U.S. and World Politics

On the First Anniversary of the War

How much longer can this go on?

By Boris Kagarlitsky

A year has passed since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When it all began, Kremlin propaganda promised the collapse of the “Kyiv regime” within hours, the capture of the Ukrainian capital in days, and that the leaders of Western Europe would crawl to Moscow on their knees. We were later assured that the Europeans would freeze without Russian gas; though, now that winter is drawing to a close, propagandists are glorifying the patience of the Russian people, who will endure any hardship that might await them without a murmur. A new theme among pro-Kremlin analysts is that the war will continue for at least another ten years, and in fact, forever. For no one promises that in ten years the situation will improve.

The inevitability of military defeat has by now become apparent even to many of those who enthusiastically welcomed the invasion and supported it ideologically. See, for example, the recent speeches of the hero of the “Russian Spring” of 2014, Igor Strelkov (Girkin), who previously called for mobilization and war until victory, and now discusses mainly scenarios for defeat.

The main topic of discussion now is whether the economy can withstand the increasing load, and how it will affect the political system. In the summer of 2022, sanctions led to a serious decline in production, while in January an ambitious state budget deficit was revealed. Neither of these, however, was seen as a social catastrophe, especially as the country’s situation had steadily deteriorated over the past ten years, and therefore the current problems look like only part of a normal life—rising prices, low wages, and many everyday difficulties to which people have long been accustomed. Does this mean that nothing has changed in Russia over the past year? In fact, there have been changes, and very serious ones at that.

Even if, in the first months after the invasion of Ukraine, most Russians simply had not noticed the war, then the mobilization that took place in September was enough to change mass consciousness. There is no reason to equivocate about the success of the mobilization—after all, the most strategically important retreat of the Russian army (the surrender of Kherson) occurred after thousands of recruits had been delivered to the front. The mass flight of men and young families from Russia, which began after the announcement of mobilization, resulted in at least a million people having left the country—according to some estimates, this amounts to more than two million. In other words, the number of Russians who emigrated post-mobilization is exactly comparable to the number of Ukrainian refugees who have fled to the West, although there were no hostilities on the territory of Russia itself.

The mobilization

At the same time, one should not talk about the complete collapse of the mobilization campaign. Although militarily, it did not produce the significant results expected, at best replenishing fighting units at the front, its unexpected consequence was an improvement in the general economic situation in the most depressed regions of the country. It was there that the call-to-arms faced the least resistance, with the mobilized themselves admitting that joining the army was more profitable than staying in place, working for a pittance, or sitting home without work at all. Families that had lost their breadwinner were sincerely happy to receive benefits for their murdered husbands and sons, because the funds received made it possible to pay off debts and solve other household problems. Men from the Russian hinterlands were not ready to risk their lives and die for Putin, but they showed a fatalistic readiness to give their lives for their family. It must be admitted that such pronounced mass consciousness came as a surprise to many analysts, including the author of these lines. It turned out that the economic re-education of society, which had unfolded during the neoliberal reforms, had been extremely successful. Market incentives function in conditions of poverty and disunity far more effectively than do basic human emotions, including even the instinct for self-preservation.

Of course, the growth of discontent and resistance is obvious, but it is also obvious that they have not reached the point at which they would become dangerous to the system. Acts of sabotage on railways organized by underground groups of various ideological persuasions, arson of military enlistment offices and state institutions, destruction of cars decorated with militaristic symbols, and other partisan actions occur more often than they had before, but still remain an exotic exception across the country. A much more serious problem for the government is the split within its own ranks.

