Russia Russo-NATO War Russo-Ukrainian war

Popular and Elite War Tremors in Russia and Putin’s Response

September opinion polls in Russia continue to show Putin maintaining high popularity and trust ratings, despite slow progress and significant setbacks such as in Kharkiv. Nevertheless, those ratings have taken a hit in response perhaps to that taken by NordStream, and they are only likely to fall further as a result of October 7th attack on the Crimean bridge. Putin’s best opinion survey performance came in the Foundation for Public Opinion (FOM) survey for September, which showed Putin’s approval rating falling from 80 percent before declaration of the partial military mobilization (September 18) to 75 percent in its immediate wake (September 25). The survey registered a fall in trust in Putin from 77 percent to 74 percent. Before the ‘special military operation, Putin’s approval and trust ratings ranged between 58 and 63 percent, according to FOM. Perhaps, most disturbingly, the percentage of Russians who expressed “concern” over developments grew from 35 percent to 69 percent ( This latter shift means a fertile field now exists for further downward trending in Putin’s ratings. The Levada Center recorded a decline among survey respondents in Putin’s approval rating from 83 percent in August to 77 percent in September and a decline of respondents who feel Russia is moving in the right direction from 67 to 60 percent in the same period ( The exception to this new downward trend was in the September 26 – October 2 VTsIOM polling, which found slight boost for Putin’s approval and trust ratings of approximately one percent to around 80 percent ( It seems to this observer that the first two surveys are more reliable for this general period. Taking into account that this downward trend was registered before the Kerch bridge attack, we can expect perhaps a further decline to come, with the caveat that the damage to the bridge turned out to be relatively limited and failed to cut off the Crimea supply line.

However, in addition to public angst, the Russian patriotic and official intelligentsia is beyond impatient with Putin’s restrained ‘special military operation’ and slow progress on the front. Russian state television channels’ various political talks shows and the social web are now filled with angst over the troops’ slow advance, the withdrawal from Kharkiv, the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines’ destruction, and the terrorist attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland. For example, during Sunday’s program ‘Evening with Solovev’, one participant argued that the country was on the verge of a wave of repressive reaction from below, as people were beginning to blame less patriotic citizens for any war failure, demanding to know ‘what have you done to bring victory and if nothing then you are not with us but against us. The participant feared that people may soon act in accordance with these feelings, and reprisals could eat the country up. The popular and elite sense is that it is time to take the gloves off, enter the Russian army’s infantry proper (not rely on Chechens, Wagner, and DPR and LNR forces alone) and mount a major combined arms offensive to destroy Ukraine’s civilian and military infrastructure and the Ukrainian army.

If there is any first spark of an impetus that will mount and ultimately help overthrow Putin, then it is almost certainly to be an ultra-nationalist one. Such a backlash that leads to the replacement of Putin is likely to bring to power a leader who will make his predecessor (Putin) look like a Russian liberal, of which there are fewer and fewer in Russia nowadays.

In other words, the Biden-Zelenskiy strategy of interminable escalation is likely to produce the opposite effect that the one it is ostensibly intended to produce (unless one assumes that the goal is not some globalist plot to sew chaos across the globe). Rather than overthrowing Putin leading to installation of a new republican or at least moderate, centrist leadership and an end to the war on terms wholly agreeable to Washington, Brussels and Kiev, the West’s strategy of escalation and bringing the war to Russia in order to destabilize it is likely to bring to power someone who might really resemble a Russian Hitler. Alternatively, it might provoke political chaos, perhaps state failure, even civil war in a country with the largest stockpiles of nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological weapons and materials than possessed by any other country in the world. As a great philosopher once said: ‘Good luck with that.’ Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s decree outlawing negotiations with Russia as long as Putin is president is a misguided attempt to encourage revolt. A revolt against Putin, especially from above in the form of a coup, will make it less likely that Russia will negotiate. A more hardline leader will escalate the violence.

Under the rising pubic and/or elite pressure that might be around the corner, there is a risk that Putin may begin to react to events somewhat emotionally, much as his counterpart in Kiev, Zelenskiy is increasingly doing. Witness his recent call for a NATO “preventive nuclear strike” on Moscow. The other risk is that Putin may begin to flail about under pressure to make greater advances in Donbass and the southeast in ‘Novorossiya.’ One danger is pushing forward a counteroffensive operation hastily and in winter from the northern Donbass direction where a Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed Russia to retreat and trade territory to save lives. His instinct for self-preservation and to strike back may be reinforced now by his desire not to leave the bad taste of the recent setbacks stewing in Russians’ mouths through the winter and the springtime General Mud’s ‘reinforcement’ of Ukrainian defensive positions.

Moreover, we have begun to see the first signs of significant regime-splitting within officialdom. To be sure, the split is not occurring at the center of power within the Kremlin or even in civil-military relations (though this may be about to occur), but in a periphery of sorts. I mean Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s accusations of incompetence leveled against commander of the Central Military District Colonel General Alexander Lapin for the failure to reinforce Kharkiv, forcing the Russian withdrawal. The beginning of civil-military relations may well be sparked by Putin’s awarding Kadyrov the rank of army general days after his critical remarks of the military’s leadership. Days later the commander of the ‘special military operation’ was replaced with the reported opponent of cautious, casualty-averse ‘wars of economy’, General Sergei Surovikin, who has commanded Russia’s operations in Syria. Since Kadyrov’s critique overlaps with the populace’s and intelligentsia’s impatience with military lack of progress and additional failures – and this is before the Crimean bridge attack – one can say that an element of destabilization has been introduced into the Russian political system both ‘below’ and ‘above’ as a result of the war, though the extent of destabilization in both cases should not be overstated. Putin is not about to be overthrown. Indeed, it is more likely that most of the ire caused by recent events is directed against the military generals rather than Putin himself, though that can surely change.

Putin is certainly well aware of all this. The domestic political pressures produced by the first two phases of the war, the recent attack on the Kerch Bridge, as well as unease in China and India over the war expressed to Putin at the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will define the third phase. It is likely to be marked by an intensive escalation once the newly mobilized forces are trained and deployed. A winter offensive will begin by December and consist of a powerful ground offensive combined with a major air and artillery war against infrastructure and perhaps new levels of cyber warfare. This could include efforts to behead the government in Kiev by attacking government buildings, including the Office of the President, the siloviki departments, and government ministry buildings. In sum, begin near total war, limiting only the casualties among the civilian population in order to minimize the robustness of any Ukrainian resistance. This new phase in the war will likely be recast as a ‘counter-terrorist operation’ along the lines of Russian operations in Syria and Chechnya. Ironically, this will cryptically invoke Kiev’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against Donbass declared in April 2014 after Maidan’s illegal overthrow of a Ukrainian president.








About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, and

Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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