Putin’s War Party

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony with youth organizations, Red Square, Moscow, November 2023. Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik / Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony with youth organizations, Red Square, Moscow, November 2023. Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik / Reuters

“If there is Putin, there is Russia; if there is no Putin, there is no Russia”, the current speaker of the State Duma, the aggressive loyalist Vyacheslav Volodin, pronounced, back in 2014. He was outlining an ideal autocracy, one in which the country would be equated with its ruler and vice versa. At the time Volodin spoke those words, the Kremlin was basking in an upsurge of national euphoria following the annexation of Crimea. With the so-called Putin majority ascendant, the government could hasten its shift toward such a regime with broad popular approval.

But Volodin was a bit ahead of his time. It was not until the 2020 constitutional reform, which “reset” Russia’s presidential term limits and solidified Putin’s mature dictatorship, that his formula was codified in the country’s institutions. And it was in 2022, with the beginning of the “special operation” in Ukraine, that the propaganda meaning of “Putin equals Russia” became starkly apparent. As the Kremlin would have it, Putin’s war is Russia’s war, and by extension, a war involving all Russians—a fanciful notion that not only plays into the hands of regime propagandists but which has been readily embraced by many Western officials, as well. Of course, the real picture is far more complex.

By now, the Putin majority has long since been taken as a given, and no one talks about it anymore. Instead, there is the pro-war majority, which supports the war partly by ignoring it in everyday life. As for the anti-Putin minority, the Kremlin’s long-standing habit of treating with contempt any who dare oppose the president has been transformed into a policy of active persecution and denunciation. Opposition and civil society figures themselves have been systematically discredited, exiled, and eliminated.

Nonetheless, Putin still needs elections to give legitimacy to his eternal rule—and to his unending war. Thus, in March 2024, he will run for president for the fifth time since 2000. And as a result of the 2020 reform, it may not be the last, either. According to the changed constitution, Putin will able to run for office twice more—in 2024 and 2030—meaning that he could rule until 2036, when he will be eighty-three years old. For now, it seems clear that Putin is ready to make full use of that opportunity, at least in the coming vote.

But this time, with the war in the background, there are new rules to the game, and both Putin and the Russian public know them. In exchange for keeping most of them out of the trenches, the passive majority of Russians will continue to support the government. And the elections—or rather, the mass approval of Putin’s activities—will show that the people, at least, are playing along. Ballots have become currency: Russians think that they can buy their own relative tranquility with them, even though there are no guarantees that Putin will keep his side of the bargain.

JUST SAY YES

Given the complete lack of alternatives to Putin, some of his supporters, like the Chechen leader and fierce loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, have proposed cancelling the 2024 election altogether. Wouldn’t it be easier to forego the vote, on the grounds that the country is at war, and that in any case, the Russian political field has been comprehensively cleared of competitors? Or why not elevate Putin to the title of supreme leader, national leader, or tsar, and then elect a formal president?

But Putin really needs elections, at least in theory. In addition to refreshing his legitimacy, they serve as a way to show that the opposition—through the predictable landslide outcome—remains a tiny minority and cannot go against the overwhelming will of the Russian people. Moreover, by voting for Putin in 2024, Russians will legitimize his war. Even if the active phase of that war ends someday, it will still need to continue through permanent confrontation with the West and as a rationale for unrelenting repression, suppression, and censorship at home.

Rather than elections, then, the March vote should be thought of as a kind of acclamation for the leader: they are simply voting yes to the only real choice available. Technically, this is a legitimate form of democratic expression, as enshrined in the constitution—and, apparently, in Russian history. (New textbooks for schools and universities discuss such Russian political traditions as the Novgorod veche, or popular assembly, in which everything was decided by shouting, approval, and acclamation by the crowd.) In other words, in the absence of any political competition, the regime has everything to gain from a fresh acclamation of its rule, and little to lose.

Putin’s high numbers are guaranteed. Some will vote for him out of a sense of falsely understood civic duty, some will be coerced to do so at work: such is the general state of paranoia in today’s Russia that people sometimes take a smartphone picture of their completed ballot and send it to their bosses, after which they get the right to return to their private lives. Other votes may be falsified, including, perhaps, with the help of electronic voting systems.

