The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
Russian President Vladimir Putin has landed in an unenviable position. His country has the resources to inflict damage on Ukraine in perpetuity. But because the first phase of the war has been so costly for Russia and because Ukraine’s military is mounting such stiff resistance, Russia faces serious difficulty achieving anything meaningful on the battlefield without committing much more manpower than it currently has available.
Calling up large numbers of reservists while putting Russian society openly on a war footing solves the problem in theory. But it is something for which the Russian public is fundamentally unprepared. To date, Putin has referred to the war in Ukraine as a “special military operation” and held only one mass rally in support of the war. Full-out mobilization, which would make war an inescapable fact of Russian life, would revolutionize the regime Putin has constructed since coming to power in 2000. Putinism has been a formula: the government discouraged people from meddling in politics, while leaving them mostly on their own, and the people readily surrendered their responsibility for decision making. In 2014, he could achieve his military aims in Ukraine without radically redefining Russian politics. That is no longer an option.
If Putin decides to mobilize, he will be altering the deal he’s made with the public and potentially destabilizing his regime. As the United States watches from the sidelines, it may feel tempted to encourage Russians to turn against Putin. Without having much or perhaps any real influence on Russian public opinion, however, the Biden administration can do its best to avoid costly mistakes. Most important will be its effort to understand how and why Russians think what they do. In the long-term conflict that is unfolding, curiosity will be a precious commodity.
For the first ten years or so of Putin’s time in power, a “no-participation pact” between the Kremlin and the Russian public had been in effect. It was an unspoken agreement between ruler and ruled: “Don’t rock the boat, and you will enjoy stability, relative prosperity, and opportunities for self-fulfillment or enrichment.” But both parties breached this pact in December 2011. Upset by Putin’s return to the presidency and rigged parliamentary elections, protesters chanted, “Russia without Putin.” In response, the Kremlin started chipping away at the rights and freedoms that Russian society had enjoyed until then, pitting the patriotic majority against those the regime considered excessively “modernized” and “Westernized.” After this clash, a version of normalcy returned, but Putin’s popularity declined and the regime’s legitimacy began to erode. This new chapter in Putin’s presidency began—circa 2011—on a sour note.
In the fall of 2013, Putin was preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea. He did not appear to have military adventures abroad on his agenda. Only a few months later, though, the pro-European Maidan uprising in Ukraine and the unexpected flight of Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, changed Putin’s calculus. He had regarded Yanukovych as his man and expected him to keep Ukraine in the Russian orbit. With Yanukovych gone, it was a situation that Putin felt was slipping out of his control. He annexed Crimea and interfered on the side of armed insurgents in eastern Ukraine, gradually installing the Russian military and allocating to Moscow a quasi-imperial role in the Donbas.
The annexation of Crimea went a long way to restoring Putin’s public support. It produced a spontaneous burst of patriotism and confirmed a mood of confrontation with the West. But the Kremlin did not let the conflict intrude too much on the day-to-day lives of most Russians, leaving a significant remnant of normalcy.
The United States and the EU imposed sanctions. They generated a sharp economic decline in 2015, but over time the economy steadied, and the people were able to adjust. If political activism against the regime was suppressed, civil society organizations were still allowed to operate. Charitable, educational, and cultural initiatives carried on: nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and media outlets that did not march in lockstep with the government could do their work. Sporadic protests (on various grounds) were sometimes treated brutally, but each time a wave of protest came it crested, leaving no movement behind and no reason for the Kremlin to be seriously concerned. In this way, Putin modified the nature of Russian politics in 2014 without completely recasting it.
The fighting in the Donbas went in waves. When its intensity faded somewhat after 2014, foreign policy receded from public consciousness in Russia. The Syrian civil war, where Russian forces were fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, seemed far away and did not result in large-scale Russian casualties. Though international crises were never absent, those who wished to ignore them could ignore them.
By 2020, the Russian government was far from sanguine about the prospect of dissent. Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, bore the brunt of the government’s mounting anger. He was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in August 2020 and went to Germany to convalesce. Upon Navalny’s return to Russia in January 2021, he was arrested. After his arrest, his team released one of his trademark videos exposing the corruption of top-ranking elites, and this time the target of exposure was Putin himself. Navalny was far from a direct threat to Putin’s power. He was, however, a counterweight to Putin’s popularity, a matter of utmost concern for the Kremlin, since Putin’s uncontested status and high approval rating are the very foundation of political stability.
