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Pyrrhic Victory Day?
Putin's war against Ukraine presents him with increasingly bad options. History suggests he may opt for the worst.
I don’t know what Vladimir Putin is going to say when he addresses the Russian people on May 9th.
He could, as many Western policymakers and pundits have come to expect, use the occasion of Victory Day — commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union (not Russia!) — to declare war, dropping the façade of the ‘special military operation’, announcing broad conscription and putting both society and the economy on a war footing. He could also declare victory, touting imaginary successes in the fields of ‘de-nazification’ and ‘demilitarization’. Or he could declare neither, or a bit of both, maintaining some rhetorical room for maneuver.
Either way, as I told the Washington Post, we in the west need to remember this: he’s not talking to us. The ‘rally around the flag’ that the Kremlin has been struggling to foster since the war began is real, but not as real as Putin would like it to be.
Built on fear and anger, rather than pride and hope, this rally — unlike the one that emerged after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 — features limited pro-active mobilization. We have seen no attempt to replicate Putin’s March 19th rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, no ‘spontaneous’ marches in support of Russia’s president or troops. What we’ve seen instead are school children writing denunciations of their teachers in cities from Penza to Krasnodar. Whatever else they may be, denunciations are not a sign of euphoria.
We are also seeing resistance and subversion. It’s not just the anti-war graffiti popping up in cities from Moscow to Novosibirsk. Journalists have reported that the Kremlin’s media strategists are beginning to have doubts about the value of ‘denazification’ as a vector of propaganda and a frame for the war: despite the centrality of victory over Nazi Germany to Russian political legitimation, too many people aren’t buying it.
This failure comes despite the scorched-earth tactics that the Kremlin has deployed against Russia’s own media landscape. Whereas Putin’s propagandists once had to engage in at least a bit of punch-and-counterpunch with a vibrant and easily accessible — if marginalized and hounded — gaggle of independent media outlets, most of those voices are now either silent or unavailable to most Russians. Where once they had to work to persuade a population that had meaningful media choices, those choices are now gone, and the propagandists have found a new audience: Putin himself. Rather than competing against the opposition, the Kremlin’s media minions are competing against one another for Putin’s attention and grace, leading to an escalating spiral of voices seemingly begging the president to declare all-out war not just on Ukraine, but on the west as a whole.
For all intents and purposes, Russia is already fighting that war and has been since February 24th. Making it official would seem to be logical thing to do, freeing the Kremlin of the need to dissemble and prevaricate, and resolving the last remaining internal contradiction in Russian politics, between the pretenses of peace and democracy and the reality of war and dictatorship.
But declaring that war — clarifying to the Russian people that conflict and isolation will now be the central organizing facts of their lives for untold years to come — is nonetheless risky. The danger comes from two directions, one material, the other ideological.
The material risk concerns the distribution of the costs of this war. Since Putin came to power, he has presided over a strikingly austere budget through boom and bust, but in the last eight years or so of economic decline and stagnation the government has worked hard — and mostly successfully — to ensure that the costs of that austerity were spread evenly throughout the economy (with the glaring exceptions of the power elite and Chechnya, for both of whom no amount of largesse has ever been too much). They are failing to maintain that even-handedness in the context of this war, however.
Geographically, the costs of sanctions and Russia’s geo-economic isolation are hitting the country’s two poorest regions particularly hard. Inflation in the North Caucasus hit 17.6% in March, including a 42.5% jump in the price of fruits and vegetables. In Siberia, inflation was 18.3% overall, and 36.3% for fruits and vegetables. Compare that to the Central Federal District (which includes Moscow), where overall inflation was 16.6%, and the cost of fruits and vegetables rose 31.8%. If those discrepancies continue or worsen, people in some parts of the country may come to feel that they are disproportionately feeling the pain.
The war’s human costs are similarly unevenly distributed, falling inequitably on lower socio-economic classes — and in particular on ethnic minorities, including Buryats and Dagestanis. The fact of ethnic disparities in the makeup of Russia’s fighting force and its casualties intertwines uncomfortably with identity. If non-Slavic Russian citizens conclude that they are fighting and dying disproportionately in a war that they did not choose, the political challenges for Moscow may multiply.
Declaring war, then, means telling people who have lost livelihoods and loved ones to this war that it will go on even longer, that further sacrifice will be required, and that they will be the ones required to bear it. Whether the Kremlin has the administrative capacity and financial liquidity to mitigate that risk is an open question — but there is little indication right now that it does.
Declaring war, meanwhile, also means doing away with one of the key ideological components of Putin’s power — namely, its non-ideological nature. As Vera Michlin-Shapir shows in in her excellent new book, one of the key pillars of Putin’s legitimacy and the longevity of his reign has been the ‘fluidity’ that his regime has afforded to Russians of all stripes. In practice, this has meant allowing Russians to construct multiple possible futures for themselves, to partake in the opportunities of globalization if they so desire (and are able, structural inequality notwithstanding), and to believe, at least, that their lives are fundamentally independent of whatever ideas might find their way into the heads of their leaders.
Putin’s war extinguishes the light at the end of that tunnel. Conflict and isolation become permanent and inescapable, with exile or prison the only available alternatives. Declaring war means declaring an end to fluidity, and thus asking people to exchange the calculations of self-reliance for the calculations of domination. That, too, is a risk.
As I said at the outset, I don’t know which way Putin will go. If I had to bet — and I’m glad that I don’t — he’ll tread a middle path, maintaining ambiguity and maneuverability. The costs of declaring war far outweigh, in my analysis, the potential benefits of mobilization. But as this war has already made clear, my analysis is not Putin’s.
For further thoughts on the significance of Victory Day, see my discussion with the Washington Post:
For a deeper discussion of the totalitarian turn in Russian politics, with Marlene Laruelle and Andrei Kolesnikov, see this panel hosted by CEPS and moderated by Zach Paikin:
For further thoughts on the economic impact of sanctions, see my most recent Twitter