Putin’s Two Wars

June 10, 2015
Russian servicemenat a parade rehearsal in Red Square, in Moscow on November 5, 2012. The parade on November 7 marked the anniversary of a historical parade in 1941 when Soviet soldiers marched through Red Square towards the front lines at World War Two. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

The resumption of heavy fighting in Ukraine in early June suggests the likelihood of a major new Russian offensive sometime soon. As many analysts have noted, Vladimir Putin, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Richard III, has gone so far in blood that he cannot go back. Moreover, admitting that this adventure known as the war in Ukraine was a calamity for Russia would likely cost him his job if not imperil his overall governing system. Therefore it is the logic of Russian governance that points towards continuing war in Ukraine and the deliberate domestic and international cultivation of a state of siege, if not war, between Russia and the West. In other words, the overall governing strategy of unceasing patriotic mobilization and the attempt to use foreign policy and imperial circuses as the main legitimating factor of Putin’s rule are all too likely to continue.

Therefore war, or at least the preparation of Russia for that condition on a more or less permanent basis, will continue to be the default option of the regime. Thus we can say that in effect Putin is waging two wars. One war, obviously, is the war he began in February 2014 against Ukraine. As many have observed, a fundamental, if not the primary reason for this war is to retain his grip on power by thwarting the advent of a democratic pro-Western Ukraine that is a standing reproach to Putin’s system and an abiding threat to his legitimacy. This policy of war against Ukraine easily fits in with the themes of his larger campaign of patriotic mobilization at home with its prominent motifs of recovering aspects of the empire, asserting Russia as an unchallenged hegemon in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the systematic incitement of hatred against the US and now Ukraine.

But this campaign is, in fact, the core of Putin’s second war, namely the war he is waging against the Russian people and their future prospects in order to stay in power. Thus to win this war he has had to resort to a second, foreign, and therefore, more dangerous war in Ukraine. This domestic war consists of the increasing resort of murdering political opponents, the return of the Gulag, the steady constriction of the rights and freedom of the Russian people, and the militarization of public opinion and of the state economy. The current Russian budget, — like its Tsarist and Soviet predecessors — is disproportionately oriented to high-and-increasing defense spending and huge outlays on the “imperial paraphernalia,” like massive show projects and huge spending on domestic and global information warfare. A telling sign of this war on Russia is the steady plundering of pension funds, infrastructural investment, and investment in human capital, health, science, and education to support Putin’s kleptocratic autocracy. Putin is thus robbing Russia’s future to pay for his present system and the failure of this experiment is ultimately quite predictable. Having renounced any reform upon his return to power Putin has now essentially “bet the farm” on ruling through his manipulation of Russia’s “Arcana Imperii’ (secrets of the empire).

In many ways these policies that are embodied in the war at home against Russia presage the ultimate collapse of Putin’s system for they far-too-closely resemble the systemic causes of both the Tsarist and Soviet collapses. Hence my earlier observations on Russia’s “frozen culture” regarding the nature of the state and political processes. But they also spell disaster for the Russian people because empire and war are inherent in Putin’s system. Russian elites’ quest for the status of a great state Velikaya Derzhava is inherently an imperial one, the quest to recover not just the status and trappings of empire but also actual territorial gain and the destruction of the independence of the Post-Soviet states on its borders. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that Moscow also seeks to undermine the security, sovereignty, and integrity of the former members of the Warsaw Pact. One need only read what Russian ambassadors and officials say to or about these governments to grasp that message.

This is a project, therefore, that can only be realized by war of the simulation of it through perpetual mobilization, militarization, and creation of huge numbers of “multiple militaries” at home against all manner of dissent. Like its predecessors, Putinism can only stay in power and only justify itself through such means and — even without sanctions and with low energy prices, neither of which are realities — it cannot sustain that quest over time. Any assessment of Russia’s trajectory must therefore begin from the point of view that from the standpoint of Russia’s leaders, Russia is permanently and constantly embattled, i.e. in a state of siege or war against both foreign enemies and domestic challengers whom, they believe — as did Lenin, Stalin, and their Epigoni — to be inherently one and the same.

Not only does Russia deserve better than this but the continuation of such a system in power means that Ukraine is not the last war, even if it devolves into a frozen conflict. We have seen frozen conflicts explode before, as in Georgia. But the point is that Putin’s Russia is a state forged by domestic war — beginning with Chechnya — and it can only sustain that war against Russia itself by exporting new conflicts beyond its borders. As foreign governments grapple with the Russian challenge, this is the lesson they have to grasp, because Putin’s bell tolls for them as well.