A retired Russian general’s criticism may signal a larger problem for Putin

Retired Russian Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, the head of the All-Russian Officers Assembly, has gone public with a statement that calls for Russian President Vladimir Putin to resign over the confrontation involving Ukraine. To remove any doubt as to his message, Ivashov, 78, followed the public statement with an interview on a liberal Russian media outlet, Echo Moskvy, insisting that he was speaking in the name of the assembly of retired and reservist Russian officers which he heads. 

The collective statement was ironed out in internal discussions, Ivashov said, with some of the retired military men arguing for a softer line on Putin but others demanding even tougher words. Ivashov, speaking in measured language, explained that active officers understandably are not free to speak their minds, and he made note of the fact that he was speaking to the small audience of Echo-Moskvy. 

Ivashov is not some Putin critic or Russian dissident in the mold of a Boris Nemtsov or an Alexei Navalny. In the absence of an active marshal of the army — such as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the celebrated Red Army general of World War II — a colonel-general would be the second-highest rank in the Russian army. Ivashov served as a senior aide to the country’s defense minister and as the ministry’s chief of general affairs before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; he subsequently held other high-ranking military posts and commands before retiring — or, some say, being sacked by Putin — in 2001. Those roles included numerous negotiations with NATO and the U.S. military. 

Since then, he has written extensively on Russian military matters and geopolitics, from the perspective of a pro-Soviet, hardline nationalist. He even tried unsuccessfully to file as a presidential candidate in 2011. He has criticized Putin frequently and has called repeatedly over the years for Putin to resign.

His may be the lone military voice speaking out publicly against Putin’s actions regarding Ukraine, but it is a significant voice, nonetheless. As Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted: “This is a big deal. At one time, General Ivashov was one of the most respected (and hawkish) leaders in the Russian [ministry of defense]. Russian generals don’t usually get involved in public policy debates, especially ones like Ivashov.”

To be clear, Ivashov believes that NATO is a hostile power, but his experience has taught him that the NATO/U.S. threat is under control and no external threat is imminent from the Western powers. The massive buildup of Russian troops on the Ukraine and Belarus borders, therefore, is not to deal with a threat from the West. Rather, it is to divert attention from the internal health, demographic challenges, living-standards collapse and pervasive corruption that the Russian citizenry is suffering under the mismanagement of an incompetent Putin regime. 

Ivashov points out that the Putin model has in no way demonstrated its superiority to Ukraine, to Crimea, to the two “separatist” Ukrainian republics or to anyone else. Under Putin, Russia has become an international “pariah,” he says. Its annexation of Crimea is not recognized by credible nations, and Russia is widely viewed as a rogue state because of Putin’s “criminal policy of provoking war.” 

Ivashov distinguishes between Russia’s highly trained professional officers’ ranks and the Kremlin’s military “elite,” headed by what he considers to be non-entities. If Putin’s policies —designed only to solidify his internal power — indeed push Russia into a “catastrophic war,” he adds, it won’t be Putin’s Kremlin soldiers who pay the price; rather, it will be the professional officers and the tens of thousands of young Russian conscripts who will be killed or crippled in the fighting. 

Adding to Ivashov’s concerns is his fear that Turkey could join with Ukraine in a military alliance if war does break out. That, of course, would be an entirely different ball game for the Russians to confront.

Ivashov’s solution: Fire Putin if he can’t be forced to resign and, if necessary, put him in prison for his “criminal policy of provoking war.” 

Of course, all of that is highly unlikely to occur.

And yet, according to Ivashov’s account, he is speaking for a significant portion of Russia’s professional military, the one institution most trusted by the Russian people. If his claim is true, then those military men, retired or still in uniform, must feel very strongly or else they would have remained comfortably quiet, enjoying their pensions and privileges, rather than incurring the wrath and inevitable punishment of Putin. 

Putin undoubtedly will find a way to punish Ivashov for his outspoken criticism, and perhaps other members of the All-Russian Officers Assembly as well. But he cannot wipe out all those who believe what Ivashov has said. Nor can he afford to alienate his professional military.  

It just may be that with all his saber-rattling and gamesmanship over Ukraine, Putin may have created an opposition that he cannot silence so easily.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

Tags Leonid Ivashov Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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