Russian elites continue to assure the Russian population that there is no future without a victory over Ukraine; however, the image of this victory has been considerably modified in the face of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Ukrainian forces are slowly battling their way forward, liberating more and more Russian-occupied territory. On June 12, the Ukrainian Armed Forces announced that the villages of Blagodatnoye, Neskuchnoye and Makarovka had been successfully secured under the control of Ukraine (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 12). Against this backdrop, the “mouthpiece” of Russian propaganda, Margarita Simonyan, unexpectedly proposed to “stop the bloodshed right now,” freeze the conflict and hold referendums in the “disputed” territories (Rline.tv, June 7). The head of RT was not the only one trying to prepare Russian society for negotiations. Back in February 2023, the deputy head of the administration of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) in the so-called Donetsk “people’s republic,” Aleksandr Khodakovsky, called negotiations with Ukraine the “only possible outcome of the conflict” (T.me/aleksandr_skif, February 15). Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has also spoken in a veiled manner about the need to end the war (Telegra.ph, April 14).
Experts are inclined to think that such reasoning is nothing more than a test of public opinion on the possible decision to engage in peace negotiations (YouTube, June 11). And if so, this test has failed. Besides the extremely negative reaction of “Z-patriots,” the number of those supporting peaceful negotiations has diminished even among ordinary Russians. According to data from the Levada Center, in May 2023, the number of Russian citizens in favor of ending the conflict through negotiations was slightly fewer than those supporting the continuation of the “special military operation” (Levada.ru, June 1). For its part, Kyiv is adamant that negotiations can only begin following the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory (Оbozrevatel.com, June 3).
Against this background, rumors of negotiations were officially denied at the highest levels in Russia. Presidential press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, stated that right now “there are no prerequisites for negotiations with Ukraine” (Vesti.ru, June 11). After this, Russian elites rushed to consolidate around the idea that a Russian victory is necessary. In this regard, despite the common narrative that victory is the only acceptable outcome of the “special military operation,” increasingly, there are varying ideas about what constitutes a victory. For example, the supposedly “liberal” part of the Russian elite still insists on maintaining a dialogue with certain groups in the West and clearly would prefer such an effort—though outwardly they are forced to act in line with mainstream propaganda.
First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov declared that Russia can become the guardian of “European Christian civilization” and therefore should maintain ties with Western “elites and social groups with traditional values” (RBC, June 13). Even such elites are forced to declare that “without victory in Ukraine, Russia will have no relations with the West.” The former head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitry Trenin, insists on this, affirming that only after “strategic success” in the war can Russia “negotiate on acceptable terms with the only viable force in the West—the [United States]” (Newstula.ru, June 2).
Meanwhile, representatives of the radical-patriotic wing warn not only against talks with the West but even against “freezing” the conflict, insisting that this would lead to the “collapse of Russian statehood.” They believe that, in such a case, Russia would not convert its economy to a war footing while the Western countries “re-equip the Ukrainian army, bring their defense industry to full power and increase economic pressure on Moscow.” They opine that such a situation would lead to the inevitable defeat of Russia thanks to a “fifth column” (Ukraina.ru, June 13).
What form a Russian victory would take on also differs among elites. For example, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev says the most desirable scenario would be a division of Ukraine in which its western regions would go to the European Union and the rest to Russia. It was this variant that the former Russian president called the only means to avoid World War III (Moskovskij komsomolets, May 27). Religious leaders, possibly hoping to strengthen Medvedev’s threat, declared that, without total Russian victory over Ukraine, “God will cease to protect the world” and the history of mankind will come to an end (YouTube, June 1).
The shape of victory proposed by Russian military analysts looks considerably more modest. The authors of an article published on the Military Review website present the idea that it would be better for the West to permit a “limited victory” for Russia than its defeat. They consider a limited victory to be the preservation of Moscow’s control over Crimea and Donbas. At the same time, the authors argue that fascism does not exist in Russia—despite Putin’s cult of personality, the police apparatus and the leading role of the state in public life—because the “cult of the nation” is absent. They equate Russia with Germany in 1918 and threaten the West with the idea that, if Russia suffers defeat, fascism would inevitably be established in the country—this time with all of its attributes (Topwar.ru, June 7).
For all of the dubious nature of these arguments, it is obvious that some Russian elites, including top military officials, would like to “freeze” the conflict or at least achieve a temporary truce. Yet, this situation is complicated not only by the positions of the irreconcilable “patriots” but also by the fact that Ukraine clearly will not cease to strike Russian territory until all its occupied regions are liberated. Importantly, Putin’s approval ratings are largely determined by his image as “the main defender of the country” (KazanFirst, January 3, 2019). In maintaining this image, it is imperative for the Russian president to sustain a societal sense of an external threat while emphasizing that he is able to resist it. The absence of such resistance, even against an imaginary threat, has already led to a drop in his ratings (ВВС News Russian, June 17, 2019), which forces the Kremlin to continue the war even as the chances for victory grow increasingly bleak.