A Russian Sociologist Explains Why Putin’s War Is Going Even Worse Than It Looks
The Russian public response to the invasion of Ukraine has been muted with antiwar protests quickly repressed. But the slow progress of the war is feeding a series of other crises, leaving Vladimir Putin’s inner circle increasingly isolated.
- Interview by
- Loren Balhorn
As the Russian attack on Ukraine drags into its fifth month, the war risks losing international public attention, replaced — in Europe at least — by rising food and gas prices, spiraling inflation, and another summer of record-breaking temperatures. Like wars from Afghanistan to Yemen, the longer it lasts the more it becomes normalized and accepted. For the people of Ukraine, however, the invasion remains an inescapable reality, with Russian troops pushing further into the country’s east and civilian casualties mounting.
The news from Russia, by contrast, has grown noticeably quieter since the beginning of the invasion. Initial reports of antiwar protests, jingoistic pro-government rallies and shuttered McDonald’s franchises have long since disappeared from the headlines. Support for the war might be muted, but few signs of public opposition have emerged in recent months, either. Have Russians resigned themselves to their fate? Loren Balhorn spoke with Boris Kagarlitsky, a Moscow-based sociologist and host of the popular Russian YouTube talk show Rabkor, to learn more about the impact of the war and how strong Vladimir Putin’s grip on power really is.
At the start of the invasion of Ukraine, there were lots of reports of antiwar protests across Russia. Things seem to have grown quiet since then, with more and more media outlets claiming that most Russians back Putin. You live in Moscow — what’s the mood like?
Initially there were quite a lot of protests, but they were crushed in a very brutal way. At least on the surface, the movement was physically suppressed. People are going to jail almost daily — Alexei Gorinov, for example, was just sentenced to seven years in prison for making an antiwar statement during a session of the Krasnoselsky municipal council in Moscow.
This is a way to make people afraid, and to some extent it works. No less than four million people have left the country since the so-called “special operation” began. Ukraine reported that about seven to eight million people left the country, but about half of them have already returned. In that sense, the number of people who emigrated from Russia is approximately the same as the number of people who fled Ukraine. Given that nobody is being bombed here, it gives you an idea of the public’s attitude.
So, you don’t think the majority supports the war?
That’s the most interesting sociological and political problem: Russian people are neither for the war nor against it. They do not react to the war.
Of course, there are opinion polls published by pro-Kremlin media which are enthusiastically quoted by Western and some pro-Ukrainian sources, trying to prove that all Russians support Putin and are fascists. But that has nothing to do with reality. As a sociologist, I can confirm that since the war, the number of people who agree to respond to opinion polls has collapsed to a level that is totally unrepresentative. Before the war it was below 30 percent, which is already very low. Now, it’s considered a big success when 10 percent agree to respond. Usually it’s 5 to 7 percent.
Of those 5 percent, about 65 to 70 percent support the war. There are two interpretations of this data. One, mostly shared by the liberal opposition, is that people are simply afraid to answer. I think that’s not exactly the case. Among those 95 percent who refuse to respond, there could be a considerable number who are against the war but don’t dare say so. My suspicion, however — which of course I cannot prove — is that most people don’t have any opinion at all.
No opinion at all?
This might shock you, but until very recently, most Russians didn’t know there was a war in Ukraine. On TV they use the term “special operation,” which suggests special forces engaging in some kind of limited action somewhere. It was not associated with real hostilities, with tanks and artillery and so on, and they didn’t report Ukrainian civilian casualties.
That brings me to my second point: most people don’t watch political programs on TV, nor do they watch oppositional media on the Internet. They are not interested in any kind of politics whatsoever. The whole spectrum of political opinion — including both loyalists and the opposition, whether leftist or fascist, liberal or conservative — represents maybe 15 to 20 percent of the population, probably less than 10 percent. The rest are totally apolitical.
