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Six months after invading Ukraine, Russia itself is feeling the pressure

For a whole host of reasons, anniversaries can be painful moments.

According to the (mistaken) conventional wisdom of the wider world, Aug. 24 is the sixth-month anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war, with all its horror, has been truly and genuinely in our faces for only the past half-year — and not in the frozen, faraway sense that has marked the conflict for the past eight years.

For the Ukrainians, today is more like the 3,108th day of fighting (give or take a day or two) in a war that started with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s first attempt to take over the eastern Donbas region.

Aug. 24 also marks the 31st anniversary of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union.

Much has been written over the past six months about the war’s brutal effect upon the people of Ukraine and their pulverized cities. But one expert following the conflict closely is now paying increasing attention to what he suspects are signs that the Russian regime itself is starting to unravel.

The recent murder of ultranationalist Darya Dugina, 29, in Moscow has piqued the interest of observers who believe it’s a sign of growing, violent divisions within Russia over the war.

Philosopher Alexander Dugin, centre, speaks with a priest during the final farewell ceremony for his daughter Darya Dugina in Moscow on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. (Dmitry Serebryakov/AP)

The daughter of philosopher Alexander Dugin — a man often referred to as “Putin’s brain” because of his reported influence over the Russian leader — died in a car bombing last week.

“It was significant,” said Sean Maloney, a professor of history at the Royal Military College and a specialist on Russia. 

“We now have a destabilized Russian regime in a way we’ve not seen destabilization in years. And it’s only in that space because of this invasion.”

The Russian security service (FSB) has spun different scenarios since the bombing, one of which blames the Ukrainians. The government in Kyiv has vigorously denied involvement in the attack.

Maloney said Moscow’s explanation “smells like Stalinist disinformation” and ignores the growing split in Russian society between those who fervently support the war and anti-war activists who are becoming increasingly vocal.

Dugin and his daughter had been at a festival near Moscow, where the ultranationalist philosopher gave a lecture on Saturday evening. The two of them were supposed to leave in the same car but, at the last minute, Dugin reportedly changed his mind.

Maloney said someone inside Russia was either targeting Dugin or trying to send a message by killing his daughter.

“In any angle where you look at this, there are obviously elements of people in Moscow that are not happy with what’s going on, whether [the war in Ukraine] is not going far enough or it’s gone too far,” he said.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, news broke of the former mayor of Russia’s fourth-largest city being arrested on charges of discrediting the country’s military. Observers see it as part of a crackdown on critics of Moscow’s military action in Ukraine.

Police arrested Yevgeny Roizman, 59, who served as mayor of Yekaterinburg from 2013 to 2018, following searches at his apartment and office.

Police detain Yekaterinburg ex-mayor Yevgeny Roizman in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. The former mayor of Russia’s fourth-largest city was arrested Wednesday on charges of discrediting the country’s military, part of a crackdown on critics of Moscow’s military action in Ukraine. (Vladimir Podoksyonov/URA.RU via AP)

Roizman told reporters in Russia he was charged under a new law adopted after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24. He faces up to five years in prison if he’s convicted.

Last week, a member of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s legislature, denounced his own daughter as a “traitor” after she gave an interview condemning the war.

Federation Council member Eduard Isakov, who represents the northern Khanty-Mansi autonomous region, wrote on Telegram that his eldest daughter, Diana Isakova, has “sold out her father, her family and her motherland” with her remarks.

At the onset of major combat combat operations, there were a few prominent people inside Russia — notably jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny — saying support for the war would wane if the Russian people stood up and opposed it.

Police detain a demonstrator during an action against Russia’s attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

But many anti-war protesters in Russia have been imprisoned or are facing criminal charges that carry long prison terms, while hundreds of thousands of Russians — many of whom oppose the war — have fled the country.

As the full-on invasion hits the six-month mark, Maloney said, it’s become clear that the war has been “disastrous” for Russia in ways the West is only beginning to wrap its head around.

Russian troops have been beaten back from Kyiv and Kharkiv and were fought to a stalemate in Donbas. Ukrainian general staff estimate Russia has suffered upwards of 40,000 combat deaths. The last western military estimates put the number of Russian combat deaths at 15,000.

Some of Russia’s problems have been obvious. Some have been subtle.

The Russian Army’s inability to quickly conquer Ukraine has been evident. The political and social splintering of a society — especially in an authoritarian regime — is harder to see until it explodes into the open, Maloney said.

Alima Tatiyeva, widow of Nurlan Tatiyev, a Russian soldier who was killed in Ukraine, cries during a ceremony for awarding the Order of Courage to families of slain soldiers in Volgograd, Russia on June 30, 2022. (Alexandr Kulikov/AP)

For the moment, the Kremlin is keeping a tight lid on dissent. Dugin has blamed Ukraine for his daughter’s murder and is calling for revenge.

“We only need our victory [against Ukraine]. My daughter has sacrificed her young life on the altar of victory,” he said in a statement on Monday.

Dugin has in the past presented the war as a far wider spiritual battle. Following the annexation of Crimea, he said that “Ukraine has to be … vanished from Earth and rebuilt from scratch.”

Ordinary Russians are now paying the price for that vision — in lives lost, in mounting damage to their economy. Russia experts worldwide are watching closely now to see how long those ordinary Russians are willing to keep going.

A woman uses her mobile phone as she walks past a billboard with a portrait of a Russian soldier and the words “Glory to the heroes of Russia” in St. Petersburg, Russia on Aug. 20, 2022. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

“This is a war about the racism of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and his leadership,” said Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor and national security expert at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

“It is a war about egos that will continue to stack bodies because they are not strong enough to admit error.”

Marking the day as the “sixth-month anniversary” does a disservice to the Ukrainians, he added.

“There will be more such false anniversaries to come, because the roots of the war are deep in the minds and aspirations of too many, but not all, in Russia,” he said.

“Such roots are not easily pulled.”

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