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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
13 May 2023: Defeatism, plus texts and tunes
Once again, apologies are due: There was no TL;DRussia roundup last week. I blame jet lag. By way of penance, I bring you a painting I came across in the Museo Novocento in Florence at the end of a long week. Any political associations are the exclusive responsibility of the beholder.
What I’m thinking about
Rumor has it, as I write this edition of the newsletter, that Ukraine has begun its long-awaited spring/summer counter-offensive. Or maybe it hasn’t. More likely, the line between the presence and absence of an offensive is blurrier than the non-specialist pundits would have us believe. In any case, things will eventually become clearer — right before becoming unclear again.
As Ukraine’s attempt to alter the disposition of the battlefield draws closer, we have begun to see a reemergence of voices calling for caution, and warning against the potential dangers of a catastrophic military defeat for Moscow. This debate is more cautious and nuanced than it was at the outset of the war, when a number of voices began calling for giving Vladimir Putin an “off ramp” almost as soon as it became clear that he would fail to win the war outright and in short order. The crux, however, is the same: too much Ukrainian success, it is argued, could lead to a massive and potentially nuclear Russian escalation, and/or to chaos within Russia itself.
This argument is less prominent on the op-ed pages these days than it once was, but it is very much there in the policy and academic discussions; I’ve heard it around tables from Washington to London to Florence, where I am at the moment. (Tough life, I know.) And I’m not the only one to notice. My King’s College London colleague Ruth Deyermond had an excellent dissection of the discussion in a Twitter thread, fittingly enough, on Russia’s 9 May ‘Victory Day’, and another one two days later on the Crimean aspect of the argument. Both are well worth reading.
Ruth’s point in both threads is that Western anxiety over the potential consequences of a wholesale collapse of the Russian war effort is fueled not by a robust analysis of what might actually cause phenomena of which we are rightfully afraid — nuclear war, or large-scale upheaval in the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal — but by Western policymakers’ continuing inability to conduct just such a robust analysis.
It is instructive, then, to read Ruth’s threads in the context of a third thread by the Russian sociologist Greg Yudin, on 10 May. While Greg’s argument is more complex than I can summarize here, the key point (as I take it, at least) is that the Russian propaganda machine and its affiliated echo chambers have begun to take the idea of defeat seriously, even fixating on it — but while that machine is trying to galvanize public support for the war by painting defeat as something that would be to the severe detriment of every Russian citizen in equal measure, the public appears to be resisting that effort.
Greg’s argument points, I think, to a bigger analytical challenge (about which I’ve written in the past) — namely our inability to be precise about what we mean when we talk about Russia. On some level, everybody understands that there are multiple actors at play here, which we should not conflate: the Russian people (individually and in groups), the Russian elite (likewise individually and in groups), the Russian military (in its various formations), and Putin himself (both as an individual, and as a collective of core policymakers). And yet they get conflated all the time.
Let’s take, for example, this sentence: “If Russia is at risk of losing the war, it may respond with a tactical nuclear strike.” We’ll ignore the question of whether this sentence is analytically correct and focus instead on its grammar. Russia features twice in this sentence — first as the entity that might lose the war, and second as the entity that might respond with a tactical nuclear strike. But what does Russia mean in each of these instances?
Let’s start with the second instance, because it’s clearer: the only version of “Russia” that can launch a tactical nuclear strike is Putin, as commander in chief; only he has the formal and informal power to make such a think happen. But what about the first instance? Is it also Putin who might be at risk of losing the war? On the surface, maybe, but dig a bit deeper and that proposition doesn’t hold up. If it were a question of Putin alone, it makes little difference whether he wins or loses. If, however, we presume that Putin has some kind of legitimating relationship with a broader conceptualization of Russia — one that might include masses or elites or both — then the question of that Russia’s response to military defeat becomes the reason that Putin cares about winning or losing the war.
To be clear, I am not just splitting semantic hairs here. If we presume that Putin might be moved to a nuclear escalation by the prospect of military defeat, and if the theoretical mechanism that creates this risk lies not exclusively within Putin’s psyche, but rather within his relationship with the elites and masses, then we need to know whether the Russian masses or elites care enough about the war to respond in a way that might push Putin to escalate. That is a difficult enough question to answer — but if we collapse Putin, the masses and the elite into a single, undifferentiated “Russia” we won’t even be able to ask it.
For what it’s worth, the evidence that I’m seeing — including the evidence that Greg is seeing, and others — does not amount to support for the anxieties some have expressed about the perils of victory. While there is sufficient public support to allow Putin to pursue the war, that is not the same thing as saying that there is an active coalition that would seek to keep the war going, even if Putin wanted to end it. To the contrary, evidence suggests that many, if not most Russians would express support for the regime’s policies vis-a-vis the war regardless of what those policies turn out to be.
The obverse, however, is also true: imposing a loss on “Russia” in some broad sense — the Russian people, or the notional national interests of the Russian state — is only meaningful if we believe that this broader Russia is the one that will make the decision to stop fighting, or to go nuclear, or whatever it is we’re interested in. At the very least, we would need a clear(-ish) understanding of how the sentiments of that broader Rusia impinge on the behaviors of Putin. For the moment, we are seeing a Putin who is aware of this broader sentiment, but who seems unperturbed by it and confident in his ability to manipulate or elide it.
For this reason, I am equally uncomfortable with arguments about the dangers of a Russian defeat, and with arguments about the nearness of one. Both arguments collapse multiple sets of actors into one single “Russia” and pretend that if we can contend with one of these Russias, we have effectively dealt with all of them. Wherever your anxieties lie, that is a dangerous illusion.
What I’m reading
Lots of good and important things to read have piled up over the past two weeks — too many, in fact, to list here — but I’ll try to hit the highlights, starting with an essay in Meduza by Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, another of my colleagues from King’s. The piece, which revisits the question of whether this is Putin’s war or Russia’s, is a thoughtful counterpoint to some of the issues I’ve tried to raise above. In a nutshell, Gulnaz argues that while the notion that there is another Russia out there that might behave differently than Putin’s is an idea worth fighting for, it remains little more than idea. The Russia we have is the Russia that must be defeated (which does not undo the necessity of determining exactly what we mean by “Russia”).
Sasha de Vogel, whose work I have featured before, has an excellent essay in Dissent, in many ways deepening and broadening the discussion raised by Gulnaz (although Sasha’s essay came first). In trying to explain why Russians accommodate all kinds of depredations and deprivations, including those embodied by this war, Sasha leans on the psychological concept of “learned helplessness”. I’m not entirely sure that I agree — I tend to think Russians retain more agency than the idea of learned helplessness allows, even if they tend to perceive and deploy it in only limited ways — but that doesn’t detract from the essay itself, which is highly thoughtful and informative.
Sticking with the theme of the public, Maxim Litvarin had a data piece in Mediazona on the upward trend in desertions from the Russian military, which in the first four months of 2023 exceeded the entire number from 2022. This chimes with recent thoughts by Dara Massicot, from the Rand Corporation, on the parlous state of morale in the Russian armed forces.
Finally, the past two weeks have seen a lot of interesting reporting on sanctions — both in terms of their impact on the Russian economy, and the ways in which Russia (and some of its friends) work to avoid or evade them.
The Financial Times reported on 8 May that the Russian government was raising its tax rate for the country’s hydrocarbon sector, to cushion the blow to the budget caused by G-7 price caps — some of the best evidence we have thus far that the caps are having an impact.
Kommersant reported on 4 May that sentiment among Russian businesses across the key sectors of the economy is now on a broad and sustained downward trend, again suggesting that the government’s efforts to soften the impact of sanctions and redirected trade flows are growing threadbare.
In a similar vein, Kommersant reported on 10 May that prices for consumer electronics — appliances and the like — have jumped (again), this time by 10-12% in response to increased export controls imposed by Kazakhstan in response to the threat of secondary sanctions from the US and the EU.
Returning to the FT, the paper is rapidly becoming the go-to source for investigative reporting on sanctions-busting, and they are producing excellent work at an amazing clip. On 3 May, Miles Johnson, Max Seddon and Chris Cook uncovered the FSB-led networks that are smuggling high-end electronics from the EU to Russia. Among the revelations in the piece is the implication that there is still not enough intelligence sharing between Washington and Brussels (and through Brussels, various EU capitals) when it comes to identifying and interdicting these sorts of threats. And on 4 May, Tom Wilson, Chris Cook, Cloe Cornish and Anastasia Stognei explore the case of the fly-by-night Indian company that has suddenly become not only one of the biggest shippers of Russian crude, but the owner of one of the world’s largest shipping fleets — almost entirely at the service of Rosneft.
Finally, as the news came down that the global drinks giant Pernod Richard would stop selling
coal to Newcastle vodka to Russia (among other beverages), Oleg Khokhlov published an interesting essay in Re:Russia on the now-you-see-us-now-you-don’t nature of Western companies’ presence in wartime Russia. Aside from the obvious (but nonetheless often overlooked) point that no one has actually imposed a full-scale trade embargo on Russia, Khokhlov usefully unpacks the range of issues that Western companies face in navigating whether and how to leave Russia, another reminder that over-generalization is the enemy of good analysis.
What I’m listening to
This isn’t new — something like 13 years old, I think — but it’s been my earworm this week, and unlike most earworms, I don’t actually want to get this one out of my head. It’s remarkably easy to listen to. A propos of nothing and everything.