The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” intended to shore up his faltering war against Ukraine. The pretense that there is anything partial about this move, however, is about as convincing as Putin’s claim that Russia is merely carrying out a “special military operation” in Ukraine. After Putin’s announcement, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that 300,000 men with military backgrounds would be drafted. But some reports indicate that is not the number stated in official documents authorizing the mobilization, and the parts of Putin’s decree that were made public do not include any restrictions on the Defense Ministry’s authorization to draft people. According to some reports, as many as one million men might be conscripted, and some military commissariats already appear to be drafting men indiscriminately.
The conscription represents a dramatic turning point in the war, and in Putin’s rule. The Kremlin expected the war to be brief. When it did not end quickly, Putin found a way of waging it that was consistent with the political style he has employed since coming to power in 2000. The few Russians who thrilled to the war’s imperial promises could wave the flag and display the letter z, the official symbol of the war. Those who were apprehensive or disturbed by the war could quietly harbor their uncertainties. Those voicing discontent in public were invariably punished: thousands were arrested for marching or holding signs that read, among other things, net vojne (“no to war”) or the phrase dva slova—“two words,” a euphemism for net vojne. Nobody could come out against the government or give voice to their dissent in the public sphere. Any organizing against the war was strictly prohibited, and violators have been harshly punished.
This response was not fascism, despite the common application of that term to describe Putin’s rule. It was, instead, the preservation of an atomized and compliant society, one that was securely apolitical and that would not disrupt the Kremlin’s actions. For this atomization to stay in effect, the war had to remain far away. It had to be a mutable abstraction onto which Russians’ subjective attitudes could be projected, whether they were pro-war or antiwar. Polling data suggest that, prior to the mobilization, the war retained the support of more than 75 percent of Russians. Such acquiescence was the best possible public response from the Kremlin’s point of view. Indifference was a close second.
But the war did not go as planned, and Putin has run out of options. Were Putin to pull back, Ukraine would grow in military strength and become further integrated into European and transatlantic institutions, an outcome that would make the war perfectly counterproductive and therefore unacceptable to Putin; it would be a Russian defeat. At the same time, Russia cannot win the war with the instruments it currently has. That was demonstrated on September 10, when Ukrainian forces retook immense amounts of territory. Russia’s military is exhausted, and it is too small to hold all the land it has taken since February. Without an alteration in the status quo, Ukraine will likely go on to make further gains, perhaps even moving on to Crimea, the territory that Russia annexed in 2014 and that is intimately bound up with Putin’s legacy.
Russia has had many setbacks in Ukraine, but it is not a defeated country. It has the wealth and the population and the industrial capacity to keep the war going—but only if it mobilizes. It bears emphasis that calling for mobilization is much simpler than carrying it out, something Russia has not done for decades. Even if the military can master the logistics—and the experience of the first days suggests that the likelihood of this is slim—mobilization will be only as good as the strategy behind it. Mobilization for the sake of a losing strategy will create more problems for Putin than it will solve. It could even undermine Putin’s ability to govern.
The Kremlin will have to repress Russia’s population much more than it has previously done.
At the very least, mobilization will bring politics back to Russia. It will eat away at the public indifference that has long been crucial to Putinism. Already, Russia has witnessed a wave of protests in response to Putin’s announcement last week, and huge numbers of draft-eligible Russians rushed to the borders immediately after Putin announced the plan. Political pressure will come to the Kremlin not just from opponents of the war but also from those dismayed by the military’s startling incompetence and seeming lack of determination. The first group has almost no political power. The second, however, has the potential to coalesce into a challenge to Putin. In the past week, some of the most ardent supporters of Putin and the war have expressed concern that the mobilization campaign seems poorly planned.
To steer clear of that risk to Putin’s power and the threat of large-scale resistance, the Kremlin will have to repress the Russian population much more than it has previously done. According to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights organization, over 2,300 antiwar protesters were detained across Russia in the five days after the mobilization was announced. But repression can take on a chaotic momentum of its own. It can generate disgust and outrage. Augmenting repression in the midst of a chaotic mobilization has already generated unrest in some places, including the burning of mobilization points. Such incidents could well multiply and become difficult for the Russian government to manage.
