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Putin’s hold on Russia: the beginning of the end

The invasion of Ukraine has led many to reassess Putin’s decision making strategies. Once considered a highly rational player, the Russian leader now appears to possess a new outlook. This understanding of the world places culture and history above all.

May 24, 2022 - Joshua Kroeker - UkraineAtWar

A convoy with humanitarian aid crossing a destroyed bridge in Ukraine. Photo: Oleksii Synelnykov / Shutterstock

A few months ago, I wrote an article titled “Putin’s unlikely war with Ukraine”. In this piece, I argued that Russia would not start an assault on Ukraine. Unfortunately, and tragically, my predictions were incorrect. My article’s premises, however, continue to be of analytical value. Overall, it is clear that I did not consider Putin the person, Putin the leader, and his image of Russia in the world. I was naïve in not evaluating the Russian president in this way. Yet, it appears that Putin’s war with Ukraine, has begun to tear at the seams of Russian society. Outcry and pushback from Russian civil society is growing by the day. This could mean that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end for Putin’s autocratic hold on Russia. This article will reconsider the arguments I made in my previous piece as a means of showing that they continue to be relevant in wartime.

On February 24th, the Russian military invaded Ukrainian territory in a massive breach of the post-Cold War international order. Russian missiles started to rain down over Ukraine within the first hours of this conflict. The resulting damage and loss of life are nearly impossible to assess at this time. Over the last months, Russian soldiers have pushed across Ukraine’s borders into the country, creating battlefields out of the cities of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Kherson and Mykolaiv. Both Ukrainian and Russian casualties are increasing by the hour, whilst the Ukrainian military is attempts to hold back the Russian invaders. Little can be said about each side’s exact gains and losses or goals and results. Only one thing is absolutely sure: the loss of life has been devastating for all.

Russia, I argued, was looking to upset the status quo. Since 2014, there has been an impasse in both the Ukrainian conflict and relations between Russia and the West. The Minsk Protocol has all but failed and the East-West political dichotomy has been worsening by the day. With the European Union and the United States on the one side and Russia on the other, walls were being built up by ineffective sanctions and apathetic rhetoric that prevent both dialogue and cooperation. The Kremlin was, I noted, tired of waiting for the West to take it seriously and make concessions. Russia wanted its interests recognised and respected.

Erroneously, I argued that a war between Russia and Ukraine, let alone a war between Russia and the United States or European Union, was not a realistic prospect. My reasoning for this was that it would be costly, detrimental to all parties involved and outright dangerous. It would, I thought, challenge the very norms of international stability that emerged following the Second World War. My mistake, however, was to believe that the men in the Kremlin and Putin himself were looking for logical arguments and solutions. The reality is much different. Putin is looking for greatness, to rewrite history, and to finally claim his place at the centre of the world stage.

It is much too early to make predictions as to what may happen and how this conflict will end. Yet with enough pressure, both internally and internationally, Putin’s regime will begin to show cracks that have not been seen before. In fact, these cracks were already clear during the first days of the war. These are being caused by the exact arguments I made in my previous analysis.

Nothing to gain, everything to lose

First of all, the Kremlin has nothing to gain from a war with Ukraine (or the West). Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle have been seeking concessions from the West for the past eight years, such as an end to the eastward expansion of NATO and guarantees regarding Moscow’s supposed sphere of influence. The Kremlin is also looking for affirmation that Crimea is and will remain part of Russia, as well as a general end to hostilities with Ukraine. Putin has always wanted to be taken seriously and have his issues heard. With this war, Putin has thrown away any prospect of a diplomatic solution. Few western nations will ever consider making grand concessions. Russia has become an international pariah.

The war with Ukraine has already seen Russia face international isolation. The country is facing massive sanctions from the West, including a withdrawal from SWIFT, the end of technological imports, an EU moratorium on its central bank, and a complete ban from European airspace. With Russia’s already stagnating economy, hit hard by the effects of COVID-19 and volatile oil prices, the country’s market is facing an inevitable collapse. The launch of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and the EU, which was intended to double the amount of gas sold to the bloc, has been suspended, if not cancelled. Those were funds that the Kremlin was counting on to improve Russia’s economy over the next few years. Import substitution may have created new production facilities in Russia since the implementation of sanctions in 2014. However, it will take decades to replace the country’s largest trading partner, the European Union, and develop new parts of the economy that will support a state cut off from the world.

The war with Ukraine has caused the terrifying prospect that the West or NATO could get involved. This would effectively trigger a world war. It may remain a regional conflict between two Eastern European states but it may boil over into something much worse. In this case, it is not only Putin that has lost, but everyone. The massive and crippling sanctions regime that Russia is currently facing is one that it simply cannot afford. Putin has forfeited his strong bargaining position that he has carefully constructed over the past eight years. NATO and the West have already begun to push harder on Russia’s borders, sending new troops and weapons to NATO members on the country’s western flank. As it currently stands, none of Putin’s strategic interests have any chance of being secured following the invasion of Ukraine.  

Ultimately, however, Russia’s interests in Ukraine are not what one may expect. They are far more cultural and linguistic than material. Overall, they are historical in nature. The Kremlin is focused on the Ukrainian nation, an East Slavic people that it views as part of a greater Russia. It is not interested in raw materials, oil or commodities. The Kremlin is very much aware of the fact that the Ukrainian people are of monumental importance to its relations with both Kyiv and the West. Putin desires to have Ukraine return to the Soviet era, when it was controlled by Moscow. He wants to bring these Slavic peoples together, to create some sort of “Great Russia”. However, the ongoing all out armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia means that Putin has now lost the country. The Ukrainians and the world have never been more against him than they are now. If Putin “wins” Ukraine, he will have lost the Ukrainians.  

