Putin’s position in Russia only strengthened during the war

While NATO leaders were gathering in Vilnius for the summit, I was having dinner in Washington with a senior European diplomat who described what he thought the summit’s strategy would be – trying to sit on the splits. He wasn’t wrong.

The summit gave Ukraine confidence that it would join NATO “when the allies agree and the conditions are right.” It’s not entirely pointless: NATO has decided that Ukraine no longer needs a “Membership Action Plan” as a temporary measure, that things are well advanced.

But while Ukraine is ready for NATO in many ways, NATO is clearly not ready for Ukraine.

The idea of ​​Ukraine gaining NATO membership in Vilnius has always been ridiculous. There is no real way to allow a country to join an alliance while it is at war. But a rift where Ukraine is sort of with NATO but not with NATO is an extremely uncomfortable and inflexible position, and the longer NATO tries to maintain it, the harder it will be to stay there.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe the Biden administration handled the war in Ukraine as expected. Maybe I’d prefer decisions to be made at a different pace. But if I’m wrong, I look stupid. And if Biden is wrong, people will die.

But there are times when my patience runs out and when someone in the administration (most recently President Biden himself) says something like “Putin has already lost” a war, it annoys me.

Not only do I disagree that the war is not over yet, or that there is a big difference between Putin’s defeat and Ukraine’s victory. And yes, I understand what Biden is trying to say: the goals set by Putin on February 23, 2022 are unattainable. In that regard, he had lost the war before it even began. But it’s almost irrelevant.

The idea that we have inflicted a strategic defeat on Russia is false because the Russia that has suffered a strategic defeat is not the Russia with which Ukraine is now at war.

As the Biden administration points out, Russia has failed to realize its territorial ambitions, has become less prosperous and less secure, has pushed Finland and Sweden over the fence to the NATO side, and while Ukraine is not yet in NATO, NATO is already very much in Ukraine. And if Russia were a country where the president should be held accountable, in any sense, for upholding the national interest, all of that would matter. But Russia is not such a country.

In Vladimir Putin’s system of interests, the fight in Ukraine is subordinate to the fight inside Russia – and on this front there is a gangster war. Despite Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion, Putin’s domestic position now seems more solid than before February 2022. A confident Putin seems to be cementing the war as the foundation upon which his rule will rest.

While there is no good way to determine exactly what ordinary Russians think about the war or how much they believe in it, in reality, Putin has not met with common popular resistance. An early wave of protests was quickly and convincingly suppressed, as was another one that emerged when the Kremlin announced a “partial mobilization” in the fall of 2022. It mainly came down to passive resistance, with hundreds of thousands fleeing the country or refusing military service for bribes.

In most cases, the Kremlin is happy to allow people to resist individually, as long as they do not resist collectively.

For those who dare to openly disagree with the idea that Russia is fighting for its existence, any interaction with a colleague, teacher, neighbor, or even a random stranger is fraught with prison, parental rights, or worse.

Even many who do not share Putin’s imperialist ideology still believe that when their country starts a war, they should probably find a way to win it, or at least not lose it.

As a result, when most of Putin’s subjects look around, they see a landscape devoid of opposition but full of danger.

What about the whole story with Prigogine? In my opinion, at least the most important thing to note is not that Prigozhin rebelled, but that no one joined him and the regime survived. I think the war had a magical effect on Putin’s relationship with the elite. Yes, war and Western sanctions combined have destroyed over $100 billion of the collective wealth of former Russian oligarchs, but the conflict has created enough new wealth. You have to make tanks and shells out of metal, you have to recruit mercenary armies, there’s frontline supply logistics and sanctions circumventions – all of these are generous sources of income for those who manage to mix things up. And allocating access to this income so as not to forget about yourself is the very game that puts Putin in power.

For those elites who are still unsure, Putin offers the same tacit flexibility as ordinary Russians, albeit on a larger scale. Of course the London mansions are gone, but there is Abu Dhabi. Calls for wealthy Russians to repatriate their wealth were rejected.

Yes, the elites have become impoverished, but they are still richer and less legally accountable than in any other jurisdiction or under any other ruler.

Nothing can replace war in the Kremlin’s relations with the elites. When we realize that Putin’s main goals are at home and not abroad, it becomes a little clearer why he continues to fight even when the war appears to be lost from the point of view of the national interest.

Translation of the author’s blog post.


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