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Wartime Putinism

What the Disaster in Ukraine Has Done to the Kremlin—and to Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the headquarters of the Southern Military District, Rostov-on-Don, Russia, December 2022 [Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik | Kremlin | Reuters]

Winning a long war requires a mobilization of troops and supplies that can outlast the other side. Positive objectives and clearly defined goals are the path to victory. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was able to mobilize American society around the imperative of Japan’s unconditional surrender. After a shocking attack on U.S. soil, Americans rallied around the objectives of defeating Japan, avenging the assault on Pearl Harbor, and eliminating the threat posed by imperial Japan. Those goals would have been sufficient to sustain the U.S. war effort, but Americans had an additional aim: to strike a blow for democracy. By defeating Japan, the United States would encourage the democratization (and, by extension, the Americanization) of Asia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not followed this classic formula. In fact, he has inverted it, by attacking Ukraine first and only then attempting to mobilize Russian society. He has described what Russia is doing in Ukraine not as a war but as a “special military operation.” He has never articulated a set of persuasive objectives; his stated goals have shifted over time. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has at various points aimed to halt an invented genocide, to “de-Nazify” a country that was not fascist, to liberate Ukraine’s allegedly Russian nature, and to demilitarize the country—even though it posed no real threat to Russia. According to VTsIOM, a state-owned polling institution, a majority of Russians considered Ukraine a friendly country before the war. Only 11 percent of Russians saw Ukraine as an enemy.

It is tempting to see Putin’s war as a total failure. From Kyiv to Kherson, Russia has endured significant battlefield losses. It has solidified Western support for Ukraine on a scale unthinkable before the war and provoked a formidable response from Kyiv. As Ukraine’s military improves, Russia’s prospects for ending the war on its terms are fading away—not that these terms have ever been clear. Russia also faces sanctions imposed by many of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced countries. With so many forces arrayed against Putin, some experts have speculated about a possible crackup of his regime.

But the regime in the Kremlin is hardly on the verge of collapse. Putin has used the war to clamp down on Russian society, to pull elites even closer to him, and to shore up his domestic position. No longer able to lean on his reputation as a foreign policy genius—capable of wresting Crimea from Ukraine (as he did in 2014) or making Russia a serious player in the Middle East (as he did in 2015)—the Russian president has instead focused on militarizing the state and the public sphere, purging those who openly dissent from the government’s position on the war, and stoking militant anti-Westernism among the wide swaths of the public that are, if not pro-war, at least genuinely anti-antiwar.

Call it “wartime Putinism.” More repressive and less flexible than prewar Putinism, it has imposed the spirit of war on the Russian population. The price of not winning a war, however, is a panoply of negative objectives: not losing, not giving up, not admitting defeat, not allowing anything to threaten the survival of the regime. A fundamentally empty project, wartime Putinism is a Faustian bargain with Russia’s future. The Kremlin is no longer achieving a record of success but enforcing a narrative of success that is at odds with the reality on the ground. The war has created a version of Putinism that offers diminishing returns.


Putin has never been shy about waging war. His tenure as Russia’s president began with an inherited conflict in Chechnya and entanglement in Moldova. In 2008, when he was serving as prime minister, Russia invaded Georgia. And two years after he became president again in 2012, Putin annexed Crimea and infiltrated eastern Ukraine. By 2015, Russia’s military and intelligence services were taking an expeditionary turn, intervening in Syria, meddling in foreign elections, and flexing their muscles in Africa. Putin has long enjoyed being filmed and photographed as Russia’s commander in chief, and he has turned the public celebration of victory in World War II into a keystone of post-Soviet Russian identity.

This was the political and cultural trajectory that led to Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Yet that invasion was a turning point, a rupture even, making Putin’s government inseparable from war. Russia’s operations in Ukraine are on a different scale from those of Putin’s previous wars. The stakes are higher, as is the level of political repression.

Putin has exploited the war to reduce the political liberties of Russians to zero: no right to free speech, no right to assembly, no right to organize opposition to the government. The imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which occurred before the war, might have been more conspicuous without the war. Indeed, the tug of war between Putin and opposition forces escalated in 2012, when Putin came back to the Kremlin for his third presidential term, and in 2018, at the peak of Navalny’s efforts to forge an alternative to Putinism. This tug of war has vanished.

Meanwhile, wartime Putinism has had a surprisingly limited effect on the Russian economy. The same technocrats who warned Putin of the war’s potentially devastating consequences about a month before it began have worked hard to keep the Russian economy going since February 2022. Sanctions are closing off options for the Russian military and for some Russian businesses (for instance those that deal in metallurgy, automotive parts, machinery, and equipment), whereas other Russian businesses (those that deal in food or aluminum, for example) have been holding their own. Sanctions may prove more meaningful over time, yet they have not done that much to alter the lives of ordinary Russians. Those with means can still live comfortable lives. Those without means did not have much to lose, anyway. The government has been spending money lavishly on pensioners, poorer Russians, and those connected to the war effort; unemployment is low. If middle-class Russians and small-business owners have been hurt by the war, they are adjusting. At least for now, Russia shows every sign of being able to muddle through economically.

