Vladimir Putin is pushing Russia into the past

T HE PANTSIR-S1 is an impressive beast, almost 17 tonnes of top-notch hardware capable of shooting down planes tens of kilometres away. The specimen photographed not far from Kherson, though, was a sorry spectacle; its missile-tubes bristled like porcupine quills, but it was axle-deep in mud—one of nearly 1,000 pieces of Russian equipment destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured by Ukraine over two weeks of war.

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Seeing the Pantsir on social media, Trent Telenko, a former auditor in America’s defence bureaucracy, noticed a telltale detail which spoke of very poor maintenance: its tyres were in terrible nick. Worse still, they were cheap Chinese knock-offs of the tyres you might have expected on such a vehicle, observed Jon Hawkes of Janes, a defence-intelligence firm; they would have been unable to support the vehicle fully loaded.

There were however limits to the visibility of these synecdoche-inviting defects. No such pictures were to be seen in Russian media, any more than the word “war” was to be read there. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has not used the word; nor has he declared a state of emergency. In a plainly-weird-but-purportedly-normal event televised on March 5th he told a group of Aeroflot flight attendants that the special operation to demilitarise Russia’s brother country was going to plan and would soon be complete. Russian forces were using precision weapons and only hitting military targets. The damage to civilian buildings was the work of evil Ukrainian Nazis shelling their own cities. To make sure this important message is not distorted, a law passed on March 4th makes dissemination of any information at odds with the official version of the conflict punishable by a prison sentence of up to 15 years. As George Orwell knew, when War is to be Peace, Ignorance is Strength.

Almost all independent media have shut down, and the government is blocking access to some social media. Nevertheless, accurate news seeps in via Telegram, an encrypted messaging service, foreign sites accessed through virtual private networks and, the simplest expedient, phone calls with relatives in Ukraine. When their loved ones in Kyiv say the city is being bombarded by Mr Putin, some Russians stop their ears and believe the television instead. But many do not.

One of the hardest things to square with the narrative of normality is the death toll. On March 2nd Russia admitted that 498 troops had died. On March 8th America’s Defence Intelligence Agency put the figure at between 2,000 and 4,000. The Soviet Union did not surpass the 2,000-dead mark in Afghanistan until more than a year after its invasion in 1979; it took America three years to do so after invading Iraq.

The economy, too, is hard to pass off as normal. Most global brands have quit the country, leaving behind closed stores and thousands of unemployed Russians (before the invasion 5% of Russians with jobs worked for foreign firms). The government is looking at taking over foreign assets to keep some businesses going. The stockmarket has crashed.

Supermarkets have started to ration food sales, and anonymised tracking data from Google indicate that visits to retail and grocery sites have increased since the invasion, suggesting worries about future supplies—and future prices. A real-time price index which State Street Global Markets and PriceStats derive from online postings is rising rapidly. Russian economists expect annual inflation of 30-40%.

The central bank, hampered by sanctions from defending the rouble, has seen it depreciate by 40% since January and most international travel has become impossible. Disruption to supply chains is bringing some factories to a halt. A boycott on maintenance and spare parts by Boeing and Airbus may soon make a lot more cabin crew available for chats with the president by grounding the country’s airlines.

In the sorry annals of damage inflicted on Russia by its rulers this stands proud. The 10% annual drops in GDP seen in the recessions triggered by the global financial crisis and the financial default of 1998 seem possible antecedents. But the structural disruption may be bigger. The last time Russia experienced such rapid, destructive change, according to many, was in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, when the majority of today’s Russians were either children or not yet born and the firms now leaving had not arrived.

An all-time great

In political and social terms it may be necessary to go back almost a century to find a parallel: to 1929, when Stalin liquidated the entrepreneurial class to consolidate his power. Mr Putin’s war was not deliberately engineered to destroy today’s urban, educated middle class. But the people and firms it harms most are those most integrated into the global economy, and thus those for which, in general, he has least sympathy.

The harm done to them goes far beyond the financial. Gone is TV Rain, the “optimistic channel”, as it branded itself; gone are the holidays in Europe and the iPhones and the trips to IKEA . Gone, too, is the illusion of Russia as a country where dignity could be enjoyed alongside those lifestyle comforts, and where it was possible for both to matter.

