An ex-colonel and several Russian military commentators are increasingly vocal in their disagreement with the way the war in Ukraine is being fought from Moscow. An epiphenomenon or a dangerous underlying trend for Vladimir Putin? The pill is really hard to pass. “Do you have to be stupid not to understand that in the third month of the war, we don’t do it like that?”, Got angry, mid-May, Yuri Kotenok, a Russian military analyst very followed on Telegram. Another commentator and former soldier based in the Donbass, Vladlen Tatarskiy, meanwhile, wants to “hold the ‘military genius’ responsible” for this debacle. The debacle in question concerns the failed attempt of the Russian army to cross, in early May, the Donets River. A maneuver considered one of the biggest failures for Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine, since more than fifty armored vehicles were destroyed on this occasion. It will have been costly for the forces on the front but probably also for official Moscow propaganda, which wants the “special military operation” to go off without a hitch. “There are at least three prominent military commentators with a combined audience of over a million people on Telegram attacking the unfolding of the war,” CNN noted, Wednesday, May 18.>> Read also: “The destruction of a pontoon bridge, a symbol of Russian difficulties in the Donbass””Military analysts, veterans and journalists [russes] increasingly critical of the situation in Ukraine,” the Washington Post confirmed a day later. cannon and soldiers who openly wonder what their generals are doing”, explains Mark Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence, a consulting firm on security issues in Russia. And then there is Mikhail Khodarenok, a Russian colonel at the Retired accustomed to Russian television sets. Invited Monday, May 16 of the popular program “60 minutes”, he allowed himself a regular attack on the conflict, warning that the situation in Ukraine risked “going from bad to worse” for Russia, which finds itself isolated in the face of “a coalition of countries that support Ukraine and provide it with equipment”. An outing that left the panel discussing the “special military operation” speechless. Even the presenter, Olga Skabeïeva, listened in silence this while she is renowned for being a fierce guardian of the Kremlin’s propaganda temple. No immediate censorship. war. Ditto for a handful of soldiers or ex-soldiers who have become commentators on Telegram. As influential as they are on this social network, Telegram cannot be considered a mass media, capable of shaping opinion. However, the concomitance of the two phenomena attracts attention. “A retired military man and a few bloggers are certainly not yet making a trend, and official propaganda still largely dominates the debate. But it is an indication that there is potentially a nascent phenomenon to follow closely”, summarizes Joanna Szostek, a specialist in political communication in Russia at the University of Glasgow. military, which is punishable by a prison sentence. And the length of the sentence was even increased at the start of the war, demonstrating how sensitive the subject is for Moscow”, underlines Stephen Hall, specialist in politics Russian at the University of Bath. A leniency which can partly be explained by the profile of these destroyers of military choices. “These are not ‘liberals’ who oppose war on principle, but often conservatives or ultra-nationalists who would like to see Russia hit Ukraine even harder to bring it to its knees,” Peter said. Rutland, an expert on Russian nationalism and economics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “Their freedom of speech is better protected”, continues this specialist. Thus, one of the most violent detractors of Russian military strategy is Igor Strelkov, the former de facto commander-in-chief of all pro-Russian forces in the Donbass, reputedly for his ultra-nationalist positions.Telegram, thermometer of the morale of the troopsMikhail Khodarenok and the ex-soldiers on Telegram should not be put in the same bag either, affirms Mark Galeotti. In the case of the ex-colonel’s TV outing, “it’s impossible that the show’s organizers didn’t know what he was going to say. And, in a way, you can understand that they did. allowed to speak because his criticisms ultimately serve Vladimir Putin’s propaganda,” says this long-time observer of the mysteries of Russian politics. Mikhail Khodarenok’s point was, in fact, to say that Ukraine is of having exhausted its resources of men ready to fight, while Russia had failed to quickly win the war because of the massive Western support for Ukraine. “It comes down to suggesting that the war is likely to drag on, which is the message that the military command has been trying to get across lately,” remarks Mark Galeotti. Another reading of the former colonel’s television performance is to remember that “his broadcasts are, in reality, only addressed to a single viewer: Vladimir Putin”, notes Stephen Hall. Mikhail Khodarenok would then be a kind of pilot fish for part of the military apparatus “to see how the Russian president reacts to a more pessimistic speech that could prepare for end-of-conflict negotiations under the terms of which Russia does not wouldn’t get everything she wanted”, notes this academic. For him, this is also more or less why criticism on Telegram is tolerated. But for Mark Galeotti, the movement on the social network is more “authentic”. “This allows us to have a sample of the growing frustration of the rank and file soldiers which must be shared by some of the army officers,” he says. Telegram thus represents a kind of troop morale thermometer. Russian censors would let those few voices speak out to make sure the temperature doesn’t rise too high. The risk seems limited to them since their words will not reach the majority of Russians, who do not use this messaging system. Danger for Putin? Letting this more pessimistic vision of the advance of troops in Ukraine proliferate on the social network is, however, not without danger. First, “it’s a platform used a lot by young people, who are likely to be called to war. Seeing this rather gloomy description of the situation on the ground, they are likely to be very reluctant to engage”, notes Joanna Szostek. Or at least, if they are forced, not to go for it with a gun. Another potential problem for Vladimir Putin is that this background noise on the Internet “thwarts the strategy of division traditionally used by the Kremlin to counter any opposition” , explains Mark Galeotti. Indeed, the multiplication of messages on Telegram “allows to give a feeling of belonging to individuals who could have the impression of being alone in their criticism”, specifies this specialist. It is all the more dangerous “that It’s about soldiers, and Vladimir Putin can’t afford to lose the support of the army,” confirms Peter Rutland. For example, “we can read messages from members of the National Guard who express their frustration at being used in mechanized divisions in Ukraine when they have never been trained for that”, notes Mark Galeotti. These soldiers are also those who are supposed to protect the Kremlin against possible popular uprisings. “And what will happen if a vast social movement breaks out in the capital and the army, having lost confidence in their commanders, refuses to intervene?” Asks Peter Rutland. russia’s recent history has already provided an answer once: in 1991, a coup attempt by the staunchest supporters of the Soviet Union failed when the army refused to suppress protesters who opposed the putsch. The absence of support from the army then accelerated the end of the regime.
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