Ukraine: Will February 20th be Novorussia D-Day?
Preparations for the Munich Security Conference are underway here. Christoph Heusgen will inherit Ischinger and Ischinger was just trying to persuade Putin to come. As one of Putin’s advisors, Dr. Rahr told Global Review, however, Putin’s demand is that he speaks first and then he wants to give a quasi-historical and programmatic speech like last time. Heusgen, however, wants Blinken or Kamala Harris to speak first, while Ischinger wants Annalena Baerbock as a compromise and first speaker proposed According to the FAZ and ARD/ZDF Morgenmagazin /Moma), the Russians are staying far away this time because the MSC was a “purely transatlantic forum”. What is Putin hoping for? A purely Eurasian or continental European forum, in which he is the first to speak . However, Dr. Rahr advised Putin to stay away. Furthermore, Russia would try to influence China not to attend the MSC, in order to make the Russian-Chinese axis clear. Then Heusgen would be embarrassed. Personally, however, I believe that this will not happen and that Wang Yi and the Chinese will take part as always, especially since US President Biden has announced a revision of the Sino-American trade agreement and the CCP is not ambitious to have conflicts during the Winter Olympics. Rahr then added that Putin did not necessarily have to speak before the US representatives, but before the European representatives, since he saw the Europeans as puppets of the USA. So much for European sovereignty and somewhat contradictory signals. At least this is the boycott of a dialogue despite all further mediation diplomacy and other meetings.
In the meantime, there are voices that consider a Russian invasion of Ukraine to be unlikely, as well as those who believe it is coming, although some have already given specific dates. Thus, the Russian troop deployment in Belarus, on the Ukrainian border and at sea in the Black Sea would be naval with the option of landing and blockading Ukraine. its mobilization peak on February 20, just at the end of the Munich Security Conference and the Winter Olympics in Beijing, especially since, according to Lukashenkov, nuclear missiles are also being brought into play:
“Ukraine: Will Russia go on the offensive after the maneuvers? Militaries in Kiev and in the West fear an invasion at the end of the Olympic Games. However, Moscow would risk immense losses by doing so. The noise of guns around Ukraine is getting louder. On Thursday, Russian troops in Belarus, together with their Belarusian allies, launched the „Union Resolve 2022“ maneuver. On Sunday, the Russian Navy will also start extensive exercises in the Black Sea, for which it wants to almost completely block the waters off the southern coast of Ukraine. Western experts have been warning for weeks of a comprehensive pincer attack on the surrounded Ukraine, also in view of the statements with which the Belarusian head of state Alexander Lukashenko has fueled sentiment towards NATO: „By the time they send any troops here, we’ll be at the English Channel.“
Belarusian head of state Lukashenko with massive threats
And that’s not all: British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace spoke on Thursday of intelligence reports that Russia is soon planning a strategic nuclear exercise. Lukashenko had already declared in December that Belarus could deploy Russian nuclear weapons if NATO deployed them in Poland. And the Russian political scientist in exile Ivan Preopraschensky speculated in Deutsche Welle that the Russian forces could also train during the maneuvers in Belarus how to bring nuclear missiles to the battlefield. Ukrainian and Western military officials are already citing February 20 as a possible date for a Russian attack on Ukraine: the Winter Olympics in Beijing end on the 20th, as do the military exercises in Belarus. And on the eve, the fleet maneuvers in the Black Sea will be completed. The fact that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Thursday that Russia would probably withdraw some of its diplomats from Ukraine did not help to ease the tension either.
According to information from Minsk and Moscow, less than 9,000 soldiers are rehearsing war in Belarus. That is the limit above which the organizers would be obliged to inform the other OSCE member states. In contrast, the Russian portal Rosbalt speaks of more than 30,000 soldiers and Iskander missile systems. And according to the Izvestia newspaper, about 20 Russian warships, including several cruisers armed with missiles, will maneuver off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. Six large landing ships from the Baltic and Northern Fleets are also on their way there. For months, the western media have been discussing possible Russian campaign plans, with landing maneuvers on the southern coast of Ukraine and an advance from Belarus towards Kiev. But in Ukraine, there are doubts that the Russian maneuvering pincers will actually snap in for an invasion. „The scenario is possible, but not very likely,“ Mikola Sungurowski, a military expert at the Kiev Razumkov Center, told FR. The armed forces and the fighters of the territorial defense would fight back resolutely. Russia was threatened with high losses – and also massive international sanctions that could drive it to national bankruptcy.
Belarusian expert: Air strikes possible Sungurovsky’s Belarusian colleague Alexander Alessin refers to the forested swamps in the Belarusian border region on the TV Doschd channel, where tanks have already sunk in to two meters in the mud in December. „Attacking with masses of tanks is completely impossible there.“ Alessin expects Russia to use its air force and missile systems for bombardments in order to force Ukraine to surrender in a similar way as NATO did in the 1999 air war against Yugoslavia. „But Putin will try to avoid harsh sanctions from the West, he is developing more hybrid scenarios,“ says Sungurowski. The Russians could activate “dormant” terrorist cells in Ukraine to provoke deadly civil unrest and then send in a “peacekeeping force”. „When they have to mourn the first casualties in the clashes with the Ukrainian army, the whole armada, which is now concentrated on the borders, will invade Ukraine.“ For the time being, however, the deployment will serve as a lever for political blackmail.
