By Paul Goble
Any country that goes to war must simultaneously fight in two places: the battlefield and the home front. The former is more immediately dramatic and attracts the most attention. The latter, however, is more consequential in many instances due to the immediate and long-term effects of war. Russia is a primary example of this phenomenon. Every single one of the country’s wars over the past two centuries led to dramatic changes at home, at times sparking revolutions and the imposition of more repressive policies to prevent such revolts from happening.
As Moscow’s war against Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, compelling developments give reason to believe that this pattern will hold and that the impact of the current war on the Russian home front will have equally dramatic consequences. Russian President Vladimir Putin is already increasing repressions to maintain his regime, something he would not have to do if his “special military operation” was proceeding as planned and as the Kremlin has claimed (see EDM, November 14, 2022; November 27; December 11).
Moscow may already be seeking a quick victory on the battlefield before domestic conditions in Russia deteriorate further (see EDM, April 11; October 10). This suggests that, in the near future, Russia may face radical change through revolution and disintegration or increased domestic repression that moves ever-closer to the totalitarianism of the past (see Bugajski, Failed State, July 2022; EDM, March 7; Kent, How Russia Loses, November 2023). Either scenario could ultimately influence Moscow’s decision-making more than what is happening on the battlefield.
Putin Fails to Convince Russians of ‘Success’ in Ukraine
Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin has employed three strategies to convey his “success” to the Russian public. These strategies are primarily targeted at Russians at home and others abroad to demonstrate that there are no serious problems on the home front and that the Russian people remain resolute in their support of the Kremlin leader (see EDM, December 19, 2022; June 19; November 16).
First, Putin has simultaneously promoted the idea that the fighting in Ukraine has not be as intense as advertised and that it is part of a cosmic struggle between Russia and the collective West (see EDM, July 5, 2022; January 6; April 3). He refuses to call the conflict a “war,” insisting that it is “a limited military operation.” At the same time, he argues that the fighting is part of a battle between traditional Russian values and those of the rotten West (Kremlin.ru, October 5). This combination, at least initially, convinced many Russians that they were on the way to recovering the elevated global status they lost after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (see EDM, January 21, 2022; February 2; February 28; April 20; June 22; July 5). Putin’s rhetoric supplied the guise that Russia was fighting for good against evil, a position any country going to war would like to have at a relatively low cost to themselves. This pushed some in the West to determine that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was far less serious than it has turned out to be.
Second, Putin has imposed ever-more draconian repressions on Russian society to suppress popular discontent. Moscow instituted these repressions to prevent Russians from taking to the streets or expressing their opposition in other ways, including in comments to pollsters (see EDM, May 17, 2022, November 17, 2022). They also serve as a warning of the costs to those thinking about engaging in such acts. The prospects for success in convincing Putin to change course are vanishingly small. This has led to the further depoliticization of the country, with Russians increasingly more prepared to defer to their leader even if they do not agree with his actions. Foreign observers are coming to believe that the unity Putin wants to project is deep and fundamental and that nothing short of a complete defeat on the battlefield will change this domestic mentality (see EDM, December 7).
Under the Putin regime, the Russian population’s attitudes do not determine policy decisions (see EDM, July 3). Even so, the Kremlin must be concerned that, despite its massive spending and propaganda efforts, ordinary Russians do not necessarily support a prolonging of the war in Ukraine. An independent poll recently found that, for the first time, more Russians favor talks with Kyiv than continuing the war to a victorious conclusion. The Russian Field research group queried more than 1,600 Russians at the end of October and found that 48 percent favored beginning negotiations with Ukraine while only 39 percent opposed doing so. This is the first documented time since the beginning of the full-scale invasion that Russians have been divided in this way (Current Time, November 15; Russian Field, accessed December 18). Such a finding undermines Kremlin claims and mistaken Western assumptions about resilient Russian support for Putin and his war (see EDM, June 22; November 13).
