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When Will Putin Finally Grasp That Russia Has Lost?

That the war is going badly for Russia is seemingly something everyone knows but him

By: /
12 July, 2023
The Kremlin, Moscow.  Image by Adam Bortnowski from Pixabay The Kremlin, Moscow.  Image by Adam Bortnowski from Pixabay
Jeremy Kinsman
By: Jeremy Kinsman
CIC Distinguished Fellow

In the aftermath of the surprising mutiny against Kremlin authority by the Wagner Group that has been Russia’s most effective fighting force against Ukraine, questions are now swirling about the state of things in Russia, Putin’s survivability, and how all this will affect the war.

Certainly, the eternal Russian question, “kuda idyot Russiya?” or translated “where is Russia heading?” has taken on a new uncertainty. Putin survived the scare of the recent pop-up mutiny, but his image of total command and control has been damaged. Moreover, and despite assurances from the Kremlin that all is well, the mutiny and its handling have rattled public confidence.

Of course, when it comes to measuring public confidence in Russia, polling is unreliable. Claims that Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is supported by a solid patriotic majority are hard to substantiate given the severe penalties for anyone who expresses doubt about the wisdom of the invasion and war in a country where even calling it a “war” is punishable by a prison sentence.

Estimates of Russian opinion about the “special military operation” have not varied much since the beginning of the war 500 days ago. About 20% of the public avidly supports the military campaign and the Kremlin spin that it was a smart and necessary pre-emptive move against NATO’s alleged intention to attack Russia and destroy it. This cohort monopolizes discussion of the war on state TV, which is the main source of information for most people.

But 1 in 4 mostly younger and professional people in cities do access factual reporting through workarounds of bans placed on many Internet news sites by the Russian government. They compose a roughly equal cohort of 20% who oppose the war more or less silently, with no voice in public discussion. For them, the Kremlin has succeeded in conveying the message that protest is hopeless and personally extremely costly. The broad remainder of Russians – 60% – have tried to ignore the war altogether and in the Soviet tradition, keep their heads down and their opinions to themselves. 

But increasingly the war and its costs cannot be denied. Body bags are coming home to villages in the thousands. While Russia has adapted to economic sanctions better than expected, the economy is at best stagnant, and opportunities have narrowed. Roughly a million, mostly young, educated, and productive Russians have left, many for the West.

In Soviet times, Russians were enclosed in a backward cage. However, the freedoms awarded by Gorbachev’s glasnost permitted millions to vacation in the West. They envied as “normal” much of what they saw. But now they are stuck at home in a police state and increasingly alone, while Putin extols a “Eurasian” un-European identity and destiny for an exceptionalist Russia in his imagined “Russkiy mir,” or Russian sphere of influence. It is his resentful antidote to the westernization that had dominated Russian life and presumptions in the 1990s and 2000s (and the 300 years since Peter the Great) that he hopes will fill the identity void left by the evacuation of communism, the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s diminished international status, and the West’s alleged conspiracy to keep Russia down and out. But the Eurasian narrative is not the stuff of popular belief in Russia. If anything, Russians, especially on the sparsely-populated and China-apprehensive Pacific Coast, sense that they are moving as a junior partner into China’s sphere in order to avoid being in America’s.

That the war is going badly for Russia is by now something everyone knows. The Kremlin has tried to spin a false patriotic counter-narrative that it is Russia under a long-planned attack from the West. It depicts Ukrainians as having been on a genocidal mission to expunge anything Russian from a region once at the heart of Russia’s history. But Ukrainians defending their own country are more motivated than conscripted Russian invaders, which is one reason they have been winning.

Putin’s bizarre use of an irregular private militia, made up significantly of conditionally paroled convicts to do the heaviest fighting, was on one level disquieting to thoughtful Russians, and a reproach of Russia’s failing military establishment. But Evgeny Prigozhin became something of a trusted action hero to many ordinary people for his frank talk about what everybody knew, that the military campaign and direction were a disaster, though he was careful in his widely covered commentary not to criticize Putin himself.

Indeed, in his fateful post to the messenger platform Telegram that the whole country read, he blamed the military command for having foisted on Putin the “fraud” that Russia had been threatened by Ukraine and the West at all.

However, the war on Ukraine has always been “Putin’s War.” If it is now widely seen as a folly, even a fraud, will he be held responsible? Will his survivalist instincts persuade him to adjust his objectives? How could a reassessment affect the war’s outcome?

It has long been apparent that the current war of attrition will not end with conquest by one side. Once both sides realize that further territorial progress has unacceptable costs, a cease-fire and wary truce will ensue while negotiations proceed for a settlement, either permanent, or more likely, provisional. Putin has believed that time is on his side because of Russia’s 3 to 1 advantage in population and vast geography, but Ukraine’s military performance and its enormous scale of international financial and military support have nullified it.

