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Reality is chipping away at Putinism

Russia’s war efforts and the Islamic State attack in Moscow have disrupted the Kremlin’s official narrative.

By Lawrence Freedman

A new collection of essays called War on Ukraine, edited by Hal Brands, and published by Johns Hopkins University press, marks the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It covers all aspects of the war from its origins to its conduct, to the impact of economic sanctions and the role of China. It is a terrific resource, with excellent chapters, and can be downloaded for free.

My own contribution to it considers Vladimir Putin as a “strategic fanatic”, reflecting his persistent fixation with Ukraine and tendency, when faced with the dire consequences of each decision, to double down in the hope that even more extreme measures will give him the result he seeks. This is more than just being a bad strategist. There are certainly elements of this – underestimation of the enemy, over-reliance on hunches about how others will act, and not thinking through the likely effects of a course of action. Fanaticism goes beyond this. To quote myself:

“It’s a refusal to accept that the problem as framed cannot be solved, a pattern of error that stems from obsession and a readiness to go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy that obsession, even as satisfaction remains elusive. Dictionary definitions of a fanatic refer to someone with extreme beliefs that lead them to behave in unreasonable ways. Putin’s fixation with Ukraine, almost as soon as he began his second stint as president in 2012, has led to calamitous errors of strategic judgement.”

It is possible to follow the development of Putin’s Ukraine policy from the moment he took power at the turn of the century, through Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004-05, and then the more aggressive turn once he returned to the Russian presidency in 2012. He has been consistent. He wants Ukraine to be firmly in the Russian sphere of influence with a supine government. His fallback position, when that seems out of reach, is to encourage the fragmentation of Ukraine, with contiguous pieces of land acquired for the Russian Federation. This secondary objective contradicts the first, as it encourages Ukraine to turn even more to the West for support and security.

One can go back deep into history to explore the origins of the conflict, as Putin often does, but a good starting point to understand how we got to where we are is the summer of 2013. This is when Putin decided to put an economic squeeze on Ukraine to deter its government from signing an association agreement with the EU, reflecting his determination to prevent Ukraine falling into a Western sphere of influence. Nato membership was not on the table at this time. In fact Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, was as pro-Russian as Putin was ever going to get. Nonetheless this singular act of independence led to him being completely undermined by blatant coercion. With the economy in a desperate situation Yanukovych walked away from the EU agreement. The counter-reaction was intense, with large protests in Kyiv and elsewhere. Yanukovych eventually ran away from Kyiv and a pro-Western government took over.

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One thing led to another. Putin’s reaction in March 2014 was to seize Crimea and encourage rebellions in eastern Ukraine, prioritising Ukraine’s dismemberment. Then, through the Minsk agreements, he sought to use the Russian-sponsored rebel enclaves in the Donbas region as levers to influence the Ukrainian government and prevent it from taking “anti-Russian” positions. It was when that effort failed that he decided, in February 2022, to invade the country and instal a puppet government in Kyiv. And when that also failed, he was back to dismemberment, to the point that he now refuses to countenance any peace deal that denies him the four Ukrainian provinces he is currently trying to occupy in addition to Crimea. As this would still leave the non-occupied 80 per cent of the country deeply hostile to Russia, the primary objective has by necessity come back into view. Hopes have revived in Moscow that Ukraine might be so weakened by the loss of US support that Putin can return to its original plan and occupy the major cities, including Kyiv.

As I have argued many times, Russia’s inability to achieve its objectives and so win the war is not the same as a Ukrainian victory. Ukraine has suffered a lot and continues to do so. A ceasefire based on the current lines of contact would be seen in Kyiv as a defeat because it would leave sovereign territory occupied, with those trapped inside subject to harsh measures and “Russification”. But it would hardly be a victory for Russia, which would be left with ruined, depopulated territory, full of unexploded ordnance, with a demanding internal security situation, a long border to defend, and a hostile government in Kyiv working to get into the EU and Nato. For this Russia has sacrificed thousands of people – dead, wounded and living abroad. Economic activity and industrial production is now geared to the war effort, with little left for public amenities or productive investment. It has lost its European energy markets, become a junior partner to China, and depends on Iran and North Korea for armaments.

