KYIV – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin marked his 70th birthday on Friday with little fanfare, amid further signs that key parts of his invasion of Ukraine were unravelling and triggering unprecedented criticism at home.
News programmes made only glancing references to the birthday and public events were low key – in contrast to just a week ago when Putin held a huge concert on Red Square to proclaim the annexation of nearly a fifth of Ukrainian land.
On the world stage, in a clear repudiation of Putin’s record, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Russia’s most prominent human rights group, Memorial, which Moscow shut down at the end of 2021.
A Ukrainian human rights group and a jailed campaigner against abuses by the pro-Russian government in Belarus also shared the award.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, launched on Feb 24, has killed thousands, displaced millions, pulverised cities and damaged the global economy.
But Moscow has faced a series of setbacks since abandoning an early advance on the capital Kyiv. Ukrainian forces have advanced swiftly since breaking through the Russian front in the north-east at the start of September, and in the south this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address his forces had liberated 2,434 sq km and 96 settlements in the east of the country in their latest offensive.
Reuters could not confirm the figures independently.
Reports of Russia’s failures on the battlefield have brought unusual public recrimination from Kremlin allies and regular reshuffles in the top brass.
Russian news site RBC said on Friday that Moscow had sacked the commander of its Eastern Military District. It did not give details on reasons and there was no immediate comment from the army or the Kremlin.
A day earlier, one Russian-installed leader in occupied Ukrainian territory went as far as suggesting Putin’s defence minister should have shot himself.
Late on Thursday, US President Joe Biden said the prospect of defeat could make Putin desperate enough to use nuclear weapons, the biggest risk since the Cold War Cuban Missile Crisis.
“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” Biden said in New York.
The White House said it had no new intelligence on Russia’s nuclear threats, and that Biden’s comments were meant to underline how seriously he took the situation.
On Friday, Ukraine authorities accused Russia of launching drone attacks on the southern city of Zaporizhzhia – in territory which Russia says it has annexed. Police said the death toll from a missile attack on an apartment block in the city on Thursday had risen to 11.
The Nobel Peace Prize for Memorial, the rights group shut down in Russia as illegal “foreign agents” last December, was the most open rebuke of Moscow’s record by the prize committee since it honoured Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in 1975.
Sakharov had been named Memorial’s first chairman shortly before his death in 1989.
Memorial shared the award with jailed Belarusian activist Ales Byalyatski and Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties.
Committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen denied the decision was a statement against Putin.
“We always give the prize for something and to something, and not against someone,” she told reporters.
The Russian group, now operating in exile, said the award recognised its colleagues who continue to suffer “unspeakable attacks and reprisals” in Russia.
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council passed a motion to appoint an independent expert on human rights abuse allegations in Russia, accusing Moscow of creating a “climate of fear” through repression and violence.
It was the first time the body had set up a “special rapporteur” to examine the record of one of a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council. Russia said it showed the West was using the United Nations for political ends.
Putin was shown on state television meeting leaders of other ex-Soviet allies at an informal summit in St Petersburg on Friday, but commentators mentioned his birthday only in passing.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a vocal supporter of the war, led birthday tributes for Putin with a prayer for God to “grant him health and longevity, and deliver him from all the resistances of visible and invisible enemies”.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, a once-breakaway region Putin reconquered two decades ago, congratulated “one of the most influential and outstanding personalities of our time, the number one patriot in the world”.
Public observation of the birthday was otherwise muted. A video circulated on pro-Russian social media channels showing a crowd of a few hundred youths in central St Petersburg waving Russian flags, and holding up red umbrellas to spell out “Putin – My President”.
By late afternoon such images had not appeared on Russia’s major broadcasters.
Putin says Russia is carrying out a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and defend Moscow from transatlantic alliance Nato.
Kyiv and the West call Russia’s actions an unprovoked, imperialist move to reconquer a country that shook off Russian domination with the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. REUTERS