Putin Can't Easily Silence His Latest Critics

With the newest developments in the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to run up against some difficulty in stifling his latest critics.

Counteroffensive attacks from Ukrainian forces have successfully allowed them to recapture territories that had been occupied by Russia, causing even some of Putin's staunchest pro-war allies to determine that Russia has "already lost."

In a video shared last week, self-described Russian nationalist Igor Girkin, who played a key role in the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2015, declared that "the special military operation has completely failed." He said, "Since March, we have had a full-fledged war. But until now, Russian authorities, the defense ministry and general staff have behaved as if there's no war."

Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that while Putin was largely successful in silencing his early critics of the invasion of Ukraine, he's unlikely to have the same luck quieting the doubts expressed by allies like Girkin.

"The Kremlin is worried about this panic sentiment," Stanovaya told NBC News over the weekend. "The pro-war activists are seen as allies, they are part of the broad pro-Putin consensus in Russia, the disagreement is just about tactics. So, the Kremlin actually has limited means to deal with this camp. They can't turn against them and suppress them the same way they did the liberal opposition."

Putin Critics War Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a press conference at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit on September 16 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Recently, some of Putin's staunchest pro-war allies have determined that Russia has "already lost" in its invasion of Ukraine. Getty Images

Stanovaya said that while the radical right-wing figures don't directly threaten the Kremlin's plans to continue fighting in Ukraine, their resistance could undermine Russian confidence in Putin.

"Putin's biggest threat is himself," she said, adding that "the problem is his leadership."

"The Russian elite is used to seeing Putin as a strong man, someone who deals with challenges and always knows where he's taking the country," Stanovaya explained. "Now he appears hesitant, he is not convincing at all and he is unclear about Russia's goals and plans."

Earlier this month, Ukrainian forces surprised even the Kremlin after retaking the Balakliya and Izium areas and forcing Russian troops to withdraw from those regions and toward the eastern Donetsk region.

"The Russian army in these days is showing the best that it can do—showing its back," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video responding to the military developments, according to a translation. "And, of course, it's a good decision for them to run."

Unlike Girkin, there are other pro-war activists who are urging the Kremlin to do more to combat Ukrainian soldiers, with some even calling for regional mobilization, which would be slightly narrower than mass draft conscription across Russia.

However, such a move would suggest that Putin is acknowledging Russia's inability to "fulfill the tasks" it set out to do in Ukraine, Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine's military intelligence, said Monday.