Vladimir Putin has been fighting not just Ukraine, but his own people | World News - Hindustan Times
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Vladimir Putin has been fighting not just Ukraine, but his own people

The Economist
Feb 22, 2024 08:00 AM IST

He will not stop

TWO YEARS after he launched his invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022, things are going Vladimir Putin’s way. Ukraine’s summer counter-offensive failed, and Russian troops are slowly creeping forward. On February 17th they took Avdiivka, a small town, now a smoking ruin, next to the Russian-held city of Donetsk. It is the first Russian achievement since May, and it cost Russia at least 13,000 men and 400 tanks. But though it is of limited significance considering the cost, it is a sign of Mr Putin’s iron determination to carry on his war. Russia’s military-industrial complex is now churning out five times as many shells as it did at the start of the war. Western aid to Ukraine is meanwhile ebbing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks.(AP) PREMIUM
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks.(AP)

Russia’s president is also advancing on the home front. On February 16th he finally got rid of Alexei Navalny, a brave opposition leader who died in jail in the Arctic where Mr Putin had placed him. Mr Navalny’s mother was told that the reason for his death was “a syndrome of sudden death”; many other enemies of Mr Putin have succumbed to similar medically opaque causes. The two fronts are connected; Mr Putin’s war in Ukraine has always been about securing his position at home by changing conditions abroad.

Stephen Covington, a veteran Russia expert who has been advising NATO’s supreme allied commanders in Europe for the past 30 years, calls this a kind of revolution—an attempt to change the very conditions on which social and political order and security are built.

He traces its roots to 2007, when Mr Putin concluded that change inside Russia would undermine his own power. Unwilling to integrate with the West and unable to compete with it economically, since that would require a change of political system, Mr Putin felt compelled instead to set his country on a path of confrontation with the West. “Putin’s choice reflects a view that Russia can only address its non-competitiveness by changing the world around Russia, and most critically, by changing the European security system,” Mr Covington wrote in a Harvard paper in 2015.

It was not the military power of NATO that Mr Putin feared, but the principles that it was set up to defend in 1949: “freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” They posed an existential threat to his power. “We see that the doctrine of human rights is used to destroy the sovereignty of states, to justify Western political, financial, economic and ideological dominance,” Mr Putin said in December 2022. The war he is fighting is not really about territory in Ukraine, but about an entire system of political control inside Russia and beyond it.

Inside Russia, it is experienced not just as drone strikes or the shelling of the Russian city of Belgorod by Ukrainian forces, but in Mr Putin’s direct attacks on his own people. The killing of Mr Navalny, a man who fearlessly asserted the power of human agency, is in fact a blow struck at the hearts and minds of the country.

This domestic assault goes well beyond Mr Putin’s opponents. Cowed compliance is no longer considered enough for the president who, like any paranoid dictator, sees danger everywhere; the number of treason cases each year has gone up tenfold since the start of the war. With its opponents rotting in jail, dead or exiled, the regime is now turning even against those friendly to it.

In December an “almost naked” party of Russian celebrities and socialites in a private nightclub drew Mr Putin’s outrage and turned into a public shaming. The host of the party was forced to apologise on camera. A rapper who turned up wearing only a sock over his groin was locked up for two weeks. Fillip Kirkorov, Russia’s highest-paid pop star, long loyal to the Kremlin, was banned from state television and was sent to redeem his sins by performing in a military hospital in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. “The true elite”, Mr Putin said, “should be formed from participants in the special military operation [his term for the war], not freaks who display their genitals.”

This internal war is waged against the young and cosmopolitan in Russia’s great cities. Any mention or display of LGBT attributes has been criminalised. Access to abortion has been restricted. Priests who preach peace instead of victory have been expelled from the church. Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko, a priest who tried to hold a memorial service for Mr Navalny, was arrested, and then hospitalised after a stroke. Children as young as four are being dressed in military fatigues to play “patriotic games”. Schools have been prescribed textbooks that declare that Russia has always been at war with the West. Halloween and Valentine’s day have been demoted as alien holidays, while the Chinese new year has been elevated almost to the level of state holiday, lanterns and dragons decorating the centre of Moscow. China, after all, is seen as Russia’s ally in its war against the West.

