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Vladimir Putin’s willingness to threaten war damages Russia (the Economist)

19 February 2022


The Economist title: Vladimir Putin’s willingness to threaten war damages Russia
The Economist subtitle: The nature of his regime has now changed irreversibly
Date: 19 February 2022

” “The boss never works to someone else’s timetable,” Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the propagandist television network RT, posted to a channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service on February 15th. She was responding to Western media reports that America expected Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, to launch an invasion of Ukraine at 04:00 Moscow time the following morning. Ms Simonyan delighted in predicting that they would be wrong footed.

“We showed everyone what we wanted to show,” she continued, suggesting that the conclusions spooks, think-tankers, academics and journalists are drawing from the unprecedented availability of high-resolution satellite images of Russia’s build up were open to careful stage management. At the end of all the bragging, though, came the threat: Russian tanks could go back to the border as fast as they might be leaving it.

In “The 48 Laws of Power”, a bestselling self-help book by Robert Greene reported to have a following among convicts, Law 17 encourages the reader to “Keep others in suspended terror: Cultivate an air of unpredictability”. It is a thuggish lesson in which Mr Putin has needed no tuition since his formative years in the KGB.

On February 15th, the day after Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, publicly told Mr Putin there was still scope for negotiations, in particular arms-control negotiations, with the West, Russia’s defence ministry announced it would pull back some troops from the Ukrainian border. Later that day the State Duma, Russia’s Kremlin-controlled parliament, called on the president to recognise the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian-backed self-declared statelets in the Donbas region of Ukraine.

Note LO: see geographical maps in Economist article

Some thought this was Mr Putin’s way of declaring victory and backing down. Though the Duma’s motion had been introduced by the rump Communist Party, it had been overwhelmingly endorsed by representatives of Mr Putin’s United Russia, parliamentarians not noted for independence of spirit. By recognising the statelets—and thus their claims to the parts of the Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk that they do not control (see map)—Russia would establish a formal territorial disagreement on which to pin its dispute with Ukraine. It would also in effect have annexed more of its territory; in practice it already controls the statelets, but now they would be allies where Russia could garrison its forces quite blatantly as a “defence” against purported, perhaps invented, aggressions. On February 17th Russian media reported fighting on the contact line in Donbas. Mr Putin’s flack said Ukraine’s “provocative actions” had intensified.

But at an afternoon press conference with the visiting German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, Mr Putin indicated that although he would take the parliamentary vote into account he was not minded to follow through on it—at least not yet. Though he continues to hold, ridiculously, that Ukraine is prosecuting “genocide” in Donbas, for now, he says, the best way of resolving that problem is for Ukraine to abide by the “Minsk accords” of 2014-15, which would require it to grant the rebellious statelets an as-yet-undefined autonomy within Ukraine—which many fear would make Ukraine very hard to govern as a unitary state. “We very much trust our partners will put the appropriate influence on the Kyiv government,” Mr Putin told Mr Scholz and the assembled journalists.

As to the mooted withdrawals, Western governments say they see no sign of them. Indeed, some Western security sources, convinced that Mr Putin underestimates the extent of Ukrainian resistance, continue to see a large-scale invasion as highly likely. And so the suspense continues.

More divisions than the pope

With what America says are now 150,000 troops in striking distance of the border between Russia and Ukraine and a further 30,000 in Belarus, Mr Putin enjoys what the wonks of war call escalation dominance: he can attack, he can pull back or, for a while at least, he can stay put, commanding the world’s attention. President Joe Biden, who called him a killer, has been on the phone several times. European leaders who previously refused to discuss security with him, have, in the words of Ms Simonyan, “formed a queue to admire Moscow in February”. Russia’s complaints about nato missiles stationed in Poland and elsewhere are getting a hearing.

But while his perch in the catbird seat increases the unpredictability in the short term, it has also created a new and irreversible fact about the world: Mr Putin’s Russia has become the sort of country that might launch a large-scale war of aggression.

