Putin’s Captives By Andrei Kolesnikov
How a Ruinous Imperial War Has Strengthened His Rule at Home
Is Russia at war? To anyone visiting Moscow or even the provinces this summer, it can sometimes be hard to find much evidence. People are going about their usual lives, and the economy continues to function. There are no shortages of consumer goods; so far, so-called parallel imports—the system by which Russian importers circumvent Western sanctions by using third countries—have worked well. Only inflation has remained stubbornly intractable, with the annualized rate currently hovering above 16 percent. And, at least when they are asked, many citizens do not seem overly disturbed by what is happening on their western border.
According to survey data released by the independent Levada Center in June, Russians do not seem to be seriously concerned about the economic effects of the conflict: half of respondents say sanctions will strengthen the country and stimulate development, and another quarter say sanctions will have no negative effect on growth. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has stabilized above 80 percent, or about ten points above prewar figures. And when it comes to the war itself, many respondents say they are prepared to tighten their belts and that they are proud of their country and their army. Many also express optimism that conditions for consumers will improve, and that the future for domestic production looks rosy.
It might be tempting to assume that Russians are simply fearful of speaking their minds. But Levada’s findings, which fluctuate significantly from month to month, have generally proven a useful indicator of the broad direction of the public mood. And at present, many Russians seem remarkably sanguine about their collective future, even as the country embarks on a vast imperial project in eastern Ukraine, one that has already led to an unprecedented wave of refugees and left Russia increasingly isolated.
As the war nears the end of its fifth month, the situation in Russia suggests that a shift is beginning to take place—both in the government and in the general population. As Putin has made clear, Russia’s plans in Ukraine will proceed regardless of the economic consequences—and all indications are these will be large. For ordinary Russians, that has meant that the “special operation” is not going to be over anytime soon. Instead, they must embrace a new Russia in which it is essential to behave like a patriot and support Putin’s theatrics and not concern themselves with temporary hardships. In the new Russia, everyone is fine as long as he or she is not forced into the trenches.
For those paying attention, it is not hard to find indications of how costly the war has become. On June 12, for example, Izvestia—a once-liberal newspaper long since taken over by the Kremlin—posted a statement on its website on behalf of Sergei Kiriyenko, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff and the Kremlin’s main political puppet master. “All of Russia will work to rebuild a Donbas destroyed by fascists,” the statement said. “Yes, it will cost several trillion rubles. But that money will be allocated from the state budget—even at the price of a temporary drop in the nation’s living standards.” It went on to say that Kiriyenko was “working today on incorporating the new territories into our motherland.”
Of course, no Kremlin official could ever acknowledge anything like this openly, and the statement was quickly taken down; the next day, Izvestia said that its site had been hacked and that the document was fake. As it turned out, it was a fake, devised perhaps by Kiriyenko’s detractors. But everything in the Izvestia report appears to be true: Russia really does intend to keep control of these territories—or, as Putin said on the 350th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great—to “return and fortify” these imperial lands. And that will certainly come at a great cost, putting enormous strain on the country’s economic resources and manpower.
The Kremlin’s imperial ambitions will be pursued regardless of the cost.
For now, the Kremlin has left little doubt that the economy takes a distant second to its imperial ambitions. This was confirmed in leaks from Putin’s mid-June meeting with Alexei Kudrin, the head of the Accounts Chamber, a parliamentary-appointed body overseeing the spending of state finances. As Putin’s former finance minister, Kudrin also happens to be the unofficial leader of Russia’s liberals inside the system, and in the meeting, he warned the Russian president that prolonging the “special operation” would have severe economic consequences. Putin would have none of it. The “aims of the operation,” he told Kudrin, would be pursued regardless of the economic damage it might cause.
But Russia will soon be in deep water. To sustain Putin’s vision, the reconstruction of Ukrainian territory seized and destroyed by Russian forces will have to become the mainstay of Kremlin policy. It will require an immense expense in treasure at precisely the time when the consequences of the Western economic blockade of Russia begin to be felt most acutely. Moreover, by next spring, this economic pain will coincide with the start of campaigning for the 2024 presidential election, which Putin will need to win by a decisive vote to retain his iron grip on power.
