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Putin faces new challenge as Kremlin allies turn on Russia's military leaders

After weeks of battlefield setbacks in Ukraine, the search for a scapegoat appears to have settled on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.Sputnik / via AP

Who’s to blame for Russia’s failures in Ukraine?

After weeks of battlefield setbacks, criticism of Moscow’s military leadership has burst into the open — heightening the sense of domestic discontent and posing a rare challenge to the Kremlin.

A growing chorus of voices across state media has expressed dismay at the war’s lack of progress in recent days, while nationalist figures have raised the pressure in the wake of breakthroughs by Kyiv’s forces in the south and east. The search for a scapegoat appears to have settled on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a close associate of the man who unilaterally launched the invasion: Russian President Vladimir Putin.   

No one has yet dared to point the finger at Putin himself, but there have been growing stabs at his defense ministry and the longtime ally who heads it, putting pressure on the Russian leader to make a decisive change before it is too late to turn things around on the battlefield.

“Shoigu’s job now is to be Putin’s bulletproof vest,” Mark Galeotti, who heads the Russia-focused consultancy Mayak Intelligence, told NBC News. “At the moment, his main value is exactly that he soaks up the criticism, which otherwise would inevitably be heading Putin’s way.”

Addressing Russia’s retreat in the crucial southern region of Kherson on Thursday, a deputy head of the Russian-installed regional administration, in an astonishing public tirade, scorned Moscow’s “talentless military leaders.”

“Many people say that if they were the minister of defense, who allowed things to reach this state of affairs, they would shoot themselves,” Kirill Stremousov said in a video posted on the Telegram messaging app, without mentioning Shoigu by name.

One of Russia’s chief propagandists, Vladimir Solovyev — who has been staunchly pro-war but has recently acknowledged Russia’s military struggles and warned his audience not to expect “good news” for a while — also unleashed fury at Shoigu on Thursday, without directly naming him. 

He suggested “a transfer to another job” could be one way to remedy the defense ministry’s failures. 

Appointed defense minister in 2012, Shoigu, 67, had served as the minister of emergency situations, often dispatched to deal with natural disasters and security emergencies, earning him public approval.

While not a career soldier, he is one of Putin’s closest allies and has a reputation as the Russian leader’s loyal “adjutant.” He has often been pictured alongside the Russian president on hunting and fishing trips to Siberia, showcasing the closeness of their friendship.

But he has kept a low profile since Putin invaded Ukraine, largely staying out of the public eye and prompting rumors of a fallout between the two.

Russia President Vladimir Putin Meets Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu at Kremlin in Moscow
With Russian forces on the retreat, its military leadership is under fire.Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik via AP file

As Russian forces plunge farther into retreat in Ukraine, Shoigu’s leadership and ministry are being increasingly criticized for downplaying the situation on the front lines. 

“It’s time to stop lying,” the chair of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, Andrey Kartapolov, said this week, accusing the ministry of covering up bad news from Ukraine. 

The ministry has also been in the crosshairs for how it has handled Putin’s “partial mobilization,” with widespread reports that those who are not fit for service are being called up and newly enlisted soldiers  are facing inadequate conditions, training and equipment.  

Still, such stinging public rebukes of the country’s leadership are extremely rare in Putin’s Russia, where any dissent, especially against those aligned with the Kremlin, is prohibited. 

There are signs that at least some of the criticism may boil down to tensions within Russia’s ruling elite.

Destroyed Russian armored vehicles are piled high in Lyman, a key city in territory Putin claims to have annexed but which was retaken by Ukraine in the past week.Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a strong proponent of the war who has been egging Putin on to escalate, openly accused Russia’s top military brass of covering up for a general who he said allowed Kyiv to retake a key city in eastern Ukraine last week.

Kadyrov’s comments were backed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group of mercenaries who is known as “Putin’s chef” for his close ties with the Kremlin and who recently emerged as a public face of the war after years of denying his role with the group. Prigozhin disparagingly suggested sending “all these thugs — with machine guns barefoot to the front,” in an apparent reference to the country’s senior military leaders.

Both men manage military groups in Ukraine, and their criticism could be aimed at undermining a defense minister who analysts said they each had tensions with.

“As the battle progressed, signs of internecine conflict became more evident over time,” said Munira Mustaffa, a nonresident fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “The ensuing PR storm has resulted in some noteworthy revelations on the poor management of Russia’s declared mobilization and the fact that its troops lack supplies and leadership,” she said. Pro-military bloggers and social media channels connected to Wagner have amplified those revelations.

It all leaves Putin in an uncomfortable position during a critical moment in the war. 

Igor Girkin, a nationalist and former officer with the Federal Security Bureau who helped launch the 2014 war in Ukraine’s east, predicted Wednesday that Shoigu was on his way out, saying the defense ministry and its leader have made “an invaluable and huge contribution to the fact that we are now on the verge of a military-political catastrophe.”

But the public criticism doesn’t necessarily mean Putin has settled on a fall guy.

Putin’s problem “is that he can replace Shoigu and place the blame on him for all the past defeats, and appoint a new defense minister,” Galeiotti, the intelligence consultant, said. “But the point is, it’s not going to turn the war around. How does he explain the next defeats?” 

“If he does that, he will be getting rid of someone who has at least been loyal. But again, it’s a card you can only play once. Maybe for a moment, it’ll be able to sort of distract and dissuade people from criticizing him in the war effort. But how long will it last?”

Other observers agreed that the situation may not be so clear-cut.

“Propagandists are allowed to give a little criticism and thereby let off steam a little, but criticism tends to get out of control and the most inexperienced read the signal incorrectly,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What does seem clear is that, for now at least, Putin himself is avoiding blame.

“In such a verticalized system, no one will dare to criticize Putin,” Kolesnikov said.

“All this is done in order to show: The czar is good, the boyars are bad,” Kolesnikov added, referring to the high-ranking noblemen that surrounded Russia’s czars.

Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, may have hoped to be drawing from a different aspect of Russia’s imperial past as he celebrates his birthday more than seven months into the war.