Trouble at home

Secondly, the Kremlin has everything to lose in a war with Ukraine. Moscow has been faced with unprecedented internal challenges over the past few years. Socio-economic stability, for which Putin is so highly regarded, has recently begun to evaporate. COVID-19, economic stagnation and the rise of dissent and political opposition such as Alexei Navalny (a popular figure among the middle class and Russia’s youth), are all upsetting the balance of power within the Kremlin. It seems that the balance is already beginning to tip. Dissent and the opposition have been loud and have been growing in strength over the past few days. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets, whilst Putin’s regime has had to undertake draconian measures – threats, arrests, closure of streets and parks – to suppress the voices of the opposition. The Kremlin’s lines have already been broken. Natalia Poklonskaya, for example, a former member of the Russia Duma (parliament) has spoken out against the war. Additionally, the head of the Russian delegation to the UN Climate Assembly apologised for his country’s invasion of Russia. Politicians will continue to pull away from the president as the war continues.

Russia’s totalitarian nature has become more obvious than ever before. For example, the government has banned Russian media from using the word “war” in any publication. At the same time, western social media such as Facebook and Instagram is currently being shut down and members of the opposition are being arrested on the streets and in their homes. Yet, the opposition has started to grow. Some of Russia’s greatest media personalities (singers, artists, talk show hosts, etc.) have spoken out against the war. On Instagram, Russians are posting that this is Putin’s war alone. Theatres and cultural institutions have spoken out against the war, refusing to work with any Russians who support Putin or the conflict. Russian society is rapidly dividing into two camps. This is something quite unprecedented in modern Russia.

It is likely that Russia will impose martial law in the coming days, giving Putin a free hand to do whatever he wants in the country. But the repression has already begun. On March 4th, police stormed the offices of Memorial, a Russian human rights organisation. Lawyers were not allowed to enter the building. Memorial has been dealing with the Stalinist repressions in the Soviet Union for more than 30 years and stands for historical clarification. Putin’s system is already taking every possible step to silence any account of history other than its own. Developments in Russia in recent days illustrate the unimaginable consequences this war will have on Russian society.

I argued that waging war is not a hobby but rather a full time job for the Russian leadership and the Kremlin. They will be concentrated on issues abroad and therefore distracted from domestic politics. This would provide a long-awaited opportunity for the opposition to act. The Kremlin is very aware of this fact. Nevertheless, it may very well come to pass that Russians threaten Putin’s hold on power in the country. The war is already very unpopular and Russians want it to end. With the army fighting in the south and Ukraine putting up much more resistance than the Kremlin expected, this is the time to act.

The war with Ukraine has already begun to deepen an already apparent division within Russian society. For Russian nationalists, including those found in the Kremlin and Duma (Russian parliament), the war with Ukraine is quite popular. These are the same people who supported the annexation of Crimea, as well as the “independence” of the eastern Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. Whilst nationalism is on the rise in Russia, the war with Ukraine is  immensely unpopular among wider society. Radical nationalism and pro-European movements are now pitted against each other, polarising Russian society even further. Nearly every Russian has a friend, cousin, grandparent or loved one in Ukraine. These people are not “the enemy”. Russians have taken to social media and the streets to prove this to the world. The Kremlin is having a very difficult time framing Ukrainians as a threat to the country. Claims that the Ukrainian government is a fascist junta abusing and robbing its population are already losing their effectiveness. Images of atrocities have begun to make it into the media in spite of the Kremlin’s attempts to shut down Telegram channels and social media. Many Russians refuse to support these actions and some that did offer initial support have already pulled away from the Kremlin.

Segments of the population are now increasingly moving away from the Kremlin’s line, as information such as the war’s body count and numerous photos come to light. It is far too early to tell if Ukraine could become the next Afghanistan, a highly unpopular war that cost the lives of thousands and resulted in great disarray within Soviet society. If it should, however, society will distance itself even further from the Kremlin. For the Russian people, the war is proving to be pointless and shameful. Without the support of large segments of society, Putin will very quickly lose his popularity. “Winning” in Ukraine will not outweigh the loss of losing the West. In fact, it may unravel all that Putin has achieved in the past two decades.

Old crisis, new tactics

In my previous analysis, I argued that the most plausible reason for a continued status quo in Ukraine is the fact that nothing has recently changed in Russia’s tactics. Here, I was undoubtedly incorrect. This may not be the first time that Russia has amassed soldiers on Ukraine’s border but it is the first time that Russia has undertaken an all out war against the country. For years, it was the Kremlin’s strategy to have the West believe that it will go as far as starting a war with Ukraine. It was hoped that the West would then make concessions that would prevent such a conflict. This, however, is a major policy change on the part of Russia. Russian interests, it appears, are focused on taking Ukraine at all costs. Putin still hopes that his war will show the world both his greatness and readiness to stand up against it all in order to achieve a new world order. Putin aims to show the world that he needs to be taken seriously. He will do anything and everything to achieve this goal.

Putin no longer sees Russia as part of the global order for which Europeans fought for generations. He sees Russia as a country of greatness and is willing to do anything to prove that this is true. Ukrainian democracy and its pivot to the West is, for him, threatening on a personal level. It threatens his image of a new Russia, for which he has rewritten history, undermined all democratic standards and rejected the entire western world. It is Putin’s ideal, his Weltbild, which has brought us here today. Any analysis that fails to consider this, such as my recent piece, makes the great mistake of misunderstanding Russia and its actions.

The world currently finds itself in an international crisis. War has returned to Europe. For Putin and the Kremlin, the war with Ukraine will bring them nothing, whilst it may ultimately cost them everything. It is far too early to predict how the conflict will end. Unfortunately, for the world and for democracy, Putin may very well win in Ukraine. However, he will never win the hearts of Ukrainians, and he may very well lose Russia in the process.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics.

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