On the one hand, that’s a great advantage for the regime, but it’s also its biggest problem. Nobody moves against the government, but nobody moves in favor of it, either. That’s why the COVID vaccination campaign failed, and why Putin can’t announce a general mobilization. Volodymyr Zelensky announced the other day that he wants to mobilize a million people. Russia can’t mobilize two hundred thousand because everybody runs away.
Several independent media outlets have been shut down since the war began, and now the state prosecutor is moving to ban the Journalists’ and Media Workers’ Union. Is there any public sphere left in Russia where debate is even possible?
It’s not shut down completely. They’re trying their best, but they simply fail. The good thing about this country is that everything fails, no matter what. That’s why we joke that fascism could never work in Russia — because nothing works here.
Our YouTube channel, Rabkor, has about ninety thousand subscribers and broadcasts almost daily. But [another left-wing YouTube channel] Vestnik Buri, for example, has about two hundred thousand subscribers — not to mention the liberal media projects. Telegram channels are also very popular, that’s where I get a lot of my information and where debates happen.
Some of the people making videos emigrated, and yes, there are problems for those of us still on the ground. I’m labeled as a “foreign agent,” for example, so when I speak in public, I have to recite some stupid mantra about being a foreign agent or pay a fine. But people still laugh at the authorities, which is another good thing about Russia. They jail people, they arrest them and make them pay fines, but people still laugh at them.
It will be interesting to see what the government does with Igor Strelkov, one of the key figures in 2014 in Donetsk and a very aggressive Russian imperialist and militarist. He shares the goals of the “special operation,” but has become the government’s most vocal critic, which is why his comments are often reproduced in the Ukrainian media. If he gets arrested, it will generate a lot of anger precisely among the segment of society that supports the war.
You were arrested under [Leonid] Brezhnev for publishing samizdat (clandestine dissident materials), and then under Putin for attending an illegal demonstration. Would you say repression today is worse than it was in the Soviet Union?
It’s difficult to compare, because some aspects are worse, and others better. It’s definitely worse in the sense that people get arrested for minor offenses that would have gone unnoticed under Brezhnev. The USSR was about stability. They didn’t like anyone undermining that. On the other hand, being too harsh would have also been counterproductive, so repression was routine and not very severe.
There are more political prisoners now than under Brezhnev. Also, now people have to pay fines, which was not the Soviet practice. A fine is a very capitalist way of punishing dissent. But one thing that’s definitely better now is that we have the Internet, which gives us a thousand times more capacity than we had with samizdat.
If most Russians aren’t taking a position on the war, what kind of concerns do they have? Surely, they’re worried about the impact of economic sanctions?
The economic situation is deteriorating and we will begin feeling that seriously by late August or September. It’s a gradual process. One company closes, people have to look for new jobs, then another closes, and so on. Certain goods are disappearing, but not everything.
Like I said, most Russians are apolitical. They care about their jobs, their families, their closest friends, and maybe their houses and pets. Russians are not very religious, either, even though the church plays an important role as a political institution. What’s important is having your family life intact, then you can tolerate the rest.
The problem is, it’s not going to continue like that indefinitely. The war is going to affect your family, your work, and even your pets. And once it begins affecting people’s private lives, things can change immediately. I think resistance could start mounting very fast once the government does something that affects the lives of families. That’s why they haven’t openly declared war.
There’s a lot of debate about whether sanctions are an effective tool to slow down the Russian war machine and create problems for Putin at home. It sounds like you’re saying they work.
Well, there’s sanctions and there’s sanctions. Some of them are playing into Putin’s hands, like initiatives to “cancel” Russian culture and so on, because isolation is exactly the regime’s ideology, and increasing that can only favor them.
What about economic sanctions, like a gas embargo?
The most effective tool so far has been the withdrawal of foreign companies from Russia, because that leads to other problems, especially embargoes on specific supplies like spare parts.
The Russian car industry is on hold, for example. It’s just not producing anymore, because it’s so dependent on German, Japanese, and South Korean parts. The military-industrial complex is also suffering because they’re not getting enough spare parts. The same is true in aviation: many domestic companies are already bankrupt and now being cannibalized by the larger carriers like Aeroflot and S7.
