TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
15 July 2023: Won and lost, plus texts and tunes
As NATO leaders gathered in Vilnius for their summit, I attended a dinner in DC with a senior European diplomat who described what he believed the summit’s strategy would be in terms resembling the picture above: spagat.
He wasn’t wrong.
To summarize some thoughts I shared at the time, what the summit gave Ukraine — an assurance that it would join “when Allies agree and conditions are right” — wasn’t entirely meaningless. NATO acknowledged that Ukraine no longer needed a “Membership Action Plan” as a stop-gap, that things had progressed well beyond that point. And yet, while the allies recognized that Ukraine was in many respects ready for NATO, NATO clearly wasn’t ready for Ukraine.
Now, to be clear, the idea that Ukraine was going to get NATO membership in Vilnius was always preposterous. There is no feasible way to let a country in while it is in the throes of a very hot war. But the spagat — in which Ukraine is with NATO but not of NATO — is a highly uncomfortable and inflexible pose, and the longer NATO tries to maintain it, the more I’m afraid it will become a liability.
What I’m thinking about
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Biden Administration has, in my opinion, handled the war in Ukraine about as well as it is possible to expect. I might have preferred decisions to have been taken at a different pace, or — as above — a different tack at the NATO summit in Vilnius. But in making my own pronunciations I have the benefit of the absence of consequence. If I get things wrong, I look silly. If Biden gets things wrong, people die.
That said, there are times when my patience is strained, and never more so then when someone in the administration — most recently President Biden himself — says something to the effect of “Putin has already lost” the war.
No, he hasn’t.
My beef isn’t just that the war isn’t over, or that there’s a big difference between Putin losing and Ukraine winning. And yes, I get what Biden is trying to say: the goals Putin laid out on the 23rd of February, 2022, are unachievable. In that regard, he lost the war before it ever began. But that is almost entirely besides the point.
The idea that we have dealt a strategic defeat to Russia is false, because the Russia that has been strategically defeated is not the Russia with which Ukraine is at war. Yes, as the Administration will point out, Russia has been stymied in its territorial ambitions, has become less prosperous and secure, has pushed Finland and Sweden off the fence and into NATO, and while Ukraine may not yet be in NATO, NATO is very much in Ukraine. And if Russia were a country in which the president were accountable to the national interest in some meaningful sense, all of that would matter. But Russia is not that country.
As I have been arguing for a very long time, in Vladimir Putin’s system of interests and incentives, the fight in Ukraine is subsidiary to the fight in Russia — and on that front, the war is going gangbusters. Evgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny notwithstanding (about which more in a moment), Putin’s power at home now seems more robust than it was prior to February 2022. Indeed, a confident Putin appears to be cementing the war as the foundation on which his rule will rest for the remainder of his time in office.
While there is no good way to discern exactly what ordinary Russians believe about the war or how fervently they believe it, the reality is that Putin has faced no concerted popular resistance. An early wave of protests was quickly and convincingly dispersed, as was another that emerged when the Kremlin announced “partial mobilization” in the fall of 2022. Those who don’t support the war or simply don’t want to fight in it have turned mostly to passive resistance, fleeing the country in their hundreds of thousands, or bribing their way out of military service. For the most part, the Kremlin has been happy to let people resist individually, so long as they don’t resist collectively.
For those who dare to disagree openly with the idea that Russia is fighting for its very existence, every interaction with a colleague, a teacher, a neighbor or even a random stranger risks jail, lost parental rights, or worse. Even many of those who aren’t on board with Putin’s imperialist ideology still believe that, having started a war, their country should probably find a way to win it – or at least not to lose.
As a result, when most of Putin’s subjects look around, they see a landscape devoid of opposition but replete with peril, and that same peril prevents anyone from challenging the regime on issues, like rising prices and falling standards of living, that have nothing at all to do with the war. Indeed, the idea of existential geopolitical conflict has become so central to the Kremlin’s narratives on most facets of Russian life – from shortages of consumer goods to galloping censorship – that it is impossible to imagine Putin ever being able to pivot away from it.
What about that whole Prigozhin thing? To my mind, at least, the fact we ought to be paying most attention to is not that Prigozhin rose up, but that nobody joined him, and the regime survived. This is, I think, because the war has worked a magic on Putin’s relationship with the country’s rich and powerful similar to the one it has worked on ordinary citizens. Yes, the war and Western sanctions have combined to wipe more than $100 billion off of the collective wealth of Russia’s erstwhile oligarchs, but the conflict has created enough new wealth that there is still something to compete for. After all, the metal that goes into tanks and shells, the armies of mercenaries, the logistics that supply the front and help evade sanctions – all of these are generous sources of income for those who can position themselves properly. And doling out access to that income, while profiting in the process, is precisely the game that made Putin powerful in the first place.
