Alexey Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, frequently uses the phrase “the lovely Russia of the future” as a shorthand for a nation without Vladimir Putin as president.
Nevertheless, a year after the entire invasion of Ukraine, Russia has returned to its oppressive, dark past.
Putin’s administration has destroyed what little civic society Russia still has over the past year and oversaw the nation’s first military mobilization since World War II. Political adversaries like Navalny are either incarcerated or abroad. Putin has also made it obvious that he wants to restore Russia as an empire in which an independent Ukraine has no place.
High Putinism, a decade that started with Putin’s contentious return to president in 2012, came to an end with the war in Ukraine. In retrospect, that period served as a precursor to the current conflict because Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and supported armed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas while Putin’s technocrats tried to protect the Russian economy from sanctions.
Putin has ignored international sanctions and protests since the invasion in February of last year. Human rights organizations and independent media outlets have either been completely shut down or labeled as foreign agents.
There will be no going backward or returning to the pre-crisis situation for the majority of Russians as the country is currently in an unpredictable new phase.
Is Putin’s hold on power therefore uncontested? There are currently many rumors spreading across the nation about a new mobilization wave. Even as some Russians begin to see through the state propaganda’s facade, signs of elite competitiveness are starting to surface in Moscow.
The warped view of history
In honor of the 80th anniversary of the Soviet triumph at what was then known as Stalingrad, a pivotal turning point in what the Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War, Putin traveled to Volgograd in southern Russia on February 2.
Putin compared the battle in Ukraine to the Battle of Stalingrad, which marked the turning point in the Eastern Front’s struggle against Nazi Germany, in his speech at a gala performance in Volgograd. He also warned that Russia faced a similar threat from a “collective West” out to destroy it.
“Those who lure Europe, including Germany, into a new conflict with Russia – and even more recklessly declare this as a fait accompli – those who expect to defeat Russia on the battlefield, obviously do not grasp that a modern war with Russia will be quite different for them,” he cautioned.
On Germany’s plan to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, which Putin criticized as “unbelievable, but true,” Putin invoked Stalingrad as a response. Nonetheless, there was some of what renowned Russian political scientist Kirill Rogov called the “cosplay”—costume play—that Russia’s ruling elite employs to dress up its policies in the garb of a heroic past during the President’s visit to Volgograd.
“Putin came in Volgograd, which was temporarily renamed Stalingrad in honor of the Battle of Stalingrad Anniversary,” Rogov posted on Telegram. The commemoration of the Battle of Stalingrad, which is seen as a turning point in the Patriotic War, is utilized as a significant allusion and patriotic warm-up before the decisive second onslaught against Ukraine that is being prepared.
Russian leaders may be planning a significant new assault, maybe to coincide with the anniversary of the 2022 invasion, Ukrainian officials have been warning for weeks. After a quick and unexpected Ukrainian counteroffensive in September that drove Russian forces from the northeastern Kharkiv region and prepared the way for Ukraine to retake the southern city of Kherson, Putin issued an order for a “partial mobilization.” Considering that many of those soldiers have now completed their training, it seems increasingly likely that Russia will engage in a protracted war of attrition.
Additionally, observers observe that Russia’s military has been evolving. Putin has nominated a new combat commander, signifying yet another shift in policy, even though his generals were never able to hold the victory parade in Kyiv that they had planned.
Russian political observer and commentator Alexander Baunov recently wrote in a Telegram post that “after the failure of the (2022) blitzkrieg, Russia adapted and placed its bets on a long war, relying on its superior numbers in the population, resources, military industry, and the size of its territory beyond reach of enemy strikes.” “This is an attrition-based conflict that can be won without involving a large number of people… based on the ‘wait them out, apply pressure, put the strain on’ method.
Yet war is unexpected and variable. The recent decision by Germany, the United States, and other European allies to send main battle tanks to Ukraine may put Putin’s long-term strategy to the test, according to Baunov.
The new approach that Russia has recently set its eyes on would be destroyed by a return to tank-based quick warfare, according to Baunov. It could also be dangerous to hold the front with new people.
What makes this hazardous should be obvious: Major shocks were produced by the first mobilization in Russian society. Several thousands of Russians cast ballots with their feet. In ethnic minority areas like Dagestan, where police clashed with anti-mobilization protesters in many cities, protests broke out. Videos and public concerns about the poor living circumstances of recently mobilized recruits were widely shared on Russian social media.
With his powerful and well-funded security force, Putin was able to contain the disturbance, much like he was able to put a stop to antiwar demonstrations that erupted immediately after the invasion on February 24. In addition, Russia made some plodding progress in the Donbas region of Ukraine in the months that followed mobilization, particularly in the vicinity of the vulnerable city of Bakhmut.
Soldiers from the Wagner Group, a private military organization run by tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin, have taken the initiative in several of these advancements. The violent methods utilized by Wagner, including human-wave assaults and summary executions of waverers or deserters, have been the subject of numerous stories.
But Wagner’s strategies also bring to mind a dark period in Soviet history. In a move reminiscent of Stalin’s use of prison battalions and convicts to undertake desperate or suicidal missions in the most difficult areas of the front, Prigozhin enlisted thousands of prisoners with the promise of amnesty or a pardon. Human-wave attacks are used to overwhelm enemy defenses, regardless of the human cost.
