Vladimir Putin is suddenly looking less in control of Russia’s destiny
Russia’s information and propaganda campaigns are becoming more erratic and incomprehensible by the day. It is hard to discern who they benefit, certainly not the personal autocracy of Vladimir Putin. These may be the first signs of Russia being a house divided over the conduct and leadership of its forces in the Ukraine war.
Last Wednesday Evan Gershkovich, 31, of the Wall Street Journal, was arrested on serious charges of espionage – the implication being that he was about to reveal unpalatable truths about Russia’s war economy. The arrest of such a prominent correspondent is unprecedented in post-Cold War Russia, a sign of reckless defiance or desperation from the Kremlin, maybe.
Equally obscure is the weekend assassination of the pro-war blogger Maksim Fomin, aka Vladlen Tatarsky, at the Street Food Bar # 1 in St Petersburg, a known haunt of ‘Cyber Z’ ultranationalists who say they are ‘Russia’s information troops’.
Tatarsky’s blogs frequently criticised the conduct of Russia in the war in Ukraine, where he spent time reporting from the front line. Criticism of the Putin Kremlin was ill-concealed, by implication. The bar had been set up by Putin’s erstwhile ally, now critic, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader and founder of the Wagner mercenary group.
Within 24 hours we have had the rather dodgy videoed confession of the bombing by Darya Trepova, a former peace demonstrator allegedly linked to the leading dissident Alexander Navalny. Navalny supporters have said the whole thing is a fake, possibly the work of the security service, the FSB.
The sense of in-fighting was enhanced by Prigozhin saying his Wagner troops had at last conquered Bakhmut, the bloodiest battleground in the war so far, hoisting the Russian flag at the town hall. Within hours of this, however, it became clear that Ukraine’s forces still held strategic parts of the town.
As an exercise in misdirection, all the sound, fury and propaganda would hardly qualify Putin’s men as conjurors worthy of the Magic Circle. They have failed to distract Russians at large from two brutal facts. Today Finland joins Nato, more than doubling the common land frontier between Nato allies and Russia. With Sweden likely to follow this summer, the Baltic becomes a Nato lake dominating maritime access to St Petersburg, Russia’s most important European port.
Second, the propaganda tricks can’t hide the fact that Ukraine will start a crucial set of offensives. In the past 14 months Kyiv’s commanders have proved themselves the equal or better at military bluff than the Kremlin.
This time they will play the Russians at their own well-established game of maskyrovska, a series of feints and manoeuvres in which the real main attack is only rvealed at the last possible moment. I suspect a series of strikes are being prepared from Kharkiv to Kherson and the Crimea, with a number of guerrilla operations inside Russian-held territory and along the border.
As long as the principal allies of Nato and the EU stay solid, led by the US, Germany, France and the UK, Ukraine can prove this summer that Russia’s current plans court disaster. For all the bluster and fantasy propaganda, Putin is now appearing less and less in control of the timetable and agenda for his country’s destiny.