As Ukrainian forces continue to make gains against the Russian army, whispered grievances about Vladimir Putin have begun to fly around the Kremlin about the war and efforts to avoid celebrating his birthday, which falls on Friday.
“It quickly became clear that we’re better off not holding any celebrations right now—it’s not the time,” one source close to the Kremlin told Meduza. “Governors are even thinking about cutting back on this year's [winter] holiday celebrations; nobody has extra money lying around.”
It’s “a sensible idea” to avoid celebrating Putin’s birthday widely throughout Russia, one source from the administration told Meduza. Although many close to Putin fear him, they have lost respect for him, another source said.
“People are scared shitless around him,” a source close to the Russian government told the outlet. “But it’s fear without respect.”
In some cases, Putin himself has begun to receive some grim critiques from within his inner circle about the direction he has taken the war.
“Every 48 hours, there’s another dumpster fire—nobody really understands what’s going on,” a source close to the Kremlin told Meduza. “The people responsible for actually implementing decisions don’t hear about them until the last minute.”
One member of Putin’s inner circle voiced disapproval of how the war is being conducted directly to Putin, according to intelligence provided to President Joe Biden in recent weeks, The Washington Post reported.
Ramzan Kadyrov, a key Putin ally and Chechnya’s leader, as well as Evgeniy Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, have also been pillorying Putin’s war plans publicly.
The mounting disarray in Moscow comes after a series of blows in Ukraine that have sent the Russian military spiraling out of control. In the last month alone, Ukrainians have waged counteroffensives against Russian forces, and have even been able to seize back territory that Russia has illegally annexed in an attempt to claim it as Russian. The Kremlin has even acknowledged this week that although it attempted to annex four regions in Ukraine and claim them as Russian, Moscow is not certain about where the borders of the regions lie.
The stumbles have led Putin into a corner where he has failed to achieve his major objectives even though the war has dragged on for more than seven months. And although he has initiated a partial mobilization to try to replace those lost on the battlefield, he has alienated Russians who are against the war, prompting a massive exodus from the country, and even failed to adequately prepare conscripts for the conflict.
“He doesn’t know how to lose,” one source told Meduza of Putin. “And he especially doesn’t know how to admit he’s losing.”
Putin has also stopped leaning on his advisers to gauge the prudence of his plans, one source said.
“He would voice scenarios that he thought were likely and ask, ‘What if we do this? What will the consequences be? And what if we do it this way? Then what?’” the source said. “But that’s stopped.”
The sense of alarm over the way the war is going has been growing in recent days among Russian officials. The head of the lower house of parliament's defense committee, Andrei Kartapolov, publicly lashed out at Putin this week, warning him that he and the Kremlin ought to stop applauding Ukraine’s losses as if Russia is winning, and stop glossing over Russian defeats in Ukraine.
“The people know. Our people are not stupid,” Kartapolov said. “Stop lying.”
Since February, Russia has lost 61,680 troops in the war, according to a tally issued Friday from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Biden himself has openly begun opining on what it would be like for Putin to lose power in Russia, as the Russian president has been issuing nuclear saber-rattling threats for weeks now.
It’s the “first time since the Cuban missile crisis we have the threat of a nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue down the path they are going,” Biden said Thursday. “We are trying to figure out, what is Putin’s off-ramp… Where does he find himself in a position that he does not only lose face but lose significant power within Russia?”
His comments came just a week after Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief, warned that the risk of Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon was “very high.”
The United States has not seen any reason to adjust America’s nuclear posture and hasn’t seen indications from Russia that Moscow is preparing imminently to use nuclear weapons, the State Department clarified Friday.
“The president’s comments… reinforce how seriously the administration takes these threats,” said Vedant Patel, principal deputy spokesperson at the State Department. “This kind of irresponsible rhetoric is not something that should be coming from a leader of an armed nuclear state.”