The most discussed symptom of a political split within the system was the open confrontation between the regular army and the Wagner Private Military Company, created by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Having been granted the de facto right to ignore the laws and procedures established by the state, Prigozhin formed his own private army, equipped with artillery, tanks and aircraft, and replenished by forced recruitment of prisoners in the camps. Disregarding the laws of Russia, Prigozhin’s henchmen themselves carried out their own brand of military justice, arranging public executions of deserters and threatening their soldiers with execution on the spot for attempting to retreat. Already in the summer, an open struggle for power began between Prigozhin and the regular generals, as mutual insults flew back and forth, and armed clashes were seen between the military and the Wagnerites, the latter of whom did not want to recognize the norms of conduct established by the Armed Forces.

Nevertheless, the conflict between the generals and Prigozhin is only the tip of the iceberg. Extreme misgivings over the present situation have been expressed by the government bureaucracy, otherwise busy with economic and financial issues, and the state security agencies are not happy with the way events have shaken out. The government’s appeal to big business to voluntarily contribute 250-300 billion rubles to the budget to cover the deficit, which had already reached one trillion rubles in January, was not met with sympathy. The largest corporations, previously the greatest recipients of tax breaks from the government, not only showed no willingness to share, but also publicly announced their stinginess. The problem here is not money, as such. Russian industry is facing a crisis of overaccumulation of capital, in which free funds cannot be invested profitably, and, due to sanctions, money deposited abroad cannot be withdrawn. But these corporations, including the ones associated with the state, simply do not see the point in supporting a budget which both threatens an uncontrolled increase in the deficit, and insists on financing a war that is already lost anyway.

An agreement to end the war?

For Russia’s ruling circles, an early agreement with the West remains the only realistic way out, and their rivals in Europe and the U.S. have not rejected this option out of hand. But any agreement inevitably implies serious concessions from the Kremlin. At best, we are talking about the withdrawal of troops to the original positions they occupied before the start of the war, which is tantamount to admitting defeat. At the same time, protracting the conflict only worsens the situation and is fraught with the fact that the terms of the truce will only worsen—the preservation of control over Luhansk and Donetsk, which have been under the de facto Russian protectorate since 2014, is questionable, and in the future, there is even a threat of losing Crimea, which had been annexed. Of course, neither side is going to ask the opinions of the inhabitants of Donbass and Crimea.

Any real agreement under the current conditions means a political disaster for Putin. That is why, despite the formal calls for negotiations, the main line of the Kremlin is to drag out the war indefinitely. Neither the West nor the Russian elites are satisfied with such a turn of events, not to mention that the majority of Russian society does not feel joy at all from such a prospect either. Desperate to get reasonable concessions from Moscow, Western politicians have finally decided to lift restrictions on arms supplies to Ukraine, beginning a mass shipment of tanks, armored vehicles, and long-range missiles, which will inevitably be followed by aircraft. There is every reason to believe that such decisions were preceded by attempts at behind-the-scenes negotiations that convinced Western statesmen of the complete insanity of Putin and his inner circle. Apparently, a significant part of the Russian ruling bureaucracy, business and military apparatus has come to the same conclusion.

The year that has passed since the beginning of the war has clearly shown that the political system needs a radical change. An alternative to reforms can only be the growing disintegration of state institutions and the degradation of an already sick economy, which does not suit anyone. But the only way to change course is to remove Vladimir Putin from power. Of course, the incumbent president would not approve of this, but neither would many people from his circle, who understand that in the absence of a patron, they will also quickly lose their position, and maybe become scapegoats—after all, someone will definitely have to be punished for their mistakes and crimes. Sending them to The Hague as war criminals in that case may be the softest landing possible for them, as the experience of Russian history shows that in conditions where the rule of law does not work, the fate of the defeated authorities is truly terrible.

Despite ongoing censorship and sporadic repression, such scenarios are already being discussed almost openly in Russia. Everyday Moscow at the end of February 2023 becomes more and more like Petrograd at the beginning of February 1917. How fair this analogy can be taken will be revealed in the very near future. Of course, Putin’s power can once again dig in its heels. But this only means postponing the inevitable catastrophe, which will be all the more massive the later it occurs.

Translated by Dan Erdman

Russian Dissent, February 28, 2023