While opinions are divided as to whether there will be an invasion at all or more in the form of a hybrid war or a massive invasion with boots on the ground, air raids and armored formations, there is also the question of whether only in the Donbass or beyond, as far as the tank chains will carry the invasion army.
Foreign Policy points out that the Ukraine conflict should not only be seen from purely security-political considerations, but also include the historical-ideological components of Putin and his idea of a Eurasian Union and Novorussia. Accordingly, he is not only interested in the neutrality of Ukraine, but also wants to incorporate it:
Russia and Ukraine Are Trapped in Medieval Myths
A shared past underpins—and worsens—the conflict.
By Kristaps Andrejsons, a journalist in Latvia and the creator of The Eastern Border podcast.
FEBRUARY 6, 2022, 7:00 AM
There are plenty of economic and security explanations for the Ukraine crisis. And they’re useful, but they’re not enough. The cultural, historical, and religious underpinnings of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv go back to fundamental questions of what Russia even is, what it means to be Russian, and who gets to own the myths of the past.
On July 12, 2021, the Kremlin’s official website published an article by Russian President Vladimir Putin called “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” It’s a key guide to the historical stories that shape Putin’s and many Russian’s attitudes.
Firstly, Putin and many Russians believe that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, “brother nations,” with one group called Velikorossy (“Great Russians”) and the other, the Ukrainians, Malorossy (“Little Russians”). They think the same about Belarus—that’s where the name of the country comes from, they’re Belorusy, or “White Russians.” When Russia became a tsardom in 1547, the official shortened title of the ruler was tsar vseya Rusi, “tsar of all the Russias.”
All those Russias stemmed from the successor states and principalities of the original Kievan Rus, ruled over by various members of the Rurikid dynasty, Viking rulers of the 9th century. That dynasty originated in Novgorod, then moved its capital to Kiev—now spelled Kyiv—in 882. That became the grand capital of a Rurikid federation. In comparison, Moscow was a complete backwater. Its first recorded mention comes only from 1147.
It’s this shared line of descent that makes the Russian relationship with Belarus and Ukraine very different from the ties with other former Soviet states. Kazakhstan, Estonia, Georgia, and so forth might have been national comrades, but the Ukrainians and Belarusians were kin. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine all claim this state as their cultural and political ancestor—and Putin wholeheartedly endorses this line of thinking. From his article: “The throne of Kiev held a dominant position in Ancient Rus. This had been the custom since the late 9th century. The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ‘Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.’”
Religion, as Putin hints, underpins much of this relationship. This goes back to St. Vladimir, also known as Vladimir the Great, or Vladimir the Baptist of the Slavs, the Kievan Rus ruler famous for converting to Orthodox Christianity in 988 and making it the official state religion.
That conversion, and his subsequent marriage to a Byzantine princess, led to close ties with the Byzantines—and with the beginning of another line of legitimacy and succession, traced through Constantinople. Vladimir Monomakh, ruler of Kiev from 1113 to 1125, preferred to call himself “archon of all Rus” in the “Greek manner.” His name, Monomakh, came from his family ties to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos. Constantinople, with its emperor crowned by the city’s patriarch, the head of the Orthodox faith, was above mere kings and archons.
But this order was shaken up by the intrusion of powerful Eastern conquerors—first the Mongols, who leveled Kievan Rus, breaking it up into numerous vassal states, and then the final destruction of Constantinople itself in 1453 by the Ottomans. Once-proud Kiev was left in ruins, a pile of skulls outside a tiny remnant settlement. And there was no longer a Byzantine emperor to rule above Russian kings.
But as Mongol power weakened in the late 15th century, starting with the battle of Ugra River, parts of the old Kievan Rus state attempted to reclaim its legitimacy—now calling it “Russia.” In the west, though, they faced other challengers: a powerful Poland had annexed much of modern-day western Ukraine, and Belarus had been absorbed by Lithuania.
It was in this period that Ukraine, once the heartland of Kievan Rus, got its peculiar name. There are two prevailing theories about that name—one that’s backed by most historians, as well as by the Russian government, and one pushed largely by Ukrainian scholars and the government. The first one states that after the Polish Crown took over the former heartland of the Kievan Rus in 1569, the territory got the unofficial name “Ukraina” (interpreted as “next to the border” in Old Slavic) since, from a Polish perspective, it bordered the steppe and the semi-nomadic powers such as the Tatars there.
The second one claims that in Ukrainian and Old Slavic there’s a difference between the words “oukraina” and “okraina.” Both are derived from “kraj”—meaning “border” in Old Slavic, but there’s an important difference in preposition. Ou version means “in” while o means “about, around”—in this context, Ukraine would mean “the lands attached to the center” or “the lands, bordering the center,” which then is interpreted to denote the lands directly surrounding the Kievan Rus, subordinate to it directly. That’s a far-fetched claim, but it gives Ukrainians a strong sense of their own place in the Kievan Rus legacy.
