Russia’s Party of War Seeks to Turn the War with Ukraine into a National Cause. It Will Fail
BY BORIS GROZOVSKY
Inside Russia, the Russian army's lack of significant successes in Ukraine from April to September and its recent defeat in the Kharkov region have raised the question of how to continue the war and avoid Russia's defeat. For Vladimir Putin, this question does not seem to have a good answer. His economy is weakening under sanctions, weapons are running out, help from allies (Iran, China) is symbolic, and his soldiers are not ready to give their lives on the Ukrainian battlefield.
Vladimir Putin needs a new army—well-commanded, well-composed, and agile. But it is impossible to create one in a few months. Alternatively, he needs a better purpose for the war. If Russians were called to arms not to destroy Ukraine, but to defend Russia itself, more would be willing to enlist.
A part of Russian society on whose support the Putin regime counts does approve of the war, but only passively. They would like the army to win, but do not see themselves taking part in the action. Putin’s supporters are not doing particularly well either. The economy is down, prices are up, many familiar goods are out of the stores. Companies’ revenues have begun to decline, as well as the number of good jobs in the private sector. Putin's base electorate, Russians aged 50+, do not think there is anything they can do to help the army under these conditions. They themselves expect help from the state. Young people who could help win the war mostly do not want to fight.
The retreat from the Kharkov region and the failure of the referendums in the captured Ukrainian territories scheduled for September has tarnished the image of the Russian army. In the eyes of the loyal, it has besmirched the reputation of Russia's leadership. Putin did not ask Russians if they wanted to fight Ukraine, much less if they wanted a war aimed at destroying Ukraine’s sovereignty. Most Russians would not have minded a small victorious war, but at a low cost to themselves.
The best option for Putin now would be to ask for a truce, annex the territories he now controls, and declare the war a success. Putin's electorate would be happy. The army will regroup and re-equip and, with time, will be able to go on destroying Ukraine, better prepared this time. A perfect plan.
Except that it is not going to work. Ukraine's leadership and its people will agree to peace only on the condition that Ukraine regains all occupied territories, including Crimea, and that Russia pays substantial war reparations. These conditions would be an unbearable humiliation for Putin. At the moment, Putin does not seem to have an exit plan, a fact confirmed recently by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
For Putin, withdrawing his troops just from the territories occupied this year (not from Crimea and the effectively occupied Donbass) would be a crushing defeat and the end of political career. The party of war in Putin's entourage, consisting of strongmen and political managers, cannot go along with a failed war. They will lose power and may well end up in the International Criminal Court.
What made Putin attractive to the Russians was his cult of force. He promised to make Russia great again, to rebalance the system of international relations to Russia's advantage, and to regain dominance over Russian speaking territories. Failure to achieve these goals in Ukraine means that Putin was not as strong as advertised. Putin's legitimacy rests on strength, like the power of the leader of a wolf pack. The leader cannot betray weakness. In Rudyard Kipling's TheJungle Book, a tale that is familiar to most Russians, a leader who misses his prey is considered finished. The phrase “Akela has missed” is often repeated in Russian political discourse.
It is often quoted now. Parting from the leader who has been unable to lead the pack to its goals should help the pack survive and win. This is precisely why Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov seems to have made a new tactical alliance with the Russian security apparatus that normally has a difficult relationship with him. Kadyrov has called on Russian regions—each region—to form and equip volunteer battalions.
Putin, fearing the loss of his popularity over an unpopular war, is afraid to ask for this sort of help directly. At least this is how the "party of war" understands the problem. The escalation of Kadyrov's rhetoric in September, his harsh criticism of the Russian military, the signals about his readiness to give up leadership of Chechnya in favor of working in the leadership of, presumably, the National Guard looks not like personal PR, but like behavior coordinated with other leaders of the "war party." In the "patriotic rating of governors" just compiled by the State Duma, the leaders of Chechnya, Crimea, St. Petersburg, and Chuvashia are at the top of the list.
Kadyrov actually proposes that the regions should begin to self-mobilize. This partial call to military action looks like this: "The head of each region in Russia today must prove his readiness to help the state.” The key element of Kadyrov's plan is to conscript the reservists, men who have served in the army in the last 10 to 15 years. So far the authorities have had little success in forming volunteer regiments, even with salaries approximately eight times higher than usual. Kadyrov wants to resort to secret mobilization without waiting for martial law to be declared officially. Mobilization summons have begun to arrive in recent days for the residents of many regions.
Another member of the war party and friend of Putin's, Yevgeny Prigozhin, pursues a policy similar to Kadyrov's. He advertises his volunteer units as an upward mobility vehicle for the residents of Russia’s poorest regions. Many were enticed by the prospect of earning the equivalent of two to three years of their annual income in one season, and, in the event of death, payment equal to 10 to 15 years of salary to their relatives. But since Russia’s budget is already in the red, Prigozhin has found another solution: to enroll prisoners. Someone has to fight, and if it's not volunteers or convicts, your children will have to fight, Prigozhin said.
Putin's regime has cornered itself and can neither win nor retreat. It is left with few good options. The main one is to add volume to the propaganda machine and form more volunteer battalions in order to achieve parity on the battlefield. The Russian army still outguns the Ukrainian army in missiles and armored vehicles, but there are too few soldiers to replace those who are tired and demotivated, a situation that has contributed greatly to the Kharkiv defeat.
Kadyrov and Prigozhin are apparently tasked with solving this problem while avoiding the conversion of the entire economy and of civilian life to military mode. Their solution is to recruit a new 100,000-strong army on a volunteer basis and ask the remaining citizens to participate in the war significantly more than they have done so far. For example, they could donate money, helping to purchase weapons, ammunition, and food. The war with Ukraine should become an all-Russian affair. This would require convincing people that it is a just war that is being fought for Russia’s survival. Kremlin propaganda must persuade the Russians that the very existence of an independent Ukraine is an existential threat to Russia.
So far, the Russians are not convinced. For many years, the existence of Ukraine next to Russia has not interfered with their own lives in any way. Convincing them that Ukraine and Western countries have now become an existential threat to Russia would be helped by a large-scale transfer of hostilities to Russian territory. Or, for example, declarations from Ukrainian politicians that they need not only to restore the territorial integrity of the country to the borders of 1991, but also, say, to annex Kuban and Voronezh (regions with a significant share of the Ukrainian population). In this case, Kadyrov and Prigozhin might convince the Russians that the motherland is in danger, and that the time has come to defend it.
Two other options are being contemplated. One is to make life unbearable for Europeans in the cold season—to freeze Europe by depriving it of gas and force it to reduce the scale of aid to Ukraine by pushing it to negotiate on Russian terms. The other was to make the lives of Ukrainians unbearable by destroying infrastructure, not only in cities seized by Russia (like Mariupol and Lisichansk), but also in large cities far from the front lines. Since the beginning of the war, Russia has destroyed infrastructure, but it has done so in a half-hearted manner: this is what the patriotic forces now reproach the military command for. A new strategy might be to turn major Ukrainian cities into disaster areas, forcing citizens to abandon their homes. In that case, however, propagandists will have a harder time convincing Russians that the country is fighting a just war.
As a backup option, Putin apparently keeps open the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons. At the moment there is no high probability of their use, but Putin might well respond to the threat of Ukraine's liberation of Crimea with a nuclear strike.
If the Russian army still obeys Putin’s orders by that point. It is possible that the "war party" will demote an indecisive Putin to a ceremonial role, while taking full control of the matter. If this is the case, before admitting inevitable defeat in the war with Ukraine, the Russian military will have committed even more war crimes.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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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