Has Putin gone soft?
Putin has never been - and still isn't - the man Russia's nationalists want him to be.
By rights, Igor Girkin is the last man who should be accusing anyone of half measures.
And yet the part-time mercenary better known by his nom de cosplay Strelkov — the same man who in 2014 convinced the Kremlin he could conquer the Donbas with a handful of bandits and needed the Russian army to bail him out — is doing exactly that, and his target is Vladimir Putin. In a recent Telegram rant, he wrote:
“The Kremlin is once again sucking on the empty pacifier of ‘appeasement with our partners at current positions’. An appeasement that won’t happen. But an ‘appeasement’ that they really want to happen. And that, in turn, means that in their ‘hopes for a quick peace,’ the Kremlin saboteurs will continue to convince the Kremlin idiots not to undertake the steps necessary for victory in WAR — steps they should have undertaken the day before the day before yesterday. And as a result, the risks of losing this WAR will continue to grow.”
The source of Girkin’s ire is a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the effect that the purpose of Russia’s “special military operation” is the “liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” while calling on the residents of other occupied Ukrainian territories to “decide for themselves” whether they prefer to be part of Ukraine.
The parallels between Girkin’s critique of Putin and the rising chorus of Western observers fretting (not without reason) that the commitment of European and American leaders to Ukrainian security and sovereignty may be slipping are obvious — and telling. Girkin worries that on its present course, Russia will settle for something less than what he believes it should seek: something less than the complete subjugation of Ukraine. And as much as we in the West fear (and should fear) that Putin’s goals are similarly maximalist, Girkin’s anxieties are not unfounded.
In fact, when it comes to disappointing Russia’s hardcore nationalists, Putin has form. Take, for example, this passage from the upcoming updated paperback version of Putin v the People, in which Graeme Robertson and I recount a conversation with another nationalist intimately involved with the invasion of Ukraine, Alexander Dugin:
Girkin and his followers fear in 2022 a repeat of what Dugin and his followers lamented in 2015, and not without reason. As Graeme and I have written both in Putin v. the People and elsewhere, Putin’s relationship with Russian nationalists has always been uneasy. Scratch that: he has spent most of his time in office trying to suppress the country’s genuine nationalists, while periodically claiming aspects of their ideology for his own political purposes. The result has been the mass repression of the country’s largest radical nationalist movements, and waves of nationalist riots in Moscow and elsewhere.
The annexation of Crimea and the initial invasion of the Donbas was the one exception — the one time when the Kremlin and the nationalists were well and truly on the same page. It wasn’t just that these organizations were useful in supplying volunteers for the war in Ukraine and in suppressing anti-war sentiment at home. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine create a sense of common purpose: for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin was doing what the nationalists wanted.
An analysis of millions of lines of social media messages from VKontakte shows what this looks like in practice. The line in the chart below is a measure of the linguistic similarity of messages and comments posted to nationalist VK groups from December 2011 through May 2016. The lower the number, the greater the similarity. As the Euromaidan gained steam and Russia went to war, you can clearly see how the usually cacophonous nationalist communities converged around a single set of messages. And then when Russia negotiates the second Minsk agreements in the spring of 2015 — agreements that Dugin and Girkin interpreted as a betrayal — the cacophony resumes.
While I would usually caution against taking Dugin seriously, his explanation for want went ‘wrong’ (from his perspective) in 2015 and thereafter is, I think, correct. Having mobilized the nationalists for a specific purpose, Putin then pivoted back to his habitual balancing act. The imperative of keeping a market-oriented and still relatively globalized economy functioning — and thus of keeping the ‘systemic liberals’ on board — meant that Putin couldn’t pursue all-out war in Ukraine.
Now, of course, Putin is pursuing all out war in Ukraine, albeit on a narrower front than he initially intended. Does the fact that Girkin and others are recapitulating Dugin’s arguments suggest that Putin’s commitment may be waning? Maybe not. Girkin, Dugin et al are much less a part of this war than they were in 2014-15, and their reduced position may motivate some of this griping. Moreover, there is already much less of a globalized economy to maintain, and the costs of isolation seem to have been baked into Putin’s calculations from day one.
But the fact remains that we are seeing evidence of pressure — pressure from the nationalists to stay the course, which in turn lends credence to reports of mounting elite pressure on the Kremlin to stop the war. As in 2014-15, Putin will not be able to keep both of these constituencies happy. The question is, which one will he see as more important to his political survival? For most of the past 22 years, the answer to that question has been clear: not the nationalists. But in war, as in the stock market, past performance is a poor predictor of future results.