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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
29 October 2022: Strategic miscommunication, plus texts and tunes
Did you miss me? Probably not, but apologies nonetheless for the unexcused absence of the TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup last Saturday. I spent the preceding week in Britain — witnessing the waning hours of the Liz Truss government — and wandering among(st) the more docile inhabitants of the far western reaches of Surrey. Like I said: not much of an excuse. And yet I still didn’t manage to get my thoughts together and into your inbox.
That’s one of the many things that separates me from Vladimir Putin, who evidently spent last weekend preparing for his big Valdai Club address on Thursday. You don’t, after all, write a 3.5-hour speech the night before. Or maybe Putin does, I don’t really know. The speech — which Dmitry Peskov said we should spend the ensuing weeks and months poring over, like a T.S. Eliot poem — was, in my not-so-humble estimation, not worth the time it took to listen to.
Maybe Putin is what has become of the young man carbuncular. Hurry up please, it’s time…
What I’m thinking about
I got some flak on Twitter for suggesting that we ought not hang on every word pronounced by the commander-in-chief of the country waging the largest European land war since the end World War II, and who controls a rather large nuclear arsenal — so I think I ought to explain.
My dismissal of Putin’s speech is not a dismissal of his actions. Rather, it’s a recognition that Putin’s speeches are actions in and of themselves, and of a particular — and largely predictable — kind. Putin’s speeches are meant to achieve three things:
Putin’s speeches are meant to recruit. He knows that he cannot win over a sufficient audience — whether domestically or internationally — through any one line of argumentation, and so he uses many. If you are motivated by great-Russian nationalism, he gives you plenty of that. Anti-americanism or post-modern anti-hegemonism? That, too. Don’t like woke? Putin’s your man! Putin doesn’t need you to buy all of what he’s saying. He just wants people to latch on at least to part of it, in order to either keep them onside (if they’re in Russia) or to keep them skeptical about Western responses to the war (if they’re abroad). To win over enough people, the speech almost has to be three and a half hours long.
Putin’s speeches are meant to confuse. It is impossible to determine from that speech exactly what Putin is trying to achieve. Domination of Ukraine? Probably. The end of American hegemony? Possibly. Preventing the expansion of LGBTQ+ rights in Russia? Undoubtedly. I could go on, and that’s the point. If we don’t agree on what Putin is after, we can’t agree on how to respond, and we can’t predict what he might do next. As a result, we end up preparing for every interpretation and eventuality, which means that we’re not really prepared for any of them.
Putin’s speeches are meant to provide room for maneuver. We might think of Putin as a puppet-master, but he has is own uncertainties. He does not know — indeed, cannot know — how his various audiences will respond to what he says and to what he does. Military mobilization was meant to bolster the army, but it fractured public opinion. Bombing Ukrainian cities and cutting off gas to Europe was meant to weaken morale, but it has only galvanized resolve and solidarity. Putin thus needs to experiment with different rhetorical and tactical approaches, leaving himself the flexibility to run with what works and abandon what doesn’t.
Note what’s not on that list: Putin’s speeches are not meant to inform. They are pieces of strategic communication, meant to produce audience responses that amplify Putin’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses. So by all means, listen in — but not too closely.
What I’m reading
Ten days ago, when I was still galavanting around the wilds of western Surrey and Liz Truss was still hanging onto office, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage — an online op-ed section featuring academic research — published a piece that has been bothering me ever since. Evgenia Olimpieva (a doctoral student at the University of Chicago), Irina Olimpieva (a founder of the now shuttered Center for Independent Social Research in Russia, currently on a fellowship at George Washington University) and Masha Galenko (a freelance journalist) wrote about what they called “stealth resistance” in Russia to Putin’s war. Broadly put, this “stealth resistance” includes everything from semi-clandestine efforts to support draft-dodgers, to performative acts of dissent, such as graffiti or lobbing a mostly harmless Molotov cocktail at a military recruiting office.
Everything they report is real and true. My question is, what does it mean? Olimpieva, Olimpieva and Galenko argue that this resistance signals an underlying strain of “radical resistance to the war”, and is in itself a response to the severe constraints that the Kremlin has placed on more overt forms of resistance. Maybe. That cuts, though, against the argument that I’ve made about the nature of Russian resistance — namely that people tend to start with individual and low-level acts of resistance, escalating to large-scale collective resistance only if and when the state’s stance makes it necessary.
It also cuts against the excellent essay in the New York Times on Thursday by my King’s College London colleague Gulnaz Sharafutdinova. She looks at her own research and at the most recent Levada Center polling data and finds a much less happy story: one of stubborn social consensus in support of the war, despite a growing understanding that the war is not going well and will not make Russians more prosperous or secure. She writes:
As of now, like their leader, many Russian citizens are invested in victory in Ukraine — whatever that is deemed to mean.
If Gulnaz is correct — and all the evidence I can find suggests that she is — then the “stealth resisters” are driven underground not so much by their fear of the state, as by their fear of their fellow Russians. In some ways, though, that might make their resistance seem even braver.
In the same context, and for more insight, it’s worth taking a look at two reports from Russian investigative journalists. The first, published 21 October by iStories, delves deeply into the dysfunction that has plagued Russia’s military mobilization drive, and likely forced Putin to abandon the idea, at least for the time being. The second, published 25 October by Verstka, exposes the impact that mobilization is having on the functioning of the government itself — primarily through the loss of civil servants at all levels either to the front, or to the border. (As always, Google Translate is your friend.)
What I’m listening to
There are a small number of artists who, in my estimation, have never written a bad song, or even an average one. Album after album, they produce nothing but gems. Laura Marling is one — every single song of hers is a diamond. Shovels & Rope is another. Though their songs are rougher hewn, as are the voices of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, I find myself endlessly fascinated.
And so I’m not quite sure how I missed the release earlier this year of their latest album, Manticore. (No, not that manticore.) Actually, I do know how I missed it: there were other things going on in February. And, probably, I wouldn’t have had the headspace to let them in. I’m glad I waited.