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As Russian Losses Mount in Ukraine, So Does Criticism Back Home

More than 40 local elected officials across Russia signed a two-sentence petition on Monday that ended with: “We demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin from the post of President of the Russian Federation!”

The petition, pushed by opponents of the invasion of Ukraine, had no practical impact and was flatly ignored in the Russian state media. But it was already striking in its existence, showing that despite the Kremlin’s extraordinary crackdown on dissent, Ukraine’s counter-offensive successes have once again emboldened President Vladimir V. Putin’s opponents — and his supporters in search of someone else to fill the gap. to blame.

Pro-war commentators and politicians have pointed to the military leadership or senior officials, saying that they did not fight the war with sufficient determination and competence, or that they failed to deliver all the facts to Putin. For a long time, Kremlin critics have used the discord and Russia’s setbacks at the front to risk speaking out against Putin.

“There is now hope that Ukraine will end this war,” said Ksenia Torstrem, a member of a St. Petersburg city council who helped organize the petition, calling Ukraine’s progress an “inspiring factor.” “We decided we had to apply pressure from all sides.”

On Russian state television, where criticism of the Kremlin is rare, supporters of the war are increasingly pointing the finger at what they call a disorganized and insufficiently coordinated invasion; others put forward the idea of ​​advocating for peace. As anger spread over the shameful withdrawal of Russian troops from more than a thousand square miles of northeastern Ukraine, a senior lawmaker said in an interview that an “urgent adjustment” to the war effort was needed.

In a telephone interview on Monday, that lawmaker, Konstantin F. Zatulin, a senior MP from Mr Putin’s United Russia party, explained the stakes.

Zatulin described the withdrawal by Russian troops as “doing very serious damage to the idea of ​​this special military operation”, using the term the Kremlin adopted before the war. But he also warned that if criticism of the war effort from across the political spectrum spirals out of control, it could lead to unforeseen consequences, citing the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet collapse of 1991.

“It must be underlined that this criticism should not go overboard,” he said said. “Otherwise it could cause an uncontrollable reaction.”

Mr Zatulin insisted that any optimism from people who hoped Mr Putin would be overthrown was “very premature”. Ukraine’s successes, he said, could prompt the Kremlin to escalate its war efforts to try to deliver a decisive defeat to Ukraine, though he added that he did not expect it to mean a “nuclear war”.

“What now appears to some to be the success of the Ukrainian side could in fact lead to the last straw that will lead to the start of a real war,” said Mr. Zatulin. “Since Russia has really not used the full strength of its capabilities, nothing else should be done but demonstrate this strength.”

There is no evidence that Putin’s grip on power could weaken, and the Kremlin said on Monday the invasion would continue until its original goals are met.

Still, there were growing signs that the Russian elite were upset by the army’s withdrawal and unsure of how to proceed.

A Member of the House of Commons of Parliament, Mikhail Sheremet, told a Russian news channel that the army would not succeed in Ukraine “without a full mobilization”. It was an implicit criticism of Mr Putin’s refusal to carry out a national draft, a move Russian proponents of an escalated war effort have long demanded.

The leader of a pro-Putin party, Sergei Mironov, praised the attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure targets Sunday night that left parts of the country without power, but complained they “should have been carried out two to three months ago”.

And on the social network Telegram, where pro-war Russian military bloggers have gained massive followings, the grumbling continued as well. “Stop whining,” Yevgeny Poddubny, a war correspondent for Russian state television, posted a message, referring to those concerned about an escalating war.

But a senior member of the upper house, Andrei Klimov, tried to resist votes calling for all-out war, telling reporters he saw no “need” for a mobilization or for martial law to be declared.

Opponents of Mr Putin are encouraged by the disagreement.

“Many have the hope that something will finally break,” said Ivan I. Kurilla, a historian at the European University of St. Petersburg and critic of Mr Putin, in a telephone interview. “We’re probably wrong, it’s probably not time yet, but since everyone has been waiting for half a year for something to burst, this hope is very strong.”

After the February invasion, Mr Putin led the most intense crackdown on dissent since coming to power two decades ago, signing a censorship bill criticizing the war effort — or even calling it a war rather than a “special one.” military operation” — a possible crime. Thousands of journalists, activists and others fled the country, while virtually all prominent independent news outlets still operating in Russia were forced to close their doors. Leading opposition figures who refused to flee were imprisoned.

So when a group of city councilors from Mr Putin’s home city, St. Petersburg, released a statement last week calling for the president’s removal from office for treason, it was a shocking move in an environment where fear of captivity is almost all criticism of Mr Putin underground.

Some of those councilors now risk fines for “discrediting” the military and government, but in Moscow, members of another city council followed suit by calling on Mr Putin to resign. And over the weekend, Ms. Torstrem, the St. Petersburg representative, wrote to fellow opposition-minded local deputies in a Telegram chat group: “I want to do something too.”

She was convinced to speak out, she said, both from colleagues who had already published anti-Putin statements and from the military advance of Ukrainian troops. She also noted the accident in the pro-Putin camp and said it put the Kremlin in a particularly delicate place.

Ms Torstrem, who is 38, helped draft the petition issued Monday calling on Mr Putin to resign. She made sure not to mention the war, to avoid leaving any of the signatories vulnerable under the laws criminalizing criticism of it. The petition said only that Mr Putin’s actions “damage the future of Russia and its citizens”.

The petition had 19 signatories from Moscow and St. Petersburg when it posted on Twitter Monday morning. By the end of the day, the number had grown to more than 40, including community representatives from the remote Siberian city of Yakutsk and Samara on the Volga.

She acknowledged that it was unclear how the petition could in practice help expedite Mr Putin’s resignation. But one of the signatories, Vasily Khoroshilov, a municipal deputy in Moscow, said the intention was to send a message to powerful opponents of Mr Putin that they would gain support from the Russian public.

“The radical patriots have also begun to doubt the correctness of the path being followed,” Khoroshilov, 38, said in a telephone interview. “Some forces in the highest echelons of power could take some sort of decisive action if they see support among the people.”

Putin’s main supporters seem to be focused on the idea that any problems in the war are not his fault, but that he was misled by senior officials or the military leadership.

That was the message of Ramzan Kadyrov, the strong ruler of the southern Russian region of Chechnya. He posted an incoherent voice message to his Telegram account this weekend, warning that if the military didn’t change its strategy “today or tomorrow,” he would be forced “to speak to the Department of Defense leadership and the country’s leadership.” to explain to them the real situation on the ground.”

Mr Zatulin, the senior lawmaker, said many in Russia believed that “Putin was misinformed and does not know everything, that he was misled.”

“The president himself maintains his authority and is the basis of stability at the moment,” Zatulin said.

But, he warned, “clearly, every system has its limits.”

Alina Lobzina and Ivan Nechepurenko reporting contributed.