Third, Putin has mobilized a bulk of the country’s economy to a war footing (see EDM, July 12, 2022; October 31, 2022; January 12; June 19). The war-time framing of the economy has created a new class of winners: oligarchs, who have seen their profits rise; businesses, which have sought to take advantage of the situation Western sanctions have imposed; and some ordinary Russians, who have been given astronomically large payments to fight in Ukraine. By doing so, Putin has been able to boost the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), a measure that the Kremlin leader and state-run media outlets trumpet despite the overall stagnation of Russian incomes. Additionally, unlike investments in human resources or technology, military spending is unlikely to support sustainable economic growth once the war ends (Profile, November 16).
Ordinary Russians Increasingly Feeling the Costs of War in Ukraine
With every passing month, each of these war-time strategies has frayed. Russians are increasingly feeling the real costs of the war at home in a number of ways (see EDM, May 3, 2022; October 2; October 23; October 25; November 13; November 27; December 7; Window on Eurasia, December 15).
First, Moscow has been unable to hide the massive and increasing combat losses despite its control of the media, prompting more discussions about how these losses and the flight of Russians abroad are exacerbating the country’s demographic decline (see EDM, February 16, September 28, October 19, 24; TheInsider.ru, December 12). This has led to increased Russian opposition to the war, mostly under the radar of those in Moscow and the West (Horizontal Russia, November 14; Siberia Real; Meduza). Consequently, Putin’s efforts to present the war as simultaneously limited and a struggle of “good versus evil” are failing.
Russians are increasingly divided between those who would like the war and its losses to end as soon as possible and those who are ready to pursue an expansion of the conflict in Ukraine in the name of Putin’s cosmic goals. Significant war casualties have sparked a massive outflow of young Russian men and their families from the country, forcing Putin to adopt ever-more radical and repressive means to raise an army to fight in Ukraine (see EDM March 20, July 27, September 13,October 31; Sever Real, December 14). That approach is putting Russia’s economic future at risk by depriving it of the educated class it needs to modernize (see EDM, November 17, 2022; January 12; January 23; October 31). Putin claims that half of those who fled Russia to avoid the war have returned. Independent Russian experts, however, say the figure is not much more than half of that, indicating that hundreds of thousands of educated Russians living abroad are not ready to return (Window on Eurasia, December 17).
Second, Moscow’s increasing use of repression demonstrates that the Kremlin faces real problems with the domestic population. If every Russian supported Putin and his war as he and his supporters claim, they would not need to employ such harsh repressive methods. It is beginning to appear that the Kremlin’s repressive policies, while effective in the short term, are counterproductive in the longer term for precisely that reason (see EDM, November 27).
Third, while Putin has maintained GDP growth through massive infusions of cash into the military-industrial sector, he has not been able to support or sustain other parts of the Russian economy (see EDM, June 19, October 31). As a result, severe shortages are spreading, and inflation is rampant. The true state of the Russian economy vitiates Putin’s assumed grand bargain with the population that he would guarantee a higher standard of living in exchange for their complete deference to his political whims. Analysts are increasingly pointing out that the war economy, on which Putin is now relying, is not sustainable and will not promote sustainable economic growth. With his policies, the Kremlin leader is ensuring another decade or more of Russian incomes failing to grow (Siberia Real, November 23; Current Time, November 29).
These factors will not necessarily lead to massive demonstrations in the streets or efforts among the Russian elite to overthrow Putin, forcing him and his entourage to change course (see EDM, April 10). Putin’s control of those near the throne is too great, and his willingness to risk the country at everyone’s expense except his own is too constant. His desire to engage in harsher suppressions against anyone who disagrees makes a successful revolt unlikely, despite Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “aborted mutiny” in June and the mounting problems Moscow already faces (see EDM, June 27; July 11; July 24; August 3). These issues may have been enough to lead to the demise of any other totalitarian-bound authoritarian ruler or at least force Putin to end his war against Ukraine and threats to other countries. The Kremlin has, nevertheless, built himself an almost impenetrable fortress.
The War in Ukraine Increasingly Isolates Russia
Moscow’s inability to shield the population from the war’s realities runs the risk of fomenting independence movements in many of Russia’s regions. The confluence of these issues likely mean that, when a Russian collapse does transpire, whether in the coming months or years, it will likely be more dramatic and violent than most analysts predict (see Bugajski, Failed State, July 2022). Ignoring this reality is a fundamental mistake that leads to doomsday predictions about the fate of Ukraine following each Russian advance and Ukrainian reversal on the battlefield (Polit.ru, November 14).
