How much do the battlefield losses affect Putin?

Ukrainian forces are gaining significant ground in the northeast. Russia has been pushed back to the border in several places. For President Putin, this change in the war is bad news. These messages are also seeping through in their own country.

For 20 years, Putin has had the image of a winner in his own country, someone who achieves his goals. Now Ukraine is succeeding with Western weapons and American intelligence to push Russia back on the Eastern Front. But there is no panic in the Kremlin yet, at least not openly. Ukraine has been able to gain ground by regrouping Russian troops, the official message reads.

If you go by the polls, it seems that support for Putin and his โ€œspecial military operationโ€ in Ukraine is unabated. But those polls are notoriously unreliable and other noises have also come from Russia in recent days. Dozens of municipal delegates in Moscow and Saint Petersburg demand that Putin resign. There was also fierce criticism in a talk show on Russian TV.

Openly, the Presidents actions were questioned:

โ€œYou can see that people who have been in opposition for a long time now feel room to express themselves,โ€ says Russia and Eastern Europe expert at the Clingendael Institute Bob Deen. โ€œBut they represent a very small minority.โ€ Nor are they powerful figures.

Putin still seems untouchable. When can that change? Russia expert Hubert Smeets mentioned three things in Nieuwsuur yesterday that could get Putin in trouble: continued success in Ukraines offensive actions; if he feels compelled to proceed to total mobilization; and if Russias economic development continues.

โ€œIf Donetsk or Kherson come under fire or are liberated, a symbolic turning point has really been reached,โ€ Smeets said. Mobilization is not at issue now, but it is regularly called for. For Putin, this move would be a serious risk. He brings the war to Moscow.

War to Moscow

โ€œNow they use disadvantaged young people from the Caucasus or far into Siberia as cannon fodder. But mobilization means that children of Muscovites are called up,โ€ says Smeets. โ€œThen it comes very close for the elite and middle classes in Moscow.โ€

As far as the economy is concerned, the sanctions and the price of the war are weighing on the budget. โ€œThat makes it very difficult economically for Putin to continue this war.โ€ The economy could collapse.

But these are scenarios that do not affect Putin yet. โ€œPersonally, he is hardly addressed,โ€ says Deen. Should that happen in the future, the question is how he gets away from this. The road Putin took on February 24 is dead, experts say. There is no way out.

The news about the expulsion of the Russians around Kharkov makes refugees in Deventer optimistic for the first time in times:

According to Deen, it is now a matter for the Russian president to put the defenses in order around Donetsk and in the South. Foreign Minister Lavrov, among others, suggested negotiating, but Ukraine now has no interest in this.

One last, and feared, way out is escalation. By mobilization, by further retaliatory attacks on Ukraine as happened with a number of power plants, or, in extreme cases, the deployment of a nuclear weapon. But according to Deen, the latter is not likely now. โ€œNuclear weapons also serve primarily as a deterrent in Russian military doctrine. That could be addressed if Russia is โ€œexistentially threatenedโ€, which is not the case in official Russian rhetoric either; the defeats are downplayed.โ€

Experts expect that the setback for Russia will not bring about a major change in the Kremlin for the time being. The US Institute for the Study of War (ISW) predicted yesterday that the war will last at least until next year. โ€œBut everything is happening, including in the Kremlin,โ€ says Deen. โ€œDue to the unexpected success of this counter-offensive, even for Ukraine, the course of the war has become even more unpredictable.โ€