Already, wealthier regions of Russia, such as Moscow, have been obliged to provide material assistance to Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine—territories that officials now refer to as Russian “forever more.” Russian regional state bodies and the federal ministries are also expected to contribute managerial resources: some managers will be rotated in and out of Russian areas of Ukraine to work, while others will be appointed to permanent positions. Aspiring young technocrats will not be short of opportunities. Schoolteachers are also being sent to the occupied territories to address the local populations’ urgent need for indoctrination in Putinism. Especially important is the official version of Russian history, which already includes recognizing the independence of the two Donbas states. The Kremlin is not, however, promising ordinary citizens any special benefits from this territorial expansion; instead, it is a matter of pure ideology, returning Russia to its purported correct boundaries.
By involving Russians in the imperial project, the Kremlin is intuitively feeling around for a new kind of social contract between the state and the conformist part of Russian society. That contract should work for a while, at least for those who are comfortably removed from the war itself. The meaning of this contract is roughly as follows: the population supports the “special operation” as a campaign to protect Russian sovereignty in exchange for which Putin is not declaring a general military mobilization, only offering contract military service to those who want to fight.
MORE BABIES, MORE BULLETS
Mainstream Russian delusions about the “special operation” are fueled not least of all by the Kremlin’s own optimism. Consider this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which took place in June. Once known as the “Russian Davos,” the annual event used to include business and political leaders from around the world. This year, by contrast, the most notable guests were Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a man whose main achievement prior to the war in Ukraine’s Donbas was his involvement in pyramid schemes, and Yunus Momand, a mysterious Taliban economist.
Nonetheless, in his speech at the forum, Putin radiated optimism. While criticizing what he called the “insane sanctions against Russia,” he confidently described the country’s economic progress. “We have stabilized the financial markets, the banking system, and the trade network,” he said. “Now we are busy saturating the economy with liquidity.” He laid down various goals, such as improving the work of the housing and utilities administration (apparently, more than twenty years in power has not been enough to do that). And as in previous years, he urged Russians to have more babies. “Russia’s future is assured by families with two, three, and more children,” he said.
Such appeals look strange and old-fashioned at the best of times, but at a moment when children are being killed in Ukraine and Russian teenage conscripts are losing their lives, Putin’s comments come across as utterly cynical. They give the impression that his regime needs more babies to be born to add to the pile of cannon fodder needed for the further expansion of the empire, to “return and fortify” other people’s territory. The focus on as-yet-unborn future soldiers also attests to the autocrat’s readiness to fight for years to come.
In any case, Putin’s economic, social, and demographic wishful thinking is distinctly at odds with the situation on the ground. According to the demographer Alexei Raksha, fewer babies were born in Russia in April 2022 than in any month since the terrible war years of 1943 and 1944. Plummeting birth rates, of course, are a Europe-wide trend, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the later age at which women are having their first child. In Russia, there are also simply fewer people of childbearing age than there used to be; today’s new mothers were born in the 1990s, when the birth rate also plummeted. How much these existing factors have been exacerbated by the “special operation” in Ukraine will become clear at the start of 2023.
As for the economy, the current reality is hardly promising. Russia faces a smaller state budget, which makes it harder to buy the loyalty of the sizable proportion of Russians who depend on the state for their livelihood. There are also difficulties in the labor market. The government has used various tactics to keep official unemployment figures low—including by reducing the number of hours in the working week to preserve jobs—yet the jobless rate has already started to grow. And as the structure of Russia’s sanctions-hit economy becomes more primitive—entire advanced industries such as aviation and automobile manufacturers cannot function without Western technology and spare parts—there will be less demand for highly qualified staff. At the same time, in some sectors, such as information technology, much of the labor pool has left the country. This is just one aspect of Russia’s declining human capital.
None of this will be helped by changes to the Russian education system. While history textbooks are still being updated, many schools have already held lessons explaining how the “genocide” of the people of Donbass and Luhansk took place over eight years and why they had to be “liberated.” By turning its back on European standards for higher education (the government has announced that Russia will withdraw from the Bologna system) and scientific links with the outside world in favor of mass indoctrination in Putinism, the government has committed itself to long-term degradation in the quality of the Russian workforce.
WE ARE ALL IMPERIALISTS NOW
The only thing the Russian president has to offer his supporters now is the expansion and reconstruction of imperial territory. This corresponds to the very long-standing ideological line of Putin, who has always insisted on the existence of a “Russian world,” which, in his view, includes Ukraine; it does not, in his view, have a state entity separate from Russia. This project has been aided by the interventions of Putin’s intellectuals, such as Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, who has said that “we are all imperialists and militarists” and that Russia “asserts itself” in war.