The obsession has led Putin down a path of total commitment to war. He has abandoned the pretence that this is a limited “special military operation”. The stakes have continued to be raised. The consequences of an association agreement with the EU, certainly compared with everything that has happened since, would have been marginal. Once a pro-Russian president, who ruled out Nato membership and promised protections for the Russian language, was gone everything that followed was bound to be more hostile. Putin went further, building up the new government into something truly menacing – neo-Nazis and the legatees of the worst strains of Ukrainian nationalism. This was used to justify the annexations and incursions and cyberattacks and economic pressures of 2014 and 2015.

Because Kyiv’s defiance was intolerable to Putin, he tried to quell it with a full-scale invasion. When Kyiv remained as defiant as ever, the Ukrainian government was subjected to even more evidence-free denunciations, with drug addiction and a variety of personality disorders thrown in for good measure. Still more defiance and Ukraine was elevated into a civilisational threat, marked by decadence bordering on paganism. When this was not enough, and it became necessary to explain why mighty Russia could not overcome a smaller and inferior power, the role of Nato, and especially the US and the UK, was highlighted. And once these were identified as the real enemies then the whole struggle acquired an existential aspect.

All those aspects of the Western way of life that Putin despises must now be banished from Russia. This goes beyond crushing political dissent and the propagation of patriotic and militaristic themes, but also an assertion of the superiority of Russian civilisation. Those wanting to see where this has led might consult a document released by the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, for approval by the World Russian People’s Council in Moscow on 27-28 March. This affirmed that Russia is fighting a “holy war”. This is presented as an imperialist project, to create an expanded homeland for all Russian people, including the sub-groups of Belarussians and Ukrainians, where their culture and spirituality will be honoured, and also as a defensive struggle against the “globalism” and “satanism” that has gripped the West.

Putin goes along with this. He appears to be at one with the Church in its determination to resist what is described as the “international LGBT movement“, and has now been designated as “terroristic”. Crackdowns have begun. This is not a new theme for Putin. As early as 2013 the Kremlin banned the propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. After the full-scale invasion any public reference to LGBT lifestyles became illegal. The sinister Patriarch Kirill, head of the Orthodox Church and reportedly a former KGB man, has identified gay pride parades in Kyiv as one reason why the invasion was vital. Additional items on the list of extremists and terrorists are followers of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the tech company Meta.

It is easy to dismiss this as deranged nonsense but that would be a mistake. It illuminates the ideological underpinnings of Putinism. It takes us far away from attempts to understand this war as the result of Nato enlargement and the West’s supposedly unreasonable policies which allegedly goaded Russia into otherwise unnaturally aggressive behaviour. The inability to grasp Putin’s deeply reactionary and obsessive views, with his idiosyncratic view of history, could be seen in Tucker Carlson’s increasing bewilderment as he attempted to interview Putin in early February.

However complex and fanciful this narrative, it has become sufficiently internalised by the Russian elite and media so that they can cope with most eventualities. But occasionally something happens that the narrative cannot accommodate, something that doesn’t quite fit.

This happened on 22 March when an attack came from another direction as Islamist terrorists mounted a horrific attack that left 144 people dead, and many more wounded, as they attended a concert at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall.

The perpetrators were members of Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the group’s Afghanistan and Pakistan arm. Russia has suffered from Islamist terrorism in the past. This particular group had recently attempted attacks that had been foiled. Nor was there an issue with motive, although Putin sounded perplexed that Russia’s anti-Israel stance over the Gaza war hadn’t satisfied Islamist groups. (Russia, he noted, “stands for a fair solution to the escalating Middle East conflict” as if that would impress radical Islamists.) Motives could be found going back to the Chechen Wars, Russia’s role fighting against IS and related groups in Syria and West Africa, and now backing the Taliban in Afghanistan. A number of Tajiks have been arrested, including the four alleged perpetrators who have appeared, showing signs of beatings and torture, in court. Tajikistan has been a source of a disproportionate number of recruits for the war and therefore casualties, and that helps explain the attraction of Islamism.

