Having Failed to Stage ‘Short Victorious War’ in Ukraine, Putin Faces Problems at Home

July 9, 2014
A Japanese propaganda of the war: woodcut print showing Tsar Nicholas II waking from a nightmare of the battered and wounded Russian forces returning from battle. Artist Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1904 or 1905.

Staunton, July 8 – Both those Russians who continue to press Vladimir Putin to intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine and those who say that his policies in Ukraine have been a disaster are increasingly reviving an old Russian metaphor that cannot be encouraging to the current incumbent of the Kremlin.

Ever since Nicholas II and his advisors thought “a short victorious war” against Japan would work to their advantage and a defeat in that conflict sparked the Russian revolution of 1905, Russian analysts have often discussed Moscow’s foreign policy actions in terms of their consequences, often cataclysmic, at home.

In an essay on Forum-MSK.org
, Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Russian nationalist, argues that “the Kremlin has lost control over the process” in eastern Ukraine and that as a result, “the rising in the Donbass could grow into a Russian rising” in Russia given that pro-Russian forces now face defeat.

And in an Ekho Moskvy broadcast, Konstantin Remchukov, the editor in chief of Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta, discusses a century on whether the events of 1905 when “an imperialist war was transformed into a civil one” could happen again.

Such speculations, of course, do not mean that Putin inevitably faces such an outcome, but they do have the effect of calling into question the depth of the support that polls show he currently enjoys. Indeed, those poll numbers themselves call to mind the initial enthusiasm Russians had for some previous wars and their subsequent disillusionment.

But perhaps more important in this regard are three other data points reported in the Russian media over the last two days. First, polls show that large shares of Russians do not want to fight in Ukraine and are not prepared to boycott Ukrainian goods to bring Kyiv to heel.

Second, divisions about Ukraine are beginning to appear in the political elite. Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as Putin’s prime minister between 2000 and 2004 but later broke with him, says that Kyiv will never agree to recognize the pro-Moscow separatists as “a legitimate side in any negotiations,” something Putin has been seeking.

And third, anger about Moscow’s spending on the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea is now spilling into the streets of some Russian cities. In Novosibirsk today, there was a demonstration scheduled against spending money that protesters say should go to Russians at home.