‘Does Putin even still exist? Where is he anyway?’ asked Igor Strelkov, former minister of defence of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic last month in one of the regular video rants he publishes on his Telegram channel. It’s a good question. Since 3 May, the Kremlin has been struck by two Ukrainian drones while up to 30 more have fallen among the billionaire dachas of Russia’s elite along the exclusive Rublevo-Uspenskoe highway. Anti-Putin Russians attacking from Ukraine have seized at least eight villages in Belgorod province, capturing Russian soldiers and sending drones to hit the regional capitals of Belgorod, Voronezh and Kursk. Russia’s Wagner mercenary group captured and beat up a Russian regular army battalion commander and forced him to make a hostage-style video admitting to drunkenly ordering his men to shell Wagner positions. Meanwhile, Wagner’s founder and chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been touring Russia drumming up recruits and giving a series of highly inflammatory interviews in which, among other things, he has called for defence minister Sergei Shoigu to be tried and shot for facilitating ‘the genocide of the Russian population’.
And Putin? As Strelkov put it, Russia’s ‘commander-in-chief has withdrawn from hostilities’. Over recent weeks Putin has appeared to tell an audience of children that he sleeps ‘very well at night’; to briefly claim that the Ukrainian counter-offensive has ‘failed to achieve any of its goals’ despite then admitting Russia had lost 54 tanks last week; and to have breakfast with his ally Alexander Lukashenko and agree that Russian tactical nuclear missiles would be deployed in neighbouring Belarus. In all these appearances Putin looked stiff, puffy and stilted. ‘You can make reports to a mummy, but it does not mean that the reports are heard,’ continued Strelkov in an open attack on Putin.