Who is responsible for Russia's failures in Ukraine?
After weeks of battlefield setbacks, criticism of Moscow's military leadership has burst into the open - heightening the sense of domestic discontent and posing a rare challenge to the Kremlin.
A growing chorus of voices across state media expressed dismay at the war's lack of progress in recent days and nationalist figures have raised the pressure after breakthroughs by Kyiv's forces in the south and east. The search for a scapegoat seems to have settled on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a close associate of the man who unilaterally launched the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
No one has yet to point the finger at Putin himself, but there have been growing stabs at his defence ministry and the longtime ally who heads it, putting pressure on the Russian leader to make a decisive change before it is too late to turn things around on the battlefield.
Mark Galeotti, who leads the Russia-focused consultancy Mayak Intelligence, told NBC News that Shoigu's job is to be Putin's bulletproof vest. His main value is that he soaks up the criticism that would inevitably lead to Putin s way. In an astonishing public tirade, a deputy head of the Russian-installed regional administration sounded Moscow's talentless military leaders as he spoke about Russia's retreat in the crucial southern region of Kherson. Many people say if they were the minister of defense who allowed things to reach this state of affairs, they would shoot themselves, Kirill Stremousov said in a video posted on the Telegram messaging app, without mentioning Shoigu by name.
One of Russia's chief propagandists, Vladimir Solovyev, who has been staunchly pro-war but has recently acknowledged Russia's military struggles and warned his audience not to expect good news for a while, he also unleashed fury at Shoigu on Thursday, without naming him.
He suggested that a transfer to another job could be a way to remedy the defense ministry's failures.
In 2012, Shoigu, 67, had served as minister of emergency situations, often dispatched to deal with natural disasters and security emergencies, earning public approval.
While not a career soldier, he is one of Putin's closest allies and has a reputation as the Russian leader's loyal adjutant. He has been pictured alongside the Russian president on hunting and fishing trips to Siberia, showcasing the closeness of their friendship.
He has kept a low profile since Putin invaded Ukraine, largely out of the public eye and prompted rumors of a fallout between the two.
As Russian forces plunge further into retreat in Ukraine, Shoigu's leadership and ministry are being criticized for downplaying the situation on the front lines.
The chair of the Russian parliament's defense committee, Andrey Kartapolov, said this week that it was time to stop lying and accusing the ministry of covering up bad news from Ukraine.
The ministry has been in the spotlight for how it handled Putin's partial mobilization, with widespread reports that those who are not fit for service are being called up and newly enlisted soldiers are facing inadequate conditions, training and equipment.
Such public rebukes of the country's leadership are extremely rare in Putin's Russia, where dissent is not allowed, especially against those aligned with the Kremlin.
There are signs that some of the criticism may boil down to tensions within Russia's ruling elite.