In the meantime, the new Russian state needed to claim its own place in the Orthodox world—and in the line of descent from the Roman Empire, another source of national-political legitimacy. With Constantinople, the Second Rome, in Muslim hands, Moscow had to become the “Third Rome,” its patriarch raised to the level of Constantinople and Rome. “The first two Romes perished, the third stands, and there will be no fourth Rome,” as the Russian saying went. The Russian leaders, as of 1547, declared themselves no longer kings but emperors—in Russian, “tsar,” derived from the old Roman title of caesar.
And the idea worked. It was beneficial to the Russian power structure; it could help the rulers centralize and rule, via the help of the Russian Patriarchate; and it give much-needed legitimacy to Moscow. The Russian rulers married into the deposed Byzantine dynasties and created a merry variety of myths to justify their supposed inheritance from Constantinople.
But there’s a bit of a problem. Just as to be called caesar you need to rule Rome, to be called tsar you need to rule over all of Rus. The cultural, historical, and religious significance of Kievan Rus was just too large to be ignored. That wasn’t a problem for the tsars themselves, who had clawed back lost territory in the west—and then set out to expand to the east.
The Russian Empire tried to erase the other eastern Slavic languages from their shared cultural memory – they acted as if there was no Ukraine and never had been, just as with Belarus. According to the Tsarist government, Ukrainians had always been Russians and had no history of their own. The Ukrainian and Belorussian languages were banned. Ukrainian nationalism was a threat to the underlying myths of Russia and threatened their attempts at creating an “All-Russian People.”
In the Soviet Union, in contrast, early idealists looked at the feudal past with contempt and imagined Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia as separate nations joined by a Soviet ideal.
But that early idealism soon disintegrated for the Soviets. Joseph Stalin was obsessed with destroying Ukraine-ness. The Holodomor, the artificial famine of 1932-1933, killed millions of Ukrainians—though there’s fierce discussion among historians as to how intentionally targeted this was. Ukrainian culture was systematically oppressed, including a ban on teaching Ukrainian language in schools, and a lot of those schools themselves were closed.
Yet Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was himself Ukrainian and had been the head of the Communist Party of Ukraine until 1949, so he saw closer integration in the Soviet political system with some degree of autonomy in local matters as a more effective policy rather than outright extermination. As a part of this so-called normalization process, in 1957, regional economic councils were introduced in addition to the republican economic councils to strengthen Ukrainian autonomy. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic gained the right to pass its own laws in the field as long as they were consistent with union legislation and were called for by union organs. Kiev became a very standard Soviet capital, receiving no special attention or privileges, to better fall in line with the rest of the Soviet Union. Its special place in eastern Slavic history was downplayed and ignored, because it didn’t fall into the Soviet narrative that those in power wanted to build.
But it’s much more of a problem for modern Russia, without either the ideological flexibility of the Soviets or the territorial reach of the old empire. Putin presents himself as a tsar-like figure. He wants to go down in the history books as a grand unifier of Russian lands—if not under the same government, then definitely as the hegemon of the Russian world.
Putin has always presented himself as a glorious leader and a victorious conqueror. Take his victory speech after the 2012 election, or how after the annexation of Crimea he stressed the historical importance of this reunification in his address to the State Duma deputies, calling it a “return home”, and focusing on past Russian military glory. His aims were equally evident in his reaction to any Japanese talks about a deal concerning the Kuril Islands. He’s also built a massive, opulent palace for himself, with gold-plated double-headed eagles, a clear Imperial Russian symbol, everywhere—even in his personal strip club. The Russian Orthodox Church helps him pacify the population and supports whatever myths Kremlin wants to glorify.
Putin wants to take credit for the Soviet legacy and, at the same time, be viewed in the same light as the emperors of old. Therefore, he has to bring back and reaffirm the old, imperial myths and values—and to do that, he has to get Kyiv under his thumb. After all, it was the restored Kievan Rus that became Russia, the Third Rome. Ukraine going its own way, claiming Kievan Rus as its legacy, moving away from Moscow, getting autocephaly for its own orthodox church—all this runs contrary to Russian state mythology. These imperial myths are what define Russia, what it even means to be a Russian. Without them, Russia just stops being Russia in the eyes of many. Putin is convinced that if this social glue is disrupted, then Russia will just split up in pieces again—and if he allows that to happen, then his legacy is ruined. For him, there can be no separate Ukrainian language, culture, or history.
At the same time, Ukraine faces a similar problem. It feels that it, and not Russia, is the true inheritor of Kievan Rus. Ukrainians need to divorce Kievan Rus from the modern Russia and show their own history. They’ve seen what’s happened with the acceptance of Russian myths in Belarus—where the opposition now waves a white, red, and white flag at protests from the era of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, thumbing their noses at Russian historical nationalism.
And so, the conflict continues. And it will continue as long as Russia wants to actually be able to call itself Russia, as it defines itself, and the other descendants of Kievan Rus want to determine their own fate and have their own language, history, and traditions, without interference from Moscow. Economic issues can be dealt with, security guarantees can be given, and new deals can be signed—but these ancient problems can only be solved by building a completely new project, with new ideals and a new basis of legitimacy that would not need historical myths to prop itself up. Maybe it’s time to finally let the Third Rome fall. And to give these old legends a proper burial, we should honor the part about not building the fourth one.
