The pragmatists argue that Russia has shouldered the brunt of a war it cannot sustain and need to stop,” and those who want to escalate, Stanovaya said.

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Supporters of escalation include Yevgeniy Prigozhin, Putin’s ally who leads the Wagner Mercenary Group and continues to openly criticize Russia’s military leadership.

Growing divisions pose another risk to Putin as he enters 2023, the final year before the presidential election in 2024.

Although recent polls show that Putin retains the support of the vast majority of the population, who now continue to accept Kremlin propaganda, the perception of the elites is overwhelming. In the future, things could get more precarious.

“We don’t know what will happen in the future,” said a longtime member of Russian diplomatic circles. fear of retaliation. “There could be another wave of mobilization. The economic situation next year will start to deteriorate further.”

Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin hawk who is still in contact with Putin’s team, said it’s clear that Putin still doesn’t have the answer to the main question at hand. “There are two possible paths ahead,” Markov said. “One is that the military continues to fight while the rest of society lives a normal life – like this year. The second path is the same as when Russia went through the Second World War, when everything turned to the front and victory. There is such a mobilization of society and the economy.”

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There are also indisputable questions about the obvious weaknesses in the Russian military that have become apparent in recent months, including the inability to properly train and equip 300,000 men. convened in the fall mobilization.

“The reality is that these 300,000 mobilized people do not have enough weapons,” Markov said. “When did they get the military technology? Putin doesn’t have an answer to this question either.”

According to Markov, who favors escalation, doubts between India and China have arisen because Putin did not win fast enough. “Privately they say, ‘Let’s win faster, but if you can’t win, we can’t build a good relationship with you’,” he said. “You should win or admit defeat. What we need most is the end of the war as quickly as possible.”

Others said the reason for the chilly relationship with India and Chinese leaders was that they were clearly more worried about further escalation. “We have heard that there is concern about the possibility of escalation to the nuclear level,” said the longtime member of Russian diplomatic circles. “And here, it seems to me, everyone is saying very clearly that this is extremely undesirable and dangerous.”

Inside Russia, from time to time, members of the liberal elite are voicing their growing concerns.

In an interview last week with Russian daily RBK, Mikhail Zadornov, chairman of Otkritie, one of Russia’s largest banks, who served as finance minister from 1997 to 1999, noted that Russia has lost the market in the West that it had built up since the Soviet era. . “In 50 years, a market, mutual economic connections, has been built. Now they are destroyed for decades to come,” Zadornov said.

In general, members of Russia’s economic elite “understand that this will not end well,” the Russian billionaire said. Prokopenko, a former Central Bank official, said the Russian elite, including many under sanctions, are seeing the situation in horror: “Everything they built is falling apart without reason”.


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