For those elites who are still uncertain, Putin offers the same quiet flexibility that he offers to ordinary Russians, albeit on a grander scale. Gone, to be sure, are the mansions in London, but Abu Dhabi offers cheaper luxury and better weather. Calls for rich Russians to repatriate their wealth have gone both unheeded and unenforced. Yes, everyone in the system except Putin is less autonomous than they were 17 months ago, and almost everyone is poorer, but they are all still richer and less accountable to the law than they would be in any other jurisdiction or under any other ruler. Thus, for the Kremlin’s relationship with the elite, too, there is no effective substitute for war.
When you recognize that Putin is gunning for gains at home, not abroad, it becomes a little bit clearer why he keeps fighting even when, from a national-interest perspective, the war would seem to have been lost.
What I’m reading
If there’s one thing we learned this week, it’s that the Prigozhin story isn’t over yet. It’s not just that we found out that Putin met with Prigozhin and a group of his subordinates only days after the mutiny. Or that Putin told Kommersant reporter Andrei Kolesnikov that Wagner ever existed only days after claiming on television that the state had financed Wagner to the tune of 86 billion rubles a year:
“Should we assume,” I asked, “that PMC Wagner will continue to exist as a fighting unit?”
“But PMC Wagner doesn’t exist!” Vladimir Putin exclaimed. “We don’t have a law on private military organizations. So it just doesn’t exist!”
It’s more complicated than that, of course. But in some ways, it isn’t. Apart from anything else, Putin’s a storyteller — and in this story, it would seem, some things just need to disappear.
And yet, of course, even that’s not the whole story. The Wall Street Journal’s Thomas Grove broke a story on Thursday suggesting not only that Gen. Sergei Surovikin — whom US intelligence, and perhaps the Kremlin, suspects of supporting Prigozhin’s mutiny — has been detained by the authorities, but that maybe as many as a dozen other senior officers have, too. While none of this has been independently corroborated, it’s interesting to note that the Kremlin seems to be coming down harder on Prigozhin’s supporters than on Prigozhin himself. Indeed, from Putin’s point of view, the real threat may not be Prigozhin, who has already outed himself as untrustworthy, but all the other untrustworthy officers masquerading as loyal.
Among the latter, evidently, is Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, who appears to have been summarily dismissed from a key front-line command position after criticizing military strategy. At the very least, this suggests that Prigozhin’s gripes about the conduct of the war aren’t the ravings of a rogue mercenary, but are more widely shared within the military itself.
As the story rolls on, more good analysis is rolling in. Of note:
A massive, five-part series in Proekt on Prigozhin, including fascinating insider-views of the events of 24-25 June — truly phenomenal reporting — including Prigozhin’s own admission to his men that he simply “lost it”;
Levada Center director Denis Volkov in Forbes.ru on the impact of the mutiny on Russian public opinion — the key takeaway being that the events appear to have heightened the general sense of anxiety in the country (but read the whole thing, as there’s much more to it than that);
An unsigned analysis in Re:Russia on how the shift of public media consumption away from television and towards Telegram both helped make Prigozhin’s mutiny possible and shaped the way people responded to it;
A piece in Russia Post by Carnegie’s Andrei Kolesnikov (not to be confused with Kommersant’s journalist of the same name) on the fiscal and political-economy challenges laid bare by the mutiny (consonant, in many ways, with the argument I tried to make for CEPA); and
Enough Prigozhin. On other fronts:
My CEPA colleague Nicolas Tenzer had a sober (and fairly damning) review of the Vilnius summit and everything leading up to it in his own Substack, which is very much worth reading;
Over at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Alicja Bachulska and Mark Leonard published an excellent policy brief on how China’s foreign policy establishment sees the war, with conclusions that will make neither Moscow nor Washington happy;
The Boris Nemtsov Foundation published the findings of its research project on Russia’s wartime diaspora outside of the European Union, with intriguing conclusions about how Russians are and are not integrating and the strategies they are pursuing;
Ekaterina Mereminskaya had an interesting piece in iStories on how Russia is facing growing labor shortages, which are likely to limit the country’s ability to adapt to the challenges of sanctions and a wartime economy;
On the other side of the economic coin, Re:Russia picked up on an Oxford Institute for Energy Studies report concluding that technology sanctions are having less of an impact on Russian oil production than previously predicted;
Returning to the war, one of the most troubling pieces of reporting I’ve seen thus far was published this week by a team from the Associated Press, detailing the treatment of Ukrainian civilian prisoners by occupying Russian forces — forced to dig trenches in the bitter cold, executed en masse, and increasingly incarcerated in a growing network of prison camps.
What I’m listening to
I was going to feature this week music from Волки в тире (“Wolves in the firing range”), the new album of Russian anti-war songs by DDT frontman Yury Shevchuk and Dmitry Emelyanov, and featuring an impressive array of musicians who have put themselves on the right side of history. And maybe someday I will. But that was before I read the Associated Press piece I mentioned a moment ago, and before I came across the Ukrainian group Okean Elzy’s wartime recasting of its song Я ïду додому (“I’m going home”).