Putin is no Peter the Great, but imperial conquest has long been an effective way to shore up his support. In 2014, his annexation of Crimea rejuvenated his presidency and brought him overwhelming approval that lasted for several years. But then, in 2018, Putin raised the retirement age, and his ratings began to stagnate; by September 2021, a Levada Center poll showed that just 46 percent of Russians were prepared to re-elect him. It was only after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Putin’s reliable majority returned; by May 2022, the number of Russians saying they would return Putin to power had grown to 72 percent, the highest share ever. To some degree, these poll numbers may reflect a growing unwillingness of ordinary Russians to diverge from mainstream—that is to say, Kremlin-guided—opinion, but it does not make the results any less of a political reality.
No one can say that Putin is not in control.
So why should the Putin regime bother to hold elections at various levels, including the regional vote that will take place in many parts of Russia this September? In a system that is fully controlled, authoritarian, and leader oriented, such contests seem almost superfluous. The answer is that this leader-centric system needs to constantly demonstrate to its own subjects that a large majority of them support it—and at every level, from municipal to presidential. That is why elections are needed outside Russia, too. It seems plausible that in occupied regions of Ukraine such as Kherson—just as in Crimea in 2014—referendums may be held on whether they want to join Russia, in addition to standard local elections. It goes without saying that the outcomes of those referendums would have to be predetermined, giving the expansion of the empire a veneer of quasi-legitimacy.
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine may have been an act of pure folly, but in terms of holding on to power, boosting his popularity, and making him appear irreplaceable, it has turned out, at least for now, to have been the right decision for him personally. No one within the elites can say that Putin is not in control. No matter how much damage the war has done to the economy, to the Russian people, and to Russia’s standing in the world, Putin’s personal power has tangibly grown. Instead of an emerging battle over his future successor, there is now only competition among jealous favorites.
BRAVE NEW APATHY
Naturally, expanding the empire and forcing an imperial discourse is not the only way the Kremlin can distract Russians from an evermore unsettling reality. As ordinary people find their livelihoods increasingly threatened, the regime will need someone to blame for the dire economic situation, and it will deflect attention with some sort of charade, like going after business tycoons who have fallen out of favor and exposing the corrupt practices of high-profile figures, then feeding them to the downtrodden public. And such steps are already being taken: on June 30, Vladimir Mau, the rector of the Academy of National Economy, who is a liberal economist with a very good reputation, was arrested on highly suspect accusations that he had embezzled university funds. So-called fifth columnists—such as political activists Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin, who have been jailed for discrediting the army, and Municipal Deputy Aleksei Gorinov, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for “spreading fakes about the army”—are also being identified and shamed.
But none of these tactics will put bread on Russian tables. Thus, the government must invent more ways to subsidize the parts of the population that are suffering most. Those that are hard up, jobless, or desperate can be called on to go and colonize the new territories. This logic is being used right now to recruit army volunteers and soldiers of fortune who are prepared, with minimal training, to fight in Ukraine in exchange for newly inflated salaries. And by bringing the poor more under the thumb of the state, Putin can further extend his control.
Consolidating power, however, is not Putin’s only payoff from the “special operation.” It has also brought him an increasingly anesthetized public. Russians are tired of war and, more broadly, of negative news. This explains the unusual indifference to the transfer of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny to another prison colony, one that could be more dangerous for his health and even his life. It also explains the drastically reduced interest in the latest investigation of Navalny’s team that shows the epic wrongdoing of Gazprom’s CEO, Alexei Miller, which was released in June. According to the report, Miller and his cronies are involved in large-scale corruption schemes that allow the head of Gazprom to enrich himself at the expense of the corporation. Just a few years ago, such an exposé would have been at the forefront of Russian conversation for weeks. But now, attention is elsewhere. Coverage of the investigation has also been impeded by the almost complete silencing of independent media outlets in Russia since the war began.
Naturally, Russians are preoccupied with Ukraine and NATO, which has led to an emotional stupor: what is a multimillion-dollar theft compared with the threat of nuclear war? Apart from fatigue, many also feel helpless to change anything and are glad to have Putin not only make decisions for them but also think for them. Sure, the Miller investigation revealed irregularities worth billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. But now that same money is being spent on the war. People do not care; they just want to be left alone. They already know that senior figures steal, and now that they are at war with the whole world, cracking down on theft is hardly a priority. Navalny’s problems only go to show, once again, that any protest is pointless and that it is better to just stick with the majority.
After nearly five months of war, Russians have moved on. This applies to both supporters and opponents of Putin. A process of adaptation has begun, because everyone needs to survive, both materially and psychologically. The war has become a bad new normal, and at this point, Putin has outplayed everyone once again, including his own people.
Putin’s Captives By Andrei Kolesnikov