There is growing opposition to President Putin at home says Arkady Ostrovsky Russia editor, The Economist
WHEN RUSSIA’S president, Vladimir Putin, invaded Ukraine on February 24th 2022, he set out to grab territory, deprive it of sovereignty, wipe out the very idea of its national identity and turn what remained of it into a failed state. After months of Ukraine’s fierce resistance, its statehood and its identity are stronger than ever, and all the things that Mr Putin had intended to inflict on Ukraine are afflicting his own country.
Mr Putin’s war is turning Russia into a failed state, with uncontrolled borders, private military formations, a fleeing population, moral decay and the possibility of civil conflict. And though confidence among Western leaders in Ukraine’s ability to withstand Mr Putin’s terror has gone up, there is growing concern about Russia’s own ability to survive the war. It could become ungovernable and descend into chaos.
Consider its borders. Russia’s absurd and illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine—Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhia—before it could even establish full control over them, makes it a state with illegitimate territories and a fluid frontier. “The Russian Federation as we know it is self-liquidating and passing into a failed-state phase,” says Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist.
Its administration, she notes, is unable to carry out its basic functions. The annexation will not deter Ukrainian forces, but it will create precedents for Russia’s own restive regions, including the north Caucasus republics, which are likely to head for the exit if the central government starts loosening its grip.
Another feature of a failing state is a loss of monopoly on the use of physical force. Private armies and mercenaries, although officially banned in Russia, are flourishing. Evgeny Prigozhin, a former convict nicknamed “Putin’s chef” and a front man for the Wagner Group, a private mercenary operation, has been openly recruiting prisoners and offering them pardons in exchange for joining his forces.
Wagner, he says, has no desire to be “legalised” or integrated into the armed forces. The same could be said of the force controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov, a Chechen former warlord and now Chechnya’s president. Even Russia’s government security agencies are increasingly serving their own corporate interests.
The Russian state is failing in the most basic function of all. Far from protecting the lives of its people, it poses the biggest threat to them, by using them as cannon fodder. On September 21st, faced with military defeat on the battleground in Ukraine, Mr Putin ordered a mobilisation of some 300,000 people. Ill trained and ill equipped, their only function is to stand in the way of the advance of the Ukrainian forces. Many are unlikely to be alive this time next year.
There is growing concern about Russia’s own ability to survive the war
The mobilisation caused a shock in Russia far greater than the beginning of the war itself. Some of its effects are already visible: recruitment centres were set ablaze, and at least 300,000 people fled abroad (on top of the 300,000 who left in the first weeks of the war). Most of them are young, educated and resourceful. The full impact of their departure on the country’s economy and demographics is yet to show, but social tension is rising.
While urbanites flee, tens of thousands of their poorer compatriots are being rounded up and sent into the trenches. By bringing his “special military operation” home Mr Putin has broken the fragile consensus under which people agreed not to protest against the war in exchange for being left alone. Now they are being told to fight and die for the sake of his regime.
Mr Putin cannot win, but he cannot afford to end the conflict either. He may hope that by making so many people collude in his war, and subjecting them to more of his poisonous, fascist propaganda, he will be able to drag things out. Whether he succeeds, or whether the flow of body bags, coupled with the discontent of the elite, results in his downfall, will determine how many more people will die and how far Russia falls.
As Alexei Navalny, Russia’s jailed opposition leader, said in one of his court hearings: “We have not been able to prevent the catastrophe and we are no longer sliding, but flying into it. The only question will be how hard Russia will hit that bottom and whether it will fall apart.” The coming year will give some indication of an answer to that grim question.■
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Arkady Ostrovsky Russia editor, The Economist
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2023 under the headline “What next for Russia?”