Barely noting war in public, Putin acts like time is on his side
By Anton Troianovski and Paul Sonne
Pro-Ukrainian fighters stormed across the border into southwestern Russia this past week, prompting two days of the heaviest fighting on Russian territory in 15 months of war. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin, in public, ignored the matter entirely.
He handed out medals, met the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, hosted friendly foreign leaders and made televised small talk with a Russian judge about how Ukraine was not a real country.
In managing Russia’s biggest war in generations, Putin increasingly looks like a commander in chief in absentia: In public, he says next to nothing about the course of the war and betrays little concern about Russia’s setbacks. Instead, he is telegraphing more clearly than ever that his strategy is to wait out Ukraine and the West — and that he thinks he can win by exhausting his foes.
“There’s no need for any illusions,” said Natalia Zubarevich, an expert on Russian social and economic development at Moscow State University. Putin, she said, has laid the domestic groundwork to sustain the war for a “long, long, long, long, long” time.
But while Western analysts and officials believe that Putin’s Russia does have the potential to keep fighting, his military, economic and political maneuvering room has narrowed, presenting obstacles to prosecuting a lengthy war.
Even as Putin refers to the fighting as distant “tragic events,” the war keeps hitting home — with growing fissures in the military leadership, unease among the Russian elite and worrying signs for the economy as the West vows to further wean itself off Russian energy.
On the battlefield, Russia’s ability to go on the offensive has shriveled as ammunition has run low and the monthslong battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut took thousands of soldiers’ lives. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group that led the assault on Bakhmut, said he was starting to pull his soldiers out of the city while releasing one profane tirade after another aimed at Russia’s Kremlin-allied elites.
To mount a major new offensive, Western officials and analysts say that Putin would need to find new sources of ammunition — and impose a politically risky, second military draft to replenish his depleted troops. Still, the U.S. director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, told Congress this month that the chances that Putin would make any concessions in talks this year were “low,” unless he were to feel a domestic political threat.
Western officials also remain concerned about the possibility that he could resort to nuclear weapons, but calculate that the risk is greatest if Putin is facing a catastrophic defeat that threatens his hold on power.
At home, Russia’s economy has proved flexible enough to adapt to Western sanctions, while government reserves have been sufficient to finance higher military spending and increased welfare payments. But the longer the war drags on — especially if oil prices drop — the likelier it is the Kremlin would be forced into hard choices on cutting government spending or letting inflation surge.
Politically, some researchers argue that public support for the war in Russia is broad but shallow — capable of shifting quickly in response to unforeseen events. The incursions across the border this past week brought the war into Russia in a way it had not before, stirring unease among military bloggers, who have a widespread following.
Then there is the wild card of Prigozhin, who has been morphing into a populist politician taking on top Russian officials, and this week delivered a broadside against the strategy of waiting out the West.
In an hourlong video interview with a Russian blogger, Prigozhin described an unlikely “optimistic scenario” in which “Europe and America get tired of the Ukrainian conflict, China sits everyone down at the negotiating table, we agree that everything we’ve already grabbed is ours.”
The more likely scenario, Prigozhin asserted, is that Ukraine pushes Russian troops back to prewar lines and threatens the Crimean Peninsula — the crown jewel among Putin’s Ukrainian land grabs.
Western analysts and officials doubt that Ukraine’s upcoming counteroffensive can deliver a knockout blow. At the same time, they say that Russia’s ability to wage the war is steadily degrading, as evidenced by tens of thousands of casualties in Bakhmut and the sharp decline in the number of shells Russian forces are firing per day in eastern Ukraine compared with the height of the battle last year.
“It’s not as if the Russians will suddenly stop being able to wage a war,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The question is can they still wage it with any sort of intensity.”
Some Russian officials are already looking ahead to next year’s presidential election in the United States, hinting that a Republican victory could turn the tide. Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and the vice chair of Putin’s security council, said this past week that “the main thing” was that President Joe Biden not be reelected.
President Donald Trump, who is the early front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, “is a good guy,” Medvedev said, and “historically it was always easier to work with the Republicans.”
But there are risks to Putin’s wait-and-see approach beyond the possibility of a battlefield breakthrough by Ukraine. Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, argues that Putin’s “tactic of inaction” could raise the influence of hard-liners like Prigozhin.
“Russia’s elites are liable to see defeatism in inaction,” she wrote this month. “Already, Putin is struggling to explain what exactly he is waiting for.”
The durability of Russian public support for the war — like the economic stability that helps underpin it — is far from clear.
But some researchers and U.S. officials believe that cracks in pro-war sentiment have already begun to show because of heavy casualties.
A recent report from a group of Russian sociologists, based on scores of in-depth interviews, argues that Russians see the war as “a natural disaster” they cannot do anything about, rather than as something they are firmly convinced is right.
“This support is not built on fundamental political positions or some ideological views,” said Sasha Kappinen, one of the report’s authors, who uses a pseudonym for security reasons because she works at a university in Russia. “This is not stable support.”
Russia has spent heavily to placate the general public since the war began, increasing welfare payments and easing the burden on small businesses. Its economy has adapted to sanctions, benefiting from the numerous countries outside North America and Western Europe that continue to do brisk trade with Russia.
Zubarevich, the Moscow economic development expert, said the government had the capacity to keep spending at its current clip at least until the presidential election next March, when Putin, 70, is expected to run for a fifth term. But a fall in the price of oil could force the government to cut spending on things like infrastructure.
“The two sacred cows are state defense procurement and support for low-income groups and pensioners,” she said, referring to the need to satisfy key constituencies. “They will be kept in place for as long as possible.”
At the same time, analysts and Russians who know Putin still see him as fundamentally flexible and opportunistic — a man who would probably accept a freeze in the fighting if it were offered, even as he prepares to fight on for years. As a result, well-connected people in Moscow see an unpredictable future while girding for a long war.
“Putin’s spectrum of options is pretty broad,” a prominent businessman in Moscow said, “from doing a cease-fire today to fighting a hundred-year war.”