Private property has also been violated. Dozens of private firms have been nationalised without compensation. First, it was foreign assets that Mr Putin was after. Now, it is Russian businessmen who have been told to return assets that they legally bought in the 1990s. Criticising the war can result not just in a prison sentence but in a loss of property. On February 14th, Mr Putin signed a law that allows the confiscation of property and assets from people convicted of discrediting the Russian army or spreading “fakes”, calling for sanctions or helping international organisations that Russia does not take a part in.

All this is causing resentment. Public protests are brutally suppressed, but discontent bursts out in different forms and places. On learning of Mr Navalny’s murder, thousands of people took to the streets, and covered memorials for previous victims of political repression in flowers before police moved in to arrest them and clear away the tributes.

An anti-war movement called Put Domoi (The Way Home) led by the wives, sisters and mothers of the mobilised men has also become more audible. Every weekend they turn up in white headscarves to lay flowers at the tombs of unknown soldiers in cities across Russia. The Kremlin has been careful not to trigger wider protest by arresting or assaulting them, so has instead harassed journalists who report on them. Opinion polls show that people’s will to make sacrifices for the war is at its lowest since the start of Mr Putin’s “special military operation”. Most Russians never asked for the war, did not crave Ukrainian territory, and wanted their lives to get back to normal. None of this means that a protest movement is building up, but polling data does suggest that support for the war is slowly eroding.

There is another reason why the majority remain silent even if they don’t support the war, argues Kirill Rogov, a political analyst. It is an inability to fathom how Russia might withdraw its troops without its entire social order coming crashing down. What people crave is a return to normalcy, not a revolution. And this craving explains the sudden popularity of Boris Nadezhdin, a veteran, liberal-leaning politician who was allowed to collect the 100,000 signatures he needed to register as a presidential candidate in next month’s election. His message for Russia to be free and peaceful resonated. He did not call the “special military operation” a crime or even a tragedy. He called it a mistake, something that can be corrected. And instead of blaming his countrymen, he tried to comfort them and give them hope.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of people queued up to give their signatures. Barely known to the Russian public outside Moscow at the start of the campaign, his rating shot up to reach about 10% by the time he submitted his signatures. To be sure, the Kremlin swiftly stopped the experiment before it could get any further, and has barred Mr Nadezhdin from standing. But removing Mr Nadezhdin does not remove the demand that he revealed. Whether this pressure might in time grow to form a consensus that brings a change or whether it can be handled by the Kremlin depends partly on the state of the economy, and partly on unpredictable events.

For now, the cost of compliance is low and the risks of speaking against it are far higher. This could change. Mr Putin’s ability to militarise the Russian economy while maintaining living standards is limited. Alexandra Prokopenko of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, a Berlin-based think-tank, argued recently in Foreign Affairs that Mr Putin faces “an impossible trilemma”: funding the war, maintaining living standards and taming inflation. The first two goals require higher spending, which fuels inflation and undermines economic stability. The damage caused to the economy, Ms Prokopenko argues, cannot be repaired without ending the war and seeing Western sanctions lifted.

Yet Mr Putin cannot do this, because his regime can now only exist in a state of war. It is safer for him to double down, imposing greater repression on his people, than to stop, which would prompt inevitable questions about the costs and causes of the war. He is not the first ruler to find himself in this situation. It is what the German high command concluded in the spring of 1918 as it adopted an “all or nothing” attitude to victory and prepared for a decisive offensive.

The gap between Mr Putin’s militarism and people’s wish for life to get back to normal will only grow. This mood is already affecting those stuck in the trenches. As Alexander Shpilevoi, a 27-year-old front-line soldier, says in a video posted on a Telegram channel called Road Home, run by the wives and sisters of the mobilised Russian men: “Everybody wants to go home. Very much so.” His appeal landed him in a punishment pit in Russian-occupied Luhansk.

Seated under the medieval vaults of his Kremlin fortress, Mr Putin sees the world differently. To him, the high cost of this war justifies the scale of his endeavour. As his recent interview with the ex-Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson vividly demonstrated, he dwells among Russia’s ancient princes and tsars, measures his efforts over centuries and sees it as a historic mission not only to restore their lost empire but to overthrow the social order that emerged after the second world war in the West and that spread eastwards after the fall of the Berlin wall. He wants to defeat the very sense of individual will that Mr Navalny embodied. And he will not stop.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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