How long do you think the Russian economy can hold out?
It can continue for another two or maybe three months, depending on the particular industry. The important thing, however, is that the guys who really own everything start taking losses. Nobody cares about industries or people, everybody cares about profits.
Some sections of the bourgeoisie are increasingly unhappy with what’s going on and are really interested in some sort of peace settlement. The problem is they don’t have much of a political say, because the decisions are made by a very narrow team around Putin. Not even every oligarch has access to him.
I call this the “irrational centralization of power.” It has been going on for a long time, and is produced partly by state inefficiency. The local bureaucracy is so inefficient and corrupt that to make anything happen, the center has to pool ever more powers. The center does not trust local bureaucrats for the very reason that they undermine them systematically. It’s a self-perpetuating process that has become totally irrational and goes far beyond anything we saw during the Soviet period.
If, as you say, the bourgeoisie is growing dissatisfied with the war, does that open up the possibility of fissures within the Russian elite or the state itself?
Putin is the only one who makes decisions, even though he’s extremely isolated these days. Surrounding Putin is a small group who are also extremely isolated, even within the elite. It doesn’t seem like the military is happy. There are probably divisions within the military, we don’t know, but there are signs of big divisions.
What remains behind Putin is mainly the police force, and a group of the most privileged oligarchs. It’s a very small group within the capitalist class, and that’s why I don’t think they’re going to survive for very long, because it contradicts the long-term logic of capitalist society. You need a broader base, at least within the ruling class, to rule the country.
That explains the paralysis in government these last four months. This very narrow group, which doesn’t even represent the elite anymore, has been unable to establish a consensus around any initiative and take a decision.
What’s their plan? Is the goal an eventual settlement and reintegration with the West from a position of increased strength, or are we seeing the beginning of a long-term pivot toward Asia?
That’s exactly the problem: there is no plan. They know they made a terrible mistake and that it may be fatal, and that’s about it. The fact that there was a mistake is unacceptable for Putin and his team. The government never recognizes a failure publicly or even informally, but without recognizing there was a mistake you can’t move forward. No strategy can be developed.
Western analyses assume we are dealing with rational people making rational choices, or at least with people making choices. But there is no choice, nobody’s making choices! Even if there are proposals, no proposal works because none is accepted by enough people within the elite to make it real.
If there is no plan, what pushed Putin to cross the Rubicon and invade Ukraine, after eight years of stalemate in the Donbass?
That’s another common, but understandable mistake in Western analysis: thinking that the war is rooted in geopolitics. I think that international politics played a very secondary role, if any, in the decision. It was mostly preconditioned by the domestic situation, which explains why it happened so suddenly and failed so miserably. It was not prepared, there was no diplomacy behind it, because it was not about foreign policy, it was about domestic policies.
During the so-called “Great Recession” from 2008 to 2010, Russia’s economy contracted faster than any other developed economy. Russia was totally dependent on oil and gas. When the global economy contracted, demand for oil and gas also collapsed, and that led to Russia’s economic collapse.
However, by 2011 it had among the fastest recoveries. Once the Federal Reserve started its quantitative easing program, high levels of speculation on the oil market showered money on Russian companies and the Russian elite, leading to a classical crisis of overaccumulation. They had a lot of money, but they had nowhere to invest it. That would only be possible if you changed the structure of the Russian economy, which also means changing the structure of society, which is not something you’re going to do when you have such a totally conservative government and elite.
This fueled domestic contradictions, because everybody saw that the gap between rich and poor was growing very fast, even compared to the previous period. It led also to contradictions within the elite about how this money was to be divided between different groups. The result was big infrastructure projects, such as the Crimean Bridge, the most expensive bridge in history.
In this situation, military expansion is another way to use the extra money. You build a lot of military hardware, which you then have to use somehow, so you go into Syria. Basically, you just burn money to fuel your economy. This expansionism then came together with the third aspect, namely that Putin is seriously ill.