As many in Ukraine, not to mention Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, will bear witness, Mr Putin is by no means a pacifist. But for most of his time in office the idea of Russia engaging in a major war with a foreign power has been one its public and elites could safely ignore. In 2014 the annexation of Crimea was bloodless and the fomenting of conflict in Donbas undertaken by deniable “little green men”. This year, though, he has looked set to wage an all-out war. And whatever happens over the next few days or weeks, that readiness will be a new reality; as long as Mr Putin remains in power, the possibility of a war launched to further that power will be a condition of his rule. That willingness is not just a frightening new reality for Ukraine and, indeed, nato. It also terrifies many in Russia’s elite.

In the last decades of the Soviet Union, conventional war with the West was seen as unlikely; the leaders who followed Stalin remembered what the previous war had been like. In the post-Soviet era the whole idea stopped making any sense. Russians craved a Western lifestyle and believed that the only thing that had been standing between them and Western supermarkets had been the Communist Party. Democratic reforms were carried out in the name of the market economy and convergence with the West. When Mr Putin came to power in 2000, he was seen by Russians with money as a guarantor of consumerism and foreign travel. He enjoyed the support of the burgeoning middle class and the West alike.

From the late 2000s on, confrontation with the West, focused particularly on its deepening relationships with Russia’s formerly Soviet neighbours, became central to Mr Putin’s worldview and the ideology of his regime. In February 2007, at the Munich security conference, he made a combative speech challenging America’s dominance and asserting Russia’s resurgence. The following year, his army moved into Georgia, ostensibly to defend two enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had asked for Russian protection; the underlying reason was to warn the country off its moves towards joining nato.

But this antagonism has not, for the most part, been a practical problem for the Russian people. Those well enough off to afford it continued to enjoy the fruits of post-Soviet openness. They travelled abroad to such an extent that, before the pandemic, they had become the world’s sixth-largest spenders on international tourism. They imported luxuries, enjoyed a newly cosmopolitan Moscow and bought second homes in Europe ranging from bungalows in Bulgaria to palaces on the Cote d’Azur. The middle class grew accustomed to an open internet, comfortable infrastructure and ride-sharing apps.

The prospect of a bloody war—perhaps even an occupation—and subsequent pariah-dom puts all this in doubt. In recent conversations with The Economist businesspeople, diplomats, economists and government officials in Moscow revealed that they could barely fathom the ruinous consequences a war would bring to Russia—consequences which would go far beyond specific sanctions. Imports of high-tech desiderata would disappear, firms would lose their value, access to much of the rest of the world would become fraught, any veneer of respectability would be stripped away.

Push comes to shove

This Russian elite has long believed that such dire consequences made a war of choice unthinkable for a calculating man like Mr Putin. They continue to treat an invasion as vastly more unlikely than Western governments seem to think it. But being forced to concede that it has edged into the realm of the thinkable has left them deeply unnerved.

Those speaking against the war in this way will rarely agree to do so publicly, and they will certainly not be consulted on the matter by Mr Putin. But their voices matter. Some are professionals and technocrats who have kept the economy on an even keel despite rampant corruption and rent-seeking; they digitised and modernised the financial system, they revamped and modernised cities. Despite the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 after its annexation of Crimea and aggression against Ukraine they have reduced debt to just 20% of gdp, brought down inflation, built up $620bn of reserves and constructed a “fortress economy”. Others are businesspeople who managed to survive and prosper despite a worsening economic climate and the predations of Mr Putin’s cronies. Many of these men and women are looking for escape routes.

Over the years most in the elite have made political and moral compromises. Some did not like the suppression of political freedom, but they did not object to it either. Participating in rent redistribution while privately grumbling about the regime seemed more sensible and profitable. And then there are high-level officials and Mr Putin’s cronies who have accumulated vast wealth in Russia and parked it in Swiss bank accounts and the London property market. If Mr Putin takes Russia to war, such people stand to lose much, even all, of what they have accumulated.

Their borderline panic is not an unlooked-for side-effect of Mr Putin’s belligerence; it is part of the point of it. Mr Putin’s willingness to shed blood is a threat not just to Ukraine. It is also a threat he wants taken on board at home. Where once his system worked by co-opting the elites, it is now based on their fear.

Whether it comes about or not, the threat of war strengthens the power Russia’s securocrats, the siloviki, hold over its other elites. Any increased difficulty in moving, or moving assets, abroad makes their power harder to shrug off. Heightened tensions allow them to clamp down with even less justification than usual on any attitudes that can be deemed unpatriotic—such as criticisms of military spending or a plummeting exchange rate. With the country on a war footing it becomes easier to trip into treason. Part of the elite’s sense of increasing threat is that the worse things get for the country, the firmer the grip of the siloviki will become.

