Russian Unity and Western Discord Converge in Putin’s Imagination

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 33

(Source: TASS)

Executive Summary:

  • The Kremlin’s war strategy relies on the ideas that Russian society is united behind the war and that Western unity is crumbling, neither of which is strong enough to sustain the war effort indefinitely.
  • Putin seeks to maintain public support for the war and heavily emphasized expanding state funding for pensioners, doctors, teachers, and childcare in his annual address to the Federal Assembly.
  • Alexei Navalny’s funeral turned into a mass anti-war rally in Moscow, signaling that the Kremlin’s attempt to use his murder to silence the opposition has been unsuccessful.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly last Thursday was grander in length and style than his usual domineering performances. He did not attempt to persuade the audience of loyal bureaucrats that victory in Ukraine is near. Rather, he asserted once again that the “special military operation” (SVO) was launched in order to pre-empt Western onslaught. He insisted that Russia held the initiative in the battles in Donbas and could sustain the war effort indefinitely (Carnegie Politika, February 29). This confidence is underpinned by two key propositions: that Russian society is united in support of the war and that Western unity is crumbling. There is an element of truth in both assertions, but neither of them is truly solid, calling into question the foundations of Russia’s war. (Kommersant, February 29).

Putin’s address was heavily tilted toward social issues with plenty of promises to expand state funding for pensioners, families with children, doctors and teachers (Novaya gazeta Europe, February 29). This generosity is a clear attempt to ensure public consent to, if not enthusiasm about, Putin’s new presidential term, due to start a few weeks after the “elections” in mid-March (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 28). The prescribed expansion of social expenditures does not, however, correspond to the deepening deficit of the state budget, and Putin carefully avoided using the word “inflation” in his expectations-boosting narrative (Izvestiya, March 1). Every tightening of the sanctions regime cuts into budget revenues and disrupts the already twisted supply chains. Plans for resuming production of the SSJ100 Superjet and other passenger planes have been postponed yet again, for example (Novye Izvestiya, March 2).

Putin’s promises to increase money flows to the general populace betray his doubts about mass support for the permanent SVO (Re: Russia, March 1). The Kremlin cannot rely on the public’s grim acceptance of the costs of the unwinnable war, which make it increasingly difficult to pretend that life is continuing “as normal.” Thus the Kremlin seeks to stimulate obedience by providing material benefits (, February 24). One new twist to the jingoist tale is Putin’s claim that war heroes are a new elite who will make up Russia’s future government, in contrast with the aging political crooks, who enriched themselves in past decades and are now indiscriminately sanctioned by the West (The Insider, February 25).

Expanded efforts to buy loyalty go hand in hand with harsher repressions. The murder of influential opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a remote Arctic penal colony was supposed to discourage all forms of protest (, March 1). Instead, the cruel crime has galvanized discontent, and his funeral in Moscow last Friday turned into a mass anti-war rally (Novaya gazeta Europe, March 1). Navalny’s message continues to connect the underground anti-Putin resistance in Russia with the new Russian diaspora in Europe, where Navalny’s wife Yulia has stepped up to take the role of passionate leader (Moscow Times, March 1).

Yulia Navalnaya began her struggle with Putin’s regime by speaking at the Munich Security Conference and continued by addressing the European Parliament, seeking to convert the outrage against her husband’s murder into practical steps toward punishing the Kremlin (, February 28). Her campaign aims not only to unite the opposition but also to gain stronger international support, which directly targets Putin’s hopes for eroding Western solidarity (, February 20). Putin has pinned his hopes on the deadlock in US Congress that has interrupted the delivery of urgently-needed military aid to Ukraine. His working assumption has been that this failure of US leadership would accelerate the erosion of European commitment to prevent Russia’s victory (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 25).

Seeking to promote this disunity, Putin found it opportune to reiterate that Russia has no plans for invading any NATO country so there is no need to increase investments aimed at deterring this aggression (Rossiyskaya gazeta, February 29). He also saw a new point of contention in French President Emmanuel Macron’s warning that a deployment of European troops to Ukraine might become necessary to prevent Russian victory (RIAC, February 29). At the same time, the possibility of even limited reinforcement of Ukrainian air defenses and logistical hubs by troops from a newly-formed Western coalition is a major worry for the Russian high command (Kommersant, March 1).

In order to discourage the implementation of Macron’s ideas and to foster disagreement among Western countries, Putin asserted that a direct NATO intervention in Ukraine could trigger a nuclear conflict with dire consequences for the world (, February 29). He recited, yet again the list of Russian modern nuclear-capable weapon systems but did not mention any new tests or deployments (Izvestiya, February 29). He denied any plans for moving nuclear weapons into outer space but confirmed that consultations with the United States on strategic stability matters were out of the question (Vedomosti, February 29). Leaked documents on Russian plans and exercises involving non-strategic nuclear weapons, which experts in Moscow have remained silent about, have added new context to Putin’s nuclear discourse.(Moscow Times, February 29). China figures prominently in these documents, so Putin probably toned down his nuclear message, wary of irritating Beijing before the visit of Li Hui, Special Representative on Eurasian Affairs, to Moscow (Kommersant, March 3).

Putin is obviously following European and US policy-making, but his portrait of a decadent, declining West is extremely detached from the reality of Western determination to defeat Russian aggression. Similarly, the wishful vision in the Kremlin of a Russian society eager to indefinitely continue the war effort is seriously distorted, and every bit of evidence on deepening discontent produces a spasm of angst and an urge to erase the disagreeable truth (see EDM, February 26, February 29).

These basic misconceptions will guide the Kremlin’s strategy for perpetuating the war. In reality, this course condemns Russia to degradation. Hope was not buried, however, at a small cemetery on Moscow’s outskirts, and opposition alternatives exist. A new surge in Western aid will empower Ukraine to regain initiative, and it will then become clear that time is not on Putin’s side, and that his defeat will be a liberation, not a catastrophe.