It is ten years since members of this class first came out in protest against Mr Putin. His subsequent shift from a reign based on economic success to one justified by national grandeur papered over the cracks somewhat: witness the popularity of his annexation of Crimea in 2014. But after that the contradiction between an increasingly imperialist kleptocracy and the growth of both bourgeois lifestyles and civil society became ever more acute. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s jailed opposition leader, was riding the wave of this urban middle class’s disaffection when Mr Putin had him poisoned in 2020. Having failed to rid Russia of Mr Navalny, he is now ridding her of the people who supported him.

That said, the war has consolidated Mr Navalny’s opposition movement and expanded it beyond its previous core. “No to war” is now the only slogan that matters, one which speaks to survival rather than political preference. Mr Putin’s much rehearsed devotion to Russian greatness allows him to tap a large reservoir of patriotism. His war has no such standing.

Mr Navalny’s team, operating from outside the country, has accordingly thrown all its resources behind the anti-war effort, a move which gives them access to a much broader base. And by choosing to downplay the invasion as a mere special operation, Mr Putin initially denied himself the benefits to be accrued from rallying the people around a wartime flag.

He may be particularly weakened in some of the regions. The ruling elite in Tatarstan, Russia’s largest Muslim republic, for example, is deeply invested in economic ties with the outside world that have now been torn asunder. In Novokuznetsk, a Siberian coal-mining city, angry citizens yelled at the local governor, Sergei Tsivilyov, that the authorities were using young men as “cannon fodder”. Mr Tsivilyov responded gamely that “While a military operation is in process, one shouldn’t come to any conclusions.” But there is a limit to the length of time that an economy-crippling war can be treated as a technicality to be endured with patience. On March 9th the government seemed to start taking that in, with new talk of economic costs and the broad nature of the struggle. There are, it seems, Nazis to fight beyond Ukraine.

Rocks and hard places

How well Russia would fare against such foes, were they real, is hard to say. The poor performance of the army and air force in Ukraine has shown a surprising—to some, astonishing—lack of operational acumen. Joint operations have sputtered, equipment has performed poorly, logistics and resupply units have failed to keep up with combat forces. At least three senior commanders have been killed because, frustrated by the slow pace of progress, they went to the front and into harm’s way.

But grinding and mudbound as Russia’s advance may be, an advance it is. Alex Vershinin, a recently retired US Army officer who has studied Russian logistics, says the commanders may have stretched their supply lines to breaking-point in their effort to advance in the north and south, but that “they are exactly where they are meant to be.” Others, while agreeing that progress, if slow, has been real and serious as well as destructive, are less sanguine about its future prospects. Michael Kofman of CNA , a think-tank, says that Russia is making “steady progress” towards its military objectives but attrition, logistical problems, and morale could leave it “combat ineffective” within a few weeks. It would not be defeated; but it would be forced to pause its operations. Christopher Dougherty, a former Pentagon official now at CNAS , another think-tank, reckons that the invasion has “culminated”—staff-college-speak for running out of steam—and that there may now be a 30-40% chance of a settlement in which Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, remains in office. Those are far better odds than anyone would have offered when the invasion began. And every day Ukraine keeps fighting, Mr Putin loses. The siege of Kyiv, if it transpires, will probably show who is right. Despite the much discussed immobility of a huge convoy to its north-west, the city centre, accessible only from the south and south-east, is increasingly cut off. The Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank, says that Russian forces are being concentrated in suburbs to the west (Irpin) and east (Brovary) within rocket-artillery range of the centre. The Institute sees this as preparation for an assault in the coming days. But it also sees indications that Russia is struggling to put together the combat power such an attack requires. One red flag is that elements of the Rosgvardia (national guard), Chechen fighters loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen republic, and troops from Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked mercenary outfit, are all gathering around the city, presumably to supplement the regular army.

