The Kremlin's formula for failure
How a war of destruction could pit a tiny elite against itself
1. Putin is responsible for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and as a tyrant must redistribute blame for its failures. For the tyranny to continue functioning, other individuals and institutions must accept the blame, while avoiding any talk of failure. This is difficult.
2. After a month of the Russian military campaign, some possible vectors of discord in the Russian government suggest themselves. I summarize here from open sources certain unusual features of this war. These are odd facts that would seem to suggest prior, or provoke future, dissension among Russian leaders. I draw no conclusions, and will at most suggest where to look.
3. Putin is the supreme leader in the Russian Federation. The invasion of Ukraine was predicated on his idea that there was no Ukrainian state or nation. His views are widely repeated, though perhaps not as widely shared. They were immediately proven wrong.
4. Putin's idea of regime change in Ukraine in two days failed in practice. His victory declaration of February 26th, accidentally published, revealed a vast gap between aim and achievement.
5. Putin's notion was that Russia would be negotiating with a puppet Ukrainian government on the third day of the invasion.
6. Thus neither extensive Western sanctions nor heavy Russian troop losses could have been anticipated. These add considerable weight to Putin's primary errors.
7. To make reality fit Putin's axioms, Russia must now use its military, National Guard, and Chechen irregulars to destroy the Ukrainian state and nation. Genocide does not necessarily enjoy broad support.
8. The Russian state lacks checks and balances as well as legal restraints. The decision to invade Ukraine was discussed beforehand only among a small group.
9. There are thus a large number of people just beyond Putin's inner circle who could say, truthfully, that they had no part in the decision to invade Ukraine.
10. The decision to invade Ukraine seems not to have been accompanied by much of an operational plan. This could well be a result of Putin's erroneous premise and the lack of consultation allowed by the state’s tyrannical structure.
11. After Putin, the most important person involved in discussions of the invasion was presumably Sergei Shoigu, the minister of defense. Shoigu is or was a public friend of Putin.
12. Shoigu has an excellent reputation as a manager, but no background as a soldier. He has a large PR staff and is self-aggrandizing. Real generals might find him irritating.
13. Seven real Russian generals are reported to have been killed in Ukraine, along with many other field commanders. Morale seems low. It is reasonable to connect all this to Putin's error, Shoigu's inexperience, and the general lack of planning.
14. Shoigu went missing for two weeks, and was reported to be having heart problems.
15. When Russia's war aims were publicly recalibrated on March 25th, the announcement came not from Shoigu but from General Sergei Rudskoi.
16. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff, is unlike Shoigu a real general. Because of the adroit propaganda of the last Russian invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, he is associated with the idea of hybrid war.
17. Whether or not that association is correct, the invasion of 2022 has been a propaganda disaster. Insofar as Gerasimov's reputation was associated with hybrid war, it has suffered.
18. Gerasimov is regarded as the mastermind of the decisive 2014 battlefield victory at Ilovaisk during the last Russian invasion of Ukraine. Insofar as his reputation was associated with outwitting Ukrainians on the battlefield, it has suffered.
19. The American military leadership complains that their Russian counterparts (Shoigu and Gerasimov) will not take their phone calls. This is an unusual and dangerous practice.
20. The Russians might not be taking the Americans' phone calls because of a capricious decision by Putin. They might also be afraid of contact with Americans at a time of stress or suspicion.
21. Putin might wish to believe that intelligence leaks explain the better-than-expected Ukrainian (and the worse-than-expected Russian) performance on the battlefield.
22. The leak theory would be convenient for Putin, since it would distract attention from his own erroneous views about Ukraine, the major cause of both the invasion and its failures.
23. Sergei Beseda is or was the head of the part of the Russian secret police (Federal Security Service, FSB) that is responsible for international affairs. He now seems to be under house arrest.
24. Like Gerasimov, Beseda was associated with the last Russian intervention in Ukraine. He was in Kyiv with a team of colleagues on an official mission in February 2014, just when dozens of protestors were shot to death.
25. Beseda would presumably have been responsible for providing Putin with intelligence on Ukraine prior to this invasion. It is hard to know what he said or whether Putin listened.
26. Putin might prefer to blame on faulty intelligence for the difficulties in Ukraine as a diversion from simpler explanations, ie: his premise was wrong; he failed to consult others.
27. Perhaps Beseda yielded to Putin's prejudices, perhaps he gave him good intelligence and was ignored. Either way, if Beseda is indeed blamed, this is a blow to the FSB and its prestige.
28. The FSB is mindful of its position with respect to rival institutions, such as the National Guard and Chechen irregulars, both present in Ukraine.
29. Prospects: It is worth looking for fault lines between Putin and his generals; among his generals; between higher officers and soldiers in the field; between Putin and his secret police, and between his secret police and rival services.
The Putin regime is stuck close to the predictable dilemmas of tyranny. The supreme leader is consistently trying to redistribute blame for his own errors, which as yet have not been named by anyone in his immediate circle. Military leaders are scarcely and unpredictably visible during a war; other important services are under stress.
30. Summary: Given the obvious contradiction, it is difficult to shift blame and deny failure at the same time. Stalinism solved this problem by purging elites and claiming that mass death demonstrated the higher meaning of a policy that might appear to be a failure. Despite gestures in both directions, towards disciplining elites and towards necrophiliac sublimation, it is not clear that the Putin regime can achieve the Stalinist synthesis.
The current elite can perhaps quietly agree that Russians in general should suffer for the supreme leader’s mistakes, by dying on the battlefield and by subordinating themselves to censorship and propaganda at home. That would allow blame to be redistributed beyond themselves. Whether this is enough for Putin himself is unclear. Whether elites agree that Russian self-punishment is the right policy, and can align themselves to implement it, also remains an open question.