Discover more from TL;DRussia
TL;DRussia Weekly Roundup
19 November 2022: All together now, plus texts and tunes
The start of the week found me in Belgrade, attending a workshop on governance, transparency and accountability in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. It was a fascinating series of discussions, which will eventually yield some interesting work, and an interesting vantage point from which to watch events unfold in Ukraine, in Russia and in Poland. Most of the people at the workshop, of course, shared the same point of view on the war, and on politics in general, as I do. But we were all acutely aware of the fact that on most of these questions, we were a distinct minority in Serbia.
I haven’t had the opportunity to go to Russia since the war began — in fact, much longer than that, unfortunately, and so I haven’t had the opportunity to feel what it’s like to oppose this war from within. Belgrade was the closest I’ve come to that feeling so far, and I’m in awe of the Serbs, the Hungarians — and, yes, the Russians — who have the bravery to stand apart from that oppressive togetherness every day of their lives.
What I’m thinking about
I wrote last week, in the early days after Ukraine’s liberation of Kherson, that — contrary to much of the conventional wisdom about how the Russian public might react to Vladimir Putin’s flagging war — I still thought that the Kremlin had quite a bit of rhetorical wiggle room. It wasn’t until I got to Belgrade, though, that I realized exactly how much wiggle room he might have.
The conundrum for Putin — and, thus, for analysts — is this: Are there limits to Putin’s ability to declare victory, and are those limits shifting? As I’ve written before, I and many others in this business have been operating on the assumption that Putin could get away with just about anything short of losing the territory he controlled on 23 February 2022. And I still think that’s true, but the question was complicated by Russia’s announcement of the annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts, including Kherson oblast. Could stopping short of full control of those territories be seen in Russia as anything other than an admission of defeat?
Up until a few days ago, I was struggling to see how that could be done. Serbia, though, showed me the way.
At no point since Belgrade lost control of Kosovo in the summer of 1999 has any Serbian leader accepted the legitimacy of that situation. From 1999 to 2008, Serbian presidents portrayed the NATO/KFOR occupation of Kosovo as illegitimate but perhaps tolerable, because it could be seen as temporary. After Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was recognized by the United States and most members of the European Union, Belgrade’s stance shifted only slightly: Kosovan independence was still seen as temporary, to be remedied as soon as Serbia became strong enough to take it back.
For some post-1999 Serbian leaders — most notably Boris Tadić (2004-12) — that stance was not wholly incompatible with European integration: by joining the EU, Tadić could argue, Serbia would gain the power and leverage it would need to negotiate its way back to control of Kosovo. Serbia’s current president, Aleksandar Vučić, takes a much dimmer view of Europe, and of democracy in general. He does not specify the means by which he envisages taking back Kosovo, but his brinksmanship on relations with Kosovo is a never-ending and evidently popular source of nationalist and patriotic mobilization, and a pillar of his continued power.
I thus had Vučić in mind when — in my hotel room in Belgrade on Monday — I read about Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s indignation that Volodymyr Zelenskyy had dared to visit Kherson. “It’s Russian territory!” Peskov exclaimed. And in the absence of military or other means to put Russian troops back on the ground in Kherson (or in the large swaths of the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts that Russia also claims but doesn’t control), that indignation will do just fine, thank you.
In fact, irredentism may have its attractions for Putin. At this point, almost however this war ends, Russia will hold less Ukrainian territory than it formally claims (perhaps, and ideally, none at all). Had Russia not claimed that territory, that loss might seem neater — but that’s from our position, not Putin’s. From where Putin sits, he would have put Russians through a ruinous war for nothing at all, a fact that might eventually become difficult to explain. But by saying that Kherson and maybe even the entirety of the Donbas are “Russian territories temporarily occupied by Ukraine”, the Kremlin can position Russia (in the eyes of its citizens, if no one else’s) as victims, rallying support and patience for the eventual effort to reclaim them.
Yes, from any outside perspective this kind of irredentism — entirely manufactured and without any legal basis — would look entirely absurd. But Putin doesn’t need it to make sense to us, and just as he maneuvered a majority of Russians into supporting his claim on these territories, so, too, can he maneuver a sufficient number of Russians into maintaining that claim even when the army cannot. And that rhetorical slight of hand may be considerably easier to pull off than explaining why, in the aftermath of a loss or even a victory, Russians still won’t see a return to their pre-war prosperity. In fact, irredentism may be Putin’s last best hope.
