By Robyn Dixon and Catherine Belton
February 19, 2023
The Washington Post
MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin likes to portray himself as a new czar like Peter the Great or Ivan III, the 15th-century grand prince known as the “gatherer of the Russian lands.” But Putin’s year-long war in Ukraine has failed so far to secure the lands he aims to seize, and in Russia, there is fear that he is leading his nation into a dark period of strife and stagnation — or worse.
Some in the elite also say the Russian leader now desperately needs a military victory to ensure his own survival. “In Russia, loyalty does not exist,” one Russian billionaire said.
Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began with hubris and a zeal to reshape the world order. But even as he suffered repeated military defeats — diminishing his stature globally and staining him with allegations of atrocities being committed by his troops — Putin has tightened his authoritarian grip at home, using the war to destroy any opposition and to engineer a closed, paranoid society hostile to liberals, hipsters, LGBTQ people, and, especially, Western-style freedom and democracy.
The Russian president’s squadrons of cheerleaders swear he “simply cannot lose” in Ukraine, thanks to Russia’s vast energy wealth, nuclear weapons and sheer number of soldiers it can throw onto the battlefield. These supporters see Putin rising supreme from Ukraine’s ashes to lead a swaggering nation defined by its repudiation of the West — a bigger, more powerful version of Iran.
But business executives and state officials say Putin’s own position at the top could prove precarious as doubts over his tactics grow among the elite. For many of them, Putin’s gambit has unwound 30 years of progress made since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s vision of Russia horrifies many oligarchs and state officials, who confide that the war has been a catastrophic error that has failed in every goal. But they remain paralyzed, fearful and publicly silent. “Among the elite, though they understand it was a mistake, they still fear to do anything themselves,” said the only Russian diplomat to publicly quit office over the war, Boris Bondarev, formerly based at Russia’s U.N. mission in Geneva. “Because they have gotten used to Putin deciding everything.”
Some are sure that Putin can maintain his hold on power without a victory, as long as he keeps the war going and wears down Western resolve and weapons supplies. For anyone in the elite to act, Bondarev said, “there needs to be an understanding that Putin is leading the country to total collapse. While Putin is still bombing and attacking, people think the situation is not so bad. There needs to be a full military loss, and only then will people understand they need to do something.”
What all camps seem to agree on is that Putin shows no willingness to give up. As Russia’s battlefield position deteriorated in recent months, he escalated repeatedly, shuffling his
commanders, unleashing brutal airstrikes on civilian infrastructure and threatening to use nuclear weapons.
Now, with his troops reinforced by conscripts and convicts and poised to launch new offensives, the 70-year-old Russian leader needs a win to maintain his own credibility. “Putin needs some success to demonstrate to society that he is still very successful,” a senior Ukrainian security official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive issues.
Moscow’s glittering indifference
As the casualties mount in Ukraine, filling graveyards across Russia’s provinces, Moscow’s glittering facade conveys a hedonistic, indifferent city. Its restaurants and cafes are crammed with glamorous young patrons sporting European designer wear, taking selfies on the latest iPhones, and ordering truffle pizza or duck confit to be washed down with trendy cocktails. But beneath, Putin is creating a militarized, nationalistic society, fed on propaganda and obsessed with an “existential” forever war against the United States and NATO. So far, no one in officialdom has had the nerve to object — not publicly, at least. “Whatever he says, it’s taken like this,” the editor in chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Konstantin Remchukov, said with a loud snap of his fingers.
Since Putin rose to the presidency in 2000, his legitimacy has been based on his popularity and stature among the elite, buttressed by his ability to instill fear by stripping some of their assets and throwing others into prison. The defeats in Ukraine have dented him.
The president seems forever haunted by the moment when as a young KGB officer serving in Dresden, the Soviet Union “gave up its position in Europe” as the Berlin Wall collapsed. And his pursuit of the empire lost with the subsequent Soviet collapse is throwing his country back into a gray, repressive and isolated past. For Putin, his efforts are a quest to right what he has perceived as historical wrongs. In his near-maniacal revisionist view, Ukraine has always belonged to Russia.
But even if Putin somehow forces Ukraine into capitulating and ceding occupied territory, those in the elite who lean toward a more liberal society stand to lose the most. Punitive Western economic sanctions are likely to remain in place, and some oligarchs undoubtedly would be pressed to pay to rebuild Russia’s new lands. Some analysts predict a sweeping purge of oligarchs and others deemed insufficiently patriotic.
Already, there are shocking glimpses of Putin’s new Russia: A couple in a Krasnodar restaurant were arrested, handcuffed and forced to the floor after being denounced to the police by an eavesdropper who heard them quietly bemoaning the war.
An older woman on a bus was dragged from her seat, thrown to the floor and roughly pushed out the door by passengers because she called Russia an empire that sends men to fight in cheap rubber boots.
Videos purportedly show members of the Kremlin-approved but technically illegal mercenary Wagner Group executing “traitors” in beatings with a sledgehammer.
Former central bank official Alexandra Prokopenko described an atmosphere in which officials fear prison amid intimidation by the security services. “It is a concern for every member of the Russian elite,” said Prokopenko, who is in exile in the West. “It’s a question of survival for high-ranked, mid-ranked officials who all remained in Russia. People are quite terrified about their
safety now.” She said former colleagues still at the bank told her they saw “no good exit for Russia right now.”
