Foreign Affairs: How Putin’s war became Russia’s war

    REGION  10 June 2023 - 05:02

    The Ukraine war promises to leave a stain on Russian society and politics that will remain even after Putin is gone, Eugene Rumer argues in his recent think piece for Foreign Affairs.

    Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has become the defining event of his years in power. Even if he rules for another quarter century, Russia’s president will forever be considered a war criminal. But the consequences of the war are even more far-reaching: It promises to leave a stain on Russian society and politics that will remain even after Putin is gone.

    The changes wrought by Putin over his decades in power have ensured that Russia will not suddenly emerge from his reign a changed country. He has co-opted the country’s elite, even its supposedly liberal wing, implicating them in Russia’s crimes in Ukraine. He has won the public’s support for the war, exploiting both society’s indifference and its nostalgia for Russia’s imperial history. And he has poisoned Russia’s relationship with the West in ways that any successor will struggle to reverse.

    By making Russian society complicit in the war, Putin has forestalled the possibility of a dramatic break with his rule—even after he exits the political stage. And he has created a vexing problem for the United States and its allies, one that is no less challenging than the issue of how to contend with China.


    It is hard to see past Putin when thinking about Russia. Responsibility lies directly on his shoulders for both the brutal war against Ukraine and a reign of terror at home, the likes of which Russia has not seen since the days of Joseph Stalin. Who could disagree with U.S. President Joe Biden when he exclaimed during a visit to Poland shortly after the start of the Russian onslaught against Ukraine, “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”?

    But the problem is not just Putin. His rule has shaped the country’s elite and its public in ways that are bound to influence Russia’s course even after his rule ends.

    Many of the elite who surround and support Putin belong to a cohort of so-called syslibs, as they are known in Russia, short for system liberals. Many of them got their start working on economic reforms during the country’s liberal phase in the 1990s. They are competent managers who have been co-opted by the Kremlin; they understand the nature of Putin’s system but do not challenge it. Instead, they apply their impressive professional skills to guide the Russian economy, making it possible for the regime to survive and continue on its destructive course.

    Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina, for instance, played a central role in steering Russia through the economic turbulence in 2014. During that period, the price of oil collapsed, the West imposed sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Crimea, and the ruble lost more than half its value against the dollar. In 2018, she was invited to Washington to give a major address at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where she was introduced by then IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and shared insights about taming inflation. Now, she enables Putin’s war by trying to insulate Russia from the effects of Western sanctions. In the future, she will probably be likened to Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect, who helped keep the Nazi war machine humming.

    A handful of these figures, like the 1990s “privatization tsar” Anatoly Chubais, have managed to go abroad. But the overwhelming majority remain on the job. Former finance and deputy prime minister Alexei Kudrin, honored by Euromoney magazine as “finance minister of the year” at the 2010 IMF/World Bank meeting, stepped down from a senior government post only late last year. But this was no protest resignation: Kudrin then took charge of restructuring Russian tech giant Yandex, with Putin’s blessing, after it was hit by Western sanctions.

    Other figures have moved beyond economic issues to become eager enforcers of Putin’s imperial vision. The story of Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, is particularly instructive: Kiriyenko briefly served as Russia’s prime minister in 1998 and is a one-time close associate of liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was killed within sight of the Kremlin in 2015. But starting in 2000, he allied himself with Putin and is now one of the most influential officials in the Kremlin. He holds a seemingly ever-expanding range of responsibilities, including overseeing much of the Kremlin’s propaganda and messaging, and helps lead the mass brainwashing of the Russian people to support the Ukraine war and the ongoing crackdown on what little remains of liberal civil society. Dubbed “the Viceroy” of the occupied parts of Ukraine, he travels there on Putin’s behalf to oversee their integration into Russia.

    Some members of Putin’s elite remain at their posts because they fear being arrested and branded a traitor, or claim that they are standing in the way of even more destructive policies. Some even see themselves as victims of Western sanctions unfairly targeting them. They may even despise Putin—but whatever their private justifications, they serve him.

    Why does this Russian elite cling ever more tightly to Putin, even if few believe in his cause? These well-traveled, highly educated professionals probably realize that they have tied their fortunes to a sinking ship but they cannot jump. The scale of Putin’s crimes has exceeded anything they could have imagined. They must know that, in the eyes of the world, Putin is not the sole perpetrator of these crimes. They are directly implicated in them, too.


    The Russian public also has acquiesced to Putin’s war. According to the Levada Center, the only surviving independent Russian polling firm, 43 percent of those surveyed in May “definitely” supported and 33 percent “supported rather than not” the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. Furthermore, 48 percent favored continuing the war, while slightly fewer—45 percent—were in favor of negotiations with Ukraine. Putin’s approval rating was 82 percent.

    Although there are questions about the reliability of opinion surveys in Putin’s Russia, this data has been largely consistent over the course of the war. Most Russians have not experienced drastic economic setbacks because of the conflict, and even the partial mobilization announced in September 2022 has had little effect on public attitudes.

    While it is true that all antiwar protests have been put down swiftly and brutally, there have been few attempts to even organize demonstrations in Russia since the war began. Some of the protests that have occurred were driven not by anger at the invasion itself but to express frustration at inadequate training, lack of equipment, and poor treatment of conscripts.

