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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
12 November 2022: Sure things, plus texts and tunes
It’s nice when at least some of the surprises are pleasant — like the boarding pass with the business class seat assignment that the British Airways check-in agent handed me at Dulles. That never happens, at least not to me.
Of course, it wasn’t my boarding pass, as I found out when I tried to pass the security check. With my actual boarding pass in hand — row 33, not 5, of course — I settled in to the lounge, safe at least in the knowledge that, en route from Washington to London Tuesday night, I would not be able to doom-scroll what looked set to be a rather unpleasant set of election results. That is, until the flight was delayed an hour, and then another hour, and then another, and then finally cancelled. (Apparently, flying without functioning brakes is a frowned upon.)
That bad news, of course, allowed me to see the better news. (For analysis on why the red wave everyone seemed to be expecting never materialized, see two posts by my friend, Jon Weiler.) And more good news arrived shortly after I got to London — no, Rishi Sunak hadn’t called a snap election; rather, Russia announced its withdrawal from Kherson, giving Ukraine a significant victory while evidently avoiding a bloody battle. In America and Ukraine (if not here in Britain), there seemed to be a growing supply of hope — an exceedingly rare commodity in my line of work.
What I’m thinking about
How much can Vladimir Putin lose before it becomes impossible for him to win?
That’s the question on my mind this week. Admittedly, that’s the question on my mind many weeks — maybe even most, at least since it became clear that his invasion of Ukraine is unwinnable in any real sense. But this week, with Russia’s abandonment of the only regional capital it had captured since 24 February, the question was brought into somewhat sharper focus.
For months now, I — and a lot of other analysts — have operated on the assumption that, so long as he controls Crimea and probably the territory he held before 24 February, Putin can plausibly claim victory at more or less any point. Without having to worry about opposition parties vying for votes or uncomfortable questions from journalists, there is very little to stop him from saying, essentially, “we killed a lot of ‘Nazis’, blew up a lot of stuff, ergo we won.”
Writing in the Washington Post this week, Max Boot suggested that might not be true. “This retreat makes clear to the Russian people how badly the war is going,” he wrote, setting up a political challenge for Putin at home. Now, as I Tweeted earlier in the week, I’m not sure how anyone can claim that something has been “made clear” to the Russian people, when it’s not clear to us what the Russian people actually believe. That said, though, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether there might be a threshold at which it becomes impossible, or at least very difficult, for Putin to declare that he has won.
There are, I think, two parts to this story. One has to do with what constitutes a victory. Throughout this war, Putin has consistently left himself a tremendous amount of rhetorical wiggle-room, which means that he can relatively easily pivot from a war of territorial conquest to one with much more limited — or simply vague — objectives, without paying too much of a price in terms of public opinion. But even not too much of a price is some price, suggesting that there might be some limit to Putin’s rhetorical and propaganda power.
Two prominent commentators wrote after the effective surrender of Kherson by Russian forces that, in fact, there may not be much of a limit at all. Writing in the Financial Times, Alexander Baunov argues that Russian citizens will reward Putin for the simple fact of going to battle against the West — more or less regardless of whether that battle is won or lost. Tatyana Stanovaya, meanwhile, argues that Putin himself has a remarkably malleable idea of what it means to win, and that his vision of the war allows him to believe that he can defeat and subjugate Ukraine even as the battles themselves are lost.
Now, I’m not quite sure that I’d go as far as either Alexander or Tatyana, but I do get the sense that the broader point stands: Putin has purposefully maintained a lot of room for maneuver on the question of the war’s aims and goals — and thus on the ability to claim victory — and we have yet to see anything that would call that into question.
The question, then, turns to the second part of the story: At what point might Putin actually lose control of the conversation itself?
According to data released by Carleton University political scientist Paul Goode this week, the answer is probably “no time soon”. Paul’s research shows just how much work has gone into priming the Russian population for war with Ukraine, and just how similar, in terms of scale and approach, that effort is to earlier, equally successful attempts to prime Russians for war with Ukraine in 2012, and with Georgia in 2008. What we don’t know — or don’t yet know, as I’m certain Paul and others are working on it — is what effect this priming has on actual citizens’ behavior, but given the broadly quiescent response to the war thus far, we would be safe to presume that the priming works.
It’s not just the top-down propaganda machine that gives the Kremlin confidence, though. An excellent and growing body of research by my King’s College London colleague Maxim Alyukov, together with Maria Kunilovskaya and Andrei Semenov, shows the lengths that the Kremlin goes to to dominate, to whatever extent it can, discussions of the war on online social media platforms and channels. By flooding the space, Alyukov, Kunilovksaya and Semenov argue, the Kremlin creates the impression among those who might oppose the war that they are alone and facing an overwhelming and insurmountable social consensus.
What may matter to Putin’s ability to rule, then, is less what is happening on the battlefield, and more what is happening to Russians’ sense of social consensus. If that horizontal pressure to stay in line recedes, Putin may find that no amount of rhetorical flexibility will allow him to remain relevant. In that respect, there is a danger that ordinary Russians — whether jarred by the news from Kherson or elsewhere, or reading about the shambles of military recruitment on Telegram — may stop recognizing their reality in Putin’s words.
