The West’s fears of humiliating Russia too much by ensuring its defeat in the war against Ukraine run much more deeply than the unfortunate turn of phrase uttered in recent weeks by French President Emmanuel Macron (see EDM, June 13). Last Thursday (June 16), Macron traveled to Kyiv, together with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, and delivered a vivacious speech, though this time never mentioning the controversial H-word (Novaya Gazeta, June 16). His Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had taken issue with Macron’s elliptic proposition on stopping the war short of humiliating Russia, declared himself entirely satisfied with the clarifications on full French support for Ukraine’s resolute stance on achieving victory (NV.ua, June 16). The matter of what kind of defeat Russia is capable of accepting without resorting to desperate (a convenient euphemism for nuclear) measures and, accordingly, what kind of victory is feasible for Ukraine, continues, nevertheless, to loom large.
The war has so far brought Russia nothing but a sequence of humiliations of different kinds. But those on the battlefield, while being the most painful, are—rather counter-intuitively—the least impactful on the broader domestic political picture. The botched earlier offensive against Kyiv and the chaotic retreat were covered up by Russian propaganda; so Putin can still claim that all goals of the “special military operation” in Ukraine will be achieved (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 17). The loss of the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the cruiser Moskva, was explained away as an accident (and the parents of the lost sailors are still being kept in the dark); new Ukrainian missile hits on supply ships near Snake Island are simply ignored by the Kremlin (The Insider, May 31; Meduza, June 17). No official information on casualties is released, though journalists have independently collected data on at least 3,798 fatalities by scouring online social networks. The authorities have also provided no explanation for the recent replacement of the command of the Airborne Forces, which suffered badly in the initial phase of the war (MediaZona, Chita.ru, June 17).
The same pattern of denial of disagreeable reality is applied to the international dimension of the war, but here the Kremlin is often forced to exercise awkward backpedaling from earlier ambitious positions. Preventing the further enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was long ago elevated as a major goal of Russia’s policy; but now that Finland and Sweden are proceeding with their decisions to join the Alliance, Putin finds it opportune to downplay the issue. In turn, mainstream Russian pundits argue that the accession is by no means a done deal and that Turkey is perfectly positioned to block it (Russiancouncil.ru, June 15). Similarly, Ukraine’s aspiration to join the European Union was once condemned as unacceptable. But presently, as France and Germany have taken a common stance and the status of a candidate state will likely be granted to Ukraine on June 24–25, Putin shrugs it off, declaring only that the EU has completely lost its “political sovereignty” (Izvestia, June 17). Moscow frequently resorts to nuclear threats, but there is no correspondence between this brinksmanship and Western collective actions. The new increase in the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine, called for by United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last week, was followed by a rather feeble statement from Putin that nuclear weapons would only be used to protect Russia’s sovereignty (RIA Novosti, June 17).
Russia is arguably subjected to the most punishing humiliations in the economic sphere, and Putin devoted most of his speech at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum last week to lambasting Western sanctions and asserting their utter counter-productivity (Kommersant, June 17). His declarations of the resilience of the Russian economy were a mix of misinformation and misrepresentation. For instance, Russia’s positive trade balance—one of his bragging points—is the result of a drastic contraction in imports, which is detrimental for many domestic industries (The Bell, June 17). It may be possible to reopen the iconic McDonald’s restaurant in downtown Moscow under a different brand, but the airline industry is severely affected by the breakdown in supply chains, and the “cannibalization” of some Boeing and Airbus planes for spare parts can help only so much in preserving Russian air traffic (RBC.ru, June 17). The worst humiliation at the rather deflated Forum this year was delivered—unexpectedly—by Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who firmly excluded any possibility of recognizing such “quasi-state territories” as Donetsk and Luhansk (Kommersant, June 17). Putin stoically swallowed that pill, as many before, but he is keener than ever to present every failure of his policy as a humiliation of the Russian people, blaming the West for fanning and sponsoring “Russophobia” (RIA Novosti, June 17).
His attempt to re-forge national unity around the cause of confronting the West has been far from successful, and the attitude in the propaganda-assaulted society to the costs and symbols of the “special military operation” remains ambivalent. Nothing resembling “patriotic” enthusiasm is induced by Putin’s increased public appearances (Svoboda.org, June 11). Russians are, nevertheless, sensitive to such sanctions as the ban from the Eurovision song contest or the exclusion of Russian athletes from the Wimbledon tennis tournament (Championat.ru, May 24). the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has taken a more balanced position, disqualifying Sergei Karyakin, outspoken in his support for Putin’s war, from the candidates contest in Madrid, while Ian Nepomnyashchy is granted an opportunity to contest the crown (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 16). Such nuances matter if the international community hopes to debunk the lies spread by the noisy “war party” in Russia and deepen the discontent within the seemingly much more numerous “party of silence” (Meduza, June 17).
Concerns in the West regarding “humiliating” Russia are typically underpinned by reflections on the rise of aggressive nationalism in Germany, which was severely punished by the Versailles Treaty that ended WWI in 1919. Yet such worries are largely misplaced because Putin has already exploited to the maximum the bitter disappointment in Russia about the fruits of the reforms that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. He tries to channel those feelings of resentment into support for his aggressive “little war.” But the pool of such perceptions among the Russian population is, in fact, rather shallow. Meanwhile the sequence of setbacks on all fronts of the armed conflict—to the extent that this information penetrates—has increased doubts in Russian society about its real aims and rationale, rather than adding to the urge to secure victory. The anti-war sentiment grows from a far richer background of Russian culture than Putin’s propaganda can draw upon, and it is essential to nurture these sources of strength in order to turn the Kremlin’s forthcoming defeat into a victory for a rehabilitated Russia.