President Vladimir Putin has reportedly embarked on moves to dissolve Smolninskoye Council in St Petersburg, Russian, after it called for his removal over the Ukraine war which even longtime Kremlin supporters are now calling a ‘disaster’.
According to experts, a turning point for Ukraine in the war has led to a turning point in Russia as group of St Petersburg local politicians now face likely dissolution of their district council following a judge’s ruling on Tuesday.
Reuters, quoting one of the deputies, Nikita Yuferev, said the judge decided that a series of past council meetings had been invalid, paving the way for it to be broken up by the regional governor.
Another council member, Dmitry Palyuga, said the same court then fined him 47,000 roubles ($780) for “discrediting” the authorities by calling for Putin’s removal.
The report stated that four more members of the Smolninskoye local council are due to appear in court in the next two days.
Last week, a group of deputies from the council appealed to the State Duma to bring charges of state treason against Putin and strip him of power.
They cited a series of reasons including Russia’s military losses in Ukraine and the damage to its economy from Western sanctions.
Another local deputy said 65 municipal representatives from St Petersburg, Moscow and several other regions had signed a petition she published on Monday calling for Putin’s resignation.
While posing no current threat to Putin’s grip on power, the moves mark rare expressions of dissent by elected representatives at a time when Russians risk heavy prison sentences for “discrediting” the armed forces or spreading “deliberately false information” about them.
Palyuga told Reuters before Tuesday’s hearing that the group’s appeals were aimed not only at liberal Russians but also at “people loyal to the authorities who are starting to have doubts when they see the lack of success of the Russian army”.
He said he expected the numbers of such people to increase after last week’s lightning counter-offensive in which Ukraine drove Russian forces out of dozens of towns and recaptured a large swathe of territory in its northeast Kharkiv region.
“Of course, what is happening now has successfully coincided with our agenda. Many people who liked Putin are starting to feel betrayed.
“I think the more successfully the Ukrainian army operates, the more such people will become,” he said.
‘Very, very thin’ line
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said the greater risk to the Kremlin lay not in the councillors’ protest itself but in the danger of responding too harshly to it.
“The reaction, or overreaction, may cause more political damage to the regime than this petition.
“But I have no doubts that all those who signed the petition will (come) under political pressure,” said Stanovaya, founder of the independent analysis project R.Politik.
Thousands of legal cases have been launched against people accused of discrediting the army, usually leading to fines for first-time offences, but a Moscow district councillor was jailed for seven years in July after being convicted of spreading false information.
Several other journalists and opposition figures have been charged and face potential prison terms.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that critical points of view were tolerated, within the limits of the law.
“As long as they remain within the law, this is pluralism, but the line is very, very thin, one must be very careful here,” he said.
Ksenia Thorstrom, a St Petersburg local councillor who published Monday’s petition calling for Putin’s resignation, said it was too early to say how the campaign would turn out.
“To call for a politician to resign is absolutely normal. There can be nothing criminal about it,” she told Reuters.
“Of course there is a certain risk, but to show solidarity with our colleagues – independent politicians who still remain in Russia – is much more important.”
Longtime Kremlin supporters are now calling the war a ‘disaster’
The sudden, successful Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kharkiv has been an unpleasant surprise for just about everyone in Russia — for the Kremlin, its propaganda machine, the Ministry of Defense and for millions of patriotically minded Russians.
In a matter of just a few days, the Ukrainian flag has been raised over several towns and villages — and at least one major city — that had been held for months by the Russians.
Television and social media showed footage of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military equipment, which the retreating army appeared to have abandoned in a hurry.
Bad battlefield news for Russia isn’t a new thing in this war; bad news that’s shared widely with ordinary Russians, with no filter, is certainly new. So is sharp criticism of the war.
And in the last few days, that’s what Russians have been seeing and hearing.
In a suddenly new information reality, the Kremlin is either unwilling or unable to hide the truth from its people.
From day one, the conflict has been called a “special military operation” by Russian President and everyone else in the Russian government and media.
Calling it vojna, or “war,” was made a crime early on. Now all kinds of people are saying “vojna” and saying it openly.
Many are saying that the vojna is not being waged well. And they are not buying the Kremlin’s explanations.
This weekend, when the Ministry of Defense described the rapid — and by many accounts chaotic — retreat from the Kharkiv region as a “planned and pre-organized regrouping of troops,” reactions ranged from amusement to outrage.
Even the most stalwart supporters of Putin’s “special military operation” wanted a better answer.
“It seems that your American friends taught the Ukrainians how to fight, and [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu was not ready for this,” said Lesha from Orel, in western Russia, speaking on condition of partial anonymity.
A few months ago, Lesha had expressed no doubts about the justification for the invasion or the imminent victory of the Russian army.
Last weekend, he said on WhatsApp, angry and bitter about the mess in Kharkiv, which is a mild version of the sudden turn among Kremlin supporters.
Many of the same people who have been cheerleading Putin’s plans for the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine are now calling the latest developments a “disaster” or “catastrophe.”
Some are demanding a new “war council” or the sacking of Shoigu and others involved in the prosecution of the war.
And yes — now they are calling it a war. Vojna!
Very courageous few are calling out Putin by name.
But the reaction of some of the loudest and most patriotic Russians to the recent Ukrainian successes testifies not only to a widespread shock and disappointment, but also to the awakening of new moods and forces that may influence the political landscape in Russia.
Last weekend, Russian troops fled Izyum, Balakleya and Kupyansk ahead of the Ukrainian advance.
Sergey Mironov, the leader of a pro-Putin party in parliament, took to Twitter to blast the organizers.
“It cannot be and it should not be that our guys are dying today, and we are pretending that nothing is happening!” he tweeted.
A letter distributed by the Telegram channel Ostorozhno Novosti (literally, “Careful News”) demanded that Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor and among Putin’s closest allies, be dismissed, and that the “generals be sent to the trenches.”
The letter writers — who identified themselves only as “Russian hackers” — went on:
“We consider it absolutely inappropriate and unacceptable that while our guys are dying at the front, the rotten liberal intelligentsia is firing salutes and indulging in idleness in the capital of our country.
“We demand from the military and political leadership to punish those responsible for the death of our guys.”