Faint cracks emerge in the facade of Putin’s rule, one year after Ukraine invasion

Analysis by Nathan Hodge, CNN

CNN  —  Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny is fond of a phrase, “the wonderful Russia of the future,” his shorthand for a country without President Vladimir Putin.

But in the year that has passed since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has gone back to a dark, repressive past.

Over the last 12 months, Putin’s government has crushed the remnants of Russia’s civil society and presided over his country’s first military mobilization since World War II. Political opponents such as Navalny are in prison or out of the country. And Putin has made it clear that he seeks to reassert Russia as an empire in which Ukraine has no place as an independent state.

The war in Ukraine drew a bright line under the period of High Putinism, a decade that began with Putin’s controversial return to the presidency in 2012. That era, in hindsight, was a prelude to the current war: Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed armed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, while Putin’s technocrats worked on sanction-proofing the Russian economy.

Since last February’s invasion, Putin has shrugged off protests and international sanctions. Independent media and human rights groups have been branded as foreign agents or shut down entirely.

Russia is now in an uncertain new phase, and it’s clear there will be no rewind, no return to the status quo ante, for ordinary citizens.

So is Putin’s grip on power unchallenged? Rumors are now flying inside the country about another wave of mobilization. And in Moscow, signs of elite competition are beginning to emerge, even as some Russians are seeing through the cracks in the wall of state propaganda.

The distorted lens of history

On February 2, Putin paid a visit to the southern Russian city of Volgograd to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory at what was then called Stalingrad, a crucial turning point in what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

In his speech at a gala concert in Volgograd, Putin made a direct link between the Battle of Stalingrad – the moment when the momentum shifted on the Eastern Front against Nazi Germany – and the war in Ukraine, warning that Russia faced a similar threat from a “collective West” bent on its destruction.

“Those who draw the European countries, including Germany, into a new war with Russia – and all the more irresponsibly declare this as a fait accompli – those who expect to win a victory over Russia on the battlefield, apparently do not understand that a modern war with Russia will be completely different for them,” he warned.

Invoking Stalingrad was a response to Germany’s decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, something Putin complained was “unbelievable, but true.” But the President’s visit to Volgograd had an element of what well-known Russian political scientist Kirill Rogov described as the “cosplay” – costume play – that Russia’s ruling class uses to drape their policies in the garments of a heroic past.

“Putin arrived in Volgograd, which was renamed Stalingrad for a few days on the occasion of the anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad,” Rogov wrote on Telegram. “The anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, which is perceived as a turning point in the Patriotic War, is, of course, used as a great allusion and patriotic warm-up before the decisive second offensive against Ukraine that is being prepared.”

Ukrainian officials have been warning for weeks that Russia may be preparing a major new assault, perhaps to coincide with the anniversary of the 2022 invasion. Back in September, Putin ordered a “partial mobilization” after a swift and unexpected Ukrainian counteroffensive that chased Russian forces out of the northeastern Kharkiv region and set the stage for Ukraine’s recapture of the southern city of Kherson. Many of those troops have now gone through the training pipeline, further fueling speculation that Russia is committed to a manpower-intensive war of attrition.

Observers also note that Russia’s military has been adapting. While Putin never got the victory parade in Kyiv his generals were planning for, he has appointed a new battlefield commander, signaling another change in strategy.

“After the failure of the (2022) blitzkrieg, Russia adapted and placed its bets on a long war, relying on its superior numbers in population, resources, military industry and the size of its territory beyond reach of enemy strikes,” Russian political observer and commentator Alexander Baunov wrote in a recent Telegram post. “This is a war of attrition that can be won without involving too many people … On the strategy of ‘wait them out, add pressure, put the squeeze on.’”

War, however, is fluid and unpredictable. As Baunov noted, the recent decision by Germany, the United States and other European allies to deliver main battle tanks to Ukraine may test Putin’s long game.

“A return to rapid warfare with tanks ruins this new strategy that Russia has just set its sights on,” Baunov wrote. “New people may also be needed to hold the front, and this is risky.”

Exactly why this is risky should be clear: The first mobilization caused major tremors in Russian society. Hundreds of thousands of Russians voted with their feet. Protests erupted in ethnic minority regions such as Dagestan where police faced off against anti-mobilization demonstrators in multiple cities. Russian social media saw a surge of videos and public complaints about the lack of equipment and appalling conditions for newly mobilized recruits.

Putin was able to weather the unrest with his formidable and well-funded security apparatus, much as he was able to crack down on antiwar protests that broke out right after the February 24 invasion. And in the months that followed mobilization, Russia made some slow, grinding advances in Ukraine’s Donbas region, particularly around the embattled city of Bakhmut.

Many of those advances have been led by soldiers of the Wagner Group, a private military company headed by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Many reports on Wagner have focused on the group’s brutal tactics, including human-wave attacks and summary execution for waverers or deserters.

Many of Russia's recent advances have been led by soldiers of the Wagner Group, a private military company headed by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.

But Wagner’s methods are also a flashback to a bleak chapter of Soviet history. Prigozhin has recruited thousands of prisoners with the promise of amnesty or a pardon, a practice that mirrors Stalin’s use of penal battalions and convicts to take on desperate or suicidal missions in the toughest sectors of the front, using human-wave attacks to overwhelm enemy defenses, regardless of the human cost.