Still, deciding what content to fill the campaign with is another question. Obviously, it is essential for Putin to consolidate his narrative about the war. As Putin likes to say, “It was not us”: Russia was attacked by the West, and in response began a “national liberation struggle” to free Russia and other peoples enslaved by the West. And since Russians find themselves in a besieged fortress, they must give full support to their commander to repel both the enemy at the gates and the traitors and foreign agents within. By now, this logic has acquired the status of an axiom. Along with it comes a series of arguments—Russia is fighting for a “fairer multipolar world”, Russia is a special “state-civilization”—that justify the war, why it cannot end, and Putin’s rule itself. But what new element can be brought into the current election campaign, except, of course, an abstract declaration of peace and victory?

STORIES ABOUT WHEAT

In theory, the Russian public does not attach much significance to elections. In the minds of most people, there is simply no alternative to Putin, even if they think he is not particularly good. When Russians say “Putin”, they mean the president, and vice versa; like a medieval king, Putin has two bodies—one physical, one symbolic. Putin is the collective “we” of Russians, and voting for him every few years has become a ritual, like raising the flag or singing the national anthem on Mondays in high schools across Russia.

But the war has added a new dimension to this rite. During the “special operation”, an unwritten agreement has been established between the people and their leader. The gist of this special relationship is that as long as the state refrains from dragging (most) people into battle, Russians will not question Putin’s authority. The partial mobilization in the fall of 2022 briefly called into question the state’s promise, but since then the authorities have largely solved the problem. Essentially, they have demobilized Russians psychologically, by maintaining and enforcing a pervasive normality. Thus, Putin himself has focused almost exclusively on domestic issues like addressing economic problems and supporting artificial intelligence, staging meetings with young scientists and talented children. As a result, during the second year of the war, the general mood of the population has been much better, even despite rumors about another possible military mobilization after the election.

One darker cloud has appeared over the Kremlin, in the form of open disgruntlement from families of the men who were mobilized in October 2022. These families are not seeking money, but they want to bring their sons and husbands home. They sense injustice, given that real criminals and brutal killers, who were pulled out of prison to fight in the war, have to serve for only six months before they can return as heroes, while their own sons have been given no reprieve. The government doesn’t have a convincing answer to this challenge: Putin has long been used to fighting the intelligentsia and the liberal opposition, but here he is dealing with discontent from his own social base. These soldiers’ families have not yet coalesced into a formal movement or taken an explicit antiwar stance—a step that would be impossible due to the high level of repression. But every day these families have become more and more politicized.

Putin at the Kremlin, Moscow, September 27, 2023. Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / Reuters
Putin at the Kremlin, Moscow, September 27, 2023. Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / Reuters

For the bulk of the population, however, it is enough for the government to regularly tout the country’s economic health and income growth, and the mere fact that the country is not experiencing economic and social collapse is enough to convey an impression of business as usual. The Kremlin also continually highlights its foreign policy “successes”. In this imaginary world, Russia is supported in its confrontation with the West by the “global majority” in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They are not just allies but countries for whom Russia is a ray of light in the gloom. It is assumed that anti-Western rhetoric and offers of economic assistance—or, as in the case of Africa, grain—will automatically lead the former satellites of the USSR back to Russia.

Meanwhile, official Russian media reports about military operations tend to emphasize the continual successes of “our guys” at the front. In these sunny accounts, there are no serious losses, only heroic behavior and victories. These briefings have come to resemble Soviet reports on agricultural achievements: the battle for the harvest is going well, and the only possible feeling can be one of satisfaction.

From a Western point of view, these fantasy narratives seem unlikely to convince anyone. Surely, Russians must be sensitive to their growing isolation and economic hardship, and the ever-growing sacrifice of their young men at the front. But the Putin regime is not built upon active support. All it requires is the indifference of the majority, who mostly find it easier to accept the picture of the world that is imposed from above. By embracing the Putin story, they can retain a sense of moral superiority over a West that, they are told, is seeking to dismember their country, just as Napoleon, Hitler, and the “American imperialists” did in past decades.

