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Russia’s war against its own future

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One year on from its invasion of Ukraine, how has the conflict affected Russia's view of its leaders and place in the world? Disinterest is rife, dissent is scarce, and a dictatorship is settling in.

As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches on 24 February, it’s clear that the coming months and expected renewed offensives will dictate whether one side decisively gains initiative, or if the battlelines will be, literally, entrenched in hostile stalemate.

Given that Putin had expected to take Kyiv in two to three days, and his once-famed military suffered reverse after reverse after initial advances, how has the war changed politics within Russia itself? Has it undermined Putin’s support domestically to such a degree that it might have an impact on the war?

Domestic politics: the return of Big Brother?

On the face of it, Putin’s hold on Russian politics has actually intensified. Russian opinion polls are unreliable, since criticism of the ‘special military operation’ can result in a 15-year jail sentence. However, there is no doubt that Putin relies on a large active or passive pro-war majority, with disinterest far more evident than protest. This acquiescence has survived the battlefield setbacks, the effect of Western sanctions and September’s partial mobilisation of reservists.

Insider accounts suggested significant opposition to the war at the outset, even among the elite. Nevertheless, helped by the arrests of around 20,000 Russians since February 2022 and the emigration of ten times that abroad, public dissent has been crushed. All Russia’s main political parties jingoistically support the war. This includes the opposition communists, some of whom expressed reservations about the rapid escalation of Russia’s aims from ‘protecting’ the Donbas to bombing Kyiv.

Families pose for photos by giant Z in Moscow
The letter ‘Z’, like this one installed by authorities near Gorky Park in Moscow, has become a symbol of support for the war against in Ukraine since February 2022

The intensity of outright dictatorship has reached unprecedented levels. All independent media are shut, veteran oppositionists are imprisoned and Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, the Moscow Helsinki Group (previously shuttered by Putin’s hero, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, in 1982) is symbolically closed.

Russia’s servile state-run media has played a key role in underpinning Putin’s support, by fomenting bellicose conspiracies that Russia is locked in mortal combat with an ever-shifting cast list of external threats including NATO, the West and Nazis. Regime propagandists like Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Solovyov haven’t hesitated to threaten Ukraine with genocide and the West with nuclear Armageddon.

In so doing they have articulated the extreme nationalism that Ukrainians often call ‘Ruscism’ (a portmanteau of Russia and fascism) that has moved from the margins to the mainstream under Putin. Actually, one doesn’t need to invoke Hitler for its ideological ancestry: the Russian elite openly appeal to Stalinist concoctions of imperialist nationalism and state violence. Russia is not a totalitarian state as under Stalin, yet the rampant abandon with which its Stalinist past has been relegitimised is one major feature of the war.

Cracks in the monolith

Scratch deeper and some critical weaknesses become apparent. Putin started the war as an isolated leader and has become more so. Insider accounts talk of elite demoralisation and hesitant decision-making. With scant positive news to convey, Putin has repeatedly postponed his annual parliamentary address, which was last held in April 2021. He is scheduled to give one on 21 February, close to the war’s anniversary and perhaps in tandem with a renewed Donbas offensive. However, this will do little to hide the stark contrast with Volodymyr Zelensky’s charismatic and hands-on wartime leadership.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Ukrainian presidential palace
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Ukrainian presidential palace on 20 February 2023

Nevertheless, Putin’s confidence in the war’s outcome appears unshaken: he believes Russia is waging a long-term existential struggle against the West, and he believes that time is on his side. Despite present reverses, he thinks the West lacks the stamina or self-interest to support Ukraine through spiralling energy prices and domestic disagreements. Russia’s superior manpower combined with minimal concern for human life mean that sooner or later Ukraine and the West will sue for an unfavourable peace.

It’s not that there is no opposition to Putin: there is ‘silent’ protest, such as the arson of Military Enlistment Offices. However, the anti-war movement has no political voice and discontent is monopolised by the so-called ‘angry patriots’ – hawks who want the war to go harder and better. Significant elite splits are evidenced by multiple war correspondents and quasi-warlords like Yevgeny Prigozhin (financier of the Wagner mercenary group) and Ramzan Kadyrov (dictator of Chechnya) who have heaped vituperation on the Russian military command, but so far largely spared Putin the blame.

So far, Putin has benefited from the traditional ‘Good Tsar, bad Boyars role’ whereby discontent only affects the Emperor’s underlings. Nevertheless, how such discord can be contained depends on the course of the war effort and may have destabilising consequences. Apart from the prominence given to violent extra-judiciary killings by Wagner, little good can ultimately come of the number of hardened soldiers and outright criminals returning to Russia from atrocities in Ukraine.

Old man at bus stop in Russia with propaganda poster
Daily life in Russia features propaganda campaigns in support of the invasion of Ukraine

All you Ruscists bound to lose?

So far, little indicates that Russia has the military or economic wherewithal for Putin’s wishes to come to pass. It’s scarcely obvious that a renewed offensive will decisively change anything that Russia couldn’t achieve in the first few months of war. Ultimately, Ukraine’s forces remain more motivated and increasingly better trained and supplied. It’s a matter of when, not if, Russia will lose its imperialist war, and how much economic and reputational damage it will suffer, as Europe delinks its energy supplies and Russia falls ever closer into China’s orbit as its junior satellite.

Unfortunately, it’s also a question of how much damage Russia can do in the meantime to Ukraine and the living standards and life expectancy of its own population, and whether Western support can help turn a prospective stalemate into a swifter and more decisive Russian military defeat. Without such a defeat, a brutal and unrepentant Russia may simply try again until it runs out of cannon fodder to sacrifice.

Picture credits: All – Getty Images News/Getty