Ukraine’s military gains threaten Putin’s propaganda grip: ‘The bubble is bursting’

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian counteroffensive rapidly progresses as Russia stands firm on illegal annexations'
Ukrainian counteroffensive rapidly progresses as Russia stands firm on illegal annexations
WATCH: Ukraine's forces are making rapid progress in reclaiming parts of the country from Russia. As Crystal Goomansingh reports, the gains haven't prompted Moscow to back down on its illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions or its claims of alleged military successes – Oct 5, 2022

Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive has produced major territorial gains and forced Russian troops to retreat — leading to some discontent within Russia itself that threatens the propaganda bubble Vladimir Putin has created.

Despite a crackdown on dissent against the war, criticism of Putin’s “special military operation” has emerged on Russian state television and in public, which experts say has put the Russian leader in a tough position as he tries to figure out his next moves.

“The bubble is bursting,” said Balkan Devlen, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and an adjunct research professor of international affairs at Carlton University.

“This idea that in the long term, Russia is on track to win this easily and that Ukraine might resist but are ultimately not capable of recapturing territory … that’s now falling apart. And so far, the Kremlin has failed to find a cohesive narrative to explain this to the Russian people.”

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Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have reclaimed over 9,000 square kilometres of territory once held by Russia, according to the Institute for the Study of War, which has been closely tracking the conflict since it began in February. That’s more territory than Russia had claimed since April, the think tank said.

The counteroffensive has borne the most fruit in the northeastern Kharkiv region — which has been almost completely liberated by Ukraine — but is also driving the Russians back in the southern province of Kherson, where Kyiv hopes to retake control of ports along the Black Sea. Reports have emerged of Russian soldiers surrendering and even fleeing their positions.

It is not yet clear if the Ukrainian blitz could signal a turning point in the nearly seven-month war. Western allies have been wary of declaring a premature victory, even as U.S. officials declare the Russians “are in trouble.”

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian armed forces have a ‘shift in momentum’ after counter-offensive: White House'
Ukrainian armed forces have a ‘shift in momentum’ after counter-offensive: White House

But seeds of doubt are taking root in Russia and among even its staunchest allies. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed leader of the Russian region of Chechnya, publicly criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for what he called “mistakes” that allowed the Russian losses.

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On state-controlled Russian television, pundits have taken the rare step of admitting the war is going badly — while stopping short of blaming Putin himself.

“People who convinced President Putin that the operation will be fast and effective … these people really set up all of us,” Boris Nadezhdin, a former parliament member, said on a talk show on NTV television. “We’re now at the point where we have to understand that it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using these resources and colonial war methods.”

“The fact that state media is now allowing this sort of criticism is truly remarkable,” said Marcus Kolga, founder of the independent research group DisinfoWatch who has spent over a decade tracking Russian state media.

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Allowing such opinions to be broadcast despite Putin having outlawed dissent against the invasion — choking off independent media as a result — may be serving as a “pressure valve” to release public frustrations “so they don’t spill out into the streets,” Kolga said.

It’s also possible the Kremlin is laying the groundwork for the military to shoulder the blame for Putin’s own mistakes, he added.

Meanwhile, more than 60 deputies in municipalities across Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, have signed a petition calling for Putin’s resignation. Police have charged several of them with discrediting the war, which will likely lead to prison time.

Yet Putin overall retains his grip on domestic politics, with his own party and other pro-Kremlin lawmakers sweeping local elections over the weekend.

Experts are also unsure whether the criticisms of the situation in Ukraine will make much of an impact on the overall public.

“Most of the Russian population is content to not focus on politics, and are not concerned by politics — which is by design, and the reason why the Putin regime has stayed in power for so long,” said Lisa Sundstrom, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who studies Russia.

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“So there’s majority support for the war — at least for the “special military operation” — but it’s not enthusiastic support. People are just going about their lives … and if it doesn’t impact them directly, they don’t have to worry.”

Click to play video: 'Putin’s plans have backfired, resulting in growing support for Ukraine'
Putin’s plans have backfired, resulting in growing support for Ukraine

That apathy is a double-edged sword, however, as Putin faces increased pressure from nationalist forces both within and outside his government to consider mass mobilization, which would require a patriotic fervor that doesn’t currently exist.

“Putin may be an autocrat, but he’s not an absolute dictator, and right now he still does not have the political strength to consider (mobilization),” said Andrew Rasiulis, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute who spent decades in the Department of National Defence.

If, however, Ukraine were to press further in their military blitz and threaten to retake the annexed peninsula Crimea, Putin may be able to frame that as an existential threat to Russia itself and rally the public to his cause, Rasiulis added.

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“I think (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy understands that too,” he said, despite Kyiv officials declaring a desire to retake Crimea along with the rest of occupied Ukraine.

Putin remains as defiant as ever in the face of the military setbacks and dwindling options. His spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Monday the war “will continue until the goals that have been set are achieved.”

But Devlen says the options available to Putin are dwindling.

“He doesn’t want a defeat, but he also doesn’t want to further mobilize the West against him, and he doesn’t have the support he needs at home,” he said.

“The time for Putin to make some tough choices and difficult and painful choices is getting much closer.”

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