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Will Putin lose Russia?

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His grip on power rests on fantasy and fear

ANDREI KOLESNIKOV

ON February 25, barely a day after Russian tanks, troops, and planes began a full-scale assault on Ukraine, the Kremlin restricted access to Facebook.

The following morning, Twitter was disabled for most Russian users. At the same time, in the Russian media itself, barely a mention of “invasion,” “attack,” or “war” can be found: all of these words have been forbidden, in what amounts to a sweeping attempt to create an alternate reality for the Russian public. 

The Prosecutor-General’s Office has also enforced a ban on the websites of the most popular independent media outlets, Echo Moskvy radio and TV Rain, for distributing “untrue information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the killing of Ukrainian civilians.” On 2 March, Echo Moskvy was taken off the air. 

As the Russian government has relentlessly framed it, Russian forces are merely engaged in a “special military operation” to defend the people of the Donbas region and to “denazify and demilitarise Ukraine.”

Russians need to understand, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov puts it, that their government is seeking to “liberate Ukrainians from oppression”—even if that means liberating them from the ability to freely determine their future, and killing many of them along the way. All state media and press secretaries repeat the same mantra, literally repeating Putin: “drug addicts and neo-Nazis” are in power in Ukraine; the battle is not with Ukrainians but with those who “seized power.” When news broke about Sweden and Finland possibly joining Nato, someone joked on social media that now Nato must decide who among them is a neo-Nazi and who is a drug addict.

As Putin’s military becomes increasingly bogged down in a long, violent war that has turned the world overwhelmingly against him, many Russians have yet to understand the full consequences of what has happened. A kind of martial law has been imposed on the Russian elite. And the broader public is being fed a story that looks increasingly like a fable from the dark days of the Soviet Union.

After all, liberating people from their legitimately elected governments is an old Stalinist technique that was rolled out in 1939, when the Soviets entered Finland to liberate Finnish people from their bad leaders and install a puppet government. (The results of that war also have a familiar echo today: it was assumed that the war would be quick and easy and that the Finnish working class would greet the Red Army as liberators. Instead, the Finnish working class took up arms to defend their homeland.)

In the case of Ukraine, the Kremlin has been able to tightly control the information available to Russians. Until now, ordinary people have been silent. But it is much harder to keep reality at bay in the twenty-first century—and with a collapsed currency, growing international isolation, and now, as the Kremlin has admitted, hundreds of actual Russian casualties, it will be difficult for the government to keep telling its story.

Although there is as yet no widespread panic, people have been racing to convert their increasingly worthless rubles into hard currency and to buy durable goods. And there have been surprising pockets of resistance in Moscow and other cities. The question now facing the Russian government is how will the Russian population at large perceive the war if it is long and bloody and the army needs even more cannon fodder.

Stuck on the submarine

In Putin’s Russia, even amid a disastrous war, the elites are overwhelmingly dependent on the government. In Russian, there is a proverb for this situation: “Where do we go from the submarine?” For anyone with wealth and power—in a Russia in which it is often impossible to distinguish a high official from an oligarch—the country is now surrounded by deep water and no one can leave the boat.

The problem is that the elites, too, are now under sanctions, and there is nowhere for them to go, especially now that travel and banking in the West have been cut off. On 1 March, Putin issued a decree forbidding anyone from taking foreign currency worth more than US$10 000 out of the country, effectively preventing Russians from trying to get their assets out. It may be increasingly difficult to survive without being tied to Putin. The elites have to go all the way with him in Ukraine—or go to jail, since the government has a dossier on them. They are doomed to stay on this submarine until the end.

Even those at the very top are trapped. It was already clear on 21 February, when Putin held a televised security council meeting in which he announced that he would formally recognize the republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. At the time, the full-scale operation to liberate Ukraine had not been launched. But the event was clearly designed as a public humiliation of several members of Putin’s team. Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence, was rudely corrected by Putin when he mistakenly said that he supported the incorporation of Donetsk and Lugansk into Russia, rather than their recognition.

Dmitry Kozak, the special envoy for the Minsk agreement, asked Putin if the president wanted an answer right now to the question of whether the DNR and LNR should be annexed to Russia; Putin irritably asked him not to hurry, showing him who was boss and who was deviating from the script. They had not learned their lesson. In the meeting, Putin presented to the public his Politburo, which now sat at a great distance from him on the other side of the huge room; it looked like a physical demonstration of Putin’s growing isolation. They sat and listened and mechanically approved every word. Now they will be accountable for events, and they, too, will share the responsibility for the blood of ordinary Ukrainians and Russian military men.

The pattern has not been limited to Putin’s security council. It is increasingly clear that the entire Russian elite is now joined in this war, and that they will bear responsibility alongside their leader. Consider the country’s business leaders, whose well-being depends on the state: their advantageous market position has almost always depended on government connections and contracts. Financial capital requires political power, and vice-versa. Because of the sanctions, they will be even more dependent on the state. And they are tied to Putin. Otherwise, it’s bankruptcy or prison.

For the moment, unprecedented financial pressure from the West and the feeling that there is no place to go from the submarine have turned the Politburo and the rest of the oligarchy and political class into hard-line Putin supporters. They seem prepared—or feel forced—to follow wherever he leads, and their rhetoric is becoming more and more shrill and absurd. Many, like parliamentary speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, have been repeating the claim that Kyiv authorities had been killing civilians, women, and children in Donbas for the previous eight years. But Russia’s elites are not the only problem.