What I’m reading
I did not, admittedly, find enough time to read this week, but a handful of things caught my eye nonetheless — including essays by two of the best Russian academics out there. One was an essay in Foreign Affairs by Konstantin Sonin, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, unsurprisingly focused on the present and future of the Russian economy. Konstantin reiterates much of what we already know: namely, that more than just affecting the size of the Russian economy, the war, sanctions and geo-economic isolation are affecting the shape of the Russian economy, depriving it of complexity, technology and efficiency — and thus potentially setting the country back by decades. But that’s not all. He writes:
“Even more consequential than Western … sanctions is the fact that Russia is unmistakably entering a period in which political cronies are solidifying their hold on the private sector. … To be sure, the Russian economy has long operated under a government stranglehold. But Putin’s most recent moves are taking this control to a new level.”
Konstantin’s article, then, helps to resolve something I’ve been wondering about for a while: what impact are this war and its implications having on the relationship between the Russian state and its economic elite? Way back in the early weeks of the war, I hypothesized that the disenfranchisement of the economic elite brought on by their inability to protect their assets abroad could lead to significant dissatisfaction, and perhaps a change of government. Clearly, that hasn’t come to pass, though we have continued to hear about grumblings of elite discontent. But that still left open the question of whether the Kremlin would try to keep the elite happy by giving them access to ever larger slices of Russia’s shrinking pie, or whether Putin would take advantage of the elite’s misfortune and deepen their servitude. The answer, per Konstantin, appears to be a bit of both.
The second essay that caught my eye was by Vladimir Gel’man, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki. Writing in Riddle, Gel’man chronicles the lengths to which Russian authorities are going to introduce political indoctrination throughout the country’s universities. Not content to root out bastions of dissent — something they mostly accomplished within the first weeks of the war — the government is now taking a two-pronged approach to prevent it from ever reemerging among the country’s young and educated. The first is to impose a rigid curriculum of authoritarian civics lessons, under the heading “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood.” That, though, is likely to fall somewhat flat, Gel’man notes, as the appetite for genuine ideological fervor among most Russian educators and students is generally low. More problematic is the second prong: forcing all university professors to undergo re-attestation, in order to identify and weed out those who might not be sufficiently loyal.
In other news from Russia, the independent news website Bumaga reports on the emergence of a new Council of Mothers and Wives, mobilizing to prevent their sons and husbands from being dragged off to war. The Council is, of course, reminiscent of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, which mounted an effective opposition to the brutality of Russia’s wars in Chechnya, but which were cowed into submission long before the invasion of Ukraine.
Like those committees, the Council — which appears to be made up of genuinely grassroots activists, mostly from provincial cities around the country, upset about soldiers being sent unprepared to the front, and about the military’s lack of transparency and accountability — studiously avoids both politics and pacifism. While calling for negotiations with Ukraine, the Council does not oppose the war itself; neither does it set itself up in opposition to the Kremlin. In fact, it has apparently formed an alliance with the Popular Union for the Rebirth of Russia, a group best known for its conspiracy-minded stances against vaccines and 5G networks. Still, it’s a space worth watching.
Further afield, the Körber Stiftung published the findings of its Weimar Task Force, which brought together German, French and Polish analysts to elaborate a security outlook for Europe to 2030. It stands in useful contrast — and perhaps complementarity — to the Biden Administration’s recent National Security Strategy, which largely fails to set out a vision for what a post-war relationship with Russia might look like. I’d describe the Russian policy envisioned by the Körber document as “isolate but invite” — keeping Russia under sanction until such time as political change makes it possible for Moscow to reengage on peaceful and lawful terms with Europe and with Ukraine. I would have liked to see a clearer set of benchmarks, but it’s a start.
And finally, since I’m still here in the UK and watching Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt try to keep the Tories in power, I was intrigued by Oxford political scientist Ben Ansell’s new Substack newsletter. Presenting a boatload of survey data, he shows that the Conservatives have radically shifted their support base away from the wealthy, educated urban classes, to the poorer, less educated and more rural constituencies. On the face of it, that shouldn’t be surprising: those were certainly the voters who Boris Johnson rode to victory in 2019. But while Liz Truss’s pale interpretation of Johnsonomics gave the City a conniption, the implication of Ben’s argument (at least as I read it) is that the return to supposed Tory orthodoxy under Sunak and Hunt may be a mistake — trying to please the readers of the Financial Times, when the party’s real support base reads the Daily Mail.
What I’m listening to
Seeking solace, I turned to Alexandre Tharaud’s 2019 album of 18th-century French piano music (or, more accurately, harpsichord music transcribed for piano), Versailles — think Rameau, Couperin, D’Anglebert and others. Immerse yourself, when you can.