Normalcy and stability may have been illusions for the Russian public in 2020 and in 2021. Yet they were sustainable illusions. The war Putin began in February of this year shattered these illusions. The scale of the Russian invasion is vastly greater than anything undertaken in 2014, and the break between Russia and the West is almost without precedent: the scale of sanctions, the restrictions on travel, the shutting down or exit of Western institutions from Russia. And so, in the coming months, Putin will face a punishing choice. He could de-escalate and try to mend relations with the West. Or he could wage full-scale war on Ukraine, deepening even further the rift with Europe and the United States.
All-out war would require at least an incremental mobilization. Putin could thereby expand his battlefield options. Here, the word “mobilization” has two meanings: to prepare an army for war by calling up reservists and specialists and to orient Russian society entirely toward war. Mobilization roils domestic and foreign affairs alike; it tends to define politics as aggression and aggression as politics; and it encourages jingoism. Were Putin to opt for mobilization in both senses of the word, he would need to build a strong justifications for militant patriotism. He would have to frame the confrontation even more explicitly as a war against the West, while pegging Ukraine as the enemy. (Currently, Ukrainians are often referred to as “brothers,” “the same people,” while the Kremlin claims to wage a war against the “Nazis” among them.) Conventional civilian life would come to an end, not to restart until the war ended, whenever that might be and however it might come to pass.
Full-out mobilization would make war an inescapable fact of Russian life.
What mobilization would enable, for Putin, is an expanded set of war aims: an assault once again on Kyiv, a drive to partition to the country into eastern and western halves, or a concerted effort to turn Ukraine into a failed state, its infrastructure, its cities, and its economy completely destroyed.
Mobilization would simultaneously impose enormous political dangers on Putin. He has based his regime on public disengagement from politics and foreign policy. It would be risky in the extreme to announce something like a people’s war, as opposed to a mere “special military operation.” Mobilization would require Russians to actively participate in the war and embrace its justifications and objectives, which would have to be clear and certain. Up to now, the official reasons for the war have been vague and shifting. Nor is mass mobilization necessarily a controlled process. It could radically empower the most hawkish faction of the elites, inflaming nationalist sentiment in unpredictable ways, especially if the war did not go well.
The official Russian war narrative is as familiar as it is fluid. Provoked by the West and by atrocities perpetrated by Ukraine’s government in the Donbas since 2014, Russia has been forced into a “special military operation.” At the beginning and intermittently, the narrative has been tied to the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine and to the full independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (or oblasts), the most consistent casus belli. Also emphasized is the existence of Ukraine as a natural extension of the “Russian world.” Essential to these story lines is the prediction that NATO will attack Russia, making the “special military operation” in Ukraine preventive in nature. The war lives in a liminal place between something circumscribed, something much less than a war, and an “existential struggle” against the West, against NATO, and against the designs of the United States and its major European allies.
Of course, the architects of the “special military operation” say it is going well. It would be going better, the official line implies, if the United States and its partners were not arming Ukraine to the teeth, manipulating Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, and through him stoking Ukrainian nationalism and “Nazism.” In the Kremlin’s story, there are many villains—not just the United States, but also the United Kingdom, Poland, the Baltic Republics, and Europe writ large.
Some Russians are antiwar, some are eager not to hear bad news about the war and angry when confronted with evidence of atrocities. Some are nervously pro-war, and some are resolutely pro-war, the true believers. Most importantly, many are disengaged: it is Ukraine’s war; it is the Kremlin’s war; it is not their war. No survey data can do justice to the kaleidoscopic adjustments in feeling and attitude within a country at war. The tensions and contradictions do not just play out across different groups of people. They play out within the minds of individuals.
What may be most pertinent to Russian public opinion is that the war has not been immediately felt at home. There have been few strikes on military assets in Russia. For most people, restrictions on travel and the economic pressure of sanctions have not drastically changed their daily lives. For families with members in the military and for the families of conscripted soldiers the war is not far away of course. The Kremlin barely mentions casualties, making it easier for many Russians not to know. For the vast majority of Russians, the war is hardly all absorbing. That is why mobilization would pose such a challenge: it would mean a shift from a “special military operation” to a “people’s war,” and with that, the loss of the fantasy that the war is far away. The suffering and the casualties of a full-scale war would need to be met with proportional sacrifices at home. Fear and anger would spread across a Russian society that for decades had been incentivized to shy away from strong political emotions.