Wagner’s expensive battlefield victories have elevated Prigozhin’s prominence, despite the mercenary organization’s claims that it is no longer recruiting captives. Despite the oligarch’s lack of a formal government position or authority, his ability to produce some achievements and his arrogant PR campaign has brought him much closer to Putin.
The precise distance is a subject of heated discussion. Russian novelist and journalist Mikhail Zygar termed Prigozhin’s goals “the most heated topic for conjecture in Moscow” in an interview with the associated press, stressing that he is building a political base that might potentially enable him to take on Putin.
He is the first folk hero in many years, according to Zygar. Because the majority of the leaders of that sector of Russian society have departed, he is an apparent opponent to President Putin. He is a hero for the most ultraconservative, and I would even go so far as to call him a fascist, segment of Russian society.
Recent rumors have focused on the possibility that Prigozhin’s adversaries among Russia’s ruling class have been attempting to clip his wings. Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst from Russia, recently provided a skeptic’s perspective on Prigozhin’s ascent that takes some of those reasons into account. She pointed out that Prigozhin doesn’t perform well in polls and has a history of conflict with Russia’s main ministries in a recent piece written by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In a recent article, she questioned if Prigozhin was prepared to oppose Putin. “While the answer is no, there is a crucial “but.” After being put through bloody meat grinders and losing a sizable portion of one’s troops, it might be challenging to maintain equilibrium and sanity. Prigozhin is safe as long as Putin is reasonably powerful and capable of keeping a balance between factions of influence. But even a modest loosening might spur Prigozhin to challenge the status quo, if not initially Putin. Monsters are created in times of war, and the state may be challenged by their irrationality and desperation.
The fact that Putin had a safe grip on power up until a year ago accounts for some of the fascinations with Prigozhin. The government was skilled at suppressing street demonstrations, and any significant political opposition had been successfully neutralized. This has increased speculation – or perhaps wishful thinking – that the fall of Putinism may be caused by an elite crack. Although the so-called siloviki, or staunch authoritarians in Putin’s inner circle, continue to show public loyalty, any failures in Ukraine could lead to a power struggle.
Will the war reach home?
In response to this, some Russians have sought solace in a type of political passivity. As a result of the dangers of openly criticizing the Kremlin, the associated press recently spoke with some Moscow residents on how their lives have altered since last year, under the condition that their surnames not be used.
Ira, a 47-year-old employee of a business journal, stated, “There have been many changes (in Russia), but I can’t make a difference.” I simply strive to maintain internal harmony. Maybe I’m too apolitical, but I don’t think it’s going to happen (additional mobilization).
Ira claimed that in the days following the invasion in February and March of last year, she experienced severe anxiety. She had recently purchased an apartment and was concerned that her employment would dwindle, leaving her unable to make her mortgage payment.
The spring was even worse, she claimed. It appears that we have now adjusted to a new reality. I began to go out and meet girlfriends. I began to purchase a lot more wine.
She stated that the eateries were suddenly filled but noted that “the faces look different. There are fewer hipsters if you’re familiar with the term.
As Ira doesn’t have a son, she need not be concerned about his mobilization. But she did mention that her 21-year-old daughter has begun going out with her roommate to informal, word-of-mouth events in private apartments, which are somewhat reminiscent of the underground concerts staged during the Soviet era.
The 51-year-old event planner Olya, who has two teenage daughters, claimed that her family has chosen to take more domestic vacations. Direct flights from Russia to Europe are virtually prohibited, and options for international travel are more constrained.
We began to travel more extensively across the nation, she said.
Some issues are taboo in the group that Olya and her family travel with, though.
“We know what everyone in our group thinks about it (the conflict), but we don’t talk about it because otherwise, we’ll fight,” she said.
Olya remarked that despite the ongoing war, life goes on. I have no power to change the circumstances, she said. “We do what we can and what is possible, my pals say. Depression serves no useful purpose.
The unexpected resilience of some segments of the Russian economy, despite severe Western sanctions, is beneficial for the Russian government. The war has been expensive for the government; the Finance Ministry of the nation recently acknowledged a higher-than-expected deficit in 2022, largely as a result of a 30% increase in defense spending over the previous year. However, the IMF forecasts a modest 0.3% return to GDP growth for Russia in 2023.
Georgy, a 38-year-old businessman, told the associated press that things seemed to be improving from the standpoint of his companies.
“Those who regrouped fast are enjoying development,” he added of the adapters. “We closed a disproportionately high number of agreements in January, and most of our business typically picks up in February.”
Georgy spoke to the associated press while stuck in a traffic jam in Moscow, showing that part of the city’s typical routine had returned.
Speaking about the ban on Western goods, he claimed that “practically nothing has changed in terms of daily life.” That might be more difficult if we’re discussing parts for a (Mercedes Benz) G-Class.
Georgy denied that the exodus of Russians since the start of the conflict had any impact on his line of work.
“Those who left that I know? Probably five or six,” he estimated. “I hang up with patriotic people.”
Georgy claimed to be dubious of the state-run media and to have sought out alternative information sources. He also admitted the possibility of being called up in a future round of mobilization.
My outlook is a little philosophical,” he declared. Naturally, I’d prefer not to.
Before last February, Putin’s social compact may help Russia’s emerging middle class: If you avoid politics, you may live in Moscow or St. Petersburg like a European. Now that the deal has been blown, It is unclear whether support for an endless war can be maintained given that Russia is farther away from Europe than ever.