Putin’s key supporters are now playing a desperate face-saving game in Ukraine

Olga Chyzh

Russia’s humiliated military and intelligence blocs know they have let their leader down, and need the war to go on

Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going according to plan. The sinking of the Moskva – the flagship of the Black Sea fleet – is the latest major military setback. In the course of almost two months, Russia has lost six major generals and between 15,000-20,000 troops, all the while failing to secure any appreciable gains.

Reports of low morale and defection, coupled with sightings of mercenaries deployed by the Kremlin, hint at recruitment problems. This, along with Russia’s apparent inability to replenish lost military equipment – a consequence of western sanctions – has led some observers to wonder whether the Russian war machine is running out of road.

Despite this, there are few indications that Russia is considering cutting its losses. By all accounts, ceasefire negotiations have reached a dead end, with Russia refusing to compromise on any of its initial positions. After his recent face-to-face meeting with Putin, the Austrian chancellor, Karl Nehammer, said that Putin “believes he is winning the war”.

The Kremlin is suffering major setbacks, but will not alter its negotiating strategy. This isn’t mere bravado. Research on authoritarian regimes has shown that in many cases, the direction wars take is not solely determined by battlefield success or failure. Rather, major decisions – especially about when to end the war – are often dictated by the interests of the key political players within the country. Understanding the Kremlin’s decision-making, therefore, requires zeroing in on the key power dynamics within the regime.

Putin’s domestic political base consists of two rival power blocs: the intelligence apparatus and the military. Both have suffered major blows to their credibility during the war. However, as they continue to jockey for Putin’s favour, both also have a vested interest in prolonging the conflict in some form.

The intelligence bloc includes the current and former leadership of the FSB (the Russian successor of the Soviet KGB) and other intelligence agencies. Having started his career as a KGB operative, Putin has maintained a symbiotic relationship with the agency throughout his tenure. Several FSB leaders are long-time members of Putin’s inner circle and his confidants.

The other power bloc consists of the heads of the military and defence structures, such as the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, the chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov, and the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. These individuals have earned the trust of the Russian leader as a result of decades of service and unwavering loyalty.

Despite notable similarities – conservative, anti-democratic and anti-west – the interests of the two blocs are not perfectly aligned. The intelligence community’s focus is domestic, broadly defined to include the former Soviet space. Its specialties are controlling dissent, staging covert operations, and political sabotage. The military community, as its name implies, is the party of war. It derives its influence from foreign policy adventurism. The intelligence agencies reign during peaceful times, the military rules during war.

The unforeseen setbacks experienced in the course of the invasion have thrown a wrench into the usual power dynamics between the two blocs and the Russian leader. For Putin, the war has revealed the true state of affairs within both the military and intelligence apparatus.

Intelligence took the first blow. Moscow’s original plan was to take Kyiv in two days. Russian troops brought parade uniforms, expecting to march down Khreshchatyk in a victory celebration. The ambitious plan was based on intelligence reports that Ukrainians would greet Russian soldiers as liberators – false information that led to massive strategic miscalculations and losses during the war’s first stage.

The military has also come under scrutiny. The war has shown the world the pathetic state of the Russian army, a consequence of decades of deferred maintenance and blatant corruption. Low morale, lack of training, and equipment failures have shone an unflattering light on what is apparently the world’s second strongest army.

As a result of these failures, Putin has learned that some of his closest friends and allies have lied, misappropriated funds and forged reports for a significant part of his rule. His inner circle may not be as trustworthy as he thought.

There is some evidence that Putin may not have access to all of this information – the dispatches he receives may downplay Russia’s setbacks. Even so, unconfirmed reports of the arrests of top intelligence officials responsible for the situation in Ukraine indicate that the Russian leader is aware of, and has reacted to, some of the intelligence failures. And speculation has also surrounded the recent decrease in public appearances by Shoigu and Gerasimov.

In general, continuing the war should protect the position of the military. However displeased, Putin cannot afford to purge his military command during the war. As long as this war lasts, the leaders of the military will not be held accountable, despite their poor performance. Hence, the military command has a strong preference for stretching out the war.

This puts the intelligence agencies at a relative disadvantage. They have lost influence after their early failures, and they will lose even more should Russian troops manage to achieve greater military success. The end of the war may bring a real reckoning for earlier failed intelligence. Because of this, the best possible scenario for top intelligence operatives is a frozen war, with little fighting but no permanent resolution. This would allow them to re-establish their standing with the Russian leader the way they know best – through covert operations in the occupied territories.

Both groups have an interest in dragging out the war, even if things continue to go poorly: the fog of war protects them from having to answer for their failures. Neither group will lobby Putin to end the war, and Putin himself will not stop until he can claim some sort of victory. And so, the war will go on.

  • Olga Chyzh researches political violence and repressive regimes. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto

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