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

Writing in an essay published in the Foreign Affairs journal last month, Burns spelt 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 a situation.

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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 television “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.

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.

Meanwhile, 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 last 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 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 managed to build a ­national movement based on exposing the rampant corruption and gangsterism of Putin’s system.

Last Friday – despite the repression that Navalny highlighted and that every day ­intensifies – Russians came onto the streets at 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. He added: “Given Putin’s record of physically eliminating opponents, including the poisoning of ­Navalny himself, it would not be a ­surprise at all.”

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.

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, 1305 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 also comes 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 – 9.6 trillion rubles in 2023 and 14.3tn rubles 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, more than 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, and more than 3700 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.

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 1500 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 3.5m ­Russians – 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.

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 2.5m to 5m 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 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 the CIA director, who assured that an “undercurrent of disaffection … ­continues to gnaw away at the Russian leadership”.

William Burns’s evaluation could well be right and no doubt there is much ­disgruntlement in Russian society right now. But from Vladimir Putin’s perspective, it appears less of a worry at the moment.

The last few weeks have been “good” for him – and some in the West are getting decidedly nervous.