From month to month, Russian sociologists report broadly the same findings. Attention to events in Ukraine has stagnated; less than half of respondents say they follow the war closely, according to surveys by the independent Levada Center. On average, their support for the military remains high: about 75 percent of respondents say that they support the actions of the armed forces, including 45 percent who express “strong support”. On the other hand, surveys consistently show that slightly more than a half of respondents favor starting peace negotiations than continuing the war. But since the country has made large sacrifices in the fighting, most of those supporting a settlement would like to get something in return: Russia should keep the “new” territories it has conquered or “restored” to Moscow.

BACK IN THE USSR

Having reframed the “special operation” in Ukraine into a multidimensional war against the West, Putin has no particular urgency to talk about an endgame. In this sense, Putin’s goals for the war are no longer limited to returning Ukraine to Russia but now encompass what has become an existential rematch with the West, in which the Ukraine war is a part of a long, historically significant clash of civilizations. Putin sees himself as completing the mission begun by his historic predecessors, who were always forced to fight Western encroachment. In Putin’s new interpretation, even the Tatar-Mongol yoke—the two centuries of Russian subjugation that followed the invasion of Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, in 1237—was not as harmful as Western influence and Western attacks. And since this is now an open-ended confrontation, the timeline for “victory” will necessarily extend far beyond the next decade.

Ordinary Russians are receptive to ideas about the country’s historical greatness. As polling data have shown for many years, the main source of popular pride in the state today is the country’s glorious past. Russians have a special regard for their imperial history, especially the history of the Soviet Union, and an idealized image of the USSR as a kingdom of justice has begun to emerge. At the same time, helped by acts of erasure by the Putin regime itself, Stalin’s repressions have receded from view or are sometimes considered as something inevitable and even positive. Among the Soviet achievements most remembered by Russians today, the greatest of all is the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, as Russians refer to World War II.

Accordingly, Putin has continually compared the “special operation” against Ukraine with the war against Nazi Germany. Thus, the celebrated soldiers and generals of the Great Patriotic War are the direct predecessors of today’s military, and by fighting in Putin’s war, Russians can again find redemption in heroic sacrifice. For example, in a speech before this year’s May 9 Victory Day parade, Putin suggested that the West was trying to reverse Russia’s historic victory. “Their goal”, he said, “is to achieve the collapse and destruction of our country, erase the results of the Second World War”.

PEAK PUTIN?

To make his worldview stick, however, Putin needs a viable economic model to sustain the mythmaking. In recent years, and especially since the start of the war, he has complemented his carefully cultivated distrust of the outside world by rejecting what he calls economic and technological “dependence” on the West. In practice, the Kremlin has been eliminating everything Western not through import substitution—which is impossible in a modern economy—but through a new dependence on China. Meanwhile, technology is becoming both more primitive and more expensive, which naturally puts the burden on the end consumer.

Russia’s oil and gas resources—essential for sustaining the country’s extraordinary military expenditures—remain as important as ever. In a way, ideology is being used to make up for the shortfall in energy revenues, and to compensate for the gradual decline in the quality of life. Of course, the regime going to great lengths to maintain the impression that life goes on as normal, and to a degree, this is true: formally, in 2023, the country’s GDP and real incomes of the population are growing. But this is in large measure due to state injections into sectors serving the war and social payments to its participants. That is growth is coming at the expense of the state, and it is unclear how long its resources will last. Risks of fiscal imbalance remain.

A larger problem is the lack of an economic vision for the future. As the historian Alexander Etkind notes, “a resource-dependent state is always afraid of the raw materials running out, but the biggest threat of all comes from new technology that makes those materials unnecessary”. Putin has never believed in the energy transition or green economy, but by insisting on preserving Russia’s existing technological structure and petrostate model, his regime has impeded modernization in both a technological and political sense. As a result, the oil and gas economy is not being replaced by a more sustainable model. Notably, some of the countries in the east that are now consuming Russian raw materials may be shifting their energy mix in the future: in time, for example, China may have less demand for Russian energy. But Putin’s autocracy does not care about future generations, much less the environment.

