OH, to be a fly on the wall in the Kremlin right now. That’s working on the assumption of course that Russian president Vladimir Putin is spending much time there currently.

If the latest reports from the Moscow Times are anything to go by, the Kremlin kingpin is believed to have cancelled all meetings with his military staff and allegedly retreated to the safety of his mansion in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

The bottom line is that things have not been going well for Putin of late with a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has shaken the Kremlin and seen many Russian soldiers voting with their feet in what some military analysts say has been a virtual rout in the north-eastern part of Ukraine.

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In tatters too are Putin’s plans to hold a series of referenda to let residents of the pro-Russian territories vote on becoming a part of Russia, a move anyway that was always just a way of fabricating support for Russia’s takeover after invading Ukraine. These polls were due to be held on November 4 – Russia’s Day of National Unity – to let people in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) regions vote on “joining Russia”.

Shelved too are similar plans to do the same with the occupied Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, and Kherson according to the Russian and English language independent news website Meduza.

The simple inescapable fact here is that Ukraine’s impressive military gains of late are impossible for Putin to cover up at home. Only a few days ago a group of St Petersburg local politicians called for Putin to be sacked over the war in Ukraine resulting in them now likely facing the dissolution of their district council following a judge’s ruling.

Such voices of protest are growing but still the greater risk for the Kremlin lies not so much in such protests themselves as it does in the danger of Putin (below) responding too harshly to them.

The National: Russia Putin

At every level though there are signs that cracks are beginning to appear in Putin’s rule, including even on state-run television broadcasts where several senior Russian commentators have lately begun to put their heads – albeit tentatively – above the parapet and do the near unthinkable by criticising how the war is being conducted.

That Putin and his cronies still insist on calling it a “special military operation” is a measure of how delusional they remain.

From popular usually loyalist social media bloggers to think-tankers and even politicians, uncomfortable questions about the defeat on the front lines in Ukraine are now being asked.

Commenting last Saturday on Russia’s rout, Alexei Chadayev, a political think-tanker loyal to the Kremlin, believes that the Russian army “as a whole, as a structure, in its current form – to put it mildly – has limited suitability for modern warfare.”

Quite clearly too the victories that the Ukrainian armed forces have secured in the past several days have placed those Russian smokescreen narratives about “liberating” the Donbas or “denazifying” Ukraine in serious jeopardy.

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This before the terrible irony also that since Russia’s invasion, Putin’s fascist autocracy behave more like Nazis every day to maintain such delusions among a Russian public who can now be in little doubt that the “special operation” is anything but special, instead rapidly becoming a military disaster.

The edifice of legitimacy is crumbling and even a dictator like Putin needs to be seen as legitimate by powerful and influential figures as well as ordinary people to continue ruling. The Kremlin is no place for the timid and while for now anger seems largely targeted at Russia’s senior military command, Putin will need to be wary of those who will turn on him in a heartbeat if the opportunity presents itself.

I mean you know things are bad when the likes of Ramzan Kadyrov (below), the authoritarian leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic, starts accusing Moscow’s military command of “mistakes” in the Kharkiv region.

The National: Ramzan Kadyrov

Not that Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters have anything to be proud of, for when they are not making fake TikTok videos to present themselves as war heroes they remain busy butchering ordinary Ukrainian civilians in some of the worst atrocities of the war.

So where does all this leave Putin now? Not to put too fine a point on it, his options are limited. The first thing he needs to do urgently is stabilise the military situation on the ground, not an easy task when presented with an army of which vast swathes are rapidly realising they are nothing more than cannon fodder.

Second, Putin needs to keep his domestic critics at bay but again he must do this without being over harsh for fear of making a bad situation worse.

Caught between the rock and hard place of either accepting a humiliating defeat in Ukraine or doubling down on the war, Putin will probably opt for the latter, seeking to buy time over the bitter winter months before perhaps ordering a general mobilisation in the spring again, another move that could backfire on him politically at home.

If one thing is certain, it’s that he will continue to try and drive wedges between Western allies of Ukraine most likely by focusing on his “second front”, using energy supplies and trying to freeze the EU this winter in the hope of halting the supply of weapons that sustain the Ukrainians. He might even resort to the threat of escalating the conflict to a nuclear level.

For its part, the West must not abandon Ukraine, especially at this crucial moment when the battlefield initiative has switched in Kyiv’s favour. With the boot on the Russian army’s neck right now, it’s best to keep it there.

Putin is a man cornered and as such remains dangerous. Make no mistake about it, he still has the capacity to hurt Ukraine and the West.

That said, you just can’t help getting the feeling that the rot in the Kremlin is setting in as Russia’s invasion begins to smack of one of the worst military blunders in modern times.