Russian President Vladimir Putin is learning the limits of what repression and propaganda can do to hide from his countrymen the harsh reality of his war in Ukraine.
Security forces effectively beat back what little public opposition to the war broke out with Russia’s invasion of its sovereign neighbor on Feb. 24, 2022. Thousands of protesters were arrested and jailed across the country, removing the vocal critics of Putin’s “special military operation,” including those who dared call the full-scale invasion a “war.”
Years of Russian nationalist propaganda in government-controlled media and elimination of political opponents of the Kremlin leader cowed the vast majority of Russian citizens into speak-no-evil silence. They averted their eyes from systematic dismantling of democratic institutions during two decades of Putin’s reign of autocracy in favor of the inner peace of willful oblivion.
That ubiquitous mindset of detachment from the Kremlin regime’s restoration of dictatorship allowed Putin and his compliant “power ministers” in charge of defense, national security and the secret police to evade public scrutiny of an unprovoked aggression that has isolated Russia internationally and killed tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of Russian soldiers.
The mounting costs of Putin’s so-far failed mission to conquer Ukraine have mobilized underground opposition both inside Russia and among ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine, the latter comprising almost 30% of the war-torn country’s 43 million citizens.
In recent weeks, as Ukraine geared up for its counteroffensive to take back territory from Russian occupiers, the 15-month-old invasion took a U-turn. It is now bringing terror and destruction to Russians as far from Ukraine battlefields as the elite suburbs of Moscow.
While nowhere near the scale of damage or casualties that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, the cross-border and internal sabotage have begun to shake Putin’s countrymen out of their delusional belief that the Kremlin’s war is not their problem.
Stealth drone attacks and artillery shelling on Russian towns near the Ukrainian border have become near-daily occurrences over the past few months. On Friday, drones struck an office complex in the southern Russian city of Voronezh, a city of over 1 million residents and 110 miles beyond Ukraine’s border. An oil depot 140 miles to the west in Kursk was also hit, at least the 10th fuel installation attacked inside Russian-held territory this year. The border region of Belgorod, the most frequent target of anti-Putin Russian militias in recent weeks, came in for another artillery barrage on the same day as Kursk and Voronezh, intensifying fear and anger that Putin’s aggression has ricocheted to Russia.
State-controlled Russian media have been downplaying the damage and casualties in attacks inside Russia. Regional governors in the newly targeted communities, in contrast to the Kremlin line, have declared emergencies and appealed for reinforcement of domestic security forces to protect their citizens.
The most blatant demonstration of the war’s reach into the heart of Russia occurred on May 3, when two drones exploded above the domed roof of the Senate Palace where Putin has offices. Russia’s Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of waging the attack. Putin’s spokesman called it an assassination attempt on the Kremlin leader by Kyiv’s U.S. allies. Ukraine’s Western intelligence sources later concluded that pro-Ukraine forces inside Russia were responsible for the attack that did more damage to Putin’s posture of invincibility than to the flagpole atop the 18th Century palace that was as close as the drones got to the seat of Russian power.
Four weeks after the Kremlin drone blast, a hail of the unmanned aerial attack weapons fell on the elite western suburbs of Moscow’s Rublyovka district where top Russian officials, oligarchs and exiled foreign dictators live in opulent mansions. Most of the drones were shot down or had their electronic guidance systems jammed, inflicting mostly psychological damage on the wealthy residents.
Two covert anti-Putin militias have boasted of staging many of the attacks inside Russia. The Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia Legion, comprised mostly of exiled Russians operating out of Ukraine, are also among the suspects in the killings of pro-war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky in a St. Petersburg café in April and the August 2022 car-bombing death of Darya Dugina, the daughter of ultranationalist Alexander Dugin whose vision of a Greater Russia empire was influential in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
The rogue militias have been emboldened by their success in unsettling Russian complacency and forcing Putin’s defense and security leaders to redeploy forces from some frontlines in Ukraine to protect targeted cities at home.
“We’re working. Stay tuned for news!” RDK proclaimed after posting photos of two fighters in combat gear as attacks in the Belgorod region intensified in late May.
Freedom of Russia Legion founder Ilya Ponomarev, an exiled former Russian lawmaker, was quoted by the Washington Post last week as saying the two militias now control a dozen settlements in the Belgorod town of Shebekino.
The underground attacks expose the breakdown of Russia’s domestic defenses “because they have sent all that they have to Ukraine and now they have absolutely no reserves.”
Russian defense and security officials have sought to minimize the new security risks to the Russian public but regional officials in the targeted cities have been calling them out.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the hard-hit Belgorod region on the border with northeastern Ukraine, has been posting daily reports on his Telegram account detailing the dozens of attacks with drones, artillery and mortars.
As of May 31, at least 60 drone attacks have hit military and civilian targets inside Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea, the BBC reported, citing Russian media monitored by the British broadcaster.
Russia’s Defense Ministry blames the attacks on “persons acting in the interests of the military-political leadership of Ukraine,” including U.S.-led NATO for supplying weapons and training for the Ukrainian defense effort.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has denied his government has authorized or facilitated the cross-border attacks. Kyiv intelligence forces have been known to collaborate with rogue operations like RDK and Ponomarev’s militia. Some have conceded the attacks inside Russia are a useful diversion of Russian defense strategy, as has the infighting among poorly trained and equipped regular Russian recruits, disparate militias like the Chechens and Cossacks and mercenary forces like provocative Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In a reflection of the humiliation the attacks inside Russia have inflicted on the Kremlin, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence opined to state television last week that Russian domestic security forces have been unable to prevent the rash of attacks on Russian territory because they are “only trained to beat up peaceful protesters.”
Rattled by the war’s spillover to Russian communities, Putin and his top war commanders have responded with acts of unprecedented and disproportionate retaliation. Western military and intelligence sources blame Russian forces for the detonation that destroyed the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric station on the Dnipro River on June 6 that unleashed floodwaters that inundated thousands of homes and forced mass evacuation of downstream communities.
The small-scale attacks bringing the war home to Russians coincided with Ukraine’s buildup to a counteroffensive launched quietly in recent days. Ukrainian forces, trained by NATO military and armed with sophisticated Western weapons and war-fighting armor, have begun testing the strength of Russian defenses along the 625-mile frontline that has changed little for nearly a year. Kyiv officials have been tight-lipped about where and when they will focus their expected drive to break through Russia’s seized territory in the east and south of the country to sever the sole land bridge from occupied Ukraine territory to the Crimean Peninsula.
Few military or intelligence analysts predict a quick or decisive Ukrainian victory in recovering the nearly 20% of its territory now under Russian occupation, most of it under Moscow’s control since a stealth 2014 invasion that stalled at the current frontlines.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense intelligence unit that has been closely following the Ukraine battles since Putin launched his invasion last year posted a mostly positive assessment of the early days of the counteroffensive. The MoD reported the first movement of Ukrainian forces as a “highly complex operational picture” with heavy fighting underway along multiple sections of the frontline and that “in most areas Ukraine holds the initiative.”