Again, Stalin’s rule offers a parallel—this time the “Winter war” fought against Finland in 1939-40. Russia’s campaign began with wildly optimistic assumptions in Moscow, poor planning, disastrous tactics and high casualties. And Stalin did not conquer Finland, as he wanted, so the war is often cited as an example of a plucky underdog holding off a larger invader. But after their dodgy start the Soviet forces paused, regrouped and went on to overpower the Finns with sheer numbers and firepower. The country was forced to hand over territory and agreed to constraints on its foreign policy.

Yet the Winter war is hardly a perfect analogy, notes Roger Reese, a historian at Texas A&M University. Stalin’s army was far larger than Mr Putin’s, and it did not have to reckon with urban warfare. It also enjoyed support at home. “Stalin could accept horrendous casualties, replace them, and deny the public information about them,” says Mr Reese. “Putin cannot do any of these.” On March 9th the government’s admission that, contrary to previous denials, conscripts had been sent to Ukraine looked likely to stoke new anger, despite promises that the people who had “mistakenly” sent them would be punished.

Russians of military age had relatively little attachment to the country even before the war: 43% of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 said they wanted to leave the country for good. Now they are desperately googling ways out. And some are protesting against the war, despite the increasing danger of doing so.

The anti-war rallies held on March 6th led to 5,000 detentions, half of them in Moscow. That was double the number detained the previous Sunday, not because there were more protesters, but because there were several times more police. “It felt as if thousands and thousands of troops were brought to Moscow,” one witness said. “They were everywhere.” Russian universities are expelling students involved in the protests. Police and security services are randomly stopping people on the streets and in the metro to check their smartphones and read their messages.

Perhaps more worrying to Mr Putin are larger protests in neighbouring Belarus. Franak Viacorka, the right-hand man for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who would probably have won the country’s presidential election in 2020 had the count been fair, says that on March 6th Belarus saw the biggest protest since that election. Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator who stole it to prolong his stay in power, is looking distinctly shaky.

Having played host to Russian forces on their way to Kyiv, Mr Lukashenko was supposed to send his own soldiers into battle behind them. He has not done so, and is now pledging that the troops will stay at home—not out of love for Ukraine but out of fear that if ordered south they might turn against him, or run. He no longer insults Mr Zelensky on television.

Hell, by way of bad intentions

Mr Putin has not propped Mr Lukashenko up just because, as with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, he hates to see a murderous tyrant fall. An end to Mr Lukashenko’s regime at any time in the past few years would have invigorated Russia’s opposition unacceptably. In current circumstances it would also delight Ukraine while making Russian forces around Kyiv harder to support.

Even if Mr Lukashenko stays in power, Mr Putin’s position is bad. A victory in Ukraine that sees its government collapse might at least bring the cost of the war to an end, but it would do little else to help the economy.

In the absence of such victory he could instead simply escalate the violence, perhaps using weapons of mass destruction and blaming his enemies as a pretext for ever greater carnage. At some point commanders in the field, moved either by humanity or fear of the International Criminal Court, might rebel. But Russia does not have much history of military rebellions.

Alternatively Mr Putin might pull back and pretend that he has won. He has prepared the ground for such a manoeuvre by separating the country’s mythical and faceless Nazi antagonists from the Ukrainian armed forces, whom he presents as victims of Western governments rather than perpetrators. Such a manoeuvre may seem implausible; but so did going to war in the first place. And appealing as it might be, like all the other options save a coup it would be bad for Russia without providing stability beyond it. At bay, Mr Putin would still be dangerous both to the outside world and at home, where he would inflict more deadly repressions as he battened down the hatches.

Novaya Gazeta, the only prominent independent newspaper left in the country, is not able to report on the war, but is still reporting on the outrages which go along with it: “Military censorship does not extend to the fact that the war is going on inside [Russia],” its editorial board wrote with courage. It recently published a transcript of abuse directed at a Russian woman being beaten and sexually humiliated in a custody cell: “Fucking freak! What do you think we’re going to get for this? Putin told us to fucking kill them. That’s it! Putin is on our side! You’re the enemies of Russia, you’re the enemies of the people. We’ll also get a bonus for this.” There is no outcome in Ukraine which will stop such things. ■

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