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The wages of Putin's war on Ukraine are coming due
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine makes no sense — to me.
Back in December, in an op-ed with Graeme Robertson in the Washington Post, I argued that war on the scale we’re seeing now was unlikely. Obviously, Graeme and I got that wrong. For most of the past six days I have been seeing that as my problem, and it is: because I couldn’t see a way in which the war would bring any real benefits to Putin, I assumed he wouldn’t see one either. That’s a failure of analysis, with which I’m going to have to grapple (about which more later). But it’s also a problem for Putin.
It turns out that Graeme and I weren’t entirely wrong. We wrote at the time:
“A large-scale invasion of Ukraine … would be very different [from the annexation of Crimea]. It would involve massive numbers of regular Russian troops, not a few thousand “little green men,” proxies or mercenaries, and many of those troops would die. It would bring immediate and sweeping sanctions. … And however much Putin might believe that Russians and Ukrainians should share a government (presumably his), … only 17 percent of his compatriots share that opinion. Does that mean war is impossible? No. But if Putin does invade Ukraine, he will do it without broad public support at home, and in a manner that will almost certainly weaken that support still further. It would break just about every rule in a playbook that has ensured his political longevity.”
Every one of those predictions has come true. Large and increasing numbers of Russian troops have been committed to the fight, and they’re dying in droves. Sanctions have hit with more velocity and ferocity than the Kremlin — or really anyone outside the Biden Administration — had predicted. And Russian public opinion is becoming such a problem that Putin is effectively fighting two wars: one in Ukraine, and one at home.
The war in Ukraine
As Lawry Freedman has written over the last few days, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started poorly and has taken further turns for the worse. What appears to have been a plan for the rapid and relatively bloodless decapitation of the Ukrainian state has turned already into a long and deadly slog. Five days in, the UN reported nearly 600 civilian casualties, a number that is likely to be understated. As Russian forces inch their way through hostile territory, beset by logistical breakdowns and planning mistakes, they, too, are taking heavy losses.1 As they bombard and lay siege to Kharkiv, Mariupol, Chernihiv and other cities — and prepare the same fate for Kyiv — things do not look to get easier for anyone.
The unpredictability of war was one of the reasons I thought this invasion was unlikely. Putin would not be the first world leader to misjudge the welcome his troops would receive, but unlike some of his peers, he is not practiced at fighting unpopular wars. I’ll talk more about public opinion in a moment, but the recognition that this war would be unpopular was the key factor determining Russia’s opening gambit. The only way to mitigate that risk was to win the war as cleanly and quickly as possible. That is now no longer an option.
Sanctions and the Russian economy
Sanctions were an inevitable result of this invasion. Putin knew that, and in this case, we don’t have to read his mind: he talked about it in his speeches leading up to the war. Russia, with its vaunted $640 billion in reserves, was prepared, Putin said. He was wrong. In quick succession, the US, EU and UK (and a handful of others) slapped sanctions on the Russian elite (entirely predicted), key Russian banks (mostly predicted), and the Russian Central Bank (mostly unpredicted). As a result, the Ruble has lost 30% of its value, the Moscow Stock Exchange has been shuttered seemingly indefinitely, and the worst is yet to come.2
The panic was immediate, with ordinary citizens queueing to withdraw money from banks, and emergency measures brought in to prevent people and corporations from withdrawing hard currency. It’s not just the plebs who are panicking, though. Central Bank chief Elvira Nabiullina — who has got to be on the brink of resignation at this point — found herself forced to record a video for her employees, imploring them to stop “bickering about politics” and focus on preventing wholesale economic catastrophe. I think we can safely put this down as another risk Putin didn’t manage to mitigate.
The Russian street
Both of the first two sets of risks — the shooting war and the sanctions war — meet at the one place where Putin is most vulnerable: in the minds of Russian citizens.3 There have been anti-war protests in dozens of Russian cities every day since this war began. We don’t and can’t know how many people have participated, but we do know that more than 7,600 have been arrested since February 24th.4 More to the point, there have been no pro-war rallies, despite the Kremlin’s usual penchant for astroturf.
And here’s the real problem from Putin’s point of view: the people who are out on the streets protesting against the war are, thus far, the usual suspects. They’re the same people who have come out to protest against the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and in defense of independent journalism. It’s bad enough for the Kremlin that the fear of arrest and beatings that the Kremlin worked so hard to instill during the Navalny protests of early 2021 has waned. It will get worse if — when — the people queueing at the ATM turn the (metaphorical) corner and join the protests.
The Russian front
The street and the economy will be the subject of future TL;DRussia posts. (If you’re interested in the war itself, please read the work of Lawry Freedman, Michael Kofman, Rob Lee and others who know what they’re talking about.) For now, though, the takeaway is this: Putin is fighting a rear-guard action to prevent the economy and the war from spilling over into the minds of too many ordinary Russians.
While media coverage of the war itself appears to be ramping up — after a few days in which it was almost not discussed — Russian media are under strict orders to quote only official sources and to avoid using the words “war” or “invasion”. Russian legislators are reportedly preparing further restrictions, including jail sentences of up to 15 years for distributing whatever the state believes is “fake news” about the war.5
Meanwhile, Roskomnadzor has taken the semi-independent radio station Ekho Moskvy off the air, blocked online access to the Internet broadcaster Dozhd, and made it difficult for Russians to access Facebook and Twitter; YouTube and the independent news website Meduza are assumed to be next on the list. Russia’s Investigative Committee has launched a special unit to prevent anti-war mobilization. And border guards are reportedly questioning young Russian men boarding Russia’s few remaining international flights.
It is early days yet, but it doesn’t feel to me that Putin’s war with Russia is going much better than his war with Ukraine.
Food for thought
As I mentioned at the top, I’ve been thinking a bit — ok, maybe more than a bit — about what I (and other analysts) got wrong, and why. If you’re interested, I outlined those thoughts in an interview with Barron’s journalist Matt Peterson, and in this thread:
For more thoughts on the longer stories here — by which I mean Putin’s evolving relationships with the West and with his citizens — see this discussion with Marco Werman on PRX’s The World, and the Tortoise ThinkIn below, with former UK Ambassador to Russia Roderic Lyne and the Atlantic Council’s Melinda Haring, together with Tortoise’s Giles Whittell:
For an excellent overview of the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy as a whole — not just on the currency and the financial sector, which have been the focus of most reporting — see this interview (in Russian) with Natalia Zubarevich.
For an explanation of why Putin is most vulnerable in the minds of Russians, buy the book. (Sorry, not sorry.)
For thoughts on the contours and the future of the anti-war movement, see this interview (in Russian) with the sociologist Gregory Yudin, who was arrested and severely beaten at the first anti-war march in Moscow.
For more on the media situation, listen to this discussion (in English!) on BBC Radio 4.