He has cancer, and some other diseases. These are rumors, of course, but everybody on the street knows about them. Even if he weren’t ill, he’s not going to live forever — he’s already been in power for over twenty years. And when you’re coming to a point where you must decide who the next ruler is going to be, you have to ask: How are you going to manage the transition?
Putin repeatedly promised to launch the transition process but never did, because once he nominates a successor, he’s not in control anymore. The initial plan to change the constitution in 2020, which was approved by Putin himself, was about organizing the transition in such a way that Putin would become some kind of top ayatollah, like in Iran. Then suddenly, on the very same day the Duma was planning to vote for the amendment, [pro-Putin Duma member] Valentina Tereshkova suddenly called for the prolongation of Putin’s term, and of course everybody changed their mind within twenty minutes and voted for something else.
They destroyed the institutions designed to manage the transition, so now they have a transition without any rules and managed by Putin himself. For that you need extraordinary powers. How do you get extraordinary powers? War.
That’s how they got to the point where they needed a war, but they didn’t want the kind of war that’s happening now. The idea was to have a short fight, proclaim victory, and then manage the transition the way they wanted. After the process is finished, maybe the next president handles reconciliation with the West.
They were 100 percent sure that everything in Ukraine would collapse within twenty-four hours. Maybe the plan could have worked in 2014, but it didn’t work in 2022. They failed.
With the elite in such a crisis, how divided is the Russian left over the war? From afar it looks like the Communist Party and most of the trade unions actually support it.
The independent trade union movement in Russia is extremely weak. The official unions are just part of the state, they have nothing to do with the labor movement.
As far as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is concerned, there are basically three tendencies. First, there is the leadership. They’re totally integrated into the system and do whatever they’re told to do. Then you have the rank and file, which mostly opposes the war – people like Andrey Danilov. And as always there is some kind of center, politicians who are silent, waiting to see who wins.
The other social democratic party, A Just Russia, is even worse. They’re making incredibly jingoistic, almost fascist statements, but quite a few people have left the party, and the rank and file has practically disappeared. I know a few other members who are very critical, but who prefer to stay silent. Beyond that, of course, there is the independent left, which is mostly active on YouTube and Telegram.
Do any of the smaller, independent groups have any real basis in society?
I think they do. They may seem marginal, but any kind of real political activity in Russia is marginal right now. A recomposition is underway, and in that sense, being vocal is essential to establish real roots in society. I think we’re doing rather well given the current situation.
Looking into the future, what happens next? Do you see any openings for an antiwar or progressive movement in Russian society?
I think the army is running out of steam. The deliveries of Western equipment are changing the military situation very seriously. It is very much like the Crimean War, when the British and French had superior weapons. If you speak to people close to the Russian military establishment, they’re extremely worried and sometimes even panicking.
I think if there are more defeats in Ukraine, then, well, something will happen. I don’t know what, but some dramatic events are going to take place. I’m not saying they’re going to launch a coup, because that’s very much outside the Russian military tradition, but they can intervene in one way or another.
If they try to launch a general mobilization, or they expand the draft to new categories, then we’ll get a rebellion. We don’t know what the exact reaction will be, but it will be extremely negative.
Just yesterday I was speaking to Grigory Yudin, another leftist sociologist in Moscow who just returned from abroad, and he said, “Look, if you go around Moscow, what do you see? Huge fences everywhere. No other European country has so many fences.” People behind the fence don’t care about what is on the other side, they’re just fenced into their little world.
The government is quite happy with the current society. But if they are forced to pull down all these fences, something will emerge that will change the game completely. It’s a society of small groups isolated from each other, but at some point they’re going to meet each other whether they like it or not. And that’s the moment of opportunity for the Left, and for everybody who wants social change. People will have to learn how to communicate, how to organize, and how to identify their collective interests. That’s exactly the moment that’s approaching, and that’s our chance.