Home U.S OWEN MATTHEWS: Could Vladimir Putin's benighted people now rise up and topple...

OWEN MATTHEWS: Could Vladimir Putin's benighted people now rise up and topple him?

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Russian generals should stage a coup against Vladimir Putin to halt the war in Ukraine, a Foreign Office minister suggested yesterday.

James Cleverly accused him of pursuing the murderous ‘fantasy’ of restoring the Russian empire.

The minister, who has responsibility for Russian policy, appeared to urge forces chiefs to rise up against their president. ‘The military leaders around Vladimir Putin must know this is a catastrophically bad judgment call… that this will come at a huge cost. They are in a position to stop this and we call on them to do so.’

Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has not been welcomed wildly at home with thousands of people risking extreme punishment by protesting against the military action

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has not been welcomed wildly at home with thousands of people risking extreme punishment by protesting against the military action 

Some within Vladimir Putin's circle have suggested that the president has gone'completely crazy' with his claims Ukraine is an'invented country' during his'unhinged' public address

Some within Vladimir Putin’s circle have suggested that the president has gone ‘completely crazy’ with his claims Ukraine is an ‘invented country’ during his ‘unhinged’ public address

But is this a realistic prospect? As the world reacted with shock and revulsion, what do ordinary Russians think of their leader’s snap decision to send in the tanks?

Some, including even senior members of the Putin machine, have responded with disbelief and incomprehension. During his unhinged speech this week declaring Ukraine to be an ‘invented’ country, one senior editor at a Kremlin-controlled TV station texted me in alarm to say that the boss had gone ‘completely crazy’.

A Russian diplomat I’ve known for 20 years messaged me on Signal — a secure app he believes is safe from the eyes of his bosses — to say that Putin had ‘led us far, far out into a stormy ocean’.

Make no mistake, there is deep apprehension in Russia over what has happened. Partially, of course, because the prospect of the toughest round yet of Western sanctions has sent the economy into a tailspin.

The rouble nosedived yesterday, while the crash in the Russian stock market wiped out more than $250billion in asset values. The country’s largest lender, Sberbank, at one point lost a staggering 57 per cent, and oil giant Rosneft plunged as much as 58 per cent.

Predictably, the Kremlin propaganda machine has gone into full attack mode, reheating cliches about the Kyiv government being run by ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazis’, which were invented in the run-up to Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Putin’s most venomous TV attack dog led his nightly news programme with false stories of an ongoing ‘genocide’ against the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine.

James Cleverly accused Vladimir Putin of pursuing the murderous ‘fantasy’ of restoring the Russian empire

James Cleverly accused Vladimir Putin of pursuing the murderous ‘fantasy’ of restoring the Russian empire

Snap polls suggest that 50 per cent of the public support a full invasion, and many older TV viewers may be truly convinced by the propaganda. ‘I remember the War — lots of Russian people are ready to fight fascism,’ says Ludmilla Scherbakova, 87, the mother of a Moscow friend.

But the young are a different story. Polls in December found that 66 per cent of Russians under 25 — the people who will be expected to actually fight an all-out war – had a ‘positive’ attitude towards Ukraine.

Protests are a rare sight in this authoritarian nation but anti-war campaigners broke cover yesterday in more than 40 cities, including Moscow and St Petersburg -— only to be subjected to a merciless crackdown.

Police detained almost 1,400 people in 51 locations, an independent monitor said yesterday.

Police detained almost 1,400 people in 51 locations, an independent monitor said yesterday

Police detained almost 1,400 people in 51 locations, an independent monitor said yesterday

Moscow’s boulevards were filled with busloads of police to prevent more gatherings, and the Kremlin has introduced full, Soviet-style media censorship threatening to inflict crippling fines on any media outlet, including on the internet, for spreading ‘disinformation’ that contradicted the party line.

Even the country’s actors have been told to toe the party line and are banned from making any comment from the stage. Makar Zaporozhsky, of the Mayakovsky Theatre, said on Instagram orders from the Ministry of Culture have made it clear that ‘any negative commentary will be regarded as treason’.

Putin is clearly hoping for a patriotic electoral lift similar to the one he enjoyed after he annexed Crimea. Prior to that his popularity ratings were in the doldrums, although afterwards they soared.

The all-out attack on Ukraine, however, could have the opposite effect. Unlike the Kremlin’s earlier adventure, he will have no shiny new imperial bauble to show off at the end of it all. Crimea is a well-loved vacation spot for millions of Russians, with an overwhelmingly Russian population. Donbas, — the area in eastern Ukraine that Putin has recognised as a separate state — is a war-ravaged post industrial rust-belt region. Only 35 per cent of its population even identified themselves as ‘Russian’ in the last census.

But the real test will come when body bags start coming home, and when sanctions really start to bite.

The battle for Russian hearts and minds has been called a struggle between the TV and the refrigerator. One appliance tells the Russian populace they are citizens of a great and victorious nation while the other tells them they are starving as the plummeting rouble robs them of food.

By uniting the West in support of Ukraine, Putin has also managed to undermine Russia’s only real strategic lever over Europe — its gas supplies. Following Germany’s decision to halt certification of the £11billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the showpiece of Putin’s energy supremacy is just an expensive piece of metal on the Baltic seabed.

Europe and the UK will now scramble to find alternatives to Putin’s toxic energy supplies. He’s cut off the branch he’s sitting on.

The twin pillars of Putin’s power — a huge propaganda operation and a terrifying machine of state repression — will probably quell murmurings of discontent from the people. But the other losers of will be members of his own elite, who stand to forfeit their homes and the money they have stashed abroad.

Putin’s court is made up of two groups — the ones with the guns and the ones with the money. It is hawkish, gun-toting former KGB officers known as siloviki who have pushed for this war, and won.

Putin is clearly hoping for a patriotic electoral lift similar to the one he enjoyed after he annexed Crimea. Prior to that his popularity ratings were in the doldrums, although afterwards they soared

Putin is clearly hoping for a patriotic electoral lift similar to the one he enjoyed after he annexed Crimea. Prior to that his popularity ratings were in the doldrums, although afterwards they soared

They were the ones at Putin’s bizarre Security Council meeting this week who parroted the boss’s line with the greatest gusto. But officials who actually run the economy and have contact with the outside world — Putin’s prime minister and his foreign minister, for instance — were visibly more sheepish.

Most sceptical of all was Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, who got a public dressing-down for fluffing his lines when he appeared to give only lukewarm support for the decision to recognise two breakaway republics. These realists will soon come to see Putin’s impetuous attack has devastated the economy and undermined the whole regime’s credibility.

For 22 years, Putin has kept an iron grip on power by ruthlessly dividing the West, eliminating opponents at home and keeping a careful balance on competing interests in the Kremlin court itself.

But by blundering into a bloody campaign that will beggar his country and shake the foundations of his own popularity, he’s gone from being a strong leader to a dangerous liability.

Ousting him won’t be easy. But many members of his inner circle may soon come to see that their increasingly unhinged boss is damaging their interests — as well as Russia’s — rather than protecting them.

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