Even for a leader as cloistered as Vladimir Putin, the torrent of bad news from Ukraine should be impossible to ignore.
The Russian army’s rapid retreat from Kyiv last week has made clear the scale of its failure, leaving behind the bodies of Russian soldiers and the burnt-out carcasses of hundreds of tanks and other military vehicles. The goal of a knockout blow against Kyiv has been abandoned and Russia is facing the toughest sanctions ever enacted against a superpower.
Was it misinformation from a cadre of yes-men that led the Russian leader down this path? That is what US and European intelligence argued last week, saying the Kremlin leader is now raging at his advisers of him, in particular the military leadership that got him into this month. “His senior advisers of him are too afraid to tell him the truth,” said Kate Bedingfield, director of communications at the White House.
The response from the Kremlin was predictable.
“It looks like neither the Department of State nor the Pentagon know what is really happening in the Kremlin,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman. “They simply do not understand what is going on. They do not understand President Putin. They do not understand the decision-making mechanism. They do not understand our working style.”
Few people can claim to do so at this point.
“From what I know, the circle Putin talks to is very small,” said Farida Rustamova, an independent Russian journalist who has reported on the mood among officials since the war began. “Only a handful of people are allowed to see him in person and they have to be at a distance. And only very few have phone access with him. But that access is only one way, as in Putin contacts them, not the other way around.”
Each week, Putin holds a video call with his security council, a group of mainly hard-liners and technocrats that has become his wartime cabinet since the invasion of Ukraine.
Among them are the siloviki, the security chiefs who appear in pole position for Putin’s ear. They include Nikolai Patrushev, the former KGB officer whom Putin met in Leningrad in the 1970s, the FSB head Alexander Bortnikov whom Putin has also known for four decades, the technocratic defense minister Sergei Shoigu, and Sergei Naryshkin, Putin’s head of foreign intelligence.
Their suspicion of the west and tendency toward conspiracy theory make them natural allies of the Russian president at war. But even they appeared to be securely under Putin’s thumb during a televised meeting days before the invasion, a piece of political theater that left Naryshkin stuttering as Putin browbeat him to “speak plainly”.
“It is clear it is an extremely centralized system which got only more centralized during the war,” said Vladimir Gelman, a Russian politics professor at the University of Helsinki. “The Kremlin is like the solar system, with Putin being the sun and all the planets of different orbits around him. At the security council meeting… it was really telling just how little influence the members of the council had.”
Outside of those meetings, which are almost always held behind closed doors, insiders say that you wait until he contacts you.
That includes the economic bloc of the government, including prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina, Rustamova said.
And it would include Shoigu and the army chief of staff Valery Gerasimov, as well.
The two men disappeared from public for nearly two weeks last month, prompting rumors that the defense chiefs had already been punished for Russia’s chaotic start to the war.
In an extremely embarrassing episode, the defense ministry was forced to admit it had sent conscripts into combat missions after some had been captured and killed in Ukraine. Putin had previously denied there were any conscripts fighting in Ukraine at all.
But despite signs that Putin was angry with Shoigu, analysts warned he was unlikely to sack the defense chief in the middle of a major military operation.
“[Shoigu] he has made himself completely indispensable and that’s how he got back,” said Andrei Soldatov, an author who has written extensively on the Russian security services. “Who could replace him? He’s the third or second most popular politician in the country.”
The Russian leader values loyalty and, as a result, his cabinet after two decades in power is populated with loyalists.
“Putin likes to repeat the phrase ‘there’s no one else to do the job’,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik political analysis firm. “Shoigu is his person from him. He has … failures at work, shortcomings, mistakes. But will somebody else do a better job? So I wouldn’t make any conclusions about how Putin is tearing his hair out over how Shoigu has betrayed him and let him down.”
Critics have pointed to the reported detentions of several high-level FSB officers and the sacking of a top general in the Rosgvardia, or National Guard, as evidence of a growing schism over the war or possible purge for its poor execution.
But experts have said the Kremlin ranks largely appear to be holding, with few discernible changes among Putin’s advisers as he seeks to consolidate his support under heavy pressure from the west.
