Russia Isn’t Winning the War — But Its Leaders Are Doubling Down

As Russian troops rain terror on Ukrainians, Vladimir Putin’s ministers claim they want a negotiated peace. But with victory out of reach, the Kremlin’s war is turning to the home front, to quash dissenting antiwar voices within Russia.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia meeting with government officials via videoconference on March 22, 2022. ( / Wikimedia Commons)

Even among Vladimir Putin’s most trusted officials, the decision to start the war didn’t come easy. The whole of Russia saw how the foreign intelligence chief Sergey Naryshkin’s voice broke when the president demanded his direct answer on plans to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (Donetskaya Narodnaya Respublika, DPR; Luganskaya Narodnaya Respublika, LPR). But no matter how frightening it was for Russia’s elites to start this venture, getting out of it might be even more complex.

By the end of the third week of the war, rumors had begun circulating in Russia on the possibility of a peace deal. Such claims stemmed from the participants of the official negotiations and from high-ranking functionaries. “Of course, we’d much prefer for all of it to happen much faster; that’s the sincere aspiration of the Russian side. We want to get to peace as soon as possible,” head of the Russian negotiators and ex-culture minister Vladimir Medinsky averred. Even foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said he has “a particular hope for compromise being reached.”

If the word “compromise” started appearing in the speeches of Russian bureaucrats and diplomats, this didn’t come out of the blue. The war has been unfolding in ways that defied Russian strategists’ expectations. Moscow came to realize that it could no longer count on having a “small victorious war” with the enemy’s quick capitulation. The question is: How significant are the concessions that the Kremlin will now have to make? The other side understand this, too.

Ihor Zhovkva, the deputy chief of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, has told journalists that if at first Moscow used the language of ultimatums, urging “Ukraine to give up, lay down its arms, and have the president sign a capitulation — now, Russia has a different tone.” Presidential adviser and one of the leading negotiators Oleksiy Arestovych has announced that the Ukrainian side is taking the initiative in the negotiations:

We’re not ready to give up anything. Instead, we lay out quite rigorous terms. We clearly understand that if we get less than we had before the war, it’s a defeat for us. We put forward some terms, which we can’t reveal yet. . . . I can say that these terms will please the Ukrainian people fighting for freedom.

But perhaps most surprising is that these words — anxiety-inducing for Russia’s rulers — were published in Russian media today entirely under the control of the censorship bureau. This gave rise to rumors in the “patriotic camp” that some of the people in power have moved toward what they deem a “capitulationist position.” For instance, the nationalist Igor Strelkov, who occupied the Donbas town of Sloviansk in 2014 — the immediate trigger for the war that followed — has said as much. Meanwhile, new signals keep coming from the top of the Russian government that Moscow is ready for some hefty concessions, as compared to the ultimatums of the first days of the war. First, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova startled everyone by announcing that Russia isn’t planning to oust the current Ukrainian government (earlier, Putin had directly stated the opposite). Then, the head of the Russian foreign ministry’s department for the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Alexey Polishchuk, uttered the even more blasphemous thought that the issue of returning DPR and LPR to Ukraine remains open and it must be “decided by the republics’ citizens.” The RT website published these words.

Moscow’s negotiating positions look worse right now than they did before the war. Essentially, what’s meant here is defeat, even if it will be softened by mutual concessions that will be difficult for Ukraine. For the radical “patriotic camp,” this will mean a catastrophe. Those actively supporting the war are already speaking of a “new Khasavyurt.” The term refers to the peace deal signed with Chechen separatists in 1996, which they consider “shameful” for Russia because it agreed to withdraw troops from Chechnya and granted the separatists recognition (albeit temporarily). Boris Yeltsin’s government accepted defeat in the First Chechen War back then. These self-styled “patriots” also speak of a “Minsk-3” process analogous to the failed peace talks of 2014 and 2015.

Save an outright conquest of Ukraine, turning it into a part of the new “Russian Empire,” it is clear that any compromise peace deal on the Ukrainian front will include some harsh consequences for the Russian government.

At least 200,000 soldiers will return home from the front traumatized by the war. They will have observed everything that the Kremlin media are now silent about: the patriotic uprising of the Ukrainian people; the hatred for the occupiers; the massive destruction and civilian casualties; the severe losses incurred by the Russian military that the home front leadership was silent about; and the overall feeling of a lost, unjust war.

The soldiers will be followed by a certain amount of “pro-Russian” politicians and activists in Ukraine itself, who placed their bets on the Russian Federation and will have to flee. They’ll add a flavor of betrayal to the retreat. But the few Ukrainian collaborators will be joined by the rather numerous Russian patriots and nationalists, for whom the refusal of “war until the victorious end” means national treason.

But those are all trivial matters in view of the overall result: in exchange for vague diplomatic gains — the hypothetical neutral status of Ukraine and, perhaps, recognition of Crimea as Russian — the country will receive a collapsed economy, a devalued currency, sanctions, a united and adversarial West, and the pain of its human losses. The effects of all this seem set to replace Putin’s previously high ratings with a “black hole” — a giant gravitational pull of hatred toward the president who has dragged the country into this disaster.

Peace at Any Cost

And yet, Russia’s ruling class has many reasons to seek peace, even if it comes at a high cost. The main one lies in the fact that this cost will only increase with time.