Alongside its dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels, the Kremlin tends to treat human capital as another expendable commodity. But that doesn’t make the human supply chain any cheaper. On the contrary, it is becoming more expensive: professional soldiers, mercenaries, volunteers, family members of the dead and wounded, and the workers who man Russia’s military-industrial complex (and of which there is currently a grave shortage) must all be paid. Hence, the government has had to reconcile itself to an inexorable growth of wages and social benefits. People’s incomes are growing not because of economic development or advances in the quality of the labor force but simply so the government can sustain hostilities and fuel the continued production of lethal weapons.

For now, the state budget is still balanced, but budget discipline is in a permanent danger because of the state’s chosen priorities. By paying more for defense and security, Russia has fewer resources for people and their health and development. In the Putin economic model, more spending on death means that there is less to spend on life.

SWAN LAKE

So what will Putin’s election campaign look like? Given the current situation, Putin can only offer the public the same model of survival that has become standard since the “special operation” began: to live against the backdrop of war without paying attention to it and wait for “victory” in whatever form the president someday chooses. Again, it is unlikely that that choice will be clearly defined during the election season. The war itself has become a mode of existence for Putin’s system, and there is little reason to expect that it will end any time soon, since that could undercut the urgency of supporting him.

In any case, during periods of peace, Putin’s ratings have often stagnated, whereas they have soared during moments of military “patriotic” hysteria such as the Georgian war of 2008 and the Crimea annexation. The “special operation” has been no exception. Moreover, for now, war fatigue has not yet translated into serious discontent or a decrease in support for the regime. According to Levada, popular support for Putin, as well as for the war and the military, has remained broadly stable, with Putin maintaining around an 80 percent approval rating. In theory, then, the indifference of the pro-war majority suggests that Putin can continue the war for the indefinite future.

The Kremlin’s other option would be to ramp up hostilities, including a new mobilization, whether partial or general, combined with further distancing from the West and more repression at home. But such changes could rock the Kremlin, which at some point risks colliding with an iceberg of extreme public anxiety and a deteriorating economy. Russia’s underlying problems are not going anywhere, and have been slowed down only by the relatively rational actions of the government’s economic managers. Accordingly, maintaining the status quo seems the most likely path forward.

When Russians go to the polls in March, Putin can count on high voter turnout and continued passive support for the war. Most of them have very low expectations: they have long lived according to the mantra “The main thing is that it shouldn’t get even worse”. But the fresh acclamation of the regime that the election will doubtless bring will not necessarily provide a mandate for truly drastic moves like the full closure of Russia’s borders or the use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, as the Kremlin must understand, the outcome will be less a mandate for radical new changes than a signal that it can continue much as before.

How long can a country exist in this state of passive and unproductive inertia? Theoretically, Putin could reap advantages by continuing the war but at the same time keeping the population calm, thereby outlasting the West with its supposedly flagging interest. But there are several reasons to question this assumption: first, it is not only Ukraine and the West but also Russia whose resources are being dramatically depleted. Second, surprises are possible, such as the growing wave of discontent among the Russian mobilized soldiers’ families. Even if it doesn’t result in a broader political backlash, the phenomenon has already shown that black swans of different sizes can come from unexpected places at unexpected times.

But where are the redlines that show just how far resources can be depleted and the patience of various sections of the population be tested without triggering a larger collapse? Do these limits even exist in Russia? So far, with a few minor exceptions, everything points to the fact that they do not. Moreover, no matter how much the regime has tightened its grip, change of leadership is not a priority for the Russian public: on the contrary, polls and focus groups show that many people fear a change at the top.

Still, Russians are not ready to die for Putin. In 2018 and 2020, Putin’s ratings fell due to an unpopular decision to increase the retirement age, and then because of the effects of the pandemic; it is possible that other new hits to his popularity will occur in the coming months. Indeed, in the mood of both the public and the elites, there is an invisible yet discernible expectation of such events. For most, however, the yearning is more basic. They desire to end “all this”—meaning getting rid of war—as quickly as possible and begin to live better, more safely, and more peacefully. But it is unlikely that this will happen without regime change.

Andrei Kolesnikov is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

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