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Russia's elites are increasingly critical of the war in Ukraine, and they're looking for scapegoats

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Cracks are emerging in the solid base of support within Russia's political elite for President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine. As Russia's forces suffer setback after setback and a botched and highly unpopular military mobilization effort draws thousands of poorly trained men to serve on the front lines, senior military and political figures have been looking for scapegoats, and the blame game is getting closer than ever to Putin himself.

Criticism of Moscow's military strategy and the way decisions are being made and implemented on the ground has brewed for weeks on social media channels popular among pro-war Russian military correspondents.

This week, however, it reached a new level.

"You have to stop lying"

General Andrey Kartapolov, who held a range of senior positions in Russia's Defense Ministry until he became a member of parliament and head of its defense committee a few years ago, has lashed out at the country's current military commanders over losses in the war.

"First of all, you have to stop lying," Kartapolov, who previously commanded the Western Military District, which is central to the Ukraine invasion, said on a popular online video show run by a top Kremlin propagandist.

From left, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, then-Commander of the Russian Western military district Andrei Kartapolov, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a military parade in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 30, 2017. AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

"All border villages of the Belgorod region are practically destroyed," Kartapolov lamented, referring to settlements right on the Ukrainian border that have been caught in the crossfire as Russia uses the area as a staging ground for its attacks.

"We hear about this from anyone, from governors and military correspondents. But the reports of the Ministry of Defense do not change," the politician said. "The people know. Our people are not stupid, they see they are not telling them the truth and this can lead to loss of credibility."

Casting blame at Russia's top brass, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu who, at least in the past, has been considered a close friend and confidant of Putin, has become a central theme on Russian television and in public forums.

Direct criticism of Putin himself still appears to be off-limits on Russia's closely monitored and tightly controlled airwaves, and pro-Kremlin voices have been working hard to shelter the autocrat from the public discontent. But infighting between various political clans does seem to be disrupting the carved-in-stone hierarchy Putin has relied on to remain in power — and to quickly quash any inkling of dissent — for more than two decades.

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A week ago, Russian troops were forced out of the Ukrainian city of Lyman. Retaking the railway hub in the Donetsk region deprived Russia of a crucial logistics hub and gave Ukraine's forces a route to attack the Russian occupied Luhansk region. Shortly after Lyman fell to Ukrainian forces, the powerful head of the Russian region of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, unleashed a sneering attack on the Russian military's General Staff, which leads the military campaign, and on Alexander Lapin, who Kadyrov said was responsible for that sector of the front line.

"The shame isn't that Lapin is talentless," Kadyrov wrote on his blog on the Telegram messaging app. "It's that he's being shielded from above by the leadership in the General Staff."

"If it was up to me, I would demote him down to a private, take away his medals and send him with a rifle to the front in order to cleanse his shame in blood," Kadyrov added.

Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed leader in the largely-occupied Ukrainian region of Kherson, appears in a video criticizing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu over Moscow's recent military losses in southern Ukraine, October 6, 2022. Social media/Reuters

The proxy leader installed by Russia in the largely-occupied Ukrainian region of Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, went even further, issuing rare scathing criticism of Defense Minister Shoigu over Moscow's recent military losses, including in Kherson.

"Many are saying that the Defense Minister — who allowed things to come to this — should simply shoot himself like a [real] officer," Stremousov said in a four-minute video posted Thursday to his Telegram channel.

A deeply unpopular mobilization

Russia's botched military mobilization campaign — which has seen the blind, elderly and others incapable of fighting among those to receive summons to fight — has been another major point of public criticism.

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Tens of thousands of people, mostly young men, have fled the country to avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine, and hundreds have been arrested at anti-mobilization protests around the country. Those who have reported for duty have faced shortages of protective gear and other basics, including food and uniforms.

"I'm perplexed how a current training site of the Ministry of Defense can be in such a state. A ruined canteen, broken and rusty showers, lack of beds, and those that exist are broken," Roman Starovoit, Governor of the Kursk region that borders Ukraine, said Wednesday after a tour of military training grounds there, some of which he described as "terrible."

Bloomberg has reported, citing sources, that the sudden abundance of public acknowledgement over the Russian military's failures in Ukraine is actually the result of a Kremlin directive. The report suggests the Kremlin told some trusted state media outlets to start acknowledging the failures, fearing an overly-positive message on Russian airwaves would fuel public doubts about its credibility.

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Putin has also reportedly met with pro-war military correspondents and bloggers who have spent months on the ground, and have been offering more realistic battleground updates. Some of these journalists have reportedly wondered whether the Russian president had been relying solely on the rosy public briefings provided by his Ministry of Defense.

"The idea that Russia will inevitably prevail has started to be overshadowed by doubt over what price Russia is prepared to pay in order to bring Ukraine to heel," political analyst and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Tatiana Stanovaya said in a recent analysis. "Matters have progressed so far that they may now have to choose among various losing scenarios. That makes Putin far more vulnerable, for he may just find that he and the elites settle on different scenarios."

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