The mercenary group says it is no longer recruiting prisoners, but Wagner’s costly battlefield successes have raised Prigozhin’s profile. While the oligarch has no official government office or administrative power, his ability to deliver some results and his swaggering PR operation have vaulted him significantly closer to Putin.

How close, exactly, is a matter of intense debate. In an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Russian author and journalist Mikhail Zygar called Prigozhin’s ambitions “the most hot topic for speculation in Moscow,” noting that he is accumulating a political following that would potentially allow him to challenge Putin.

“He’s the first folk hero (in) many years,” Zygar said. “He’s a hero for the most ultraconservative – the most, I would say, fascist – part of Russian society, as long as we don’t have any liberal part in Russian society, because most of the leaders of that part of Russian society have left, he’s an obvious rival to President Putin.”

Recent speculation has centered on whether rivals within Russia’s power elite have been trying to clip Prigozhin’s wings. Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya recently offered a skeptical take on Prigozhin’s rise that factors in some of those considerations. In a recent article published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she noted that Prigozhin has rivalries with Russia’s power ministries and doesn’t have much showing in polls.

“Is Prigozhin ready to challenge Putin?” she wrote in a recent piece. “While the answer is negative, there is one important ‘but.’ It is difficult to remain balanced and sane after going through bloody meat grinders and losing a significant part of one’s personnel. As long as Putin is relatively strong and able to maintain a balance between groups of influence, Prigozhin is safe. But the slightest easing could provoke Prigozhin to challenge power, even if not directly to Putin at first. War breeds monsters, whose recklessness and desperation can become a challenge to the state.”

Part of the fascination with Prigozhin has to do with the fact that Putin, until a year ago, enjoyed a secure monopoly on power. The authorities were well practiced in quashing street protests, and any meaningful political opposition had been effectively neutered. That’s fueled speculation – or perhaps wishful thinking – that the collapse of Putinism might be brought on by some fissure within the elite. The so-called siloviki (the hardcore authoritarians in Putin’s inner circle) remain publicly loyal, but further setbacks in Ukraine may create a potential scramble for power.

Since last February's invasion, Putin has shrugged off protests and international sanctions.

Will war come home?

Against that backdrop, some Russians have taken refuge in a form of political apathy. CNN recently spoke to several Muscovites about how their lives have changed since last year, on condition that their surnames not be used over the risks of publicly criticizing the government.

“There have been a lot of changes (in Russia), but I can’t really make a difference,” said Ira, a 47-year-old who works for a business publication. “I just try to keep some internal balance. Maybe I’m too apolitical, but I don’t feel it (further mobilization) is going to happen.”

Ira said she felt acute anxiety in February and March of last year, immediately after the invasion. She had just bought an apartment and was worried that work might dry up and she wouldn’t be able to pay her mortgage.

“It got a lot worse in the spring,” she said. “Now it seems we’ve gotten used to a new reality. I started to meet and go out with girlfriends. I started to buy a lot more wine.”

The restaurants are now full, she said, but added: “The faces look completely different. The hipsters – you know what hipsters are? – there are less of them.”

Ira doesn’t have a son, so she does not have to worry about him being mobilized. But she did say that her 21-year-old daughter has started going out to kvartirnik – informal, word-of-mouth gatherings in private apartments, somewhat reminiscent of the underground performances held in the Soviet era.

Olya, a 51-year-old events organizer with two teenage children, said her family had opted for more domestic holidays. Europe is largely closed to direct flights from Russia, and opportunities to travel abroad are more limited.

“We started to travel around the country more,” she said.

Olya and her family travel with a group of friends, but some topics are off-limits in that circle.

“We know in our group what everyone thinks about it (the war) but we don’t talk about it, otherwise we’ll end up squabbling,” she said.

Life carries on, Olya said, even though there is a war on. “I can’t influence the situation,” she said. “My friends say, we do what we can, what’s possible. It doesn’t help to get depressed.”

Helping matters for the Russian government is the unexpected durability of parts of the Russian economy, despite heavy Western sanctions. The war has been costly for the government – the country’s Finance Ministry recently admitted it ran a higher-than-expected deficit in 2022, in large part due to a 30% increase in defense spending over the previous year – but the International Monetary Fund is projecting a small return to GDP growth for Russia in 2023 of 0.3%.

A 38-year-old entrepreneur named Georgy told CNN that from the perspective of his businesses, things appeared to be picking up.

“Those who adapted quickly reorganized, they are seeing growth,” he said. “In January we concluded an unusual number of deals, and most of our activity usually picks up in February.”

Georgy spoke to CNN while in a Moscow traffic snarl, evidence that life in the capital has resumed some of its normal rhythm.

“In terms of everyday life, practically nothing has changed,” he said, talking about the cutoff of Western imports. “If we’re talking parts for a (Mercedes Benz) G-Class, it might be trickier.”

Asked if his business was affected by the exodus of Russians since the beginning of the war, Georgy said no.

“Those I know personally who left? Probably about five people,” he said. “I have a patriotic social circle.”

Georgy said he was skeptical of state media, saying he looked for other sources of information. And he acknowledged that he could theoretically be called up in another wave of mobilization.

“My attitude is somewhat philosophical,” he said. “Of course, I’d prefer not to.”

Before last February, Russia’s budding middle class could benefit from Putin’s social contract: Stay out of politics, and you’ll enjoy life in a European-style Moscow or St. Petersburg. Now that the bargain is out the window. Russia is further than ever from Europe, and it remains to be seen if support for an open-ended war can be sustained.

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