Such arguments ignore three important concepts. First, Putin’s war against Ukraine has led to stringent Western sanctions and landed Moscow in a position where few countries, except for the world’s pariah states, are prepared to engage with the Kremlin (see EDM, November 28, 2022; March 20; April 19; September 19; September 27; October 17; November 13; November 27; Kent, How Russia Loses, November 2023). This is hardly the situation the Kremlin leader promised. Instead of reclaiming its position as a major global power, Moscow has sacrificed much of the leverage it gained in the West from putting its financial assets in foreign marketplaces. Russia has effectively reduced itself to the status of partner with countries like Iran and North Korea, hardly the boost to national pride or influence Moscow has sought. Even those Russians who dislike the hubris of the West and believe in Kremlin ideology are not happy with either alliance.
Many Russians who support Moscow’s turn away from the West are less than pleased that it is turning to Beijing (see EDM, March 13; November 16). They suspect that this development reduces Russia to China’s “younger brother.” The Russian population has been worried about Chinese aspirations in Siberia and the Far East for decades. They are not happy about China’s meddling in Russia east of the Urals, promoting Beijing’s interests at Moscow’s expense. These Russians, including some in the Putin regime itself, are not pleased with China’s new ability to dictate conditions to the Kremlin while maintaining an independent line to avoid isolation from the West (see EDM, February 6, March 9, October 26; Window to Eurasia, December 10). If he maintains this course, Putin has little choice but to rely solely on China and the pariah states.
Second, the war increasingly returning to the home front is cause for discontent and frustration among the Russian population. Ever-more Russians are angry about how combat veterans are acting upon their return from Ukraine. The Putin regime’s recruitment of criminals to fill the army’s ranks and the realities of war inevitably reducing inhibitions against the use of violence have already sparked more cases of domestic violence across Russia than before the war (see EDM, August 8). Veterans of the war are committing increasingly violent crimes and in higher numbers. This has prompted many Russians to make bitter jokes about whether anyone will be left alive when all the soldiers return. More seriously, growing speculation has touched on whether Russia will face a new generation of Afgantsy, the Russian term for veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the return of Afghan Syndrome (see EDM, October 25, November 13). Many favor a harsh crackdown on these veterans, and some are beginning to question why Moscow would engage in a war that could come home in such a violent way (see EDM, December 7, 11; Publizist.ru, December 13).
Third, Putin’s war has stoked displeasure with Moscow throughout the rest of the country and damaged Russia’s global standing. The Kremlin leader has alienated the West and most post-Soviet republics, countries where Moscow believes it should be the paramount power. He has increasingly alienated the non-Russian populations within the Russian Federation and the predominantly ethnic Russian regions beyond the capital’s Ring Road (see EDM, February 16, March 23, September 13, October 31). To reduce the possibility of protests in Moscow and other major cities, Putin has sought to fill the ranks of his invasion force with men from the non-Russian republics and Russian regions far from the center (see EDM, February 14, October 10). He tried to sweeten the pot by giving enormous bonuses to those from these federal subjects who agreed to serve. Still, ever-more soldiers sent to Ukraine have returned in caskets, leading the populations in these republics and regions to the conclusion that the Kremlin is using them as “cannon fodder.” At the same time, these peoples remain far poorer than residents of Moscow, who have not been forced to serve at the same rates and do not suffer the same losses. Some in these regions consider Putin’s actions an act of genocide. Unsurprisingly, these sentiments have radicalized, with national and regionalist movements increasingly talking about independence from Moscow as the only solution (see EDM, May 17, 2022; November 29; December 11).
The Kremlin’s Poor Governance Sets Off Independence Movements
Non-Russian and regionalist movements in Russia have been on the rise throughout Putin’s reign. The progression of the war in Ukraine and its impact on Russian society have energized these movements in recent months. Actions taken by Ukraine in support of the non-Russians within Russia (see EDM, October 13) and the sea of change in the attitudes of many in the West have led some to conclude that the threat Moscow poses to Ukraine and other countries is not the result of Putin alone but of the Russian state’s continuing neo-imperialism (see EDM, March 14; May 3; May 17).
