Tuesday, March 22, 2022

As Russia Stalls in Ukraine, Dissent Brews Over Putin's Leadership

At the New York Times, "Military losses have mounted, progress has slowed, and a blame game has begun among some Russian supporters of the war":

In January, the head of a group of serving and retired Russian military officers declared that invading Ukraine would be “pointless and extremely dangerous.” It would kill thousands, he said, make Russians and Ukrainians enemies for life, risk a war with NATO and threaten “the existence of Russia itself as a state.”

To many Russians, that seemed like a far-fetched scenario, since few imagined that an invasion of Ukraine was really possible. But two months later, as Russia’s advance stalls in Ukraine, the prophecy looms large. Reached by phone this week, the retired general who authored the declaration, Leonid Ivashov, said he stood by it, though he could not speak freely given Russia’s wartime censorship: “I do not disavow what I said.”

In Russia, the slow going and the heavy toll of President Vladimir V. Putin’s war on Ukraine are setting off questions about his military’s planning capability, his confidence in his top spies and loyal defense minister, and the quality of the intelligence that reaches him. It also shows the pitfalls of Mr. Putin’s top-down governance, in which officials and military officers have little leeway to make their own decisions and adapt to developments in real time.

The failures of Mr. Putin’s campaign are apparent in the striking number of senior military commanders believed to have been killed in the fighting. Ukraine says it has killed at least six Russian generals, while Russia acknowledges one of their deaths, along with that of the deputy commander of its Black Sea fleet. American officials say they cannot confirm the number of Russian troop deaths, but that Russia’s invasion plan appears to have been stymied by bad intelligence.

The lack of progress is so apparent that a blame game has begun among some Russian supporters of the war — even as Russian propaganda claims that the slog is a consequence of the military’s care to avoid harming civilians. Igor Girkin, a former colonel in Russia’s F.S.B. intelligence agency and the former “defense minister” of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, said in a video interview posted online on Monday that Russia had made a “catastrophically incorrect assessment” of Ukraine’s forces.

“The enemy was underestimated in every aspect,” Mr. Girkin said.

The Russian forces’ poor performance has also surprised analysts, who predicted at the start of the war that Russia’s massive, technologically advanced military would make short work of Ukraine. Mr. Putin himself seems to have counted on his troops quickly seizing major cities, including the capital, Kyiv, decapitating the government and installing a puppet regime under the Kremlin’s control.

“Take power into your own hands,” Mr. Putin urged Ukrainian soldiers on the second day of the invasion, apparently hoping Ukraine would go down without a fight.

Instead, Ukraine fought back. Nearly a month has passed, and Russian troops appear bogged down in the face of relentless attacks from a much weaker, though far more maneuverable, Ukrainian military. “There was probably the hope that they wouldn’t resist so intensely,” Yevgeny Buzhinsky, ​​a retired lieutenant general and a regular Russian state television commentator, said of Ukraine’s forces. “They were expected to be more reasonable.”

As if responding to criticism, Mr. Putin has said repeatedly in his public comments about the war that it is going “according to plan.”

“We can definitively say that nothing is going to plan,” countered Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst. “It has been decades since the Soviet and Russian armies have seen such great losses in such a short period of time.”

Russia last announced its combat losses three weeks ago — 498 deaths as of March 2. American officials now say that a conservative estimate puts the Russian military death toll at 7,000. Russia says it lost a total of 11,000 service members in nearly a decade of fighting in Chechnya.

The failures in Ukraine have started to create fissures within Russian leadership, according to Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert on Russia’s military and security services...