Russian authorities were therefore aware of the risk. But the FSB, Russian intelligence service, is stretched. Before 2014 Islamist terrorism had a high priority but now the bulk of its activity is connected to the war with Ukraine, as well as new tasks such as persecuting members of the LGBT community (identified as terrorist on the same day that the attack took place). In the past the US, which worries about and watches the same groups, had passed on warning to Moscow of imminent attacks, for which it was thanked. When it did the same on 7 March, including a public warning to US citizens to stay away from concerts, this was derided by Putin as a subversive provocation. (One is reminded of Stalin’s refusal to accept warning of the prospective German invasion in June 1941 because he assumed that his sources were simply trying to stir up trouble between the Soviet Union and the Nazis.) After the attack the warning was cited in the Russian media as evidence that the Americans were in on the plot.

When the attack came the response of the authorities was slow. Security forces had been on heightened alert up to the presidential election on 17 March, including at the Crocus City Hall, but this had been relaxed once Putin’s victory had been proclaimed. That may help explain the timing of the attack.

Somehow the attack had to be made to fit with the approved narrative. Sure enough Ukraine was soon being blamed. The head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, had warned last October that IS-K had more than 6,500 members and could initiate attacks outside Afghanistan “in the near future”. Yet after the event he reported that the attack “was prepared by both radical Islamists themselves and, naturally, facilitated by Western special services”. According to this theory, the main efforts of the CIA and MI6 “are focused on forming a belt of instability along the CIS’s [Commonwealth of Independent States] southern borders. To this end, fighters keep being recruited from international terrorist organisations operating in Iraq, Syria, and some other Asian and African countries and transferred to northern Afghanistan.”

Putin only spoke up three days after the attack. Then he acknowledged that it had been carried out by “radical Islamists”, but he still insisted on Ukraine’s likely role. 

Even after the perpetrators had been arrested and IS had claimed responsibility (releasing a grisly video to make their point) there was no wavering. Indeed IS became so irritated by Russia’s attempt to deny them their triumph that they put out a statement in one of their newspapers, Al-Naba:

“After its resounding defeat, Russia found no choice but to direct accusations of collusion against its opponents in the Western camp to evade admitting its major failure in the face of the mujahideen.”

More doubt was put on Russia’s claims when the Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko observed that the only reason the fleeing terrorists had turned on to a road towards Ukraine (vital evidence in the Russian case) was that they had been diverted away from Belarus, where they had been heading, because Lukashenko had just shut the border at Putin’s behest.

Faced with belief systems very different from one’s own and factual claims that are easy to falsify it is tempting to assume that everything is fabricated, that stories contrived to sway the masses are not taken seriously by those in the know. After all Putin and his closest cronies grew up in the world of spies, where evidence and opinions are assumed to be readily manipulable, and this is a world they have never really left. Sometimes the lying is very clumsy and transparent. The FSB also have a clear interest in blaming the West and Ukraine to deflect criticism of their inability to prevent the attack and deal with it as it unfolded.

Yet for the Kremlin the lying and fakery are in the service of a higher truth. They help reinforce the message that all Russia’s enemies are in cahoots with each other so that there really is a Nazi-Islamist-globalist-satanist axis that colludes in striking against Russian civilisation. If so then every measure necessary must be taken to alert people to the danger and mobilise them to fight back. The Ukrainians must be led by Nazis because, irrespective of their backgrounds and actual statements, anyone fighting Russia must be a Nazi and Russia is at its best when battling Nazis as they did from 1941 to 1945.

After considering Putin’s statement blaming Ukraine for the Crocus City Hall attack, the historian Tim Snyder came down on the side of belief, noting: “This is no longer the nimble post-truth Putin who is capable of changing out one lie for another as necessary, with a wink to the insider along the way.  This now seems to be a Putin who actually believes what he says – or, in the best case, lacks the creativity to react to events in the world.”

There is an old sociological maxim (known as the Thomas theorem) that if something is believed to be real it is real in its consequences. This can also be the case with deliberate lies that are allowed to substitute for reality or serve the higher truth embedded in the prevailing ideology. In Soviet times the authorities were capable of an abrupt turn from one dogmatic position to another if the old position had become inconvenient. Perhaps, as Snyder suggests, Putin lacks that sort of flexibility. This is why I have described him as a strategic fanatic.

