By Paul Goble
Almost all the members of Putin’s entourage are coming to the conclusion that Russia will lose the war in Ukraine if the Kremlin doesn’t change course, Tatiana Stanovaya says; and consequently, “a divide is forming around one key question: what to do if Russia loses this war?”
Until the retreat from Kherson, the Russian analyst says, most members of the elite believed that “Putin knew what he was doing.” Now, there is no certainty on that point. “After all, what was the point of holding referendums on annexing four new regions of Ukraine, only to promptly abandon them without a fight?” (carnegieendowment.org/politika/88630).
According to Stanovaya, even “more frightening than the war itself is the prospect of a freefall into the abyss,” a prospect that means for both those who support the war and those who question it “Putin looks like a weak figure.” After all, “even the emergence of those camps is a reaction to his weakness as a leader.”
There are fears that in the event of ever more defeats, Russia may have “to give up Crimea, and from there it’s a slippery slope to full capitulation with international war tribunals, years of reparations and the installation of a pro-Western government” in Moscow, the analyst continues.
“That is why no party of peace has emerged in Russia: in the country’s current vulnerable position, it would instantly become the party of defeat; and no one is yet ready to join the ranks of the losers.” But “even if there is no defeat, there will still be an increasingly distinct dividing line within the pro-war camp” between the realists and those favoring further escalation.
The realists, she says, “believe that since Russia cannot win the war right now, it should pause the fighting to work on rebuilding its army and economy as well as revamping the political system.” For them, “it was a mistake to start the war” and to hold referendums but they aren’t prepared to “giving up Russia’s positions: the front line must be defended.”
Among the realists are the technocrats, of course, but also “siloviki, senior officials and prominent businessmen, “pragmatists rather than supporters of victory at any cost because they have everything to lose.”
Opposing such people are those who argue that Russia must escalate to avoid defeat. They argue that “Russia must be prepared to embark on a full-scale mobilization, concentrate its resources, and rain bombs on Ukraine relentlessly until the bitter end.” They are more desperate than the realists but united by the fact that “the worse things are going at the front, the more political dividends” they believe they will receive.
“High-profile representatives of the party of escalation include the notorious businessman and mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the reckless Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The wealthy Kovalchuk brothers are also more or less in this group … The more the state needs their services, the more weight they carry within the system,” Stanovaya argues.
The advocates of escalation have Putin’s ear now, but “if this plan” to bomb Ukraine into submission and there are serious doubts that it will, then the party of escalation will grow even stronger and more radical – not just with regard to Ukraine but also toward those who believe Russian cannot win.”
But at the same time, Stanovaya says, “the party of realists will also gain political weight, especially since public opinion is gradually shifting in favor of de-escalation.” At present, “it’s impossible to say who will win this battle, but it will determine not only the outcome of the war in Ukraine but also the future of Russia.”