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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
24 September 2023: Acknowledging failure, plus texts and tunes
On Thursday, I had the distinct honor of attending the speech by Volodymyr Zelensky at the National Archives in Washington. Standing in front of the U.S. Constitution—in a remarkable room with remarkably bad acoustics—he delivered a succinct but clear message: “This is your war.”
American defense, he said, begins in Ukraine.
There is not a soul in Ukraine who is not grateful for what you Americans are doing, not because you have to, but because your hearts will not let you do otherwise.
If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure that’s true. The evidence suggests that there is growing frustration among Ukrainians about the slow pace of U.S. support and the emerging recognition that U.S. aims and Ukrainian aims may not fully overlap. I am not among those who believe Washington is preparing to abandon Ukraine, but I can see where they’re coming from.
What continues to bother me, however, is that despite the expressions of and calls for solidarity, discussion of the war in the US—including during Zelensky’s speech—relies on moral and emotional appeals. Americans’ emotional and moral commitment to Ukraine, thankfully, remains strong enough to maintain the political consensus in favor of support. That support is slipping, however, and I remain concerned that, without a robust public conversation about America’s national interests in this war, there will be no backstop to keep public support from collapsing entirely.
What I’m thinking about
Regular readers of this newsletter will know that I have a thing about analytical circumspection. As social scientists, there are always parts of the causal chain that we cannot observe. In fact, these are almost always the most important parts: the internal thoughts that motivate human behavior, the social, cognitive and emotional processes that shape experience and interpretation, the contingencies that link events across space and time—all of these, at best, can only be approximated.
The way we usually deal with this problem is by breaking down the phenomena of interest into specific sets of potential causes and effects—citizens’ perceptions of the economy and their voting patterns, for example—and observing them as closely and carefully as possible in order to see whether the hypothesized relationship holds. Because human behavior is complex, we are only ever seeing part of the picture, and even that part can be blurry, but this approach to social and political analysis has generally served us well over time.
It is not, however, serving us terribly well when it comes to Russia right now. Most of us failed to predict the full-scale invasion. Tremendous amounts of ink have been spilled—including by your humble correspondent—about potential factors of elite and popular unrest, which never came to fruition. The Prigozhin affair, including both Prigozhin’s own behavior and the behavior of the Kremlin, remains fundamentally inexplicable. As I wrote in Foreign Affairs on Friday:
Western decisionmakers have had reasonable visibility into the inner workings of the Kremlin: Washington gathered and shared high-quality intelligence about Russian intentions in the run-up to the February 2022 Ukraine invasion, and U.S. intelligence broke the story of Putin’s post-putsch parley with Prigozhin.
But the availability of such information is not systematically leading to reliable analysis, which in turn undermines wartime policymaking. Facing a drawn-out war in Ukraine, many Western officials and their advisers cling to the notion that the swiftest route to peace runs through Moscow. They are very unlikely, however, to engineer a change of heart in the Kremlin—-or a change of leadership—by reading the same tea leaves that have failed them over and over.
Incidentally, it is remarkably difficult to sell an article about Russia, the argument of which is that we have no reliable arguments about Russia. I’m grateful to Foreign Affairs for taking the plunge with me.
To the extent that the article makes an argument, it is this: Rather than focus on the things we don’t understand, Washington and its allies should focus on the things they do, and specifically on means for improving Ukraine’s fortunes on the battlefield. With that in mind, it was heartening to see Zelensky in DC, to hear him stiffening the spines of Americans, and and to watch him go home with ATACMS.
And yet, in addition to Zelensky’s speech and one conference on Ukrainian reconstruction, Washington hosted at least three or four important conversations this week on the future of Russia, and another two the week before. In that time, I have heard calls for calibrating sanctions to create an elite split, for doubling down on efforts to transmit information about war casualties and atrocities to unsuspecting Russians, and for supporting armed insurrection. Each and every one of those proposals (and others) has a reasonably sound body of academic research and theory behind it. The problem is that none of those theories have had much in the way of predictive capacity in the last couple of years.
Now, I’m not naive enough to think that Washington will stop having these conversations just because they’re futile. Nor do I think abandoning them would be a good idea (though I do think actual policymakers should focus their attentions elsewhere for the time being). And so it’s probably worth clarifying that I don’t think all analysis on Russia is pointless.
Political scientists often distinguish in their analysis (and even more so when they teach) between agency (i.e., the discrete decisions made by specific individuals) and structure (i.e., the more or less stable frameworks in which political activity is conducted). In truth, most political scientists these days would dismiss the dichotomy between the two as false: agency is inevitably shaped by structure, and structures are created, at the end of the day, by agents. For the purpose of this discussion, however, the dichotomy is useful.
Put simply, when it comes to agency in Russia, I despair of coming to reliable conclusions at any time in the near future. What people in Russia are doing—whether the ruling elite or ordinary citizens—remains visible. Why they are doing it remains inscrutable. And because the things Russia is doing now are mostly things they haven’t done in the past (or, at least, not quite this way, and/or not in the recent past), knowing what they’re doing doesn’t get me very far if I don’t know why they’re doing it.
I think, though, that we can get a bit more leverage over the structure issue. Take, for example, the Prigozhin saga. Prigozhin’s beef with the Ministry of Defense was wholly symptomatic of the kind of cut-throat rent-seeking competition we have tended to see from one end of the Russian political economy to the other. And so while I remain at a loss to explain why he thought it would be a good idea to march on Moscow, paying attention to the structure of elite competition makes the friction between him and Defense Minister Shoigu seem perfectly natural, which it is.