The real consequences of Putin’s belief system could be seen in the heavy missile strikes against Ukrainian cities that followed the Crocus City Hall attacks, as if this was somehow an appropriate retribution (with some of those doing the firing writing “for Crocus” on the missiles). It might be seen later should Putin need to justify yet more mobilisation.

Yet events that do not quite fit with the official narrative can have a disruptive effect. The perpetrators came from the predominantly Muslim Central Asian country of Tajikistan. Nearly a million Tajiks (population ten million) were registered in Russia as migrant workers in 2023. As with other groups from Central Asia, they ease the labour shortages caused by the war, both at the front lines, where they die in disproportionate numbers, and in the domestic economy. This creates a tension. The document released by the Orthodox Church looked forward to Russia quadrupling its population to 600 million over the next 100 years by encouraging large families (Putin has designated 2024 the “year of the family” reflecting demographic worries made worse by the war). Yet the Church also opposes allowing in migrants who do not share Russian values, push down the wages of indigenous people, and encourage crime and terrorism.

This is a regular theme of far-right and nationalist groups, and security agencies and police anxious to prevent more terrorist attacks. By contrast the Kremlin, aware that the migrants are needed for both the war and the economy, is nervous about where this might lead, especially if ethnic tensions get out of hand. The New York Times quotes a pro-Moscow analyst: “It’s a contradiction. And this terror attack has sharply aggravated this problem.”

The other problem is that the security services are so stretched that they cannot cover such a vast range of disparate enemies. If large numbers of people are monitoring social media accounts for evidence of perversions and dissidence, then there are fewer keeping an eye out for Islamist activity. A recent article in Foreign Affairs by Timothy Frye, Henry Hale, Ora John Reuter and Bryn Rosenfeld, based on polling, demonstrates the combination of widespread support for Putin and growing war fatigue. Even “staunch Putin supporters”, they note, “are largely ambivalent about the war”.

“Among Putin supporters, opposition to the war is particularly concentrated in groups that are more likely to be recruited for military service and facing economically precarious circumstances… less-educated Putin backers are more likely to oppose continuing the war than their counterparts with advanced degrees.”

The authors urge that the West conveys the message to Russia that “the economic and military costs of continuing the war in Ukraine outweigh the benefits”. They are aware of the difficulty of ousting an autocrat at a time of war. Putin has crushed all opposition. Yet he should now worry about “the dissonance” among his base.

Putin has no obvious way of bringing this war to an end. As Roderic Lyne noted in a recent post: “The war will shape Putin’s dying years in power. He cannot step back from his objective of emasculating Ukraine. He may gain more territory, but the Ukrainians will never willingly surrender their freedom and sovereignty. Putin has therefore condemned Russia to a long war, a war with no visible end point, and a conflict for years ahead with the West as well as with Ukraine.”

Rather than looking for ways out of his predicament he has been escalating his rhetoric and accumulating enemies, none of which he is able to defeat. His position may be strong enough to withstand all manner of setbacks and embarrassments. But events nibble away at his authority. Despite expectations of progress against depleted Ukrainian forces, progress on the land war is still slow, he is still having to contend with occasional incursions into Russian territory by self-proclaimed anti-Putinist militias, along with Ukrainian attacks on the Black Sea fleet and oil refineries. A one-off IS attack can be contorted to fit in with the narrative; a succession of IS attacks would be another matter.

If ever an argument was needed against unchecked autocracy, Putin’s Russia provides it. Continuing failure to achieve his objectives has only aggravated his fanaticism. The problem is not that he is irrational but the way that he has framed his Ukraine problem obliges him to act in ever more unreasonable ways, because to do otherwise would require giving in to forces that challenge his idea of the Russian nation and what is stands for. Over a decade he has managed to turn an inconvenient aspect of Ukraine’s foreign policy into an existential threat. He will stick with a war without end because he dare not admit that it was folly to launch it in the first place. So the war machine must be fed with all available people and resources, independent and critical thought must be suppressed, and Ukrainians must be punished for their insubordination with ever-more devastation and cruelty.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

[See also: Wagner’s next act in Africa]

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