Despite accounts of Russian forces withdrawing from the Ukrainian border, as of writing, we still face a war that is seemingly at once both imminent and unthinkable. Washington says it has rock-solid intelligence that Moscow still plans a devastating invasion; many analysts not privy to classified materials think it would be a foolish, unnecessary adventure. Only Vladimir Putin knows for sure, but what we can say is that if the full-scale military escalation does happen, it would signal a serious and dangerous shift in the Kremlin.
Until now, for all its bare-chested macho theatricality, the Putin regime has actually been distinctly risk-averse, going for easy wins (Crimea), relying on deniable and ultimately disposable proxies (Donbas), and using mercenaries for tough ground fighting (Syria). When these mercenaries incautiously picked a fight with US-backed rebels in 2018, the Kremlin sat back and let them be hammered rather than challenge the US, just as, after a brief spat of sanctions, they swallowed Turkey shooting down a Russian bomber in 2015.
Assassinations, cyberattacks, economic pressure, disinformation, subversion — the Kremlin has enthusiastically embraced and employed all these non-military forms of power projection. The kind of martial extravaganza the Americans have been predicting, however, would mean massive economic costs, Russian casualties and long-term international isolation. A full-scale war would be a major evolution of his regime.
First of all, it would signal that he is either not being told about the real implications of such a move or truly does not care. His circle of true confidants and advisers has certainly shrunk, with more liberal and contrarian figures slowly pushed out. Increasingly, his view of the world is shaped by hawks such as Nikolai Patrushev, the security council secretary and de facto national security adviser (who has asserted that the US “would much rather that Russia did not exist at all”), and Sergei Naryshkin, the foreign intelligence service director (who accuses Kyiv of preparing an invasion of the Donbas at the behest of “nationalists and their Western mentors”).
Yet Putin has also in the past shown a real aversion to any sense of being “managed”, retaining alternative channels of information. His foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov spent ten years as ambassador to Washington and understands America, for example. Sergei Shoigu, the Defence Minister, another close ally, is widely seen as a more pragmatic nationalist, without the visceral mistrust of the West of figures such as Patrushev.
If they are unable or unwilling to impress on Putin the costs and risks of war then we are in the dangerous situation whereby a rational leader can make deeply irrational decisions simply because they are based on biased or partial data. Alternatively, Putin understands the risks, but he feels the costs are acceptable because he believes Russia — or his regime, or his place in history — truly faces an existential threat.
Those costs will be more than just economic. That Russia can survive sanctions is not really in doubt: the Kremlin has spent eight years doing what it can to make its economy “sanctions proof”. It has more than £465bn in reserves and has China as a partner and intermediary. Nonetheless, coping with the inevitable economic hit will doom the plans of Mikhail Mishustin, the Prime Minister, Anton Vaino, head of the Presidential Administration, and his deputy, Sergei Kirienko.
These officials have been charged with addressing the apparent public discontent that made the opposition leader Alexei Navalny important enough to poison and imprison, and which were evident in lacklustre results in September’s parliamentary elections. To this end, they planned targeted investment in several sectors, such as health and infrastructure. The idea had been that by the time of the presidential elections in 2024, while there might not be much actual progress, there would at least be a sense of movement in the right direction.
Despite a recent swing towards more directly authoritarian tactics, the Russian system still retains vestigial elements of constitutionalism and democratic legitimation. Given that there is no evidence a war in Ukraine would in any way help, if Putin is willing to embark on an adventure that will doom any hope of buying himself legitimacy the implication is that he is willing to rule without it.
Instead, it would mean he is willing for Russia to be in a new Cold War with the West, surviving on a stagnant economy, socially and technologically isolated, its leaders relying on authoritarian methods and state propaganda. In short, he would be turning the clock back to the days of his youth: welcome back to Brezhnevism.