For Putin, War Is Power (and Power Is War): Why Russians Do Not React to War
BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV
The extent to which Russian society supports Russia’s war against Ukraine is a matter of endless debate. Polling in an environment permeated by propaganda and repression is hard, and the results are likely to favor pro-government views. The outcomes are also likely to be swayed by propaganda storylines or political change.
With this as context, a recent meta-analysis of all publicly available polling data that controlled for potential distortions revealed that 50 to 75 percent of those polled support the war, depending on the particular poll. This figure, though somewhat less than what the Kremlin media claim, is still large enough to prevent the conflict from being referred to as purely “Putin's war.”
None of what follows is intended to exonerate those in Russia who may have fallen for the propaganda or who do not have the fortitude to contradict the official line. After all, the majority of Russians can get access to uncensored sources of information if they install a virtual private network on their phones or simply tune in to a variety of independent-minded YouTube channels that are still freely accessible in Russia.
However, an enduring aspect of Russian society may help put this depressing statistic in perspective. Russian society’s incapacity or unwillingness to affect its own government’s policies has been one of the most stable findings of the entire post-Soviet period. Depending on the year, 4 to 15 percent of those surveyed think they can have an impact on national events. Although that figure has recently increased somewhat, the share has historically remained below 10 percent.
To me, this amounts to the general public realizing how fundamentally unaccountable are both the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin personally. People in Russia agree that they live under a constant emergency order. From those cooked-up existential threats, the Kremlin derives its right to dispose of resources and lives. The Kremlin has not learned to work in any other way. Although Putin’s emergency state was initially a fraud perpetrated to justify the lack of unaccountability, it has effectively, through escalating moves, led from one war to another.
Putin started his first term with a war (it was the Chechen War back then) and will end his time in power in the throes of another war. He has generally fared worse with the public in times of peace than in times of war. Whenever the war excitement he created subsided and life became suspiciously quiet, his support would start ebbing and he would reach for the only tool that he knows will guarantee him some backing. Whenever his wars started to produce less blood and suffering, he would set out on a new round. Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, Ukraine—except for Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015, the pace is roughly one every seven years.
For Putin, war is a natural form of political existence. As long as he is in power, the wars will not stop. War and his regime are inseparable. He will not stop because he cannot hold power without a war.
Not for a single day during his time in power has he suspended the de facto state of emergency, which has repeatedly turned into a de facto state of war for individual population groups and areas.
Putin does not have to declare emergency rule through a formally legal procedure because his power is not limited by any procedures anyway. At all times, he has access to all of his state’s security apparatus, to all of its administrative and financial resources, to all the money and power he granted his friends.
He can start and stop wars. By deciding on medical aid during his annual live Q&A sessions he can heal one or two of his subjects. He can create things out of nothing: a house, a bridge, a road where there was none before and where there might still be none had things taken their normal course—that is, had the laws been respected.
Paradoxically, formally declaring martial law or a state of emergency in Russia would not untie the president’s hands (they are not tied anyway) or take responsibility away from him (it does not lie with him anyway, it lies with his mortal officials). On the contrary, his calling the war a war—and not a “special military operation,” as he has done so far—would give him more responsibility. He would have to answer questions like “Was this whole war about capturing Severodonetsk?”
If he declared himself formally a wartime leader, he would have to demonstrate hidden possibilities and bring up resources that do not exist. Full mobilization in Russia is problematic not only because of political considerations but because the Russian military organization is incapable of absorbing those potential millions of conscripts. As a result of a series of reforms, the Russian military has relied on a partial mobilization force. “Consequently, the Russian army was optimized for a short and sharp war while lacking the capacity to sustain a major conventional conflict at ‘peace time’ manning levels,” write Michael Kofman and Rob Lee in War on the Rocks.
This war has exposed the Russian state’s highly constrained capacities in every conceivable area, from its technological foundation to its financial system to its ability to replace the Western imports that have collapsed because of the sanctions. In times of peace, the Russian state may have appeared ten feet tall, but that was primarily because of words and not action. Putin’s power would collapse if he were to acknowledge that; therefore he will keep making up for his lack of genuine great power weight with bluff and unpredictable behavior.
This constant balancing act has helped him maneuver throughout his entire time in office. He is doing that again now, with heightened stakes. It would be disadvantageous for him to consider this war a war because calling it a “special operation” allows him to move the goalposts. He started by talking about a “denazification” of the whole of Ukraine, then turned to talking about saving the population of the Donbas. Whenever it is useful to him, he makes it clear that it is a war after all, namely, a war against the entirety of NATO, effectively a world war, as his propagandists say on his behalf.
Everything can be blamed on this war. It allows secrecy. It allows the Kremlin to hide expenses, to ward off accusations of economic problems, to conceal theft, military mistakes, and even the number of the war dead, which is now a state secret. Russia’s war against Ukraine is sometimes presented as a limited operation and sometimes as a world war. It all depends on what is needed at the moment.
The culture of perpetual disengagement in Russian society is a response to the country’s consistently unpredictable national government. Still, I don't think most of my fellow citizens genuinely embrace this savage war of aggression. They have grown a thick skin after experiencing a protracted cycle of increasing, then decreasing political pressure. The Russian publics have long since checked out of their country’s national affairs and have missed the moment when they (we) turned from non-collaborators into enablers.
None of this is to apologize for Russian society. After all, the majority of Russians, potentially, have everything they need to form a conscious opinion about their country’s war.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.Read More
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more