This reality has made some in the international community far more willing to listen to nationalist and regionalist groups in Russia. That in turn has encouraged non-Russians and regionalists to pursue their goals, even in the face of increasing repression from the Kremlin (see EDM, November 29). These movements view repression as a sign that Moscow sees them as a real threat, hardly the message the Kremlin wants to convey, let alone act on.
The confluence of these factors do not mean that Putin will change course in Ukraine or be ousted from power in favor of someone who would reverse his course at home and abroad. It does reflect something even more fundamental: when a chance for change does come, either when Putin is pushed aside by members of his entourage or upon his death, the possibilities for radical upheavals across the Russian Federation will increase exponentially (see EDM, June 5; September 6). This could range from the disintegration of the country into a group of new states, at least some of which will want to move toward democracy, to the rise of a new and even more authoritarian regime at the center. (On the likelihood of that, see this author’s “Approaching End of Today’s Russia More Likely to Resemble 1918 than 1991,” first delivered as a speech to the Sixth Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum in Washington and then posted online in Russian at Region.Expert, April 26 and in English at Window on Eurasia, April 29.)
The West Must Act
The potential outcomes of the fall of the Putin regime have wide-ranging domestic and global implications (Bugajski, Failed State, July 2022). According to many specialists on Russia’s regions and republics, these possibilities indicate that those in the West who want to stop Putin’s imperial aggression need to devote more attention to his all-too-real losses on the home front. They also need to take a series of actions to support those who are increasingly unhappy with Putin’s policies but do not feel empowered to act due to the repressive response they would certainly provoke from the Kremlin (Region.Expert, October 11).
Far too many articles about Putin’s war against Ukraine ignore the very real problems on the Russian home front. This gives the Kremlin leader a double victory. It simultaneously helps him persuade Russians that any opposition within the country is marginal, provided that the West is ignoring it, and keeps Western countries from exploiting Russia’s problems to force Moscow to change course in Ukraine and elsewhere. The West’s perspective needs to change if Ukraine’s fight against Russia is to succeed and if Russia is ever to be reintegrated into the Western-led world. Western journalists and analysts must recognize that the outcome of Putin’s war may depend almost as much on what happens on Russian soil as it does on the battlefield, where Ukrainians are fighting not only for themselves but for the West as a whole. They deserve more consistent support than they have been provided up until now. Had the West aided Ukraine in 2014, Putin likely would not have launched his military campaign in 2022 (Window on Eurasia, November 28).
While a step in the right direction, simply giving attention to and understanding what is happening on the Russian home front is insufficient. The West should take at least three actions to help Ukraine win the war.
First, Western governments must show themselves more willing to develop contacts with nationalist and regionalist groups and provide asylum if and when they need it (see EDM, June 29).
Second, the West must expand broadcasting to Russia’s republics and regions. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a proud history of doing so and provides a model for crafting an effective approach. This endeavor should be developed to reach other non-Russian areas and key regions as well, including Siberia and Cossack lands (see EDM, November 9, 2017).
Third, the West must reach out to those in Putin’s circle who are unhappy with his policies, promising them physical protection and the protection of their assets if they defect. Some Russian analysts suggest they must be given a good reason to break with Moscow (Publizist.ru, November 28). In Soviet times, Western countries welcomed defectors to weaken the communist regime. Today, this policy must be reinstated. Instead of driving away Russian elites by sanctioning them en masse, the West needs to make clear distinctions between those who enthusiastically support Putin and those who could be pulled away from him and constitute a powerful threat to his rule.
Taking these steps will not be easy. Many are certain to point out that greater Western attention to and support for active or potential opponents of the Putin regime will be met by the Kremlin with the denunciation of such people as “foreign agents,” leading to more repression against them. While this is certainly a risk, it can be minimized by organizing activism in ways that will make it difficult for Moscow to make criminal charges stick or make such attacks from Putin a source of pride. It is already the case that some Russians consider being branded a foreign agent as a badge of honor, one equivalent to being “banned in Boston” as once was for American writers. The ability to connect with the Russian population will be critical and is yet another reason why the setbacks Moscow has been suffering on the home front need to be more fully considered when assessing the true state of Putin’s broader war against Ukraine, Russia’s neighbors, and the collective West.
This article was published at The Jamestown Foundation