Vladimir Putin is becoming rash and secretive in the face of battlefield defeats, Kremlin insiders have warned, as the Russian leader is said to be making snap decisions without consulting with some of his military chiefs.
Over the last few weeks, we have spoken to 15 civil servants, parliamentary deputies, and executives at public and private companies. More than half were senior managers.
All of our sources in the elite — who all spoke on the condition of anonymity — said the military conflict will only escalate in the coming months. Yet none can predict what will happen if Russia loses.
The Russian army’s most significant defeat since the start of the war dramatically changed the situation inside Russia.
Putin cannot lose, so he needs to urgently turn the situation around, explained one source close to the Kremlin.
“Have some of that, you Nazis,” said the source, explaining Putin’s logic with grim irony and highlighting that the referendums are an excuse to justify mobilisation.
The threat of nuclear war is a message to Western politicians, according to the source. “The message is: don’t forget, Ukraine does not have the right to defeat us. By supplying weapons, you are only delaying Ukraine’s demise.”
Almost all of our interviewees said they could see mobilisation coming. “It was obvious the military needed more men. And it was clear the announcement would come after the [local] elections. And after the vote, it all happened,” recalled a high-ranking federal official.
One source who regularly attends meetings in the Kremlin described the events as follows: “The Ukrainian offensive finally gave the generals an excuse to push through the decision to mobilise. Everywhere the generals voiced the need for more resources. They called for a critical mass of boots on the ground.
“It’s like when renovating a house. Initially, the workmen promise to do everything on time and with the available resources, and then something goes wrong, and they tell you: ‘Well, what did you expect? We don’t have this and that.’ The generals pulled the wool over our eyes.”
Although many of our sources foresaw mobilisation, most complained of Putin’s rashness and reluctance to explain his plans.
“No one explains anything to anyone,” said one disgruntled source close to the government. And the head of a state-owned bank said he was extremely concerned that Russia’s leader takes all decisions exclusively without consultation.
“There is a total lack of coordination. It’s a mess. Putin tells everyone different things,” said a source close to the government. He said this applies not only to the economy, but how the war is run. “What were we doing in Kharkiv? No one has a clue – neither politicians nor the military. It just happened.”
At the same time, the authorities prepared for mobilisation in advance. Laws permitting the government to put the economy on a war footing were passed by the State Duma in the spring. And many warmongers have been calling on authorities to declare mobilisation for weeks, if not months. On his talk show, propagandist Vladimir Solovyov has regularly made such appeals.
Putin himself likely expected his subordinates to be more prepared for the mobilisation, as shown by the fact he took a short period of leave after its announcement. The president managed to sneak away from public duty for a while, covering his absence — as usual — with pre-recording meetings with various officials and heads of state-owned firms.
Our sources said that Putin planned to rest at his Valdai residence. Yet, four days later, he met Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, at his Sochi residence - also a great place for a vacation.
But Putin is having a hard time relaxing. On the third day of his break, problems with mobilisation meant he had to sack his deputy defence minister in charge of logistics and sign a decree excluding students from being called up.
Recent days have seen managers from government agencies, as well as public and private businesses, scrambling to find ways to protect their employees from conscription.
When we interviewed our contacts last week, none expected the “partial” mobilisation to have such an indiscriminate effect. At the same time, few believed things would end with “partial” mobilisation.
“The 300,000 [reservists that defence minister Shoigu said would be mobilised] are just a distraction. Now it’s partial, but then there will be mass mobilisation, and after that, tactical nuclear weapons,” predicted one source close to the government.
The government has been actively trying to stem the flight of programmers and tech managers from Russia. But it is not just IT companies that are compiling lists of people for exemptions. An executive at one major company described the process: “Companies send lists to the defence ministry via their industry-specific ministries who then pass them down to the conscription officers.”
Officials are getting exemptions using a similar scheme. One mid-level federal official described how managers send lists of employees for exemption to the defence ministry. He admits that the process is not yet properly established, and many who have been called up are trying to escape by showing their civil service ID.
Exemptions for officials, parliamentary deputies and employees of state-owned companies do not extend to their families. Those with male relatives of conscription age have no get-out-of-jail-free-card. Our sources tell us that many public officials have already bought plane tickets for their brothers, sons and nephews and sent them abroad. Some have already seen their relatives called up.
However, not everyone can negotiate their relatives an exemption or ship them out of the country. “What if somebody finds out? I will be declared an enemy of the motherland and jailed. The fear is palpable, people are in shock and constant anxiety,” said one source close to the government.
At the same time, there are also those in Putin’s elite who are ready to fight. One of our sources assured us that he will go to the front if necessary. He explained the motives for his decision as a sense of duty (“What, run away like a coward?”) and the need to “rid Ukraine of Nazism”. Several deputies, senators and regional parliamentarians have publicly announced their intention to go to the front.
Russian society is polarised in its attitudes to the war, according to the head of one state-owned company: “We have people with polarised opinions even within the same organisation. Some are totally against everything, whilst others want to set up their own private military groups.”
Despite awareness of the impending catastrophe, nobody in Russia’s elite has tried to persuade Putin to stop the war for a long time. Whereas in the early months, figures like Alexei Kudrin, head of the audit chamber, tried to explain to Putin the consequences of his decisions, this is not happening today.
According to our sources, Putin still repeats the mantra about Russia being surrounded by enemies and the machinations of Nato. Talking to him is pointless.
There is little sincere support for the war in the Russian establishment, according to an executive at a major private company who knows Mikhail Mishustin, the Russian prime minister. “All these officials making comparisons with the Second World War in public are only doing what is expected of them. It’s their defence mechanism.
“There used to be those officials that said they had a ‘boss’ [an informal term for Putin], and he would unify society. Now everyone understands that this is not the case. But people can’t change their position fast enough,” he said.
“Everyone’s mood is similar to that expressed by Kozak [Dmitry, Putin’s deputy chief of staff] at the Security Council before the war,” added the source. He described how there was a lot of tension over the war among his employees. But, he said, they have stopped wondering “how could this have happened?” and are now trying “to somehow manage within the stated red lines”.
“It’s a problem in Russian society that we’re always trying to find a way around a bad situation rather than protesting against it,” he said.
Another manager at a major state-owned company characterised the mood as one of “impending doom”. The source, who described his own return from summer vacation as “a return to prison,” said: “People are ready to lead their children, husbands and sons to the slaughter. It’s downright evil … People don’t need therapists anymore, they need psychiatrists.”
There was one telling incident at the recent Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in early September that was attended by Putin. On the first day, “everyone got really drunk,” which, apparently, led to a lot of absent speakers at the morning sessions. “It was reflective of how everyone was feeling,” said one forum participant.
When you ask those within the elite who are opposed to the war why they don’t resign, many concede that it is technically possible.
“You can buy a one-way ticket out of the country. But then what? Where do you go? What do you do? You can’t take more than $10,000 with you,” said one high-ranking official close to the government.
The government officials we interviewed — both supporters of the war in Ukraine and those internally opposed to it — found it difficult to state the ultimate goal of the war and its possible outcomes.
“It’s clear we have to win. This is the only possible option. We need to do everything to make sure this happens, and we need to do it now. This train is already running and we are in it; there are only two ways of getting out,” said one top official.
When asked what would happen if Russia lost, our source replied that he could not imagine such a scenario. As with our other interviewees who support the war, he only reiterated the narrative spouted by propagandists: the West wants to destroy Russia, and defeat in a war with Ukraine would mean Russia’s demise.
Farida Rustamova is a Russian investigative journalist. This article first appeared in her Substack blog.