Uncharted territory

Vladimir Putin started a war of subjugation against Ukraine. Ukraine has put up an unexpectedly strong resistance and the West pulled out all the stops from sanctions. A couple of days after the aggression started, it seems that everyone wants and expects fast results. Much will depend on Putin’s political Hinterland.

Since February 24 when Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation”, in reality a declaration of a war of conquest against Ukraine, one of the key questions on the mind of the leaders of EU and NATO countries has been how irrational Putin is and how – if at all – he can be influenced to stop hostilities.

In the wake of the all-out war, which many, including the author of this article, did not consider the likeliest outcome until very late, based on what we knew about the likely costs of it, some suggested that Putin cannot be called a rational actor any more. This would be an easy way out, but it would miss the point that the Russian president is likely acting rationally from his own point of view. One widespread analytical flaw of recent years has been underestimating the impact of Putin’s growing isolation, which certainly accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which the president spent mostly hunkered down in isolation, with extreme and inconvenient cautions demanded of anyone who would meet him, but which did not start in April 2020. Putin’s gradual withdrawal from operational politics was a product of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which both created the aura of a national leader standing above day-to-day bickering, and necessitated isolating him from the effects of economic hardship on public mood, which themselves were partly brought about by an extremely conservative fiscal policy aiming to isolate Russia from future sanctions.

Over the past two years, as Putin avoided publicity, even some of his core functions, such as ad hoc problem solving or announcing various cash injections to regions have been taken over by the digitalizing government of Mikhail Mishustin. This gradual withdrawal and isolation very likely reduced the breadth of information that reached Putin. In a way, this is very similar to how people are radicalized by social media echo chambers. This inevitably prompted the question of how to bypass the information gatekeepers; what blow, if any, is big enough to become a wake-up call either for Putin himself or for a critical number of people around him. On February 25 when, following a talk with Chinese president Xi Jinping who has been reluctant to lend full support to the war, Russia raised the prospect of talks in Minsk, there was a slight hope that this may have been enough. It quickly turned out that it was not.  Putin’s address on February 25, in which he talked about a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” ruling over Ukraine, was accompanied by a decidedly unhinged look.

This, in turn, changes the calculus of what is possible and thinkable in the coming weeks, and to a certain extent it has already created a sense of fear and urgency.

The initial phase of the Russian assault appeared slower and less successful than expected – according to military analysts – with the Ukrainian army putting up a stronger resistance than expected. However, many were quick to point out that the Russian army has not nearly used its full potential. On February 26, rumors circulating on Telegram suggested that the General Staff ordered the faster takeover of major cities – Kyiv and Kharkiv – “at all price”. Whether or not this is true, both cities suffered heavier artillery hits in the weekend.

As for the West, the past week saw an unprecedentedly fast escalation of sanctions, given the relatively muted response to the recognition of the separatist territories less than a week ago. On February 26, not only did the EU and the US agree to cut Russian banks off the SWIFT financial messaging system, but will also sanction the Russian Central Bank, which, depending on the severity of the measures, could deliver such a devastating shock to the Russian financial system and trade that it had been labeled a “nuclear option”.

This speed and the scale of the sanctions suggest that the West is not expecting to play a long game. The EU can afford trade disruptions and Russian countermeasures in the short term, but it is highly unclear whether there is a credibly contingency plan to refill gas storages before the end of 2022 and to potentially replace imports of metals such as palladium and platinum, of which Russia produces 39 and 11 percent of global supply, respectively. While in the case of Iran, these sanctions were calibrated to last for a longer period of time, the hope in Russia’s case seems to be that the escalation delivers a sharp enough blow to make a difference in the near future. But how could this happen?

Flooding and blocking

Putin’s increasingly ideological and aggressive rhetoric was replicated and amplified by some of his allies and media personalities. This is expected behavior in a personalist autocracy, as Paul Goode, a scholar who researched the issue, pointed out. However, while usually this allows Putin to appear as the moderate statesman, over the past days he has clearly been radicalizing the rhetoric himself. Lesser political actors, such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of Chechnya can afford to play this role all the time, because they have a protector in higher places and it is thus understood that this behavior is tolerated and plays a role. In Putin’s case, the situation is different. He himself has used the scare tactic identified by crime researchers as typical of Chechen organized crime – appear willing to go all in, even if this seems irrational, to raise the costs for your adversary – but this typically happens through deeds, not words. Since he is usually supposed to set the tone more subtly, some may find it harder to keep up with the tempo and rationalize this behavior. Especially if it turns out that Putin is building the war machinery on a shaky ground.