Were Putin to decide in favor of mobilization, and were the Kremlin to fail at the task, the United States might be tempted to take advantage of the disarray. After all, the United States wants to expel the Russian army from Ukraine. At least a few U.S. government officials have speculated about going further and about speeding the process of Russia’s overall military disintegration. Some believe it is necessary to humiliate Russia. But the United States as a vehicle of antiwar or anti-Putin opinion within Russia is not only improbable—it is almost sure to be counterproductive. The United States should try to be and to appear officially agnostic on domestic Russian politics, to refrain from overt commentary and not to align itself with opposition movements. This has nothing to do with fearing the Kremlin’s political sensitivities. The goal is to leave the space in Russian politics open for Russians to move toward a post-Putin Russia by their own devices.
Proceeding with a light touch and with caution, the Biden administration should nevertheless act on Russian public opinion in two ways. It should do what little it can to foster goodwill. Washington can explain that its wishing Ukraine well does not translate into wishing the Russian people ill. This might be hard to reconcile with the outrage many Americans feel about the way in which Russia has conducted its war. Expressions of goodwill can also be hard to get across. The U.S. government has few platforms for reaching the Russian public. But the value of these expressions is self-evident. In no sense should the U.S. government replicate the zero-sum, us versus them, East-West binaries that Putin has deployed to explain and justify his war.
Where President Biden’s public rhetoric is concerned, the cardinal rule should be to do no harm. With the U.S. so robustly on the side of the Ukrainian military, Biden’s ability to directly persuade Russians or to garner any kind of sympathy is modest at best. Interestingly, Biden attempted to send a message of goodwill to the Russian people when he visited Warsaw in March. In a speech, he tried not to frame U.S. support for Ukraine as antithetical to the interests of the Russian people. But a few ad-libbed words at the end—“For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said of Putin—dominated discussions for days afterward. Biden’s message of goodwill got lost. In Russia, it is doubtful that any part of his speech except his words about Putin were televised. Given that the U.S. aim cannot be Russia’s unconditional surrender, talk of defeating Russia and even of weakening Russia is misleading: preferable are a set of aims related to the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. As a media strategy for Russia, talk of defeating or weakening Russia further deepens the alienation from the West experienced by the vast majority of Russians, including those who question the war.
For the vast majority of Russians, the war is hardly all absorbing.
Finally, the Biden administration has a remarkable resource in the Russia diaspora. There are now hundreds of thousands of highly educated Russians living in cities across Europe, in Central Asia, in Turkey, and in the South Caucuses. Some have left for economic reasons, estimating that Russia’s financial future is bleak. Many have left because they could not countenance the war. They do not constitute a government in exile and are unlikely to spearhead a democratic transition within Russia. Because they left, they may not be particularly welcome even in a post-Putin Russia. Those who left during an earlier wave of emigration, after the 1917 Russian Revolution, enjoyed no influence on the political developments in the Soviet Union. Very few ever returned, and only a handful lived to see it collapse in 1991. Similarly, the twenty-first century diaspora is unlikely to be a vehicle for transforming Russia. It, too, may never return.
However small the diaspora’s contributions to Russian politics may prove to be, they will not be without meaning. The diaspora will sustain patterns of cultural creativity untethered to the Putin regime. At a time when Russia-West travel and trade are diminishing, the diaspora will serve as an economic bridge between Russians and the non-Russian world. It will generate discussion and debate that will trickle into Russia through family and friends and through social media. It will embody a Russia that is not equivalent to the strategies and the statements of Putin.
In 1990, the historian Marc Raeff published an exquisite exploration of a Russian émigré alternative to the Soviet Union. He titled it Russia Abroad, A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939. Raeff was the son of Russians who left their country after the Bolshevik Revolution, and a product of the European milieu that his parents inhabited after they had emigrated. But in his work, he managed to avoid both the nostalgia and the bitterness that often follow in the wake of exile. Instead, he saw the strength and the potential of a far-flung diaspora. At first, the emigres “did not ‘unpack’ their suitcases; they sat on their trunks,” Raeff writes, so sure were they that the Soviet Union would quickly unravel. In this hope they were disappointed, but over time they demonstrated “how an exiled group can carry on a creative existence, in spite of dispersion and socioeconomic or political handicaps.” That same potential now resides in a new version of "Russia abroad." It should not go untapped.
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