The two Russian senior colonels caught on tape did not hide their fury as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine ground into its fourth inconclusive month, but the target of their anger was not the Ukrainians shooting at them but their own military and political superiors, who they said — profanely and repeatedly — were not trying to win the war they started.
Although much of the Western world and a small but vocal domestic opposition have condemned the brutality of the Russian campaign, the colonels, in a tape released by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, say President Vladimir Putin and his generals have not been tough enough.
Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital targeted unsuccessfully early in the fighting, got off far too easy, they said.
“Even if [artillery guns] hit the wrong [expletive] place, let them be [expletive] scared, shoot the [expletive] train stations, shoot the [expletive] railways, for [expletive]’s sake,” one Russian colonel said.
“An [expletive] rocket should have flown into [Ukraine’s parliament],” the colonel added as the two officers explicitly and bluntly criticized Mr. Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and commanders on the ground in Ukraine.
The recording offers a window into an underappreciated dynamic in the war, which has killed tens of thousands, sent millions of Ukrainians from cities into the country and settled into a grinding war of attrition in the country’s south and east.
While Mr. Putin is under mounting diplomatic, economic and military pressure to stop the war, he is facing pressure from key voices inside the war to escalate and double down on the battle with Ukraine and NATO.
Although the Kremlin has cracked down harshly on antiwar voices inside Russia, a surprisingly lively debate has broken out on social media among veterans groups and military experts about whether Mr. Putin is serious about winning.
The hawkish criticisms, said Foreign Policy.com national security and intelligence analyst Amy Mackinnon, “are expressing growing agitation with the slow pace of the war, with some calling on [Mr. Putin] to institute national mobilization.“
“The rumblings from staunchly nationalist figures offer a glimpse at the corner into which Putin has painted himself into as he contends with a public hungry for a much-promised victory and a military too exhausted to deliver on,” Ms. Mackinnon wrote late last month.
Russian military bloggers, many now posting on the Russian-owned social media site Telegram, have been unsparing in recent days in their criticism of the Russian performance in the war and deeply skeptical of the official Russian media accounts of how the campaign is going, said a recent blog post by Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, Russian investigative journalists and nonresident senior fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis.
“In three months of the war, something completely unprecedented has emerged — a space for debate within the Russian army, uncensored, and beyond the control of the Ministry of Defense,” Ms. Borogan and Mr. Soldatov wrote. “That space is mostly manned by trusted, hardened veterans, many with the rank of major or lieutenant colonel, no higher. Don’t be misled — these are not peaceniks in the making. If they criticize the army and the Kremlin, they do so from more radical positions.”
Many of their criticisms echo those of Western analysts and intelligence agencies that have been surprised by the relatively weak showing of Russian forces against an outmanned and outgunned opponent.
Ukrainian defensive forces quickly repelled Russia’s scattershot blitzkrieg of Kyiv and other major cities early in the war, the critics say. Supply lines were extended and vulnerable to enemy fire, Russian troops were poorly led and poorly motivated, and Moscow’s vaunted cyberintelligence and disinformation operations proved surprisingly weak.
Mr. Putin, his hawkish critics say, failed to use the May 9 Victory Day commemoration to rally the nation and reset the war. Owing apparently to fears of popular resistance, the Kremlin also has not called for a larger mobilization of troops to make up for the heavy losses suffered by the original invasion force.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday that Russian forces were prepared to stay in Ukraine as long as necessary to protect its allies and interests in the eastern Donbas provinces.
A Russian missile strike Sunday on targets just outside Kyiv could be a sign that Mr. Putin and his generals have been hearing the criticism. In an interview on Russian state television, Mr. Putin expressed his growing anger with the rush of Western aid into Ukraine, which has helped Kyiv stave off Russian forces. Mr. Putin hinted that Moscow now considers those aid flows legitimate targets in the war.
“All this fuss around additional deliveries of weapons, in my opinion, has only one goal: to drag out the armed conflict as much as possible,” Mr. Putin told Rossiya state television.
If the U.S. and its allies supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles as promised, then Moscow will “draw appropriate conclusions and use our means of destruction, which we have plenty of, in order to strike at those objects that we haven’t yet struck.”
Still, Mr. Putin reportedly fired five generals and one police colonel last week in a clear sign of unhappiness with the performance of Russian forces.
The Russian newspaper Pravda reported that Mr. Putin had fired Maj. Gens. Vasily Kukushkin, Alexander Laas, Andrey Lipilin, Alexander Udovenko and Yuri Instrankin. He also sacked police Col. Emil Musin. The newspaper cited a source close to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs in confirming the report.
The rise of a skeptical and informed dissent with Russia’s military represents a dangerous variable for Mr. Putin, according to a survey of the fighting by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
“The Kremlin is increasingly facing discontent not from Russians opposed to the war as a whole, but military and nationalist figures angry at Russian losses and frustrated with shifting Kremlin framing of the war,” the think tank wrote May 30 in its daily survey of the fighting.
“Russian officials are increasingly unable to employ the same ideological justifications for the invasion in the face of clear setbacks, and a lack of concrete military gains within Ukraine will continue to foment domestic dissatisfaction with the war.”
• Mike Glenn contributed to this report.
• David R. Sands can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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