I think [Putin’s] unhappy with the performance,” said Soldatov. “But it doesn’t mean that people inside are ready for a coup d’etat or anything like that. That’s just wishful thinking.”
Seeking leverage with the Kremlin, western countries have sanctioned oligarchs seen as loyal to Putin, betting that he may listen to the moneymen who hold billions in assets.
Among those hit with UK sanctions is Roman Abramovich, the billionaire former Chelsea owner who unexpectedly surfaced at informal negotiations in Istanbul and in Kyiv last month, where he and two members of the Ukrainian team claimed that they had been poisoned.
But the oligarchs themselves claim it has been years since they have had the Kremlin’s ear, long since forced out by the former KGB hawks and other loyalists whom Putin has installed in the last 20 years.
“There is no point for people like me to try to talk to the Kremlin,” an oligarch who has known Putin since the 1990s told the observer. “It doesn’t work that way. Let’s not be naive. We haven’t had any access in years.”
The business leaders said they were kept in the dark about the invasion until after it began, when Putin summoned many of them to a meeting to demand their loyalty.
“This conflict was obviously not discussed with the business community,” said the oligarch. “We were just told the day after the invasion that everything will be OK but that there was no choice. It is not a debate or a discussion. The system has developed over the years; of course there were different blocs in the beginning, but after Crimea it became clear that there wasn’t place for the more so-called liberal wing. And the pandemic made the very top more isolated.”
Some of those former liberal advisers have already left the country. Anatoly Chubais, the privatization chief under Boris Yeltsin who had remade himself as a state-backed executive and then adviser to Putin on environmental issues, resigned and left Russia for Turkey last month. Arkady Dvorkovich, a former Kremlin economic adviser, stepped down as head of the Skolkovo Foundation under state pressure after criticizing the war in an interview.
And Alexei Kudrin, another top liberal adviser who has known Putin for decades, also advised him to abandon the invasion, Rustamova said. According to her sources, Kudrin spoke to Putin shortly after the war began. During the conversation, he “warned Putin about the consequences of the war: that the economy would slide back to the early 1990s, and that this could lead to social instability. But there was no reaction from Putin to all of this. Putin has the same answer to everyone who is worried about this war – Russia had no other option.”
“There is a general attitude that even if someone could reach him, it wouldn’t really make a difference, that his mind is set,” said Rustamova.
All this pushes back against the idea that Putin has been misled about the scale of the war – rather he has chosen not to listen to any more. The natural competition among Putin’s advisers, even among the hardliners, also means that they would likely be keen to point out the others’ mistakes.
“It’s impossible to hide everything,” said Stanovaya. “We know that there’s serious competition within the security services. So if the army makes a mistake, we know there are a lot of people ready to report on that, from [Chechnya head] Ramzan Kadyrov to the FSB. So I would not say that Putin is misinformed now. But it’s possible he receives his information from him late.
As the war has continued, that factionalism has only grown stronger. Kadyrov, the dictatorial leader of Chechnya who has feuded with Russia’s security services, has also strongly criticized the negotiations led by Kremlin advisor Vladimir Medinsky.
After Medinsky announced that Russia would pull back some forces from Kyiv, Kadyrov said that “Medinsky made a mistake, made an incorrect wording … And if you think that he [Putin] will quit what he started just the way it is presented to us today, this is not true.”
“Factionalism is always a feature of the Russian political system,” said Ben Noble, an associate professor in Russian politics at University College London. “However, given that it is an invasion that is going wrong, these factional splits can have an existential edge to them.”
The rumor mill, where the temporary disappearance of a public figure like Shoigu can quickly lead to breathless predictions of a purge or a coup, also has a momentum of its own during the invasion.
“Given the opacity of the regime, the intrigue about palace coups becomes a dynamic in itself that can become completely divorced from what’s happening on the ground,” Noble said. “And it’s not just a storm in a teacup that’s being imagined by western observers. It’s highly plausible that these are precisely the conversations, rumors and whispers that are taking place in Moscow.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism