Discover more from TL;DRussia
TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
18 March 2023: Turning points, plus texts and tunes
A couple of weeks ago, I promised a piece to come, laying out the argument for a more aggressive Western stance in defense of Ukraine. Written, together with Alina Polyakova, a week or so before the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion back in February, it finally saw the light of day in Foreign Affairs on Thursday. In a nutshell, Alina and I argue that a clear recognition of what is at stake in this war should motivate a clear strategic commitment not just to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”, but to win the war as quickly as possible.
It was heartening, then, to see Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin clearly state on Wednesday the argument that I’ve been waiting to hear from the Biden administration for months: Ukraine’s war is our war, because we won’t want to live in the world that emerges if Russia wins. (Are you listening, Ron DeSantis?) I’ll admit, though, that as a leftist and a committed internationalist, this is not the most comfortable argument to make — and so it was equally heartening to read Joe Cirincione’s Monday essay laying out the left-wing argument for fighting Putin as hard as we can. Of those who worry about American hegemony more than Putin’s aggression, he writes:
These critics make the worst mistake one can make in strategy: they misidentify the main threat. They focus on the past rather than the future. They fail to see the rising danger from an increasingly fascist Russia under Putin and the consequences for global peace should he succeed in redrawing the map of Europe by force. It is capitulation in a diplomatic cloak.
What I’m thinking about
There are dates, from time to time, when everything just seems to change. Sometimes they are moments of genuine contingency, when something happens that genuinely alters the calculations and trajectories of human action. More commonly, they are moments of crystallization, when we recognize the truth of a reality that has been building up around us. Either way, we look back on them as turning points.
Turning points like 7 October 2006. Anna Politkovskaya was far from the first Russian journalist to be murdered, but that was the day Russia became the kind of country where investigative journalists die.
Or 10 August 2008, when Russia became the kind of country that wantonly invades its neighbors, in this case Georgia.
Or 18 March 2014, when Russia became the kind of country that annexes its neighbor’s territory.
Or 27 February 2015, when the assassination of Boris Nemtsov made Russia the kind of country where opposition leaders die.
Or 24 February 2022, when Russia became what it had long been becoming: the most pressing threat to global peace and security.
And that brings us to 17 March 2023.
The International Criminal Court’s decision to indict Vladimir Putin as a war criminal may strike people as an empty gesture — morally significant, to be sure, but politically inconsequential. As I wrote for CEPA Friday afternoon, that’s a mistake. On the face of it, the news from the Hague did not give us any new information, and yet the indictment of Putin changes just about everything. For as long as Putin is in power, and perhaps longer, normalization of relations with Europe, with the West in general, and indeed with any of the 123 state parties to the Rome Statute is impossible.
Regardless of whether Putin ever ends up in the Hague, the long-term consequences of that fact are immense — potentially decades of isolation, conflict and the subjugation of every aspect of the Russian state to Putin’s personal survival. But the short-term consequences are no less striking. After all, people’s behavior in the present is powerfully shaped by their evaluation of their future. For anyone who was hedging their bets today to see how things might go tomorrow, whether that be Russian elites hoping for a partial postwar reset, or western leaders fretting about the same, the uncertainty that underpinned those thought processes has just evaporated. In its place, as I argued Friday, emerges a simple truth: with Putin, there is no future.
What I’m reading
In last week’s Roundup, I highlighted some research suggesting, among other things, that Russians of all stripes were reverting — with the state’s help — to individualized, atomized strategies of coping with the challenges of the war, in ways that reduce pressure on the regime. My reading list this week brought more evidence, from expected and unexpected quarters.
Exhibit A was a story Sunday in Meduza, about a group of soldiers’ relatives, who recorded a video appeal to Putin, asking him to bring their relatives back from the front, and/or to provide them with adequate supplies. The relatives complained that the soldiers “are being thrown like meat to storm fortified positions. Five people against 100 well-armed enemies.” On the face of it, this may look and feel like collective action, but it is substantively indistinguishable from the kind of personalized appeal to the Kremlin that Sasha de Vogel focused on in her research, featured last week. The problem here isn’t so much that the complaining relatives didn’t show any opposition to the war itself. It’s that the solution they were seeking was a private solution, one that would only help their sons, brothers and husbands in the war. Absent was even an explicit appeal to change the circumstances for soldiers as a whole.
Exhibit B was a long piece by Anton Troianovski in the New York Times on Monday, on the lives of the burgeoning Russian expat community in Dubai. Dubai, to be clear, is not Riga, Vilnius, Berlin or Yerevan, with their growing communities of political exiles. Rather, some in the cohort Troianovski about which writes seem as likely to have moved from Mayfair as from Moscow, plus a coterie of programmers, marketing execs and other white-collar professionals whose opinions about the war are difficult to discern. On the one hand, they suggest that things in Russia aren’t as bad as many make them out to be, and that they’re happy not to see Ukrainian flags waving in the UAE. On the other hand, they are in Dubai, and not in Russia. Their practiced ambiguity is the point here: if their positions are illegible to us, they are illegible to those around them, and so there can be no effective mobilization.
Exhibit C was a similarly long piece by Polina Ivanova in Thursday’s Financial Times, ostensibly on the state of Russia’s once thriving cultural scene. Center-stage in Ivanova’s piece is a progressive theater director named “Oleg”, who moved some time ago from Moscow to “a remote corner of Siberia” to modernize and revitalize a theater troupe. Shortly after the war began, Oleg got a call from the Ministry of Culture, asking him to ask his troupe to record a message in support of the war. Oleg was opposed and assumed his actors would be, too. He was wrong.
But when the actors present responded “Why not?” and told him they would happily record the support videos, Oleg was dumbstruck. The actors didn’t just want to protect their honorary titles, they were earnestly pro-war. “They told me, ‘But the government is doing everything right,’” Oleg recalled. “I understood then that it was all over.”
In the decade or so of surveys I’ve been running in Russia, one of the consistent findings has been that Russians on all sides of the pro-/anti-Putin divide tend to think that they are in the majority: even those who are relentlessly reminded by the state that they are in the minority generally believe that most of their compatriots are of like mind. Not surprisingly, that belief tends to be strongest when it comes to people’s closest social circles. When that belief is punctured, as it was for Oleg, the result is isolation, atomization and despair.
The privatization of action, the ambiguity of position and the despair of isolation — these, I think, are the realities of Russian life right now. It is a life in which most individuals seem to have little or no use for politics at all, or even for the state, except as a means to very particular and limited ends. It is a social reality, alas, that suits the Kremlin very well.
What I’m listening to
I first got hooked on Hurray for the Riff Raff probably seven or eight years ago, somewhere between the releases of Small Town Heroes and The Navigator. I was — and am — a sucker for the subtle edge in Alynda Seggara’s Gillian-Welch-meets-Alanis-Morissette voice. Somehow, though, I missed the release in 2022 of Life on Earth. Gone, mostly, is the folk-rock-and-country twang of earlier albums. In is a mixture of synth-pop and laconic punk. Ever-present are the gut-punch ballads. All of it is great.