According to the most optimistic prognoses by government experts, Russia is expected to see an 8 percent fall in GDP this year — that is, even if the war ends soon. Unemployment is expected to double. Inflation will be at a 20-25 percent annual rate. But if the war drags on, these evaluations might become a pipe dream. A possible deal with Iran and global economic recession might lower oil prices and weaken the EU’s dependence on Russia’s fossil fuels. Then Russia can expect a more extensive financial crisis — up to a 30 percent fall in GDP, according to some estimates.

In addition to a possibly catastrophic plunge in the authorities’ credibility among ordinary people, there’s also the threat of the rapid collapse of the regime and its administrative machine. The antiwar action by state television employee Marina Ovsyannikova, who appeared on a livestream with a poster calling for an end to the war, shows that even the propaganda machine is in deep crisis right now. As a result, many journalists are quitting TV channels, including first-rate “stars.” Another major figure to resign was a high-level government official — the ex-deputy prime minister and chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, Arkady Dvorkovich. But the bigger danger is more insidious.

In his Guardian column, French economist Thomas Piketty tapped into the most sensitive issue for the Russian ruling class. To make Russia stop the “special military operation” in Ukraine, the West would only need to freeze or confiscate the assets of 20,000 Russian millionaires, who own over €10 million each in European and American residencies. Putin, some of his relatives, and dozens of Russian oligarchs and high-ranking officials are already on the sanction lists; however, Piketty explains, “the problem is that the freezes applied so far remain largely symbolic. They only concern a few dozen people and can be circumvented by using nominees. . . .”

At this point, most Russian fat cats and bureaucrats feel safe, using the help of financial intermediaries managing their assets. To rid them of this possibility, an international financial register must be created to track the existing portfolios of real estate and financial assets of the families that run Russia, no matter how they’re juridically formalized and who runs them. “Threatened with ruin and a ban on visiting the west,” writes Piketty, “let’s bet that this group would be able to make itself heard by the Kremlin.” Of course, at this point, the Western rich resist such measures because their “interests are much more closely linked to those of the Russian and Chinese oligarchs than is sometimes claimed.” But the war dragging on or shifting to the total destruction of Ukrainian cities might cause the West to give up on their fetishization of the “sacred right to property” — when it concerns Russian millionaires, at least.

According to the French economist’s calculations, only around 100,000 Russians own assets of €2 million or more in the West. Essentially, this is Russia’s ruling class. These are the people holding up the economy, the infrastructure, the civil order, the administrative apparatus, the media — the whole government machine of Putin’s Russia. If he becomes a source of pain for them rather than a guarantor of privileges, there will be nothing to replace their loyalty with. The Kremlin’s oligarchy will be suspended in midair. Even the Kremlin understands as much. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has called the Western measures against the Russian oligarchs an assault on the “sanctity of property rights.” But what’s most important is that the members of the Russian elite also see the danger.

Putin’s goddaughter Ksenia Sobchak, who remains part of the moderate, ultraliberal opposition to her godfather, threw a telling fit on March 17. “Biden made a speech before the congress, which can be summed up as: ‘People in Ukraine are dying, therefore . . . (drum roll!) We’ll take away the oligarchs’ yachts,’” she wrote. “Am I the only one who thinks that this is disgusting ‘revolutionary practicality,’ where the social contract is above the law? We’ve turned into characters from Ayn Rand.” Despite their indignation over Biden’s “communist” threats, members of the Russian elite understand with unprecedented clarity that their real problem is preserving Putin’s power.

The only way for the country’s estranged elites to not let the whole government apparatus collapse is to end the war as soon as possible — in turn returning their own peace of mind.

Putin Turns His Imperialist War Into a Civil War

Faced with the mounting doubts — if not outright opposition — domestically, the authorities’ fear is palpable. “The collective West is trying to split the society, speculating on military losses, the socioeconomic consequences of the sanctions, tries to provoke civil resistance in Russia,” Putin himself declared in a televised address. He called those who “due to their slave mentality” align themselves with the West the “fifth column” and “national traitors.” He also promised that the people “will spit out such traitors and bastards, like a fly that accidentally flew into one’s mouth.” For now, it’s not as much about grassroots opposition but the disaffected members of the elite. However, it is clear that Putin’s front is shifting slowly from Ukraine to Russia itself.

Whatever the situation on the battlefields, the importance of this “inner front” will only grow. A poorly camouflaged defeat and a “shameful peace” will surely lead to a tightening of the screws of dictatorial control, lest the anger of yesterday’s patriots explodes. But the continuation of the war, too, will cause the government to demonstrate unprecedented, brutal cruelty toward all dissenting voices, so that today’s depression and fear does not turn into tomorrow’s uprising.

This points to a critical condition for achieving any semblance of peace in this part of the world. So long as antiwar activists are being arrested and beaten, the threat of further bloodbaths remains. Only radical democratization, in Russia and beyond, will allow for a lasting peace and friendly relations among the peoples of the ex-Soviet space.

This democratization starts with obvious steps: the immediate liberation of all political prisoners, the abandonment of censorship and political violence, and the opening up of the electoral arena. But it must invariably move further. For not only Putin and his inner circle bear the responsibility for today’s catastrophe. The whole ruling class — its high-ranking officials, its judicial establishment, generals, loyalist politicians, and oligarchs — has played its part in creating this hell. It cannot keep on ruling the country further, even if it does pay the price of capitulation before the West. The billions it has pumped out of Russia and Ukraine must be returned to the people on the receiving end of war and dictatorship. It is they who will create the new “social contract” that Ksenia Sobchak and her godfather are so afraid of.

This is why the critical condition for peace must be an immediate, exhaustive, and uncompromising democratization within Russia itself. This is what the Left, and all who want to stop this war, must strive for.