And according to Elizabeth Braw of the American Enterprise Institute in Foreign Policy, Putin could also use economic and hybrid warfare and a naval blockade to subjugate Ukraine without a major invasion
„Russia Can Win in Ukraine Without Firing a Shot
If the Kremlin can make Ukrainian businesses uninsurable, it will destroy the economy.”
Especially since the domestic political struggles in Ukraine are also increasing in tension, and Selensky has already threatened Poroshenko with a trial for treason. This is how Konstantin Skorin from Carnegie Moscow describes the internal Ukrainian trench warfare:
“Yet again, Zelensky is faced with a crisis even worse than all the previous ones. Every report of another Russian plan to invade Ukraine is a blow to its economy, weakening the hryvnia, pushing up interest rates, and sowing panic among the public.
The longer the international tension over Ukraine goes on for, the shakier the country’s political system becomes. Faced with a foreign threat, the Ukrainian elites have shown themselves to be unwilling to overcome their differences. Instead, they are making use of this critical moment to settle old scores.
It’s a Ukrainian tradition that the battle for power never stops. For both the pro-Western and pro-Russian opposition, any confrontation linked to a geopolitical choice—never mind one this high profile—creates the perfect opportunity to boost their popularity and score points against President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The biggest beneficiaries of the standoff against Russia are those known as the “national patriots.” Amid the current fears of a Russian invasion, former president Petro Poroshenko is once again becoming the most influential figure on the right of Ukrainian politics—as well as Zelensky’s main opponent. Poroshenko is now polling just 2–3 percentage points behind the president, while his party, European Solidarity, is overtaking Zelensky’s Servant of the People, according to the latest polls.
With the threat of war looming over the country, even those who recently mocked the former president can no longer see any alternative to him. After all, it was Poroshenko who led Ukraine during the military conflict in the country’s east in 2014–2015. His tactic right now is to do everything within his means to attack Zelensky’s administration for failing to take the Russian threat seriously.
The Poroshenko camp is also pinning its hopes on getting support from the West, which is becoming increasingly disenchanted with Zelensky over his criticism of his allies, whom he has reproached for not providing sufficient help and for inflaming tensions.
Poroshenko’s main problem is the number of Ukrainians who fiercely dislike him following his years in power. That number has not changed, and no one is in a hurry to join forces with the former president in a coalition against Zelensky: they are wary of his toxic image. On his own, however, Poroshenko does not yet have the resources to defeat the ruling regime.
The international escalation over Ukraine has also activated the pro-Russian wing of the country’s opposition. On the one hand, living in constant fear of a Russian invasion only makes Ukraine’s pro-Russian parties seem more odious than ever. On the other hand, the country’s predominantly Russian-speaking regions are growing increasingly frustrated with the government for having become embroiled in an all-consuming confrontation with the Kremlin when Zelensky had run on a promise of peace. This frustration could in future be converted into votes, and with that in mind, competition among the various groups is already raging.
Since Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the main pro-Russian party, Opposition Platform–For Life (OPFL), was placed under house arrest and hit with sanctions by the Ukrainian government, the party’s leadership has joined the group of gas tycoons consisting of Serhiy Lyovochkin, Yuriy Boyko, and Dmytro Firtash. Firtash recently presented the group’s political manifesto: a neutral, nonaligned status for Ukraine, and its transformation into a bridge between Russia and Europe: the “Switzerland of Eurasia.”
Another pro-Russian politician propelled into the limelight by the escalation over Ukraine is Yevhen Murayev, leader of the Nashi party. He found himself at the center of attention recently when the UK Foreign Office claimed that the Kremlin was considering him as a candidate to head up a puppet government in occupied Ukraine.
Murayev has long been seen by the OPFL as a dangerous rival. In 2018, Russia imposed sanctions against him at the behest of Medvedchuk, and it’s rumored that Firtash, who has connections to the British establishment, is behind the Foreign Office report. In the unstable world of Ukrainian politics, it’s hard to predict what impact this sudden international notoriety will have on Murayev’s popularity. It’s possible that the OPFL may manage to sideline him as a pro-Russian radical, painting themselves as moderates in comparison. Or the reverse may happen: Murayev may manage to create an image as a moderate centrist under attack on both sides, from both Russia and the West.
The only politician not benefitting from the current crisis is Dmytro Razumkov, the former parliamentary speaker. Until recently, he appeared to have the best prospects of any Ukrainian politician, but his moderate, balanced approach is at odds with the current atmosphere, in which emotions are running high. Razumkov can, however, afford to simply wait: the niche he has set his sights on is currently occupied by Zelensky, who is under attack from all sides.
Yet again, Zelensky is faced with a crisis even worse than all the previous ones. Every day that the standoff continues, and every report of another Russian plan to attack Ukraine are blows to its economy, weakening the hryvnia, pushing up interest rates on loans, and sowing panic among the public. Confronted with all of this, Zelensky has decided not to leave Ukraine’s fate in the hands of its Western allies by meekly awaiting help, but criticizes them constantly, reproaches them for inaction, and asks for concrete measures.