Looking at only the number of those who publicly protested against the war in Russia – 1,000 to 2,000 people in the biggest cities, significantly less elsewhere – one might come to the conclusion that they are a small and insignificant minority. However, we need to take into consideration that the level of political repression has been ramped up in an unprecedented manner over the past two years, with thousands of people arrested and prosecuted for attending peaceful rallies or expressing their opinions online, and intimidated in other ways, e.g. through leaks of personal data and harassment. This makes comparisons even with anti-war protests in 2014 difficult. However, the fact that there have been persistent (if small) protests across the country, and that several celebrities, public personalities, more than 150 local deputies and two Duma deputies openly questioned the war, knowing that they are risking at least consequences for their career, and in the worst case, arrest, suggests that the tolerance on which Putin built the aggression may be thinner than expected.

One caveat is that even if the thought of a war against Ukraine is unpopular, people will likely react differently if they think that the war is being thrust upon them by a foreign power. The Kremlin has spent a lot of effort on massaging the population’s perceptions, and with a degree of success: according to Levada Center, in February 60 percent agreed that NATO was responsible for the worsening of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, up from 50 percent three months earlier. Accordingly, the first line of communication in Kremlin-controlled channels has been that what is happening in Ukraine is not a war. The second line is that if it is a war, it is a defensive war. 

However, in case of a protracted war, which would likely take an enormous toll on lives and the economy, these perceptions may change relatively fast. This is because in recent years, the Russian population has been primed to believe, including through the brash war propaganda surrounding the Syrian intervention, that following the reforms of the past years, Russia now has a state-of-the-art military, which can easily defeat the kind of ragtag people the Kremlin now says it is after in Ukraine. So far, this has not been the case and the longer the war continues, the more difficult it will be to mask the gap between belief and reality, especially since, as Ian Garner who researched Soviet narratives of WW2 pointed out, it is impossible to create a positive case for a war.

The situation is similar with the economic costs of the war. While these can also be framed as something brought about by the vile West, it is questionable how effective this would be, considering that Russian citizens have not been prepared to expect economic disruptions as serious as await them in the coming weeks. On the contrary; over the past two years the government has tried to create a new form of legitimacy based on control and competence: an administrative machinery that may be unloved, but that is able to maintain a centralized control over the state, implement development initiatives and respond to citizens’ problems as they arise (e.g. by price controls). This illusion will almost certainly be shattered if problems on a scale much larger than the government has test-run the system for, e.g. bank runs and supply problems, begin.

The third line of communication – blocking communication channels that diverge from the official line by repressive means – is mean to lessen this risk. Again, this is something that had been prepared for years and ramped up to extremes over the course of 2020-21. The Kremlin has definitely acquired the tools to set up significant communication roadblocks, as evidenced by its successful attempts to throttle Twitter, extend its control over VK and force independent media outlets to close last year. Over the past days, it has blocked access to Facebook (with other social networks almost certainly to follow) and threatened media that reported on the war independently. Again, the problem is time: the strength of Kremlin’s repressive apparatus has always laid in the fact that it is able to project power effectively with well-timed crackdowns that are sometimes targeted and sometimes indiscriminate; but it is highly dubious whether it has the capabilities to enforce repressive regulation across the board for a sustained period of time, and every failure carries the added risk of making the system look vulnerable.  

Whether or not a real anti-war constituency is created in Russia from the weak tolerance that Putin is relying on, will depend largely on how much raw and reliable information Russians get about the realities of the war. The best initiatives build on the fact that censors are likely overstreched. They range from providing advice to circumvent internet blocks to urging celebrities to post information on platforms less likely to attract the attention of censors, or trying to hack television networks to flood them with content.

The government of Ukraine has itself been following a stellar communications strategy. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speeches, switching between Ukrainian and in Russian and addressing Russian citizens directly, were pitch-perfect. And the government is reaching out to ordinary Russians directly in other ways too: e.g. the Defense Ministry launched a hotline for the mothers of Russian soldiers sent to Ukraine. Viral footage from Ukraine has shown Russian soldiers who lost, clueless, occasionally afraid and disoriented, or else shooting at people who speak the exact same language and are no different from them. These videos can create a powerful impression if they reach their intended audience.

Signals from two directions

This matters because elite consensus under extreme stress is only sustainable when there are no obvious alternatives to the current course. If we accept that Putin’s behavior is partly explained by his having access only to filtered information, we have to consider that members of the political and business elite have better information than he does, e.g. about the actual state of the economy or the popular mood, that can exacerbate the tension between them and the president.