Increasingly isolated, Putin faces growing resentment from hawkish nationalists who say he should have acted more radically to seize Kyiv and from a liberal-leaning faction that thinks the war is a grave error. He has tightened his inner circle to a few hard-liners and sycophants, ruthlessly eliminated opposition rivals and set up a formidable security apparatus to safeguard against any threat.
Pro-Kremlin analysts see escalation — pumping in more soldiers and ramping up military production — as the path to victory. That appears to fit Putin’s character.
But no one really knows the current military goal or what Putin might consider a victory. Some say he will settle for seizing all of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where Russia began fomenting separatist war in 2014. Others say he has not given up his designs on taking Kyiv and toppling the government.
In September, Ukraine’s first big successful counteroffensive shone a harsh spotlight on Putin’s instincts in a crisis: a bullish doubling-down designed to sever any path to compromise. His illegal claim to annex four Ukrainian territories, despite not controlling them militarily, was a burn-all-bridges tactic meant to draw sharp new red lines on the map of Ukraine.
His speech on the occasion of the supposed annexations, in the Grand Kremlin Palace’s St. George Hall, reached a new hysterical pitch over what he called the West’s “outright Satanism” and its desire to gobble Russia up and destroy its values. “They do not want us to be free; they want us to be a colony,” he said. “They do not want equal cooperation; they want to loot. They do not want to see us a free society, but a mass of soulless slaves.” He has repeatedly described a quest to establish a multipolar world in which Russia regains its rightful place among the great powers.
Sometimes, Putin sharply rebukes one of his officials about failures, leaving others fearful of public humiliation. He elevates and rewards thuggish figures, such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the Wagner founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, but swiftly curbs them if they step out of line.
At times, Putin seems oddly out of touch with the realities of his war. Days after pro-war bloggers reported last week that dozens of Russian tanks and many soldiers were lost in a failed attack on Vuhledar involving Russia’s elite 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade, Putin boasted to journalists that the “marine infantry is working as it should — right now — fighting heroically.”
Meanwhile, a profound pessimism has settled on the country. Those who believe the war is lost run the gamut from liberals to hard-liners. “It seems it is impossible to win a political or military victory,” one state official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “The economy is under huge stress and can’t be long under such a situation.”
Patriotic death cult
Publicly, Putin has voiced no concern about Russia’s brutal killings of civilians in cities including Bucha, Mariupol and Izyum, while his propaganda machine dismisses news of such atrocities as “fakes.” The International Criminal Court is investigating war crimes in Ukraine,
and the European Parliament has called for a special court on Russia’s crime of aggression, the invasion of Ukraine.
But pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov said talk of war crimes prosecutions only stiffened Putin’s resolve. “What will Putin’s response be? Fighting — and it doesn’t matter what the price will be,” Markov said.
Kremlin image makers convey Putin’s power in staged events where he looks the archetypal dictator — often a lone figure in the distance placing flowers at monuments to past military heroes. His staged appearances with purported ordinary Russians seem scripted and artificial, with participants simpering in nervous awe. The same faces keep appearing in different settings — dressed as soldiers, fishers or churchgoers, raising questions about how many real people the president ever meets.
As the war casualties pile up, Putin and top propagandists extol a fatalistic cult of death, arguing that it is better to die in Russia’s war than in a car accident, from alcoholism or from cancer. “One day we will all leave this world,” Putin told a group of carefully selected women portrayed as mothers of mobilized soldiers in November, many of them actually pro-Kremlin activists or relatives of officials. “The question is how we lived. With some people, it is unclear whether they live or not. It is unclear why they die, because of vodka or something else. When they are gone, it is hard to say whether they lived or not. Their lives passed without notice.”
But a man who died in war “did not leave his life for nothing,” he said. “His life was important.”
Venerable rights organizations such as Memorial and the Sakharov Center have been forced to close, while respected political analysts, musicians, journalists and former Soviet political prisoners have been declared “foreign agents,” Many have fled or been jailed.
As sanctions slowly bite, prices soar and businesses struggle to adapt, economists and business executives predict a long economic decline amid isolation from Western technology, ideas and value chains. “The economy has entered a long period of Argentinization,” a second Russian billionaire said. “It will be a long slow degradation. There will be less of everything.”
Through the war, Putin has profoundly changed Russia, clamping down harder on liberties, prompting hundreds of thousands of Russians to emigrate. In the future, pro-democracy liberals will not be tolerated, analysts say. “The pro-West opposition will be gone,” Markov said. “Whoever doesn’t support the special military operation is not part of the people,” he said, using Putin’s term for the war.
But the second Russian billionaire said he was convinced that one day, somehow, the country would become “a normal European nonimperial country” and that his children, who have U.S. passports, would return. “I want them to return to a free Russia, of course,” he said. “To a free and democratic Russia.”
Dixon reported from Moscow and Belton from London.
Robyn Dixon is a foreign correspondent on her third stint in Russia, after almost a decade reporting there beginning in the early 1990s. In November 2019 she joined The Washington Post as Moscow bureau chief. Twitter
Catherine Belton reports on Russia for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Putin’s People,” a New York Times Critics’ Book of 2020 and a book of the year for the Times, the Economist and the Financial Times. Belton previously was an investigations correspondent for Reuters and a Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times.