Ukraine’s bombing of the Kerch Bridge and Putin’s reaction should be seen in light of a recent articlein the Washington Post. That article cites growing divisions within the Putin government, including from a member of Putin’s “inner circle”. They quote Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: “There are working arguments: about the economy, about the conduct of the military operation. There are arguments about the education system. This is part of the normal working process, and it is not a sign of any split.”
In other words, Peskov is worried about a split.
So far, the direct attacks have been aimed at Putin functionaries rather than Putin himself. One example is Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russia-installed Kherson administration, about whom one critic suggested he should “kill himself”. This seems to imply violence against that person.
Nor is the criticism simply due to the military situation. The Washington Post also cited some officials who commented on the fact that in reality Putin has no major allies. Even Xi (of China) and Modi (of India) have been somewhat standoffish.
The Post also wrote: “some of those officials [in Western Europe] said that cracks were increasingly evident across multiple layers of the Russian system, citing outbreaks of criticism and finger-pointing across the Russian military, security services and regional governments now forcing military-age men into service.
“One senior European security official described growing ‘criticism of Putin — behind his back,’ including from within the Kremlin ranks. T’hey think he’s stubborn,’ the official said, and ‘obsessed with Ukraine’ — an ‘obsession they do not necessarily share.’
“A second security official in Europe said: ‘There is scapegoating. Finger-pointing. All of this is happening.’
Two Russian business executives who maintain contacts with political officials echoed those sentiments and said the coming weeks could be crucial for determining Putin’s future and what decisions he makes about the war.
If the Russian military doesn’t stem its losses, then infighting will break out, said one of these people, a member of the Russian business elite. ‘This is a breaking point.’”
Putin has tried to remedy the military situation by mobilizing several hundred thousand Russians. So far, that has backfired completely as the mobilization has been bungled. According to the Daily Mail’s “Newsbreak”, thousands of Russian soldiers are contacting a Ukrainian hotline asking how to surrender. This even includes Russians who are still in training and even some who haven’t even been drafted yet! The mobilization has also brought out a new and wider layer of opposition to the war within Russia.
All analysts seem to agree that the hundreds of thousands of new draftees will not make much of a difference, partly because they are ill trained and partly because there aren’t sufficient arms and equipment to go around. Also, Ukraine’s retaking of Lyman is strategically important because it is a rail center used to resupply Russian troops in that region. If the attack on the Kerch bridge proves to make the bridge unusable for an extended period, that will add to Russia’s logistics problems in Crimea and the connected region of Ukraine.
According to the NY Times, Aleksandr Kots, a war correspondent for the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, responded to the attack on the bridge by tweeting: “hammer Ukraine into the 18th century, without meaningless reflection on how this will affect the civilian population.” That is what Oaklandsocialist has been predicting even before this – that the use of “tactical” nuclear bombs is not ruled out but is unlikely. Instead, Putin is likely to resort to methods similar to what the US used in Vietnam – carpet bombing, wholesale destruction of Ukrainian cities far from the frontlines, also attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, possibly including dams, which would inundate Ukrainian towns downstream. It’s not even ruled out that he could use chemicals to destroy Ukrainian crops – something similar to how the US used Agent Orange to destroy the Vietnamese jungles. Since Putin lacks allies internationally, what does he have to lose?
If this does not stem the tide, what then? Putin’s base is extremely narrow. This narrow base has resulted from his undermining any potential source of political competition, even among his own allies. Up until now, that method has been a source of his unchallenged power. It could easily turn into its opposite.
Up until now, Putin’s establishment “opponents” have really just been fronts for him, but if he appears vulnerable or even weak, they could turn on him. In fact, his assassination is not ruled out. But what then?
Alternative to Putin
There is no political party that can act as an alternative. Nor is there one military strongman, nor even a small cohesive group of such stongmen, who can play that role. From here, it seems the most likely perspective would be that the different oligarchs would link up with different generals and fight amongst themselves for power – something similar to what was happening in Afghanistan, but with this important difference: Russia has over 2,000 nuclear weapons. We don’t know whether one person has control over all of them or whether that control could be spread out among different warring factions. In either case, it is not a pretty outlook.
The Putin supporters in the U.S. Republican Party would point to such an outcome to attack the U.S.’s having aided Ukraine in the first place. So would the peace activists and similar types on the left. But the alternative would have been Putin’s complete domination of all of Ukraine and his enormously strengthened position at home. Patriotism and outright chauvinism would have flourished in Russia and any sort of solidarity between the Russian and Ukrainian working class would be impossible. Even if Putin only achieves part of that goal, this will be the result, and in either case he will simply come back for more soon.
What role might the Russian working class play?
In a presentation to the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign, Russian dissident Ilya Budraitskis explained the “social contract” Putinin had had with the Russian people: “The contract was very simple,” Budraitskis said. “The government control all the political life, all the public sphere. The other part of the contract was that people can live their private lives…. And everyone is thinking only about his own own life, because all the forms of public life are criminalized, dangerous and suspicious, let’s say. So, by the start of the mobilization, Putin himself broke this unspoken contract with his own citizens, because from that moment, lpolitics or war, intervened in the sphere of the private life of nearly every Russian, and that is where a potentially very dangerous step for the moment.”
This contract is not entirely different from what existed in the Arab world, and it only worked as long as the government (Putin) can maintain stability. In that case, the small degree of economic stability broke down. It led to the Arab Spring. There are many differences with Russia, but the point is that the Russian working class will not be able to return to relative or even limited passivity.
Ironically, the fate of the Russian and the Ukrainian working classes are inextricably linked. This makes the role of the left in Ukraine all the more important. That left is principally represented by Sotsialny Rukh (Social Movement). They have the potential to play a key role in building a new socialist movement out of the ashes of the old.
A huge vacuum is opening up in both Eastern and Western Europe and also the U.S. This vacuum means nearly unimaginable danger, but it also offers opportunity – the opportunity for socialist ideas. This opportunity can only be seized by those who abandon the old, outworn conceptions of yesteryear.