When the West threatens Russia with sanctions in the event of aggression, Zelensky demands preventative measures, fearing a repeat of the events of 2014, when Russian forces had occupied Crimea before there was anything anyone could do about it. When Western media describe an imminent invasion, the Ukrainian government all but denies it, and calls for everyone to remain calm. When Moscow says there is no point in talking to Kyiv, as it’s merely a puppet of the West, Zelensky continues to insist on direct negotiations with Putin.
The president still leads the polls, but the gap between him and his rivals is inexorably decreasing. What’s more, his attempts to quell panic are only making it worse: just like all former Soviet citizens, Ukrainians are used to interpreting assurances from the authorities as confirming their worst fears.
The overall instability could not fail to impact on the president’s Servant of the People party. Recently, it has been unable to get the required number of votes for its initiatives, reducing the president’s parliamentary majority to a mere formality. There’s no obvious solution: if Zelensky puts pressure on the Servant of the People deputies, they could desert en masse to join Razumkov, the party’s former leader.
The external threat to Ukraine is exacerbating Zelensky’s domestic problems, and vice versa. The result is that the president has become an inconvenient figure for both East and West. Ukraine’s Western allies would prefer to see a more systematic and predictable leader in his place—someone like Poroshenko—who would have heeded their warnings graciously, thanked them for their help, and adhered strictly to the agenda set by those allies.
Moscow, meanwhile, would like to see an end to Ukraine’s protracted drift toward the West and the advent of an if not openly pro-Russian leader, à la Medvedchuk or Boyko, then at least a moderate politician, à la Razumkov. Then the Kremlin would spare no expense to buy their loyalty.
Zelensky may be an inconvenient leader for everyone else, but that’s what makes him a suitable leader for today’s Ukraine, since the place it occupies on the map is so inconvenient for everyone. Many would dearly love to wash their hands of it, but it’s not possible. So Zelensky remains the most popular politician, even though it would seem he has lost everything he had to lose. Ukrainian society doesn’t always know what it wants, and is intuitively reluctant to make a definitive choice in favor of East or West. Ukrainians believe the world owes them, and they are not ready to compromise.
Zelensky does not have many options. He can either stick to his guns in the hope of a change of fortune and the return of his popularity (or at least the failure of the opposition), or he can hold a new referendum of trust in the form of snap parliamentary or presidential elections. Either way, the Ukrainian leader cannot be written off just yet.“
But there are also internal political tensions within Russia. According to surveys, the population’s enthusiasm for war no longer seems to be able to achieve the same effect as it had with the occupation of Crimea in 2014. In addition, an open letter from a retired Russian general has now become known. Also, while some Russian nationalists seem to want to see a militarily strong Russia, they want to keep this to the heartland and not extend it to Novorussia like Putin might want: Although he sees not the emergence active opposition, Mark Galeoti reports in the Moscow Times:
“Anti-War Broadside Highlights Nationalist Critique of Putin
The anti-war letter published by a fringe former colonel is a useful reminder that Putin’s belligerent nationalist rhetoric certainly doesn’t convince everyone.
Russia continues to remind itself as well as the outside world that it is neither as repressed nor as monolithic as some would claim, despite the government’s recent swing towards full-blown authoritarianism.
Furthermore, the risk of a slide into war in Ukraine has demonstrated that political opposition to the Kremlin comes not only from the liberal intelligentsia but also nationalists, for whom Putin is not a patriot but an opportunist.
It was striking enough when, at the end of January, over 5,000 people signed a statement then published by Ekho Moskvy, warning that “the citizens of Russia are becoming hostages to criminal adventurism,” and offering “an open and public challenge to the War Party, which has been formed within the government.|
It is not in any way to disparage those undertaking what is a real act of bravery in the current political environment to say that in the main these represented the ‘usual suspects’ of opposition to the Kremlin’s policies: cultural figures, human rights activists, dissident politicians and generally a mobilisation of the liberal intelligentsia.
It was, however, arguably more noteworthy when retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a man known for championing the Soviet system, now Chairman of the unofficial All-Russian Officers Assembly, published on its website ‘an Appeal to the President and citizens of the Russian Federation’ starkly entitles ‘The Eve of War.’
It is a blunt demand not just for Vladimir Putin to end his “criminal policy of provoking a war” but, indeed, to resign.
Ivashov comprehensively castigates the regime for creating a situation in which the main threats to the system come not from Ukraine or the West but from within: “the unviability of the state model, the complete incapacity and lack of professionalism of the system of power and administration, the passivity and disorganisation of society.”
Warning that, “in this state, no country survives for long,” Ivashov believes that the elite are trying to hold on to their power and wealth for as long as possible even at the cost of a Kremlin Götterdämmerung, a willingness to risk “the final destruction of Russian statehood and the extermination of the indigenous population of the country.”
After all, in Ivashov’s apocalyptic vision, it is not just that any escalation will lead to thousands of deaths on the battlefield and massive economy sanctions, but that NATO will also get directly involved and, as if that were not enough, ‘Turkish field armies and a fleet will be ordered to “liberate” the Crimea and Sevastopol and possibly invade the Caucasus.’
All that said, one should put this in context. Ivashov has long been a critic of the current regime (and of the West, for that matter), and for all its expansive title, the All-Russian Officers Assembly is a body of limited political weight and uncertain numbers, very much a home for retired and reserve officers of extreme nationalist views.
Its membership includes, for example, Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, the former Spetsnaz special forces imprisoned for the attempted assassination of Anatoly Chubais in 2005.
Yet Ivashov’s appeal is a reminder of the fact that although the West-friendly liberal opposition may have more traction on the public imagination — and certainly on the attention of Western journalists, diplomats and academics alike — there is also a strong strand of nationalist critiques of Putin that interconnects with elements of the systemic and non-systemic opposition, but also have a constituency within the security apparatus on which the Kremlin depends.
The Nationalist Critique
After all, nationalists and monarchists played a significant role in the Bolotnaya movement, which in many ways had its genesis in protests ensuing from the November 2011 ‘Russian March’ and alongside such liberal icons as Boris Nemtsov and Yevgenia Albats spoke Eduard Limonov, now deceased leader of the National Bolshevik Party and Konstantin Krylov, head of the unregistered National Democratic Party.
Often the nationalist critiques focus on corruption and arbitrary power, the belief that this regime robes itself in the flag, while stealing from and degrading the people and the state they affect to love.
For example, Igor Girkin — ‘Strelkov’ — also regard the Kremlin as a nest of traitors because he feels they betrayed the real interests of the Donbas when they ditched the idea of creating a ‘Novorossiya’ (and forced him out of the conflict). However, the issues of corruption, incompetence and arbitrariness tend to be the common themes running through the nationalist critique.
Why this matters is that although the leaders and overt structures of the nationalists are often amateurish, marginal and unpleasant, they have strikingly broad resonance.
These are views that many within the Communist Party share (and it is worth noting that firebrand Sergei Udaltsov in many ways occupied a middle ground between the two) and, for that matter, some within the Liberal Democrat Party, too.
They are also often encountered within the national-patriotic social movements on which the Kremlin often rests, from the Cossacks to the Yunarmiya militarised youth movement.
Dissidents in Epaulets
Most importantly, this is a critique which appears to appeal to a wide strand of the middle-rankers within the military and security apparatus: captains, majors, even some colonels, the career officers who do not live the truly pampered lives of the top brass, who likely joined at least in part out of a sense of duty, and who feel their values dismissed by those at the top of the chain of command.
Scroll through their Telegram channels or some of the more recondite message boards and it soon becomes clear how strong the nationalist critique of the government can be, even within such bodies as the National Guard intended to be its bulwarks.
The government has tended to assume that so long as it paid them well, praised them often and decorated them at any excuse, that would buy their loyalty. For some, it undoubtedly does. However, even soldiers and security officers have lives and loyalties beyond the state, and it is insiders who probably see better the sins of the system.
This is why the Kremlin has so often tried also to distract and co-opt nationalist politics, most recently with writer’s Zakhar Prilepin’s ‘For Truth’ movement that has since merged with Patriots of Russia and A Just Russia.
Ultimately, though, such gambits fail because the nationalist critique is essentially a moral one, rooted not in one political structure or another, but a sense of injustice and outrage, and this is also why, however much the nationalists may disagree fundamentally with the liberals on causes and solutions to the current situation, they can agree that the status quo cannot — should not — be allowed to continue.
Ivashov himself is irrelevant.
The fact of his public appeal, though, is significant, in that it speaks to the frustration and concern felt within a fraction of the Russian political scene that tends to remain behind the scenes, yet which has perhaps more traction than any other within the security forces, which are also the ultimate guarantors of Putin’s authority.
We are nowhere near the point where we can meaningfully talk of active opposition there, but this is a useful reminder that Russian politics are more complex than often assumed, and that Putin’s belligerent nationalist rhetoric certainly doesn’t convince everyone.
In the ZEIT interview, the former special representative of then US President Clinton, William Courtney, argues that in the event of an invasion, the sanctions would cause the Russians‘ standard of living to drop rapidly and protests would then break out. In any case, he seems to be implicitly hoping, as before, for a revolution that could eventually overthrow Putin or force him to capitulate or compromise:
“ZEIT ONLINE: Definitely. But first a question about the sanctions that have been decided: why are you so sure that they would have the desired effect?
Courtney: The Russians have done a lot since 2014 to brace themselves against sanctions. They stopped importing agricultural products from Europe, which boosted agricultural production in Russia. But this comes at a significant cost to Russian consumers. And if the standard of living of the citizens falls, the Kremlin has to worry too – because experience shows that this can lead to protests. The new sanctions would bar Russia from most financial transactions with the West. That would not only be devastating for the big banks. The standard of living in Russia would continue to fall. Polls show that a majority of Russians want closer ties with the West, not war. But the Kremlin has moved in the opposite direction.”
In an op-ed for the Carnegie Moscow Center, Andrei Kolesnikov argues that in the event of war, the Russian population´s enthusiasm for war would die down, and there would be no „rally around the flag“ effect, especially on the part of young conscripts no support is to be expected.
“How Do Russians Feel About a War With Ukraine?
“For a few years, the unprecedented patriotic surge of 2014 served as symbolic compensation for the socioeconomic problems that had already begun. Russians lapped up the real and imaginary threats that were fed to them, and generally assessed military action as justified, defensive, and/or preventative.
These wars took place in the background: TV reports did not dwell on the brutal and bloody reality of armed conflict. At the same time, the militarization of official rhetoric and the growing authority of the army—which overtook the presidency in a list of most trusted institutions in 2020—strengthened the so-called “Crimea consensus.”
The sociological parameters began to change in 2018, however, with the dissipation of the rallying-around-the-flag effect. If in 2014 26 percent of respondents said that “Russia was surrounded by enemies on all sides,” then that opinion was shared by just 16 percent in 2020. The number of Russians who believed it was futile to look for enemies because “the root of the evil was Russia’s own mistakes” rose from 17 percent to 25 percent in the same period.
The Crimea consensus and the symbolic might of state institutions remained, but they lost their power to mobilize. War started to frighten people.
The average Russian is tired of self-deception and of persuading themselves that if a war does happen, it will not impact their lives or those of family members. Russian conformists are, of course, traditionally bellicose people, but theirs is the bellicosity of propaganda television talk shows, or the language of online hate. No conformists want a large-scale war: conscription is not part of the social contract, particularly at a time of accelerating inflation and economic stagnation.
State propaganda has overused its powers of mobilization. Instead of mobilization, it has created a fear of world war. At the end of 2018, 56 percent of respondents to a Levada Center survey said there was a significant military threat from other countries. This year, the fear of a world war has increased dramatically, reaching a solid second place in a Levada Center list of the top issues causing Russians to worry. The other fears that have risen in parallel with that of war are those of an increasingly harsh political regime, mass repression, and arbitrary rule: the authoritarianization of the Russian political regime has not gone unnoticed.
It’s symptomatic that the worsening of the public mood has gone hand in hand with a fall or stagnation in the approval ratings of the president and the authorities overall. The year 2018 was a pivotal moment in this process. To a large extent, it was the move to raise the retirement age that destroyed the classic Putin-era social contract: “you provide for us and leave our Soviet-style social handouts alone, and we’ll vote for you and take no interest in your stealing and bribe-taking.” A high level of support for Putin in the 2018 presidential elections was mistakenly interpreted by the authorities as real political credit, rather than indifference and mostly symbolic trust.
The pandemic has only confirmed this bifurcation in attitudes toward the authorities: we support the symbols—the flag, the national anthem, and Putin as a representation of our geopolitical might—but we don’t trust specific initiatives and the actions of government at various political levels. This sort of mute dissatisfaction was visible during the 2021 parliamentary elections, when people voted for the Communist Party as an abstract alternative to the current authorities.
There is one final aspect to this problem. When people talk about a war, they mostly mean a conflict with Ukraine (even if it would involve NATO, the United States, and the West). Of course, if war breaks out, state propaganda will convince most Russians that it’s necessary, and that we are, in fact, “liberating” our Ukrainian brethren from an alien government (even if Ukrainians chose that government themselves in free elections). This will all take place despite the fact that in 2021, 23 percent of Russians believed Russia and Ukraine should be friendly neighbors but still have their own borders: only 17 percent of respondents supported a unification of the two states.
War is the business of young people and conscripts. But 66 percent of Russians aged between 18 and 24 have a positive or very positive attitude toward Ukraine. That’s despite a backdrop of unceasing vitriol directed toward Ukraine on state television, and the persistent, oft-repeated idea that it is external attacks that require Russia to take defensive measures.
To put it simply, before launching an offensive, it’s worth thinking about who will fight in that offensive and how willingly, and to what extent an active conflict will prompt people to rally around Putin. The evidence suggests that even in the best-case scenario, the mobilization effect will be nonexistent.”
Tatyana Stanovava from the Carnegie Moscow Center sees this in a diametrically different way in an article in the Moscow Times: Although there may not be much support for the war, no regime change is to be expected in case of a war, but more repression, because the extra-parliamentary opposition is already suppressed and too weak, and the internal opposition opposition would then be brutally repressed, beginning with the Russian Communist Party. In addition, Russia also has significant foreign exchange reserves and China as a supporter. In addition, this would then also be associated with a further increase in the power of the silowiki:
“How War Would Change Russia
Rather than losing control, the authorities would actually be able to strengthen their grip in the events of a war with Ukraine.
Two months after Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded the Foreign Ministry obtain “serious, long-term security guarantees” from the West, it has become obvious that there will be no major successes. Having promised a “military-technical” response if negotiations fail, Russia is currently amassing its military might on the Ukrainian border.
If a military conflict does occur, its repercussions would be no less significant for domestic Russian politics than for foreign relations. Repression would increase and the forces of conservatism would very much gain the upper hand.
Some believe a war would lead to internal upheaval in Russia. They argue that tough new Western sanctions and a rise in military spending would worsen the socioeconomic situation and increase the risk that the authorities could lose control. This would result in a spike in support for protests, the radicalization of the in-system opposition (the parties which are generally politically cautious), and conflict within the ruling elite.
While that certainly looks logical, there is actually more evidence to suggest events would develop very differently. Rather than losing control, the authorities would actually be able to strengthen their grip. And, unlike the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it would not be accompanied by public euphoria, but by coercion and repression.
There are several compelling reasons to believe this latter scenario is far more likely. First and foremost is the growing influence of a conservative, anti-liberal, and anti-Western elite in decisionmaking. The security services, or siloviki, are squeezing out not only Kremlin officials responsible for “managing” domestic politics, but also diplomats, who are being forced to adopt hawkish rhetoric and a confrontational style, and push for a conscious and demonstrative escalation.
For the siloviki and their allies, the collapse of negotiations with the West, growing confrontation, and new sanctions would not be a problem: on the contrary, their positions would be strengthened and they would be gifted more opportunities to grow their power and influence.
A military escalation would heighten the sense of a national emergency, in which laws can be disregarded; the ends justify the means; and there is no space for compromise with opponents. It would focus the president’s attention on the geopolitical agenda, and hand the siloviki more freedom of maneuver inside Russia.
Inevitably, war would lead to increased isolation, closer control over the media and the internet, pressure on foreign IT companies, and tighter control of political parties. More repression would be certain: not against the real political opposition, which has already been decimated, but against cultural figures, bloggers, apolitical civic activists, journalists, experts, and so on.
The authorities would resent any wielding of “unsanctioned” influence, whether via social media posts, songs, articles, or interviews. Of course, this process is already under way, but it would become widespread, routine, and messy.
There will be no one prepared to seriously oppose such a course. Tellingly, the Moscow Times has reported that—despite expectations of a financial and economic shock — no one in Russia’s business elite would publicly question the leadership in the event of a war.
This is entirely understandable: remaining unnoticed and not giving anyone a reason to doubt your loyalty is the best survival strategy in modern Russia.
Faced with financial difficulties, the government would inevitably increase the tax burden on business. One recent initiative of the Federal Antimonopoly Service was to look at the requisitioning of foreign investors’ shares in “strategic businesses”: a clear signal that foreign businesses in Russia will become more vulnerable.
There is a feeling among the Russian leadership that the country has enough money to see itself through.
Unlike then prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s infamous 2016 utterance — “there’s no money, but you hang in there”—the Finance Ministry today is saying publicly that there is plenty of money. While the size of Russia’s foreign currency reserves did hit a historic high in 2021, this is not a question of objective data but subjective opinions: Putin’s speeches about the economic situation in Russia are full of optimism, creating the impression that the country is sitting pretty.
The Kremlin has shown that it is willing to engage in opportunistic social spending to calm the public mood or ease the passage of political change, such as ahead of the nationwide vote on changing the constitution in 2020, and the 2021 parliamentary elections. The authorities are ready to make financial investments to preserve a minimum level of loyalty to the regime.
Since at least 2020, the Kremlin has focused on not only suppressing the non-system opposition, which it has never afforded representation, but also sidelining the in-system opposition. Relations with the in-system Communist Party are becoming more strained, and pressure on the party’s radical wing has been growing.
But an international escalation will make the Kremlin focus on the total political neutralization of the Communists. Control over elections will increase, and voting at all levels will become, once and for all, nothing more than plebiscite campaigns with preapproval from the Kremlin required for all candidates.
This will push Russian society into a deep political depression.
A drive to increase Kremlin control will inevitably reach other areas of life as well. Current conversations about “traditional values” will grow into a full-fledged moral campaign impacting everything from employment and education to interaction with foreigners and social media.
A new spiral of international escalation would accelerate and entrench the repressive trends that have been in ascendancy in Russian public life in recent years. Any dissatisfaction will be crushed with redoubled strength, including when it emerges within the in-system opposition.
The Kremlin’s political managers could also face a reshuffle, which would likely result in an increased role for the siloviki in domestic politics.
As for society, there would likely be some sort of forced patriotic mobilization. Instead of a natural coming together, as in 2014, it would be characterized by coercion and displays of sham loyalty. The divergence between a fake system marching in lockstep and a mood of doom and gloom would quickly become a yawning chasm—with all the risks that entails.”
William Courtney still has the most optimistic scenario of the possible course of the crisis:
ZEIT ONLINE: If Russia shouldn’t attack Ukraine – what will it do instead?
Courtney: Let me respond with a historical comparison. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev and the Politburo pursued the risky strategy of secretly stationing nuclear weapons in Cuba. The US got wind of it, confronted the Soviets, who backed down. A year later, negotiations began on the Atmosphere, Outer Space and Underwater Test Ban Treaty – one of the three most important disarmament treaties since World War II. Instead of humiliating the Soviet Union, the Americans, together with the Soviet leadership, seized the opportunity to make progress towards peace. Now, if Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, I could imagine a similar development. Progress on arms control, confidence-building measures and transparency would be possible.
But it remains to be seen whether this will already answer Putin’s demands for security guarantees, Ukraine’s non-membership in NATO and the rollback of NATO to the time before 1997 as the new European security architecture, as well as his Novorussia plans.