Indeed, Ukraine’s much-anticipated counter-offensive aims to advance on Russian positions in the South and East to force a negotiation on Ukrainian re-possession of invaded land, and the probably complicated pursuit of justice. Meanwhile, in the parallel communications war, Russia was hoping the non-Western world was leaning toward tacit support of its anti-American theses. But the global South increasingly shows impatience with this all-consuming war of Russian choice, and even China, who absolutely does not wish Russia to lose, is rattled by Russia’s performance.

The question is when and how does Putin grasp that Russia has lost, that his intention to occupy Ukraine and change its regime was a reckless fantasy? Moreover, Ukraine will not only survive, but will thrive. This irony will not be lost on Russians that Ukraine has been embraced by the West while Russia risks being reviled for a generation. Ukraine is as united as never before, and committed to the country’s democratic orientation, while in Russia the reform movement has been effaced by an anti-modernist corruption-serving dictatorship.  

However, some Kremlinologists doubt that Putin’s autocratic power has been significantly weakened by recent events. They doubt he can be replaced. There is no democratic and popular Yeltsin figure in the wings ready to take power on behalf of the people. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny remains in jail. They reason that if Putin gets sidelined or retires, he would most likely be replaced by another nationalistic hardliner determined to protect the corrupt rewards system. They expect him now to double down on internal controls.

Psychologically, Russians also inhabit a dark space. In the 2001 book, Beyond Invisible Walls, various clinical psychologists and researchers documented “the psychological legacy of Soviet trauma.” Like others, including Ukrainians, Russians spent most of the twentieth century living under a totalitarian regime that ruled by indiscriminate violence and terror. They then endured decades of suffocating stagnation, followed by the chaos of transformation that resulted in the wreckage of everyday life. While Ukrainians have found a compensating belief in their country and its reformist national consensus under Zelenskyy, the intergenerational effects of the decades of collective trauma have probably made many Russians inherently apathetic, susceptible to the Kremlin’s underlying intimation that “if everyone is lying, there is no point in trying to work out the truth.”

Of course, some Russians buy into the Kremlin’s patriotic nationalism. For example, Dr. Jade McGlynn wrote in UnHerd that the Kremlin’s “depiction of Russia as the underdog, fighting wildly against the odds to defend itself from a Russophobe Western military machine and malign mercenaries from NATO, combined with the impact of sanctions, has even appealed to some of the more metropolitan and well-educated Russians.”  “It is not,” she added, “easy to admit your country has murdered thousands of Ukrainians and pointlessly sacrificed Russians….”

But most of all, and given what has happened in their collective past, Russians crave security and stability and Putin’s promises to deliver both were welcomed. For that reason, Denis Volkov, of Levada, the only more or less independent opinion research outfit, judged that a significant number of Russians did not support Prigozhin’s mutiny, perceiving it as a betrayal and a threat to stability.

Prigozhin’s mutiny was therefore an unpleasant shock. Because open combat between warring Russian forces would have been so catastrophic for Putin, for Russia’s war, and in the minds of citizens, it was predictable there would be a swift negotiated end to the mutiny.

Nevertheless, Putin is wounded in the sense that Gorbachev was when he got off the rescue plane in Moscow after a failed coup against him in August 1991. Indeed, a Russia without Putin has become more imaginable. Staff writer for The New Yorker and author of “Surviving Autocracy,” Masha Gessen assesses Prigozhin’s mutiny as having demonstrated to everyone that Putin’s absolute control of the political space in Russia is breakable.

But countless Russians are uneasy. Recent events also land on a disconsoling background beyond the losing war and loss of democracy; the open secrets of Russia’s increasingly obvious shortcomings on public health, income disparity, population loss, ecological destruction, and frailty in science and education.

Russians increasingly ask: How stable is Russia? How competent can its leader be if such a mutiny by a trusted asset was a surprise? How come Prigozhin seems to be going scot-free? How secure is Russia if drones can reach Moscow? And lastly, when will we become a normal country?

But why should the state of Russia’s collective psychology even matter, when our primary and urgent concern is for the welfare and future of the 44 million Ukrainians who are victims of Putin’s unprovoked attack? The imperative must be that Ukraine wins, achieves peace with justice, and is reconstructed.

Nevertheless, Russians will be part of the aftermath of Putin’s war and they need a reckoning that encourages their renunciation of it. That will be facilitated by a Russia at last bez Putina, without Putin. Events have shown that may be nearer than we thought.

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