Coming just two days after the invasion began, the surprisingly tough U.S. and European sanctions will cause far-reaching trouble of their own. The decision to suspend major Russian banks from SWIFT transactions and to enact blocking sanctions on Russia’s central bank will hit ordinary Russians even more than the fat cats in power. If the West restricts visas for Russian citizens—especially young people and students—it will isolate them from the Western world.

And this is exactly what Putin wants, to leave Russians hostage to his rule. He needs to isolate Russians from the world, the way he is isolated, so that they, too, cannot escape from his submarine. It will also be more difficult for Putin’s domestic enemies to escape persecution if they are trapped in Russia. Even pro-Western Russians can sense that they now belong to a rogue nation, although the vast majority of them are not responsible for Putin starting this war.

Theatre of the absurd

One week into Russia’s merciless assault on Ukraine, Russian propaganda continues to insist on several narratives. First, the Kremlin maintains that what is happening is not war but a “special military operation” in the Donbas. Second, it asserts that for eight years the Ukrainian authorities have bullied the people of the Luhansk and Donetsk republics, and that Russians have come to protect them. Finally, Putin claims that Kyiv was seized in a coup supported by the West, and that the Russian army is fighting not ordinary Ukrainians, who want to be united with Russia, but extreme Ukrainian nationalists, who are descendants of those who helped the Nazis during World War II. As for the destruction of Ukrainian cities? It is the neo-Nazis who are to blame, because they are entrenched in residential areas and are using ordinary Ukrainians as human shields.

In Putin’s Russia, the more absurd the arguments the better they seem to work. Such is the tension and desire of the population not to believe that it is Russia and the Russian army bringing death and destruction on Ukraine that Russians are willing to accept the Kremlin’s strained claims.

If recent poll numbers are any indication, Putin began this war not only with a stockpile of oil money but also with a large reserve of support from ordinary Russians. Though it has been little noted in the West, from the beginning of Putin’s anti-Ukrainian and anti-NATO campaign last fall up until his invasion last week, his approval rating among the Russian public slowly but steadily increased, from 63% in November to 71% in February—one of his highest ratings in recent years. The latest poll was conducted by the independent Levada Centre just days before the invasion began.

Until now, the war has been supported, or at least not actively opposed, by the many Russians who believe Putin’s justifications for it—and they probably represent a similar majority to those who approve of the president. 

If Putin somehow finds a way to keep the war short and to come out successful—though it is difficult to know how to define success at this point—public support may endure for some time. But if, as now seems increasingly likely, the war turns out to be long, bloody, and destructive, even Russians who are cut off from reliable information may begin to wonder about the effectiveness of the special military operation in the Donbas.

Not to mention the possibly devastating consequences of the ruble having slid to less than one cent on the dollar. And without international inputs and money flows, the country is unlikely to be able to use import substitution—ramping up its domestic production—to compensate for lost trade. Of course, the West will again be blamed, and many will continue to support the government in doing so.

It’s not yet possible to measure the breadth of Russian discontent with the invasion. It is true, as the Western media have been quick to pick up on, that there have been many petitions against the war from various constituencies. It is also true that several thousand people—in multiple parts of Russia but especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg—have taken to the streets to protest the war despite the risk of immediate arrest. And it is true that some prominent celebrities, without naming Putin, have spoken out against the war. But this is not yet an antiwar movement. So far, there are few signs that ordinary Russians are taking part. They may not like the war but they are keeping their heads down.

Losing Ukraine

What are Putin’s goals? Russians cannot help but wonder about the irrationality of his behavior and the weak rationale he has offered for the invasion. Of course, he does not see Ukraine as an independent state. It is merely a Russian protectorate, part of the historic Russian sphere of influence—“historical Russia,” in Putin’s words.

But if he does try to take control of Kyiv, he will be guaranteed to have turned against him a population that did not like the Russian government to begin with, and who now will be contending with large numbers of victims, countrywide destruction, and the shock of war. Ukrainians will resist the Russian occupation with everything they have, and they will never accept staged elections to put in power a pro-Moscow president.

If Putin takes Ukraine, he will lose Ukraine. More accurately, he has already lost it. Meanwhile, he has made Russia and the Russian public nearly as isolated as he is. Will he now lose Russia, too, as a result of this war, or will he bring it down with him?

During the initial phase of Putin’s campaign, his army has been unable to break Ukraine’s resistance. This was unexpected—the war was supposed to be short. Putin is irritated and has already made threats about nuclear weapons. Perhaps this has frightened some of the Russian elites, but they are not showing it.

It is possible that at least some prominent figures in Russia will demand real negotiations with the Ukrainians: is no coincidence that the authorities want to involve the oligarch Roman Abramovich in a possible negotiating process.

But the important issue will be time. For now, public opinion remains sanguine and few cracks in the façade have emerged. But that may change as the isolated Russian economy begins to fall apart before our eyes, along with wages, jobs, and access to essential goods and medicines. A month or two into the war, things may look quite different.–Foreign Affairs.

About the writer: Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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