    This reaction represents a vivid reminder that the imperial legacy lives on in Russian society. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Russian leaders never made a principled case for relinquishing the country’s empire. Instead, they exploited the notion of Russia as a victim of its imperial holdings for their own political goals. This ploy was the surest path to power for Boris Yeltsin, the leader of Russia, in his contest with Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union.

    But after Yeltsin’s supporters won that contest, they once again embraced the idea of empire. The same politicians adopted neoimperialist slogans and claimed special rights for Russia in the former Soviet Union, especially with respect to Crimea. Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow who for much of the 1990s was considered a likely successor to Yeltsin, was one of the early supporters of returning Crimea to Russia; his inflammatory comments on the subject repeatedly triggered crises in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Luzhkov, along with other Russian politicians, appealed to the peninsula’s large Russian-speaking population and exploited its legacy as the site of some of the bloodiest battles in the Crimean War and World War II.

    These phantom pains of the old empire help explain Russians’ enthusiasm for the “return” of Crimea in 2014, their continuing support for Putin, and their acquiescence to his war. Yeltsin’s failure to denounce Russia’s imperial legacy once and for all left the idea of imperial restoration lingering in the chaotic 1990s. And when Russia regained some of its strength on Putin’s watch, the neoimperial project acquired new momentum. The national security establishment, like Putin, is drawn from the ranks of the old Soviet security apparatus and resented what it saw as the West’s encroachment on its “privileged” sphere of influence in the old empire.


    When Putin does leave power, it is unlikely that Russia’s elites and the general public will wake up and face the legacy of his rule. There are two twentieth-century precedents in Russian history for a de-Putinization campaign, and neither is encouraging. First, the Soviet Union attempted a de-Stalinization process after the dictator’s death in 1953. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev debunked Stalin’s “personality cult” in a 1956 speech to the leadership of the Communist Party and released millions who were lucky to survive Stalin’s labor camps. But Stalin’s reputation was partially restored as early as the 1960s in official Soviet propaganda, which praised him as the great leader who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II.

    Second, as the Soviet Union was nearing its collapse in 1991, Yeltsin banned the Communist Party. Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign had already exposed the legacy of its misrule—including the brutal collectivization of Russian peasantry, the millions who died from starvation in Ukraine, the suppression of basic freedoms—and it seemed its reputation could never be restored. Yet the party soon returned as a political force: it reconstituted itself in 1993 as the Communist Party of Russia, formed a powerful opposition faction in the Duma in the 1990s, fielded a candidate who won over 40 percent of the vote running against Yeltsin in the 1996 election, and survives to the present day. The party’s long-time leader, Gennady Zyuganov, endorsed Putin’s war against Ukraine, calling for the “demilitarization and denazification” of the country.

    Putin’s war has become the war of all Russians. His legacy will remain part of their legacy, and it will continue to weigh heavily on their domestic affairs and the country’s relationship with the rest of the world.

    Putin’s heirs may blame him for his failure, but that is not the same as admitting guilt and facing up to the responsibility that comes with it. If the past is any indication, they will probably follow in his footsteps. In the future, Putin may be likened to Tsar Nicholas I—a cruel autocrat who spent 30 years on the throne and died in 1855 during the Crimean War, which ended a year later with Russia suffering a humiliating defeat. His son, Alexander II, nicknamed the Liberator because he abolished serfdom, liberalized the press and rebuilt the military. But a few years later, he reimposed restrictions on the press. Then in 1870, he renounced the terms of the settlement that had ended the Crimean War and in 1878, fought a war with Turkey that secured Bulgaria’s independence, and installed his nephew as its king.

    Putin’s successors may attempt another détente with the West, but it is hard to imagine how they could succeed without the normalization of Russian-Ukrainian relations. This in turn must entail restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, reparations, and meaningful steps toward reconciliation, including admission of and punishment for war crimes—a tall order indeed.

    Putin’s brave liberal opponents are unlikely to rid Russia of its dark legacy. They are few in number and mostly in exile; even if they somehow came to power, they would have to struggle against public inertia and an entrenched elite complicit in Putin’s crimes. The average Russian is unlikely to support such a painful reckoning: By the time Putin leaves the scene, many Russians will have participated in one way or another in this war. At best, soldiers who fought against Ukraine will likely assert that they were only following orders. Moreover, a surprisingly large swathe of Russian society accepts the regime’s justification that the war is necessary to push back against Western encirclement.

    Rumors of Putin’s imminent departure from the political stage have been circulating for a long time. Those betting on his ill health have been disappointed many times. With a captive—or loyal—elite, a docile public, and a competent economic team managing the country’s vast resources, he may remain at the helm for another 10, 15, or even 20 years. The question is then how to deal with Putin’s rogue Russia. It will remain dangerous, waging war against Ukraine, using nerve agents to go after those the Kremlin considers its opponents, selling advanced technologies to other rogue regimes like those in Iran and North Korea, and deploying its cyberweapons indiscriminately. Protected by its nuclear shield and seat at the UN Security Council, it is immune to international condemnation or sanctions.

    How to deal with this Russia will be a headache for the United States and its allies for years, possibly decades, to come. As to whether Putin’s heirs will be able or willing to fundamentally change course and begin to atone for his crimes—it is, at best, an open question.




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