On a nightly talk show this week, one of the Kremlin’s top propagandists decided to quote Vladimir Putin.
“We’ll go to heaven, and they’ll simply die off,” said Vladimir Solovyov, a TV presenter known for his anti-Western polemics.
Solovyov was repeating a remark that Putin himself made in 2018, about nuclear war, in which the Russian president said that his country would go to heaven, as martyrs.
Solovyov, however, was focused on the war in Ukraine. He was responding to Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, who framed the war’s progress as: “either we lose in Ukraine, or World War Three starts.”
“I personally think that World War Three is more realistic, because knowing us and our leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the most improbable outcome – a nuclear strike – seems more likely than the other course of events,” she added.
The exchange comes as prominent Russians increasingly express frustration with the course of the war, and as some hawks call for Putin to intensify the war effort.
Though the Kremlin zealously arrests those who criticize Putin for deciding to invade Ukraine, those who argue for more aggressive approaches or who scold the Russian government for supposed weakness are largely left alone.
One Russian-language video that recently went viral featured a former Special Forces officer asking: “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], please decide: are we fighting a war? Or are we masturbating?” A Friday Telegram post, written by embedded Russian war correspondent Aleksandr Sladkov, sarcastically remarked on the heroism of the country’s troops, adding that “one man’s heroism is the result of another’s errors.”
Russia abandoned its effort to take Kyiv and Ukraine’s north at the end of last month, with officials saying that the country would focus on the Donbas, in Ukraine’s east. But even that effort appears to have gone far slower than expected, as relatively small gains are coupled with reports of big losses.
Instead of chastening the war’s supporters, however, these setbacks appear to have further energized them. As a result, increasingly vocal Western assessments warn Putin may soon decide to expand the scope of the war by ordering mass mobilization of Russians to augment current force levels.
Ben Wallace, the British secretary of defense, argued last week that Putin might use the May 9 Victory in World War Two holiday to declare that Russia is “now at war with the world’s Nazis and we need to mass mobilize the Russian people.”
So far, the Kremlin has called the war a “Special Military Operation,” while punishing those who call it a “war.” But officially declaring a war would open up options for Russia’s leadership, including the ability to draft large numbers of people.
Michael Kofman, chief Russia analyst at CNA, said on a podcast on Sunday that full mobilization could be a real option for Russia, if its offensives continue to falter.
“He may have to declare a real state of war and enact national mobilization,” Kofman said, adding that it could help to fill out a Russian force that entered the war at suboptimal personnel levels.
The result is less clarity and predictability from Russia as the war intensifies. Those complaining that, two months into the war, Russia lacks the troops it needs to decisively defeat Ukraine, tend to also see the war as not being fought against Ukraine, but rather against NATO, with Ukraine as its puppet.
Igor Girkin, a former FSB colonel who took part in Russia’s 2014 campaign in Ukraine but has been on the outs since then, has repeatedly called for a formal declaration of war and for mass mobilization. That, he has said, would give commanders the legal authority to imprison soldiers who refuse to fight, and for the military to conscript Russians en masse for the fight.
“Mobilization is a question of time,” Girkin said in a video released last week, in which he described Ukrainian soldiers as having been “zombified” by the West.
Girkin, who also goes by Strelkov, added that there was nothing to stop the Russian government from turning its peacetime population into soldiers.
“Why can’t an office manager become an infantryman after the minimum, two weeks of training?” he asked, rhetorically. “Some of them so easily go skiing, go diving – they’re as healthy as bulls. Why can’t they be an infantryman, or put shells into a cannon, or drive gas trucks?”