With heightened anxiety, Putin prepares Russians for long fight ahead
A family in Moscow watching President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia address the nation for the New Year.
By ANTON TROIANOVSKY and ANATOLY KURMANAEV
In footage released by the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve, President Vladimir Putin is seen chatting with soldiers, exhorting them: “We can’t give up anything. We must only fight, only keep going.”
He then adds: “Of course, there is still much that needs to be done.”
As winter sets in and the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine looms next month, Putin has dropped his earlier efforts to shield the public from the pain of war and is now seeking to prepare Russians, and his own military, for a long fight ahead.
“He’s gotten a lot less relaxed, a lot less optimistic,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian analyst who studies Putin for her political analysis firm R.Politik. “You can sense a certain anxiety, a desire to mobilize all possible forces to achieve his goals.”
Keeping a low profile this week during Russia’s extended New Year’s holidays, Putin made no statement about Ukraine’s rocket attack in the city of Makiivka last weekend. The resulting torrent of criticism from pro-war bloggers on social media was aimed at Russian commanders and spared Putin himself, a pattern evident over months of blunders by Russia’s military.
Russia’s Defense Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday saying that the death toll from the strike had reached 89 servicemen, including the deputy commander of the regiment. Ukrainian officials have said the toll is much higher. Neither claim could be independently confirmed. The statement also said that the main reason the site was able to be targeted was cellphone use by soldiers — a factor that Russian military bloggers had pinpointed as a vulnerability.
A memorial service on Tuesday in the city of Samara, where many of the Makiivka victims were from, called for revenge against Ukraine, according to videos and local media reports. The reports did not mention any criticism of the officials responsible for the war.
Still, the unusually quick response by the Russian Defense Ministry, which acknowledged mass casualties in Makiivka a day after the attack and promised to provide “all necessary help and support” to the families of the dead, showed that the Kremlin is seeking to become more transparent at home than it was in the early months of the war.
It stood in contrast to the sinking last April of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva. The Kremlin has never acknowledged that it was hit by Ukrainian missiles, or updated the toll it cited of one sailor killed and 27 missing, frustrating family members of the crew.
For much of last year, Putin projected an air of confidence while allowing life inside Russia to go on as normal. His compact with the public was straightforward: Leave the politics and the fighting to us, and you won’t feel significant pain from our justified “special military operation” in Ukraine.
That ended in September, when Ukraine’s counteroffensive stunned the Kremlin and Putin ordered a military draft that the war’s hard-line supporters described as long overdue. Now, Putin is doubling down on his efforts to draw Russian society further into the war effort.
The new approach was on stark display on Saturday, when Putin broke with tradition and gave his widely watched New Year’s Eve address not at the Kremlin, but at a military base, with people in uniform in the background.
The annual speech is typically heavy on apolitical platitudes — New Year’s dinner table fare for millions of Russian families. This time Putin served up his narrative of a West bent on destroying Russia. “The West lied about peace while preparing for aggression,” he said. “They are cynically using Ukraine and its people to weaken and divide Russia.”
It was the latest, and perhaps most striking, instance of Putin trying to prepare Russians for a long war.
U.S. officials have said they see the Kremlin finally beginning to learn from its mistakes on the battlefield. Russia is improving its defenses and pushing more soldiers to the front lines, and has put a single general in charge of the war who was able to organize a retreat from the Ukrainian city of Kherson with minimal casualties in November.
Russian commanders are also publicly reining in their ambitions. Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian general staff, said on Dec. 22 that Russia’s current focus was limited to trying to capture the rest of the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
“There’s less triumphalism,” Ruslan Leviev, a Russian military analyst for the Conflict Intelligence Team open-source analysis group, said in an interview. He said he was surprised by how quickly the Russian Defense Ministry had acknowledged the Makiivka losses, noting that the ministry usually takes days to admit large numbers of casualties — if it does so at all.
Putin himself appears to be putting a renewed focus on the homefront: at once seeking to head off any potential discontent over the dire consequences of the war, and trying to mobilize Russians to more actively support it. In Russia, there are widespread rumors that Putin will soon order a new military draft to get more bodies to the front.
Western officials estimate that more than 100,000 Russian service members have been killed or wounded in the fighting, and the Russian Central Bank says the country’s economy contracted 3% in 2022.
For now, though, the suffering brought to Russia by the war has not translated into widespread discontent. The economy has been more resilient to Western sanctions than many expected, while the Kremlin’s television propaganda has been effective in helping convince many Russians that the invasion of Ukraine is, as Putin claims, a defensive war forced on Russia by the West.
While there was widespread outrage on social media over the deaths of Russian soldiers in Makiivka, there was little criticism inside Russia of Putin himself over the incident — and it went largely unmentioned on state television. Military bloggers said the high death toll could have been minimized if commanding officers had followed basic precautions, such as spreading out the recently arrived soldiers in safer locations, instead of clustering them near munitions.
For the Kremlin, it is not only the war that could inject political volatility into this year. Russia’s next presidential election is scheduled for March 2024. While Putin would face no real electoral competition, the date has loomed large because analysts and members of the Russian elite have widely seen it as a moment by which Putin, 70, could make clear whom he wants to eventually succeed him.
Stanovaya, the analyst, said it was very likely that Putin would run again — constitutional changes made in 2020 allow him to stay in power until 2036. And she believes that tensions within two factions of the Russian elite — the hard-liners demanding an escalation of the war and the “pragmatists” seeking to avoid it — will only grow in the coming year.
“I think 2023 will be decisive to a certain degree, determining which way the balance will tip,” Stanovaya said. “We are at a kind of dangerous line.”