Setbacks galore for Putin on the diplomatic front as well as on the battlefield in Ukraine, and in Russia itself, when Putin met fellow-leaders in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and found himself forced to acknowledge Chinese “concerns” about the war in Ukraine. It was his first-ever public admission that the mis-named “special military operation” launched in Ukraine six months ago was not going according to plan.
It was the first time the two had met in person since the nightmare began six months ago that the two had met in person since the nightmare began six months ago.
Xi was notably absent both from group photographs for the dinner afterwards for leaders of the eight-nation Potemkinesque structure called the “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation” (SCO), devoted mainly to messing up the USA where possible.
Initially encouraged to believe that the Ukraine imbroglio opened the door to invading Taiwan sooner rather than later, Xi is now less than impressed with the long-drawn-out mess Putin has created, and it is also clear that the previously-announced “limitless partnership” between Russia and China is no longer as limitless as advertised.
Back home the tone is getting heated rather than diplomatic, both from the angry pro-war faction and peacenik elected politicians, some of who are now openly accusing Putin of treason. Dozens of local councillors in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kolpino called for his resignation in an open letter published on Twitter.
A petition open to all elected municipal officials in Russia “demands” without further ado “the resignation of Vladimir Putin from the post of President of the Russian Federation”.
This step, widely relayed on social networks, is intended to support other elected officials of Smolninskaya, a district of St. Petersburg which also happens to be Putin’s birthplace. A few days earlier, on September 7, they petitioned the Russian parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, to remove President Putin from office over the war on Ukraine – even though Russians face years in prison for calling it that.
The text to the State Duma raises four specific issues, cited by Deutsche Welle including the charge of “high treason”: the destruction of Russian army units ready for combat; the death of young Russian citizens; the damage caused to the economy; and the fact that NATO expanded upon the outbreak of the war to equip Ukrainian forces with modern Western military kit.
This, they argue, actually undermines the objective of “demilitarising” the country in the first place as Ukraine was forced to defend itself using NATO weapons.
“We admire the courage of the elected representatives of the Smolninskaya district,” Ksenia Torstrem, one of the instigators of the call for Vladimir Putin’s resignation, told France 24. “We can only regret the trouble they are now having with the police, who accuse them of having discredited the armed forces”.
Those found guilty of providing “false information” or “discrediting” the armed force face up to 15 years in prison thanks to a law enacted a few days after the invasion. The petition was thus the safest way. “Until now, it is not forbidden by law in Russia to sign one,” added Ms Torstrem. “The resignation would be a way for Vladimir Putin to leave power peacefully.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, 54, has warned detractors to “be very careful” to stay “within the law” which prohibits discrediting the army. However, his own daughter Elizaveta, currently an assistant to a French National Front MEP in the European Parliament, declared “No to war” on her Instagram account as soon as the war started. (Now it’s mostly photos of herself looking glamorous.)
These initiatives would have seemed inconceivable a few months ago. After the withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine even the staunchest defenders of the “special military operation” no longer hesitate to condemn the “mistakes” of the Russian generals, as the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov pointed out earlier this week.
But do these dissident voices represent a threat to Putin? Minimal risk, says Tatiana Stanovaïa, founder of R.Politik, an independent political analysis centre. However, unlike the liberal opposition which has been “crushed (by being portrayed) as an ideological opponent and a spokesman for the West”, a so-called patriotic protest could be “perceived as legitimate” in Russia.
St Petersburg lawmaker Nikita Yuferyev joined the Smolninskoye council in 2019. When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, he and other lawmakers requested permission to stage anti-war protests that very day. Permission was denied.
On March 2, Yuferyev and his colleagues invited St. Petersburg residents to join an open council session. “Many people showed up, but so did the police and OMON [national guard units]. There were many officers in helmets and prison transport vans but things remained calm,” Yuferyev told DW. “We agreed to send an appeal to President Putin, urging him to end the special operation.” The appeal went unanswered.
In August, Yuferyev himself sent a personal message to Putin, calling on him to end the “special military operation” for humanitarian reasons. This time, the Kremlin responded, justifying the war as “a special military operation to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine.”
Acting against Russian interests?
Fellow lawyer Dmitry Palyuga then tabled a draft petition intended for the State Duma. Both men stress they acted entirely in accordance with Russian law. “So far, there has been no precedent for a conviction following a petition sent to a state body. In fact, Russian law rules out this possibility,” Palyuga told DW.
He says he developed the idea of sending the petition after seeing considerable criticism of the invasion of Ukraine expressed on social media, including on pro-Kremlin Telegram channels. Many accused their president of acting “against Russia’s interests.” The result, according to Reuters, is that the Russian Council is liable to be disbanded.
In July, Alexei Gorinov, a Moscow politician, was sentenced to seven years behind bars for “spreading falsehoods” about Russia’s armed forces. Palyuga is well aware of Gorinov’s case and knows speaking out against Putin can have serious consequences. “We know we are taking a risk, but we feel this is the right thing to do,” he told DW.
Yuferyev and Palyuga published their petition on Twitter, for all to see. It says that according to Russia’s constitution, Putin’s conduct shows signs of “treason.”
He said half of all the St. Petersburg council members — among them the leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party — were absent when the body voted to submit the petition. But bylaws state that with 10 city councillors present, the vote could go ahead in accordance with Russian law. Ultimately, seven of the councillors approved the petition.
An appeal to all Russians
When asked what sort of reaction he and his colleagues were expecting, Yuferyev said “our appeal, although technically directed at Russia’s top decision-makers, is not really aimed at them. We know they will either not respond at all or they’ll respond with something nonsensical…We want to show them that there are many of us, who are against what is going on.”
Palyuga agrees.”We did this mainly to show other people, who also oppose what is happening in this country, that there are elected officials who also oppose this and that these officials are prepared to say so loudly,” he told DW.
Both men have now been told to report to the police to answer charges of “discrediting the armed forces.” “If they want to punish us, they will,” Yuferyev said. “But what are we supposed to do? Remain silent?”
Yuferyev is convinced most Russians are not militants- “We were all brought up by a generation who had experienced World War II,” he argues. “Our grandparents always said, ‘as long as there’s no war.’ They are talking about a ‘special operation’ here but people are starting to realize what’s really happening, how many deaths there are. Our people are peaceful and I think that people in Russia will soon start to reject what is happening.”