Putin has decided to normalize his war
Bloomberg Opinion February 22, 2023
The big news from Vladimir Putin’s almost two-hour state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday wasn’t Russia’s suspension of the New START pact. That move amounted to little besides an extra humiliation for its Russian signatory, former president Dmitry Medvedev, already reduced to barking out ultranationalist invective on Telegram: Now that Russia considers itself at war with the “collective West,” its willingness to keep its end of any prior agreements shouldn’t be overestimated. Putin had to mention Russia’s status as a nuclear power and he chose to do so in a relatively non-threatening way.
The real news was an implicit message that the war in Ukraine is not ending anytime soon and that Russians must get used to living with it - especially as, in Putin’s telling, it presents an economic opportunity that’s greater than the sacrifice it requires. That Putin chose to deliver this message a year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine means he has no idea how Russia wins - and that, for want of better options, he’s decided to semaphore that he doesn’t really mind a long war.
A day before the dictator’s speech, his only credible domestic opponent, Alexei Navalny, laid out his message to Russians and the world in a series of tweets - a format necessitated by his continued imprisonment. The thread is based on a certainty that Russia will lose the war. But, just as Putin doesn’t see a path to winning, neither Navalny nor anyone else who has opined on the subject really understands how Russia might lose.
The conflicting state-of-the nation messages from the ruler and his jailed nemesis describe a country stuck in limbo between victory and defeat, collective guilt and collective defiance, an economy modeled after Western examples and a growing dependence on China. Put simply, Putin’s Russia is incapable of delivering itself from its own self-inflicted misery.
If Russia actually ventured on the attack in Ukraine in the past few weeks, as some military analysts have argued, it is stuck without having achieved anything besides the capture of a few small villages and the near-capture of the town of Bakhmut. So Putin had no victories to report, and the only one he mentioned was the creation of a “reliable land corridor” to Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014. To the chagrin of nationalist commentators such as Igor Girkin (Strelkov), one of the instigators of the 2014 war, Putin has not even mentioned Russia’s military setbacks.
“Not a word about mistakes or about any government figures responsible for them,” Strelkov wrote bitterly on Telegram. “Everything’s fine, everything’s working correctly… Blah-blah-blah, no point in listening.”
Further disappointing Strelkov and his ilk, Putin didn’t declare a new mobilization or announce a shift from a peacetime, relatively market-driven economy to one that would prioritize military goals: That, Putin said, was what brought down the Soviet Union, and Russia would steer away from that path, trying instead to incentivize private enterprise to invest in technology-heavy areas hit by Western sanctions. While Putin’s references to patriotism and alleged popular support for the war sounded almost perfunctory, his one moment of true sincerity was an “I told you so” one - when he reminded Russian businesspeople of his warning back in 2002 that any assets they acquire in the West would not be safe and could easily be confiscated.
“It’s exactly how things turned out,” he said, grinning - and added, quite truthfully, that ordinary Russians were not commiserating with tycoons over their lost sanctioned villas and yachts.
For the “true fighters” in the Russian business community, Putin preached, the departure of Western competitors would open up countless new market niches, with plenty of cheap government-provided resources to help those who move into them. He also announced that the Russian education system would decouple from European standards to provide the labor needed for a self-sufficient economy.
That the Russian ruler spent so much time on matters unrelated to the war was clearly designed to create the impression of business as usual - under new permanent, or at least lasting, circumstances. This was no emergency speech, and Putin and his speechwriters didn’t bother to dress it up as historic - as anything, in fact, other than quotidian. The dictator didn’t even hint at a peaceful solution or acknowledge the upcoming peace proposal from China, even though he probably knows already of its content. Instead, unhinged as this may sound, he projected a sense that he actually likes what’s going on.
This Russia, isolated from the West, focused on self-sufficiency and on regaining “historical territories,” a country in which dissenters are treated as traitors and the military is constantly in action, is the country he may have long wanted to run. In this country, as in Orwell’s Oceania, an eternal war in the background is the norm; it’s what is needed to keep the population docile.
Putin’s dream of being an emperor at war is unsustainable if he loses the war - but Putin appears to shut out any thought of a Ukrainian victory, firmly believing in Russia’s size advantage and the Russian people’s legendary patience, which has held up remarkably well this year.
Navalny’s 15-point statement, by contrast, is a call for a quick ending to the war - indeed, a quick Russian surrender, since “the combination of aggressive warfare, corruption, inept generals, weak economy, and heroism and high motivation of the defending forces can only result in defeat.” The faster the war ends, the sooner Russia can “rebound from the bottom” and restore “normal economic relations with the civilized world” - an unfortunate turn of phrase that Putin, coincidentally or not, addressed in his speech, pointing out that the West had no monopoly on civilization.
What Navalny is saying is just what the West would like to hear from a Russian leader. But that’s the point: Navalny is not the Russian leader but a political prisoner who, as things stand, can only regain his freedom if Russia loses the war and Putin is somehow displaced. It’s no wonder that he dreams of defeat and now advocates the unconditional handover of Crimea back to Ukraine - something he hesitated to propose while still at large. What’s missing from Navalny’s message is a realistic path to the defeat.
Implicitly, it’s up to Ukrainians to inflict defeat - and, in Putin’s reality, to exhaust themselves in an endless war of attrition. In both cases, Russia’s future is in the hands of Ukrainians, an unexpected result from a year of the bloodiest fighting seen anywhere this century.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”