And for the time being, Putin can depend on the acquiescence of the Russian population. To what degree Putin is viewed as an effective wartime leader is hard to say. But very few Russians, even those who would not have opted for war back in February 2022, want their country to lose in Ukraine. Defeat can be feared even in a disastrous war, and Putin is politically insulated by such fear. Even if winning is beyond him at this point, many Russians believe they need him as their leader to stave off defeat.

Still, there are relatively few true believers in Putin’s war in Russia. They tend to be older, politically marginalized, and living in remote regions of the country. These are the people for whom Putin’s arguments about Western malignance most acutely resonate. According to a November 2022 Levada poll, 81 percent of Russians over the age of 55 have negative feelings about the West. For these Russians, Ukraine oscillates between being an enemy aligned with the West and a part of Russia, living since 2014 under an illegitimate government and suffering from the artificial Ukrainian identity imposed on it by nationalist fanatics in Ukraine and by those in the West that fund and encourage these fanatics.

The problem with true believers is that their beliefs can get in the way. An ad hoc assembly of bloggers and commentators on the messaging service Telegram have drummed up the kind of support for the war that state-run media outlets cannot inspire—something more spontaneous and sincere, with all the emotional power of social media. But it is from these same corners of the Russian media ecosystem that vocal critics of Russia’s military tactics has emerged. Many of them think that the war is not being fought aggressively enough. Over the past few months, the Kremlin has tolerated these voices, but it has also reined them in. After all, these figures are pro-war and pro-regime. Now and then, they have to be reminded to stay within their limits.

Among the political elite, outright criticism of the war is inconceivable. The Russian government forces critics out of the country, intimidates those who stay, and prosecutes those who are not intimidated. Those still in Russia face professional retaliation, public stigmatization, and arrest for opposing the war. Ilya Yashin, a leading opposition politician, was arrested and sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for discussing the massacre that Russian forces carried out in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. Almost 400 others have had criminal cases brought against them as a result of their antiwar activism, and more than 5,500 have been fined, detained, or banned from certain activities. In the absence of an effective opposition party or movement, overtly antiwar statements register as isolated gestures, underscoring the Kremlin’s seemingly unshakable hold on Russia’s political sphere and on Russian public opinion.

Despite being so visibly in control of the political scene, the Kremlin is taking no chances. Western media has focused on the military mobilization initiated in September. At least as consequential has been the militarization of the public sphere. Only a minority of Russians are actively engaged in the war, but all must demonstrate their acquiescence in the war, an acquiescence that does not imply passionate support. The mass media, the cultural world, and the educational sector have all played a role in either justifying the war or in laying the groundwork for a war that will last as long as Putin thinks it must. Sometimes the goal is to stoke the emotions of war. A more subtle goal is to make the war seem routine, an organic and inevitable part of Russian life.


Wartime Putinism is an experiment in deferring problems. Further Ukrainian advances on the battlefield or even the military status quo may force Putin to layer a second mobilization on top of the mobilization of reservists he declared in September 2022, something he will avoid as long as he can. A second mobilization would test the bona fides of wartime Putinism. Mobilization is itself traumatic, and mobilization without military progress is more than traumatic. It is a rebuke to those in positions of military and political responsibility. But Russia’s first round of mobilization occurred amid battlefield setbacks, and the Kremlin survived it intact. A version of this cycle might simply repeat itself. Or the government may opt for expanding the conscription of young men.

Wartime Putinism could also undermine itself through stasis. Russia can unite around the bleak mission of not losing a war for only so long. After the end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin promised prosperity, political liberty, and Russia’s integration into Europe. He fell short in the execution, but at early stages of his rule those goals represented a galvanizing mission for post-Soviet Russia, and between 1991 and 2000, Yeltsin did bring Russia closer to the free market and to Europe. During his tenure, Putin’s mission has been more nebulous: stability and prosperity at home after the economic disruptions of the 1990s; Russian military might abroad; and a seat at the table of international politics. Putin’s 2022 war has damaged Russia’s international reputation, and it has dented the perception of Russian military might. What is left is the drive for stability through militarization, a paradoxical political aspiration.

Wartime Putinism is a reduced Putinism, and it would be impossible to describe today’s Russia (to Russians) as an ascendant power. It is, rather, an embattled power. This explains the frenzied media campaign to drum up support for the war, which masks the fact that Putin has committed Russia to a long cycle of stagnation. Isolation and sanctions will together contribute to Russia’s economic and technological decline. Nobody can say how long Putin can walk this dispiriting tightrope. Putin’s warpath does not lead from point A to point B but is a circuitous route that leads from point A back to point A. A fine-tuned method for avoiding failure, wartime Putinism has all the hallmarks of a dead end.


(c)2023, Foreign Affairs



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