Arms production up, a key battlefield gain in Ukraine and the death of his most feared critic. The last few days have been good for Vladimir Putin writes our Foreign Editor, and some in the West are getting worried

An “undercurrent of disaffection”. These were the words used by US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns to describe what Russian president Vladimir Putin currently faces.

Writing in an essay published in the journal Foreign Affairs last month, Burns spelled out his assessment of how Russia’s war against Ukraine has eroded Putin’s grip on power and hollowed out the Russian military.

“Disaffection with the war is continuing to gnaw away at the Russian leadership and the Russian people, beneath the thick surface of state propaganda and repression,” insisted Burns.

“That undercurrent of disaffection is creating a once-in-a-generation recruiting opportunity for the CIA. “We’re not letting it go to waste,” the American spy chief went on to assert.

It’s probably safe to assume that Burns’s confident assessment is based on the sort of things that only the CIA are party to and we lesser mortals know little about.

But it’s still perhaps worth remembering that it would not be the first time that the CIA has misread or miscalculated on a situation.

The 1961 Bay of Pigs CIA-planned effort by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime comes to mind, as does the 1968 Tet offensive when North Vietnam’s communist forces stunned the US by launching a massive, co-ordinated assault against South Vietnam.

Conventional wisdom, too, holds that the US intelligence community failed to predict the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. On that occasion it proved that it’s one thing for intelligence gatherers to count missiles, tanks, and weapons production, but reading the underlying political and social dynamics in a society is altogether more tricky.

Which brings us back to Russia and the current strengths or weaknesses of Putin’s regime.

With barely a month to go before Russia’s presidential election, Putin, despite the CIA chief’s assessment, has much to be pleased about.

In the past days alone he has made mischief in the US election with his comments about preferring a Joe Biden presidency to a Donald Trump one, courtesy of a TV “interview” with US conservative commentator Tucker Carlson.

Then there is the news that Russia has presided over a massive ramping up of industrial production over the last two years, outstripping what many Western defence planners expected when Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russian factories producing tanks, shells and other weapons are running around the clock, while the US and its Western allies dither over resupply to the Ukrainian military.


NATO Deputy Secretary General, Mircea Geoana, chairs a session of North Atlantic Council (NAC) with Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, on February 1, 2024. (Photo by Elvis BARUKCIC / AFP) (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty

NATO Deputy Secretary General, Mircea Geoana, chairs a session of North Atlantic Council (NAC) with Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, on February 1, 2024. (Photo by Elvis BARUKCIC / AFP)


Ukraine withdrawal

in Ukraine itself, Putin will take succour from the latest battlefield news yesterday that Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from the devastated eastern town of Avdiivka, paving the way for Russia’s biggest advance since May 2023 when it captured the city of Bakhmut.

And last but far from least, Putin is now free from the domestic critic he perhaps feared most after the shocking news on Friday of the death in prison of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, which doubtless could not have come at a better time for the Kremlin as Putin stands for re-election.

The precise circumstances of Navalny’s death will be known only in the fullness of time.

As always, for now, it is the Kremlin’s account that the world will have to go on while recognising that he joins a long list of Kremlin opponents who died before their time.

According to the authorities at the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Navalny died of a blood clot. Whether true or not, Navalny had already been subjected to a brutal regime of forced labour and solitary confinement.

Whether Navalny’s death was ordered or not, he was certainly expected to die in prison. But even behind bars the dissident leader posed a threat to Putin, having identified the two foundations on which Putin has established his power: fear and greed.

While many Russians viewed Navalny with apathy, he still manged to build a national movement based on exposing the rampant corruption and gangsterism of Putin’s system.

On Friday, despite the repression that Navalny highlighted and that every day intensifies, Russians came on to the streets on news of his death. Before the police started to arrest them, they covered memorials for previous victims of political repression in flowers.

But such outpourings will mean little to Putin for whom Navalny’s death could not have come at a better moment, according to many analysts. Among them is Maxim Alyukov, a political sociologist at King’s College London and a specialist on Russia. Speaking to Business Insider, the online news outlet, Alyukov said that Navalny’s death was consistent with a “political killing” and with only a month before the presidential election, it could serve as a stark warning to others who might try to defy him.

Navalny’s death would help “crush any potential dissent”, Alyukov said. “Given Putin’s record of physically eliminating opponents, including the poisoning of Navalny himself, it would not be a surprise at all,” he concluded.

With another opposition voice silenced, Putin’s wave of repression will continue to take its toll. Ever since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the number of prisoners being swallowed up by the remnants of Stalin’s gulag has increased 15 times.


AVDIIVKA, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 15: A general view of the citys destroyed buildings on February 15, 2024 in Avdiivka district, Ukraine. The Russian army is advancing on the flanks of the city, firing non-stop artillery, shelling the city with guided

A general view of the city's destroyed buildings on February 15, 2024 in Avdiivka district, Ukraine. The Russian army is advancing on the flanks of the city, firing non-stop artillery and shelling the city


Presidential purge

IN the lead-up to Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin set about eviscerating Russian civil society and free media, including Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

This crackdown, in effect, disbanded or neutralised any organisations or popular figures that the Russian people could rally around in opposition to the war in Ukraine. Since the start of the war there, 1,305 men and women have been prosecuted for speaking out against it.

Every week produces fresh cases. Last December, Viktor Pivovarov, an 86-year-old dissenting Orthodox prelate, was charged with discrediting the armed forces. A month earlier, Aleksandra Skochilenko, a St Petersburg artist, was jailed for seven years for protesting against the war in Ukraine.