Rather than expecting a revolution or a palace coup, however, the world should gird itself for a long war in Ukraine. Repression will not necessarily speed up or streamline the mobilization, but it will keep the streets quiet and allow Putin to continue his aggression.
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February startled much of the Russian population. There had been a months-long buildup of forces in border regions, and by January, something was clearly in the works. Yet it was not as if a majority or even a vocal cross section of Russians wanted their country to wage war against a neighbor that obviously had no intention of attacking Russia. The war was not willed from below. It was hardly unpopular, however.
The war serves the primary foreign-policy goal that Putin has pursued for more than two decades: the assertion of Russian sovereignty (as he sees it), especially in the territories of the former Soviet Union. And none of those territories is more pivotal than Ukraine. Russian sovereignty does not necessarily imply military action or the colonization of Ukraine. But it does require keeping Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia would like to write the rules in Ukraine, preferably from a distance, as Moscow tried to do before the Maidan Revolution of 2013–14. One way or another, Russia wants to be the decisive voice on Ukrainian matters that Putin deems essential for Russia.
To the extent that the 2022 war is popular, it is popular as an expression of Russian sovereignty. Supporters see it as a defensive war against a hostile West that had come right up to Russia’s borders, threatening to destroy it. They also see it as a war against “Nazi” Ukrainian nationalist forces menacing Russian speakers in Ukraine. Such convictions have not been confined to the far right or to extreme nationalists in Russia; they are widespread. According to this view, the West had overstepped in Ukraine. It had ignored Russian interests. The United States in particular had damaged Russian pride by allocating to itself such a large role in Ukraine: Washington was not content to dominate most of Europe, it seemed; it had to dominate all Europe. This alleged American excess allowed the Kremlin to cast the war in Ukraine as a good war. For the first seven months, the Kremlin mostly asked Russians to support their country in the war, and the vast majority of Russians obliged. That was sufficient.
The war in Ukraine was not willed from below.
And, unlike in Soviet times, there is—for now—a release valve for any dissent: the possibility of leaving Russia. Several hundred thousand Russians did exactly that in the wake of the invasion. Taking their antiwar sentiments with them, they departed Russia for professional reasons, for moral reasons, and for fear of what the war might do to Russia. Those who left were almost all educated professionals from urban centers. They had the resources to leave: money, skills, foreign contacts. Some of them, however, eventually had to return because they found themselves jobless and broke.
Outside Russia, they could say and write what they wanted. They could be vociferously against the war. By having left, however, they were no longer a political presence in Russia. The Kremlin could easily dismiss their criticisms as unpatriotic. It was an elegant solution to the problem of the war’s popularity. The Kremlin did not have to manufacture consent so much as it had to curate it. Dissent was punished—but would-be dissenters could simply absent themselves.
Putin’s coup de grâce was the barrier he built between the war and everyday life. For the vast majority of Russians, the war in Ukraine remained an abstraction, akin to a reality TV show. Over the summer, most Russians could continue to enjoy good weather and the routines of civilian life. The perfect illustration of this dynamic was the celebration of “city day” in Moscow on September 10, which occurred as it might have in peacetime. And why not? Moscow was at peace. Why not have a good time? Putin appeared in public, opening an enormous Ferris wheel, the largest in Europe, for the enjoyment of Muscovites. But the war violated the terms of this soothing narrative. As Putin smiled and Moscow celebrated, Russian forces were suffering a massive and humiliating defeat around Kharkiv in Ukraine. (And the Ferris wheel broke down almost as soon as it began operating.)
Putin now faces a punishing timeline. He cannot win the war quickly and may be incapable of winning it at all. He may be able to maneuver toward an outcome he and his country can accept, but that might be a multiyear project. For ordinary Russians, that time will be marked by pain, loss, and suffering. The war will smother the pleasures of peace. Wars of choice are especially prone to diminishing public enthusiasm. In this regard, Putin might benefit from studying the history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. It alone did not cause the Soviet Union to fall, but as more and more families saw their sons returned in body bags, the awareness of the losses stoked discontent. The war sapped the government’s legitimacy. Together with many other catalysts, it precipitated the fall of the Soviet Union.