Take the military: since the renewed invasion began, there have been consistent rumors and anecdotal evidence of low morale among Russian troops.  According to an investigative report by the BBC, many of them – including commanders – found out about the invasion plans mere days before it began, even as Chechen forces, whose loyalty actually lies with Kadyrov (and through him, Putin) had known about the objective long before. This low morale and confusion may have impacted their performance and may cause concern and anger in higher places. Defense minister Sergey Shoigu looked visibly uncomfortable at Putin’s latest public appearance when the president ordered Russia’s strategic deterrent forces on alert. Presently, the military is the only institution that has a higher trust rating than the president (61 percent vs 53 as of 2021) and while Putin’s trust rating has been falling for years, the military’s has increased. If domestic tensions escalate, the army would be in a good position to support a transfer of power.

Putin’s bizarre “loyalty tests” over the past week – first in the Security Council, then with the representatives of the business elite – suggested that the president wanted to dispel potential rumors that not everyone was on board with a march on Kyiv, and showcase a supposed elite consensus. This prompts the question of why Putin felt that these charades were necessary. In the second meeting, the president seemed to offer assurances to the business elite that the economy would keep going. It is doubtful whether his words were believed.

The problem with these assurances is that many – Putin himself – may have overestimated Russia’s resilience in the face of the toughest possible sanctions that it could expect from the West.  Keeping the economy stable in case of an all-out war on Ukraine was not impossible in the short term, but in the longer term or in case of “nuclear” sanctions, it is going to be problematic. The vast state-driven development plans that many (including this author) thought would be Putin’s real bid to prop up his ratings before 2024, are now as good as dead, with the war expected to eat deep into reserves, and the investment climate as well as inflation worsening further. It seems that those promoting these development plans have not convinced Putin that they will make a big enough difference before 2024. (Ironically, this itself is partly the consequence of the accumulation of these reserves as a “war chest” instead of using them to stimulate growth. Putin may expect that oligarchs can be forced to fill this investment gap when they inevitably have to repatriate their assets, but this is highly dubious. This would likely take either more time than the Kremlin has, or an amount of coercion that would surely create backlash.

The situation is similar with hard currency reserves. Sanctions against the Central Bank will likely prompt massive dollarization in the real economy. To prevent major problems in the banking system, the Central Bank could forcibly convert forex deposits of Russian citizens – more than $92 billion – to rubles. Indeed a Communist deputy raised this possibility before the invasion. But this again would almost certainly lead to a major backlash both in the society and in the real economy.

Another field where the risk tolerance of Putin and the elite increasingly diverge is foreign reputation. It is hard to overestimate the extent to which Russia’s international reputation took a hit over the past week and likely for the long term. Democratic consensuses shifted in ways that seemed unfathomable. Russia was suspended from the Council of Europe by an overwhelming majority; Finland and Sweden started discussing their possible accession to NATO; Germany’s foreign policy took a U-turn in the matter of days, both on the issue of weapons shipments and on Nord Stream 2. Leading members of the Social Democratic Party called on its former leader, Gerhard Schröder who has reinvented himself as one of Putin’s lobbyists, to resign from his positions on the board of Russian energy companies. Other politicians are also getting significantly more scrutiny. It would not be surprising if French newspapers started digging into the true origins of a recent loan that Marine Le Pen’s presidential campaign acquired from a Hungarian bank. Czech president Milos Zeman, an admirer of Putin, called for sanctions to stop the “madman”. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s amicable relation with Putin has become a major theme in the campaign before a parliamentary election in April and forced Orban to concede his opposition to sanctions.

It is important to point out that this wave has not reached all countries and notably not the American right. However, the damage seems to be large enough that unless there is a clear break with Putin, and especially if the war is protracted, the Russian elite will face significantly more hostile conditions and scrutiny in the West than what they have gotten used to.

This shifting consensus also has a more severe consequence: it likely means that as long as Putin is in charge, even if hostilities cease and Russia starts negotiations with Ukraine, there is almost certainly no hypothetical agreement that would be enforceable in Ukraine, acceptable for Putin and that the international community can trust Russia not to rip up next year.

From the unexpectedly powerful reaction to Putin’s aggression, it appears that many in the international community have come to the above realization, decided that a transfer of power in Russia is a prerequisite of a lasting peace settlement in Europe, and formulate their policies with this in mind. This is wholly uncharted territory and, as Putin’s latest escalatory rhetoric, raising the specter of nuclear warfare, shows, carries unthinkable risks. Given the brittleness of Putin’s political Hinterland, it is not impossible that his people will turn against him; what kind of information and signals they get will be key.

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