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Ukraine's counteroffensive has some Russian officials calling for Putin to resign


Ukraine's counteroffensive and the surprise gains that Greg just talked about have some of Vladimir Putin's loyal supporters questioning Russian military strategy and even Putin himself. A number of government officials are calling for his resignation; others say he should be charged with treason, even when speaking out puts them at risk.

Sergey Radchenko is a professor of Russian history at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Professor, inside Russia, do we know how people are receiving the news or actually if they are getting this news at all?

SERGEY RADCHENKO: I think people are getting this news. It's seeping through on TV shows. There has been some debate, unusually, you know, about the direction of this war. Also, there are Telegram channels which people follow, and they see the - there's considerable amount of confusion and consternation in those channels about the direction the war is taking.

MARTÍNEZ: Why do you think that is happening now? Last night, as you mentioned, there was a television show where a former member of Russia's Parliament said that it was impossible for Russia to beat back the latest Ukrainian offensive and that they should be negotiating for peace right now, something that it would be unheard of even two weeks ago, much less than last night.

RADCHENKO: So those TV shows sometimes have people who present a contrary point of view. You're allowed to disagree with the mainstream narrative on those shows as long as you do not question Putin or criticize Putin personally. However, that debate was unusually intense - that show that you referred to. So that itself already shows the degree of confusion. I mean, there are - there's a group of Russians - a certain percentage of the population - who are extremely nationalistic and who have been pushing for this war. And they are now seeing their hopes very much disappointed, and they're looking for somebody to blame.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And on that TV show, that former Russian Parliament member I mentioned said that Vladimir Putin must be getting bad information. So there was a little cover that he provided there.

RADCHENKO: Exactly. And this is the extent of criticism that you're allowed. It must be that, you know, the tsar is misinformed. Somebody's making mistakes, not Putin himself. He's just been misinformed. But what you can see from this is that there is some debate and some sort of reflection going on within the Russian side. But what I would say to this, though, is that we do not see, at this stage, Putin's position compromise. No senior government officials have actually resigned. So I would be very cautious in saying that, you know, somehow Putin is on his way out.

MARTÍNEZ: How possible, though, do you think it is that Vladimir Putin would be getting bad information?

RADCHENKO: It is possible. Certainly, he is - his whole blunder, this war in Ukraine, was certainly partly a result of bad information, as well as, of course, his imperialist proclivities. You know, the guy is very much in isolation. He's speaking to his intelligence services. He's speaking to his military. And the information they provide is one-sided. So it is possible that he does not fully understand just the - just how bad things are. But I also would not overestimate the degree of his isolation.

MARTÍNEZ: I remember at the start of the war, Vladimir Putin called Russia's invasion of Ukraine a denazification mission - in other words, that Ukraine is filled with dangerous Nazis. Has the war now maybe changed the way Russians look at Ukraine?

RADCHENKO: So this was part of this whole discourse to justify the Russian war in Ukraine. Allegedly, Ukraine was run by Nazis, so we had to denazify Ukraine. Unfortunately, a lot of people in Russia bought into this rhetoric. I do not think that Putin himself believes this, and I don't think that the propaganda people who, you know, turn up on Russian shows actually believe what they're saying about denazification of Ukraine. But you have to have some kind of rationalization because otherwise this would look very bad, you know, as, of course, it is - you know, invading a sovereign neighboring country. So I would - you know, I would say, yeah, this narrative still exists. Even today, there's still talk about denazification.

MARTÍNEZ: So could this be, right now, maybe a turning point in the war, an inflection point where Vladimir Putin somehow turns either in a peaceful way or in a worse way, a more dangerous way?

RADCHENKO: It absolutely could be, in the sense that there's still scope for escalation. I would not - I would caution against euphoria in the West. We have seen Russia suffering setbacks before and then coming back again. Obviously, they suffered a major setback, but they do retain considerable latent capacity for inflicting damage on Ukraine. And they haven't done certain things like, for example, declaring partial mobilization, which could help them achieve that. So there is still potential for Russia to make gains in Ukraine, but there's also potential for Ukraine to really push forward and, you know, chase the Russians out of the territories that they control. But as this happens, and if this happens, then I think we'll have to be very cautious and just remember there's still potential for things to escalate.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to support from the Russian people, how much of this hinges on who Russians believe they are fighting, either Ukraine or maybe NATO - an expansion of NATO?

RADCHENKO: So the Russians have been told that this is a war against NATO, and I think that makes it easier for the Russians to stomach the fact that they're losing in Ukraine. This is just part of the narrative that the government is promoting.

MARTÍNEZ: Professor Sergey Radchenko of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.