This article for the Telegraph is by Mark Almond
The scenes of panicked motorists pouring westwards from Kiev and the videos of Russian troops raising their flag deep inside Ukrainian territory only a few hours into their invasion suggests Vladimir Putin is triumphant. Maybe his Blitzkrieg will succeed like Hitler’s invasion of France in 1940. But however disastrously this war has begun for Ukraine and its timid Western friends, a long economic cold war is in prospect.
Given Vladimir Putin’s penchant for citing the “lessons of history”, it is odd that he has chosen to ignore how previous Russian regimes embarked on war confident of victory only to find their foundations at home shattered by the costs of conflict. In 1904, Nicholas II’s minister of the interior prophesied that conflict with Japan would be a “jolly, little victorious war” which would stabilise Russia at home.
Instead, humiliation brought people onto the streets. The Tsar had the power and loyal forces to crush protests then. But twelve years later, as the human and economic costs of the First World War bit deeply into living standards, the Tsar’s soldiers mutinied rather than shot at protestors. Lenin had urged Russians to turn “imperialist war” into a “civil war” against the regime.
An armed uprising against Putin’s regime is unlikely. A palace coup won’t take place unless things go wrong on the battlefield. But the evident lack of enthusiasm among younger Russians for this war could turn into Putin’s Achilles Heel. In the past, it was older generations, who had experienced war themselves and had children to lose, who were often cautious about conflict. Young men used to be excited by the prospect of glory.
Even though some young Russians will no doubt swallow the Kremlin’s propaganda about restoring historic Russia’s greatness, for many generations this will seem as quaintly unappealing as if our twenty-somethings were urged to sign up to rebuild the British Empire.
Younger Russians, anyone under forty, have lived in a post-Soviet space.
Like their contemporary Ukrainians, the new states have been their everyday normality. Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet past may mean a lot to older people who lived through the traumatic collapse of the economy thirty years ago, but the generation which Putin is asking to risk their lives may see it as an old man’s fantasy.
Will young Russians swallow Western sanctions on their way of life? Russia’s ruler is completely out of touch with the Smartphone generation. Putin doesn’t use a mobile phone or the internet. His obsession with secrecy means he even limits his use of paper and often gives orders verbally in person.
What if iPhones and Spotify are cut off? Young Russians have got used to being part of a global entertainment and sports culture. Their everyday economic activities involve using their phones to pay for things. Maybe if Russia was attacked, millions would rally to defend their country. But the generation of young men growing up in one child families with consumerist aspirations are much less likely to want to risk their skins.
After all, our own army has difficulty recruiting enough of our smartphone-obsessed young people to fill its modest ranks. There is no sign of a rush of patriotic Russian young men to sign up even for a victorious war. Cultural change has been one of Putin’s concerns. Like China’s Xi, he regards modern pop culture as inherently degenerate and unpatriotic. But it is a reality.
Goethe defined genius as “knowing when to stop”. Putin clearly sees himself as the reincarnation of Russia’s great state-builders of the past. Putin’s regime could die of indigestion if it tries to swallow Ukraine whole. The costs will hit Russia’s coming generation. From defeat in the Crimean War in 1856 to the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, Russian regimes have often seen the keystone of their stability slip out of place after defeat. Maybe now, the West’s economic and media warfare will erode Putin’s hold on Russia’s next generation.
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Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping