The deadlocked war with Ukraine has pushed Russia into an irreconcilable dilemma: it can neither accept reality nor keep denying it. This contradiction can be seen both in the official discourse on the unfolding disaster and the societal response to it. As one example, rampant patriotic mobilization persists alongside the pretense that normal life continues undisturbed. Likewise, there is the contrast between the climaxing intensity of official propaganda on the one hand, and the war (still being described as a “special military operation”) supposedly progressing according to plan, on the other hand. Finally, harsh repressions have discouraged anti-war protests, but the prevalent Russian attitude is actually confused indifference to rather than active support for the country’s brutal aggression against its neighbor (Meduza.io, April 24). The bottom line is that neither the hysterical drum-beating nor the cynical minding of one’s own business is sustainable for much longer. And the approaching celebrations of May 9 Victory Day could mark the point where the neither-war-nor-peace stance acquires a more definitively one-sided and perhaps more dangerous character.
For President Vladimir Putin, this traditional holiday has become a spectacle of sacred significance. Over the years, he has turned the day of remembrance of the Soviet nation’s great sacrifice into a celebration of Russia’s superior military might. Last week (April 27), in St. Petersburg, he gave a preamble to the forthcoming militaristic festivities in a speech reiterating the pledge to achieve all goals of the “special operation” in Ukraine and issuing a threat to deliver a “lightning-fast preventative counter-strike” against unnamed external forces that attempt to obstruct Russia’s intervention (Kommersant, April 27). This threat was only slightly elevated from his previous warning to the West about “consequences you have never seen,” but it was supported this time by an expressed readiness to use “instruments nobody can brag about” (Izvestia, April 27). The reference to nuclear capabilities remains barely hidden in these loose words, but actually crossing the nuclear threshold is a high-risk choice. Still, saber-rattling may be easier than the more conventional alternative: calling the war by its name and decreeing a full national mobilization necessary to win it (Svoboda.org, April 29).
Mobilization is, indeed, needed to sustain Russia’s high-intensity military operations; but even a limited expansion of the draft and dragooning of reluctant reservists come at a high economic cost (Forbes.ru, April 26). The government is struggling to minimize the scale of damage caused by the sanctions and cuts of multiple supply chains, but it apparently cannot invent a better scenario than an extra-deep recession lasting at least two years (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 27). The conditions to prevent an economic collapse require the sustained inflow of petro-revenues, but the Kremlin is firmly set on using Gazprom as an “energy weapon” against the presumably gas-addicted Europe, and each case of blackmail prompts the European Union to further curtail its consumption of Russian hydrocarbons (Novaya Gazeta, April 28). Meanwhile, the gang of “siloviki” (security services personnel) in Putin’s court demands firmer central control over assets and money flows privatized by quasi-loyal oligarchs deeply upset by sanctions; exemplifying this is Nikolai Patrushev, the long-serving secretary of the Security Council, who positions himself as a champion of the cause of economic war-mobilization (Moscow Times, April 29). Putin is attentive to these demands but is also wary about deepening discontent in many elite groups, which are eager to replicate the jingoist rhetoric but abhor notions of actual “sacrifice” (Republic.ru, April 28).
Suspicions about the possible sabotage of mobilization orders by a corrupt bureaucracy and a disgruntled populace bring Putin back to the nuclear option. This is no longer treated in public discussions as catastrophic and unthinkable; rather, it is often perceived as advantageous for Russia, particularly as a way to pressure European neighbors (Valdai Club, April 28; see EDM, April 28). Maximum propaganda spin was applied to the recent test of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which, though still years away from production and deployment, is already useful for boosting Russia’s deterrence posture vis-à-vis the United States (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, April 28).
Russian discourse has traditionally remained mum about non-strategic nuclear weapons, many hundreds of which are stored for 30 years in a dozen specially designated depots. Yet Putin’s reference to ready-to-use “instruments” could indicate an intention to bring those dormant warheads out and redeploy them closer to their delivery systems (Meduza.io, April 20). The risks of technical failures and human errors accompanying such tactical re-nuclearization will inevitably be high, and every possible accident could push up the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange, as many commentators on Russian social networks argue (Svoboda.org, April 29). For that matter, there are even deeper concerns about Putin’s inscrutable contemplations on staging a nuclear demonstration (Grani.ru, April 28).
The imperative to examine such options brings many mainstream experts to the conclusion that Russia’s foreign policy has arrived at a sad dead end (Kommersant, April 29). The voices that, until recently, were upbeat about Russia asserting its great power status by projecting force have begun to lament the damage done to this status by the unnecessary war in Ukraine (Profile.ru, April 27). Despite the suppression of independent media platforms, sober analyses of possible outcomes of the conflict (none of which offer Russia any gains or advantages), are published by established think tanks (Russiancouncil.ru, April 29). Perhaps most surprising is the expressed notion that Ukraine’s membership in the EU may be in Russia’s security interests (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 27). The visible proliferation of such opinions outside of the leading state-owned propaganda channels indicates a rising dissatisfaction with the course and consequences of the war in some segments of Putin’s elites—even if the patriotic drums keep beating non-stop (Moscow Times, April 29).
Putin insists that Russia was compelled to launch the “special military operation” in order to counter the direct threat to its security coming from Ukraine. But this argument makes no more sense no matter how often it is repeated. The war was too obviously one of Putin’s own choice and making. The military deadlock in Donbas and the looming prospect of defeat, however, make escalation a necessity for him. Even retaining the hard-fought occupied territories will require a major increase in material and human resources, which, in turn, requires national mobilization (see above). This step would signify a pattern of escalation, but the Kremlin has no way of knowing whether or not Russian society would accept it. In this context, the nuclear option might seem preferable, provided that Putin’s top brass goes along with it, the chain of command does not break, and the West actually backs down. Either way, Putin trusts neither his generals nor his oligarchs, so he will seek to preempt them before they can collectively decide to buck his authority.