Mobilization will make the domestic landscape vastly more difficult for Putin to navigate. He has fought many wars as Russia’s president, but he has never been a wartime president. He will have to coerce hundreds of thousands of young men into uniform. The general morale problems associated with conscripts will intersect with the specific morale problems the Russian military faces in Ukraine: slipshod organization, poor performance, heavy losses, and exhaustion.
Putin will also have to mobilize public opinion. Russians will no longer be permitted to keep their distance from the state, granting it impunity and receiving privacy in return. Putin has breached the terms of his bargain with the people. They will be required to display their enthusiasm for the war. Incentivizing support for the war and disincentivizing opposition to it will be government projects. The Kremlin will not approach that task with a light touch, and it will put Putin’s ideological bona fides to the test. The ingredients that have made up Russian political culture during the Putin era—a complex blend of Soviet, post-Soviet, imperial Russian, and modern Russian elements—will have to be replaced by a cruder, more overt Russian jingoism. Meanwhile, growing numbers will try to flee the country, bribe their way out of military services, or desert the military.
Mobilization will entail clamping down on emigration. Before the end of September, it is likely that the borders will close to those eligible for the draft. Antiwar Russians, and those who previously thought they could ignore the war, will be stuck at home. The government will use threats or violence to compel their silence. A nervous government will have to contend with the possibly combustible, though disorganized, force of protest. The Kremlin might also have to open up other fronts of repression, directed at the nationalist circles that for months have been calling for mobilization and that can be appeased only by battlefield victories, which mobilization may not deliver. Some of these warmongers are prominent political figures; Putin may have to repress not only street protests and opposition movements but also cadres who might be ready to contemplate sidelining him.
Engineering a workable outcome in Ukraine is probably beyond Putin’s grasp at this point. The Ukrainian military is too strong for the government in Kyiv to make concessions to Moscow, even if it wanted to negotiate an end to the fighting. The war has been too brutal for Ukrainians to forgive and forget.
Yet Putin will also not back down. He will seek ways to prolong the war, which is by no means impossible for him. Mobilization will allow him to cycle new soldiers into the war and perhaps to mount surprise attacks. He can defer the worst consequences of a disastrous war, even though a disorganized mobilization may end up burdening the Russian military. The longer the war, the more likely it becomes that economic collapse in Ukraine or political upheaval in Europe or in the United States might open opportunities for Russia. It is a grim strategy, and in many ways a low-probability strategy, but it is a strategy proportional to Russia’s capabilities.
Precipitously stepping up repression is hard for authoritarian regimes. There exists a mysterious point at which increased repression generates increased unrest, and an unknowable point at which revolution begins. Putin is a student of Russian history, however, and understands that the Russian tendency to revolution comes not when the state wields power but when it yields power. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated during World War I after launching a war of choice against Japan that weakened the Russian empire. The Provisional Government that followed did not have the cohesion or the will to subdue the Bolshevik Revolution. The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would be the more vivid example to Putin. Gorbachev did not deny Soviet backwardness. He acknowledged certain errors and withdrew from Afghanistan. He handed agency to the peoples of the Soviet Union through glasnost and perestroika. But loosening the Communist Party’s control precipitated a bloodless revolution that toppled the regime. The Soviet Union lacked the cohesion and the will to keep itself alive. Putin is not going to make that mistake. He will turn instead to the examples of Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander III, and to the Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev, all of whom were able to suppress dissent at home, keep their subjects in line, and pursue hard-line policies without letting the dissent crystallize into meaningful movements.
Putin has available to him to an immense architecture of repression. Numerous media have been serving as government mouthpieces for the past two decades. And since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the remaining nongovernmental outlets have been shut down or forced out of Russia. Putin himself came from the security services, as have many of his colleagues in the Kremlin. He has every resource he needs to transform Russia into a brutal police state, far more repressive than it is at the present moment. That will win him no sincere support for the war, and it may give him no new advantage in the war. But it will grant him a means of corralling Russians into the war effort and severely punishing anyone who stands in his way. In prosecuting his war in Ukraine, Putin will be relentless. In prosecuting his war at home, he will be ruthless.