Their position is articulated by Nikolai Patrushev, who as head of the country’s security council has assumed the role of the chief ideologue among the former KGB men who dominate the Russian state. Russia is locked in a civilisational and geopolitical fight for its life, he argues. The West is trying to destroy it by “aggressively advancing neoliberal values that contradict our worldview”.

The unsustainable truth

The siloviki have been in the ascendant for some time. Their power went up a notch after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Their sense of success bolstered, as one senior government official admits, by the elite’s efforts to keep Russia’s show on the road, their control increased further in the authoritarian turn the country took after the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny, de facto leader of the opposition, in 2020. As any mayor or governor can testify, government meetings are attended by a prosecutor and a representative of the security services. This is increasingly thwarting efforts to get things done.

In 2007, at the start of his national political career, Mr Navalny framed his aspirations in terms of “a final battle between good and neutrality”. Ever since he has argued that it is the unwillingness of a conformist, compromised elite to join in that battle which has ensured the regime’s stability. The fact that repression is increasingly aimed at that elite itself is strengthening his point. So is the international response to the threats towards Ukraine. By treating a Russian invasion as a likely outcome and threatening serious reprisals the West has sent a powerful signal to the Russian elite.

In the past, many could plead ignorance or innocence. It was not they who shot down a civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014, who beat up protesters, who poisoned Mr Navalny, who shut down human rights organisations. Faced with the prospect of Russia’s aggression leading to deaths by the thousand and national ignominy, though, they can no longer avoid responsibility. For some the risks of being held accountable for Mr Putin’s actions in case of a war now outweigh the benefits of serving the system. The elite’s “neutrality” has become harder to sustain—even as the rising power of the siloviki puts more pressure on them to do so.

Mr Putin’s gamble on creating a plausible threat of war without sliding into battle might bring him some short-lived gains. If he were to withdraw his troops in earnest, he might yet come out seemingly ahead. As Mr Navalny has observed, reaping rewards for not carrying through on threats is a protection-racketeer’s tactic in which Mr Putin has form. Meanwhile a focus on the international allows internal matters to go relatively unnoticed. Few outside Russia have paid attention to Mr Navalny being put on trial again.

But there has been a marked escalation in what he has had to threaten in order to get paid off with external acquiescence and internal suppression—if that is indeed what happens. In 2014 the annexation of Crimea proved capable of changing a domestic context increasingly shaped by protests on the street. This time the threat of a major war has been required. And a freaked-out elite kept in line only through fear will make matters a great deal worse at home. Russia is facing shortages of both unqualified and qualified labour; more and more young and entrepreneurial people see emigration as their only option. The anti-Moscow sentiment already rife in many regions is only likely to get stronger. And a country that still considers itself part of Europe has little love for a tactic which can but make it more dependent on China.

Mr Putin cannot revive growth, for that would require structural reforms that would destabilise politics. He cannot reverse the brain drain, because that would require taming his security services. He cannot deal with the demands of the young or the regions, because that would require him to quit. An isolated, bored and ageing leader, increasingly reliant on a small coterie of similar age and KGB background, he prefers geopolitical posturing and war games, where results are visible and instantly gratifying. He is reconciled to ruling by fear, not guile and the cultivation of common interests; if he understands Mr Greene’s 17th Law of Power, he has failed to master the 18th: “Do not build fortresses to protect yourself—isolation is dangerous”.

One of Ms Simonyan’s recent barbs was the observation that, thanks to Russia’s threats, “Kyiv’s economy has been torn to shreds. A trivial matter, perhaps, but a gratifying one.” In the absence of a full-scale attack, Mr Putin can continue to damage Ukraine with threats, cyber-attacks, perhaps the disabling of some infrastructure.

But Ms Simonyan passes over the fact that the effects on Russia’s economy have been noticeable, too, and that while Mr Putin clearly feels a need to show Russians that their neighbours will not be allowed a flourishing democracy, most of Russia sees no benefit from such a demonstration. They want what is good for them more than what is bad for the West. They do not want the perpetual prospect of war, nor the sort of state which that implies.”



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