In some commentary at the time of Prigozhin’s uprising in June, I suggested that there were problems with this structure, to which we should pay attention. Specifically, I argued that subjecting the war to the same kind of material, self-interested competition as the rest of the system was inherently dangerous, and thus that the Kremlin might want to find away to shield the war from this kind of infighting. While Prigozhin’s demise might suggest that Putin has in fact taken my advice and consolidated control over the war in the Defense Ministry, there is ample evidence to the contrary: private military companies continue to proliferate, and additional military-grade resources have been given to the National Guard, which is often at loggerheads with the military command. My sense, then, is that nothing in particular is changing. If that is the case, we might expect to see more intra-elite conflict, and for more of that conflict to involve weapons.
Another structural question on my mind has to do with public opinion. This is another area where we have a lot of data and don’t really know what it means. As I’ve written before, that’s mostly because we don’t have enough visibility of the process that transforms what people think into what people tell pollsters. I’m beginning to wonder, however, whether we might also be lacking sufficient information about the process that transforms people’s experiences and perceptions into thoughts. The reason is that Russian public opinion seems so incredibly inert, that it almost feels as though someone accidentally unplugged the machine. Prigozhin’s mutiny, Girkin’s arrest, Prigozhin’s death, drone attacks on central Moscow—I would have understood if one of these events failed to elicit a public response. But all of them? That just doesn’t seem plausible to me.
Why is this a structure issue? While socialization has always played an important—maybe even dominant—role in determining how and what people think, thoughts and opinions in Russia have always fluctuated in response to major events. If that is no longer the case, then we aren’t dealing with tens of millions of people who have changed their behavior: we’re dealing with a structural change. The question is, what kind of change? My main hypothesis for the moment is that there may have been a shift in the way that information elicits behavior. Something may have happened, in other words, that inures people against troubling news of any kind. If that’s true, then the standard prediction that a moral or material shock—such as the death of Prigozhin or visible attacks on Russia—might puncture the sense of consensus in support of the regime holds less water.
I’ll go away and think some more.
What I’m reading
While we’re on the subject of Russian public opinion, I was struck by a report from Meduza on Tuesday that, despite not being officially distributed in Russia, Barbie is currently the number one movie in Russian theaters, outstripping its nearest competitor by more than 40%. Make of that what you will.
Somewhat less flippantly—not that there’s anything flippant about Barbie, mind you—the Levada Center on Thursday released new polling data on economic sentiment in Russia, suggesting that while Russians’ expectations of inflation and sense of hardship remain high, they are gradually adapting. On the one hand, in order to adapt to rising costs of living, Russians have had to scale back their consumption habits over time. On the other hand, however, they appear increasingly to be seeing their reduced circumstances as tolerable or even normal, and any sense of grievance seems to be fading. Again, make of that what you will.
Kholod had two interesting articles this week on the social psychology of Russia’s deepening authoritarianism. The first, an interview with the psychologist Elena Cherepanov1, explores the dynamics of abusive relationships and applies it to Russia’s political situation; “The strategies and aims in political abuse are the same as in interpersonal relations. The abuser in interpersonal relations uses soft power in the same way, achieving power over the thoughts and feelings of their victims. And they’re doing this only in order to establish and maintain control and strengthen their power — and there can be no other explanation for what they are doing.” The second is an essay by the linguist Ksenia Turkova about the increasing prevalence of the vocabulary of sexual violence in how the Russian state communicates; one effect is an implicit invitation to ordinary Russians to decide whether they would rather be the victim, or the rapist.
Much of my social media feeds in recent days has been taken up by the decision of the European Union to enforce customs rules that broadly prohibit Russians from traveling to Europe while in possession of personal items, ranging from cars and computers to underwear. Meduza reported on Monday that this is creating particular problems for the Russian volunteer groups that have been evacuating Ukrainian refugees caught on the wrong side of the front or forcibly deported to Russia, because these groups use Russian-registered cars to ferry the Ukrainians out of the country. And Agentstvo reported that the border crossing with Norway near Kirkenes, in the high north, near Murmansk, is now the only route on which Russians can drive into the Schengen zone.
iStories, together with the Conflict Intelligence Team, published a major new investigation into the fate of the soldiers called up in the autumn 2022 “partial mobilization”. Of those who died, more than half died within five months; half of those who died were aged 30-45.
Meduza, iStories and The Bell published another joint investigation into the private company profiting from Russia’s war propaganda and manufacturing fake news on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Defense. As the extremely long piece makes clear, however, it’s about more than making money: the project appears at least partially effective at corralling witting and unwitting collaborators and spreading its messages through channels and figures that carry genuine social legitimacy.
Anastasia Stognei in the FT on Monday published detailed report—relying on data from the Kyiv School of Economics—on the billions of dollars in profits that Western companies are unable to withdraw from Russia.
Andreas Umland and Hugo von Essen, both of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, published an academic article on the incentives Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is creating for small and medium-sized states around the world. One key lesson (as many have been arguing for a while): don’t give up nuclear weapons. If the West wants to salvage global arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, they need to help Ukraine win, the authors argue.
And finally, returning to the pink lady, the FT had a report on Wednesday on a new initiative to bring Kyrgyz shepherds to Italy, where they are helping to maintain sheep farming on Sardinia. Apart from being simply a curious story, it’s one more piece of evidence of the geopolitical and geo-economic realignment that Russia’s war has provoked.
What I’m listening to
Sunday night marks the start of Yom Kippur. At temples around the world, cantors will begin the Day of Atonement by reciting Kol nidrei, an emotional plea not so much for forgiveness, as for humanity. It embodies a recognition that we will never live up to the standards we set for ourselves, and a fervent hope that we will always keep trying. It is also one of the most haunting melodies I have ever heard.
No, that’s not a typo.