Do I know what may cause that? No. It is far from inevitable that the social bonds that keep Putin powerful will be fractured by bad news; in fact, there is good reason to believe that they may be resilient in the face of bad news. But our inability to predict what might undermine that consensus necessarily reflects Putin’s own inability to predict the same thing: he knows nothing more than we do about when his victory may give way in the public eye to defeat, or when his accumulating defeats may open the door for someone else’s victory. And if we can get that calculation wrong, so, of course, can he.
What I’m reading
Last week, I cited a piece in Foreign Affairs by UCLA political scientist Dan Treisman, who argued that Putin was more likely to preside over Russia’s political and economic collapse, than to be removed by a coup. “No coup for you,” Dan wrote.
Well, Grigorii Golosov is clearly not a Seinfeld fan. Writing in Riddle, Grigorii, a political scientist at the European University at St. Petersburg, takes issue not with Dan’s assessment of the facts — they agree on the growing dysfunction of the system, and on the fragmentation of the elite and the security apparatus — but with his interpretation of their implications.
Let me take a step back. After losing the war in Ukraine, or simply failing to win it in any real sense, what will Putin face at home? Both Dan and Grigorii agree that he will be left with a state that is more difficult to run, and perhaps to govern. But Dan interprets this difficulty to extend to Putin’s own sense of his ability to stay in power; thus, facing elections in 2024, Putin might recognize these challenges and nominate a successor for the presidency — someone palatable to the elite and maybe even to the outside world — and thus at least partially relinquish power that, through dysfunction, he would already have ceased to wield.
For Grigorii, this scenario is implausible: whatever challenges Putin perceives, his ability to win the 2024 election is not likely to be among them. He writes:
We have absolutely no reason to expect Putin to fear such an outcome by 2024. Russian elections have long been set up in such a way that the incumbent holder of power simply cannot lose them. A positive outcome for Putin is guaranteed by a wide array of manipulation tools, from the complete closure of the electoral arena to all candidates who not fully controlled by the authorities, to the well-known peculiarities of voting and vote counting. In fact, if Putin had held a different view of his own electoral prospects, he would have had a stronger incentive to be cautious in foreign policy, even if he believed that the success of the Ukrainian operation was guaranteed. In February this year, however, Putin knew that no deterioration in the economic situation, even if the vast majority of Russia’s population were affected by the consequences of Western sanctions, would undermine his electoral prospects, since those prospects were unambiguous and predetermined.
In Grigorii’s analysis, then, the combination of mounting dysfunction and the lack of incentive for Putin to relinquish power voluntarily makes a coup more likely, not less. Seeing the writing on the wall, the elite would eventually come to recognize that they need a new man in charge — one who can shift the country’s trajectory and begin to restore the rent flows on which they rely, while guaranteeing their security and unaccountability as Putin once had.
The only facts capable of determining who is right — Dan or Grigorii — aren’t available to us, or to them: they’re in the future. I hate to say we’ll have to wait and see, but we will, in fact, have to do just that. Read for yourself, but I for one can see the logic in both arguments. While you’re at it, read Leonid Volkov’s op-ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that whatever comes after Putin will be very different — and, he thinks, better. On the face of it (though it’s certainly not his objective), Leonid’s argument flies in the face of political science: there’s a lot of work to show that when regimes collapse, they tend to get reconstituted in a form that strongly resembles what they were before the collapse. I frequently cite Henry Hale’s book, Patronal Politics, on this subject, and I’m doing it again. As Henry shows, while elites in a system like Russia’s may have tired of their leader, they haven’t tired of the power and privilege that the system provided, and so they have strong incentives simply to find someone who will do it better.
Leonid — a close lieutenant of Alexei Navalnyi — is essentially arguing that Putin may have made that kind of reconstitution impossible. Knowing that his competence might someday be challenged, Putin has made a show of undermining any potential successor. (Just look what happened to Dmitry Medvedev, the only other living human being who has actually held the job.) In the process, he has encouraged conflict among the elite and made himself the only person that any of them can trust. When he goes, Leonid argues, the cohesion of the system will go with it. At that point, Russia’s constitution could conceivably take over, as elites would be left with no other choice than to turn the question of succession over to voters. It’s an interesting counter-point to Henry’s work, and again I’m unaware of any good way of resolving the debate — other than, once again, to wait and see.
Lastly, as we witness Ukraine’s cautious liberation of Kherson — reflecting a spirit and a professionalism that both stand in stark contrast to the military they are gradually defeating — I highly recommend taking a look at Hanna Shelest’s new policy memo for the European Council on Foreign Relations, outlining exactly how Ukraine has transformed its military into a formidable fighting force.
What I’m listening to
I’ve written before about people who never seem to write a bad song — Shovels & Rope, for instance, and Laura Marling. Dan Mangan should have been on that list, too. I’ve been a fan ever since I found his 2009 album Nice, Nice, Very Nice, and if “Basket” isn’t just about the most heart-breaking song you’ve ever heard, then I can’t help you. I’ve been listening over the last couple of days to his new album, Being Somewhere. It’s a different sound than what first got me into him — less of the just-a-guy-with-a-guitar, more into finding a soundscape that accentuates the lyrics — but the songs are as good as ever.