Some argue that the West’s best response to Putin’s repression is to arm Ukraine and that every time the US congress votes down aid or European countries prevaricate over supplying weapons to Kyiv, you can almost hear the clink of champagne glasses in the Kremlin.

It’s precisely this issue of weapons supply that will be on the minds of many among the estimated 60 heads of state and over 85 government officials meeting this weekend at the Munich Security Conference.

Among the top-level delegates due to speak is Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He will certainly double down on his campaign for extra military and financial support as Russia’s full-scale offensive enters its third year.

His speech comes, too, against the backdrop of Ukraine’s forces pulling back from the embattled town of Avdiivka, where a severe shortage of shells and other weapons have been cited as the reason for Ukraine’s withdrawal.

As Zelenskyy is forced once again to go cap in hand in pursuit of Western military support, Russia, meanwhile, is now directing a third of the country’s budget – Rbs9.6tn in 2023 and Rbs14.3tn in 2024 – towards the war effort, a threefold increase from 2021, the last full year before the invasion.

Back in September, when Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov announced Moscow’s enormous military spending to the country’s politicians, he used a Soviet slogan from the Second World War to describe the Kremlin’s approach to the budget. “Everything for the front, everything for victory,” Siluanov said.

According to the European Defence Review (EDR), many Russians now work triple shifts, six days a week, in factories. The extent to which this has impacted the prosecution of its war in Ukraine has become alarmingly clear to Western officials.

For example, over 500 missiles and drones were launched at Ukraine in five days at the end of 2023, according to Zelenskyy. Meanwhile, at the frontline, Russia has increased its expenditure of artillery ammunition to around 10,000 rounds per day, while over 3,700 armoured vehicles were delivered in 2023.

“Russia has significantly mobilised its defence industry, increasing shifts and expanding production lines at existing facilities as well as bringing previously mothballed plants back online,” concluded Dr Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank in London.


MUNICH, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 17: President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaks during the 2024 Munich Security Conference on February 17, 2024 in Munich, Germany. The conference is bringing together political and defence leaders from all over the

President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaks during the 2024 Munich Security Conference on February 17, 2024 



Another RUSI analyst and expert on Russia’s military, Richard Connolly, in what he has dubbed a “Kalashnikov economy”, added that while Russia’s production capacity was “quite unsophisticated” it was “durable, built for large-scale use and for use in conflicts”.

Russia has also turned to nations like Iran and North Korea, which operate outside the international economic system, for supplies.

Last Thursday, just to underscore Russia’s uptick in defence output, Putin visited Uralvagonzavod, the country’s largest producer of main battle tanks, where workers boasted that it had been among the first to establish round-the-clock production. While there, the Russian leader promised funding to help train an additional 1,500 qualified employees for the plant.

Earlier this month, Putin claimed that 520,000 new jobs had been created in the military-industrial complex, which now employs an estimated 3.5 million Russians, or 2.5% of the population. According to a Moscow Times analysis of Russian labour data in November, machinists and welders in Russian factories producing war equipment are now making more money than many white-collar managers and lawyers.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine drags into its third year, the massive Russian investment in the military, which has risen to an estimated 7.5% of Russia’s GDP, is the biggest share since the Soviet Union.

Again, last Friday, while addressing a crowd of activists in Tula, the capital of Russia’s arms industry, Putin also boasted that the country’s economy had defeated Western sanctions imposed after his invasion of Ukraine. “They predicted decline, failure, collapse – that we would stand back, give up, or fall apart. It makes you want to show [them] a well-known gesture, but I won’t do that, there are a lot of ladies here,” Putin said to a round of applause. “They won’t succeed. Our economy is growing, unlike theirs.”

As the Financial Times reported, Putin gloated that Russia’s economy had not only withstood an onslaught of sanctions from Western countries – but was now bigger than all but two of them.

He was referring to the World Bank’s ranking of GDP by purchasing power parity, by which Russia slightly edges ahead of Germany.

“All of our industry did their part,” he said.

Not surprisingly, all this growth in weapons output and the resilience of Russia’s economy despite sanctions has Western military officials worried as it begins to pay dividends for Moscow on the battlefield.

Shell shortage

THE West’s Ukrainian allies, meanwhile, point especially to the artillery war and their shortage of shells compared to Russia’s domestic manufacture, which experts put at 2.5 million to five million units a year.

At a time when Ukraine is struggling to secure funding and resupply from the US and Europe, the big fear is that come the spring as the weather improves, Russian forces will be able to capitalise on such resources and make battlefield gains like that in Avdiivka these past days.

Increasingly, both military analysts and senior Nato officials alike are ringing alarm bells over growing Russian capacity.

“The Russian theory of victory is plausible if Ukraine’s international partners fail to properly resource the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), observed RUSI’s Dr Jack Watling recently.

Meanwhile, Mircea Geoana, Nato deputy secretary general, has warned that the problem is not just one of finance but military industrial capacity and how since the end of the Cold War, Europe has become complacent that peace would last.

Such an assessment stands in marked contrast to that delivered recently by CIA director William Burns who assured that an “undercurrent of disaffection … continues to gnaw away at the Russian leadership”.

Burns’s evaluation could well be right and no doubt that there is much disgruntlement in Russian society right now.

But from Vladimir Putin’s perspective, it appears less of a worry for the moment. The last few weeks have been “good” for him and some in the West are getting decidedly nervous.