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With attacks on Ukraine, Putin gives hard-liners what they wanted


President Joe Biden discusses the economy and job creation policy at IBM’s campus in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. on Oct. 6, 2022.

By Valerie Hopkins and Anton Troianovski


For months, Russia’s state media insisted that the country was hitting only military targets in Ukraine, leaving out the suffering that the invasion has brought to millions of civilians.


On Monday, state television not only reported on the suffering but flaunted it. It showed plumes of smoke and carnage in central Kyiv, along with empty store shelves and a long-range forecast promising months of freezing temperatures there.


“There’s no hot water; part of the city is without power,” one anchor announced, describing the scene in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.


The sharp shift was a sign that domestic pressure over Russia’s flailing war effort had escalated to the point where President Vladimir Putin believed that a brutal show of force was necessary — as much for his audience at home as for Ukraine and the West.


His military has come under increasingly withering criticism from the war’s supporters for not being aggressive enough in its assault on Ukraine, a chorus that reached a fever pitch after Saturday’s attack on the 12-mile bridge to the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea — a symbol of Putin’s rule.


With Monday’s devastating escalation of the war effort, Putin appears to be responding, in part, to those critics, momentarily quieting the clamors of hard-liners furious with the Russian military’s humiliating setbacks on the battlefield.


“This is important from the domestic political perspective, first and foremost,” Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, said of Monday’s strikes. “It was important to demonstrate to the ruling class that Putin is still capable, that the army is still good for something.”


But with his escalation, Putin is also betting that Russian elites — and the public at large — do indeed see it as a sign of strength rather than a desperate effort to inflict more pain on Ukrainian civilians in a war that Russia appears to be losing militarily.


“The response was supposed to show power, but in fact it showed powerlessness,” Gallyamov said. “There’s nothing else the army can do.”


The attacks killed at least 14 and wounded scores of others, while countless more in cities across Ukraine were terrified by dozens of incoming missiles explicitly targeting civilian infrastructure.


After the strikes, some of the invasion’s harshest critics among the Russian hawks declared that the military was finally doing its job. The strongman leader of the Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov — who recently excoriated the army’s “incompetent” leadership — said in a Telegram post that he was now “100% happy” with the war effort.


“Run, Zelenskyy, run,” he wrote, referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.


Other cheerleaders of the war triumphantly recalled Putin’s declaration in July that Russia had not “started anything yet in earnest” in Ukraine.


“Now, it seems, it’s started,” said a state television talk show host, Olga Skabeyeva.


Hard-liners in Russia have been pushing this strategy for a very long time, said Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “Like, we have to scare them into submission,’’ he said of the hard-right viewpoint. “So, in order to do that, we have to be really, really violent.”


The strike on the Crimean bridge, Yudin said, meant that the Kremlin “had no choice but to give in” and escalate the attacks on Ukraine.


Putin described the strikes as a response to Ukrainian “terrorist acts,” casting them as a one-time assault to deter future Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory. In his home city, St. Petersburg, where he had traveled Friday for his 70th birthday, Putin spoke on national television for just over 3 minutes in what the Kremlin characterized as the start of a meeting with his Security Council.


He made a point of saying the strikes had occurred at the military’s initiative, an apparent effort to head off assertions that he was plotting the war effort in isolation.


“This morning, at the suggestion of the Ministry of Defense and according to the plan of the Russian General Staff, a massive strike with air, sea and land-based high-precision long-range weapons was launched against Ukrainian energy, military command and communications facilities,” Putin said. “If attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on our territory continue, the measures taken by Russia will be tough and in their scale will correspond to the level of threats posed to the Russian Federation. No one should have any doubt about it.”


In his speech, Putin made one notable omission: He did not mention the West as the ultimate culprit behind Saturday’s Crimean bridge explosion or other suspected Ukrainian attacks. That was a departure from the typical Kremlin rhetoric that portrays Washington and London as the puppeteers behind Ukraine’s resistance.


The shift was a possible signal that the Russian leader was interested in controlling the escalation of the war and that he was not on the verge of provoking a direct conflict with NATO.


Still, the deadly and seemingly indiscriminate strikes, while satisfying the bloodthirstiness of Russian hawks, carry some risk for Putin, not least because they clash with the Kremlin’s claims that Russia was not targeting Ukrainian civilians and was simply conducting a “special military operation.”


They could also put pressure on Putin to escalate further in the case of additional Ukrainian attacks or front-line successes, potentially increasing the discord within Russia’s ruling elite over how hard to push in Ukraine.


Indeed, pro-Kremlin figures, while celebrating the strikes, struggled to explain the incongruence of the fiery assault on cities that, in Putin’s telling, are core to Russia’s cultural heritage. Some justified the mayhem by blaming Ukraine and the West.


“It is bitter for us to see missile attacks on one of the most beautiful cities in the world, our Kyiv,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin commentator who is frequently on state television, wrote on Telegram. “All responsibility for the attacks on Kyiv lies with the occupiers and their collaborators. That is, on Biden and Zelenskyy personally.”


Inside Russia, few voices on Monday urged restraint. Even as the hawks praised the attacks, some lamented that Putin did not go far enough; Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and current vice chair of Putin’s Security Council, said on Telegram that the only way to protect Russia was to “completely dismantle” the government in Ukraine.


Some signs pointed to Putin’s being prepared for a wider escalation of the war. On Saturday, he appointed a general known for his ruthlessness, Sergei Surovikin, to lead the war effort in Ukraine. And Putin’s closest international ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, declared Monday that thousands of Russian soldiers would soon arrive in the country to form a joint military group with Belarusian forces — creating the specter of a new threat to Ukraine’s north.


Vladimir Pastukhov, a Russian political scientist and lawyer, said Putin’s escalations “run counter to his own intuition” and seriously limit his policy options by backing him into a corner.

“All of Putin’s actions today are aimed at getting out of this corner from which the only way out is the nuclear button,” Pastukhov, an honorary senior research associate at University College London, said in a phone interview. “In a sense, what has just happened really increases risks for him.”


In central Moscow, many people said they had been unaware of what happened in Ukraine. People soaked up the sun in the chic neighborhood around the central Tsvetnoy Boulevard or rushed to work or appointments.


Some younger people, more attuned to social media, said they were aware of the strikes on Ukraine but felt powerless to assign blame. “It is bad when people are killed for any reason,” said Sasha, 19, a university student. Still, she added, “In any fight, both sides are responsible.”


In Russia, the penalties for criticizing the war — or even using the term war — come with hefty fines or jail time, so many Russians are cautious about making comments that might have a negative connotation about the war.

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