n his last piece for Voices on Peace and War, Dmitry Belyakov analyzes the stability of Putin’s regime, which has embarked on a radical confrontation with the entire Western community and launched a self-destructive war against its neighboring sovereign country of Ukraine. Despite Western military and political support for Ukraine, and against all predictions by defense experts and political analysts, Putin’s power has not only withstood several painful defeats on the Ukrainian front but has grown stronger and gained even more support at home. It must be admitted that the political downfall of the mad Kremlin leader is not perceptible even in the long term. So why hasn’t Putin lost, and what did we miss?
Today we’re witnessing a military stalemate after partial mobilization in Russia, and the transition of the Russian Army into a positional defense. Both sides have an approximate balance in manpower on the battlefield and in artillery. The Ukrainians have some advantage in communications, space reconnaissance, and small drones. The Russians have superiority in armor, aviation, and missiles, and on the sea. An increase in production of Russian kamikaze drones, which have proven their effectiveness on the front, is also expected.
Taking into consideration everything we have seen in this war, there are no signs of near collapse and chaos on either side. Military assistance to Ukraine from the West led to some successes last year, when the Russian plan for a blitzkrieg failed, but after that Russia’s control of its troops held, and even adapted to the “viscid” (engulfing and cloying) character of war. Tactically, the Ukrainian counteroffensive may surprise us yet. After its exhaustion, however, a Russian counter-counteroffensive may occur this very fall. For the West, this is an enduring game; a proxy war, the intensity of which is controlled by the intensity of the arms supply.
This is not a popular topic, but in fact the supply of arms to Ukraine from the West is not of decisive importance, and only “pays for the death” of Ukrainians in the deadly counterattacks across minefields in the context of an echeloned Russian defense.
As for manpower, Russia still has a great deal of (cynically speaking) “resources,” although it would not be easy to mobilize these people, if such a decision were made. But doable.
In Ukraine, too, there is still a mobilization resource, albeit a much smaller one. And it is getting increasingly difficult to mobilize it. To be accurate, though, the morale of the Ukrainian army has been higher for some time, and the stories of hunting groups from the military commissariats in the cities of Ukraine, or not-quite-legal ways of escape from the country by men of mobilization age, are still rare.
In any scenario, it would be as difficult for Russia to win in Ukraine, as it would be for Ukraine to win in the Donbas or Crimea. With any local success, external aid can be increased, and instead of victory, there would be another escalation.
One of the few public critics of the war who did not leave Russia is the former Editor-in-Chief of the popular weekly “Russian Reporter” magazine Vitaly Leybin. Born in Donetsk, Leybin has lived in Moscow and interned at the University of Illinois. He has sharply criticized Ukraine’s attempts to regain control of Donbas militarily, but also opposed the “special operation” launched by the Kremlin in Ukraine. He explains: “Since the beginning of the war, there have been two ‘shocks’ to Russia’s public consciousness. The first shock was when the war began; but public opinion reconfigures quickly, and after a month or two it returned to more or less the usual. The second shock occurred during the mobilization on September 21, 2022. This shock lasted longer, until the beginning of 2023. Yet social processes have returned not to what is normal, perhaps, but to a ‘non-shock’ condition. This is because routine and everyday life keep people going; they can’t be stressed all the time. The main factor of war fatigue is the war casualties, first of all those who were mobilized in September 2022. However, those who did not trust the propaganda and considered the war unnecessary or criminal mostly found ways to escape or otherwise evade mobilization – such opportunities … did exist.”
Yes, Russia is tired of war, but not catastrophically – the economic and social system is quite strong. The economy, especially the defense industry, does not just survive, but works successfully despite sanctions, thanks to “gray import” schemes (which is the possibility to import original, even sanctioned products into the country without the consent of the manufacturer) through the UAE, Turkey, China and Armenia. There has also been a global reorientation of the Russian sales market (China, India, Indonesia, a number of Arab and African states, and some, including Hungary and Turkey, continue to cooperate discreetly).
Contrary to Biden’s assumption, Vladimir Putin did not “realize that fighting in Ukraine is unprofitable.” Putin views the issue from a different perspective: he thinks about what he would do in the Kremlin after Biden’s second presidential term ends!
Within Russia, there is a de facto policy of economic isolation set. On August 3, Putin met with the heads of Russian enterprises and called “to help transfer government officials” to Russian-made Ladas or at least Chinese-made cars. Ordinary users were encouraged to use computers produced by “friendly countries” and equipped only with Russian software. All the Russian “economic shocks” are tolerable, reducing the rate of war fatigue.
At the same time, the government is literally “flooding” the defense sector and the army with cash, maintaining the highest level of state order in all production lines. Unprecedented salaries are paid to the military – up to $2,500 per month for ordinary soldiers and up to $20,000 for senior officers.
Nor does the government skimp on giving extraordinary ranks and top awards.
My source, a retired Russian special force officer told me a recent rumor which was easily verified by the official news. It works as an example of how things are these days. Colonel Alexandr Beloglazov who goes under nickname “BAM”, is a graduate of the elite spetsnaz (Special Forces) faculty of the Saratov Military School, whom I have known since 2002 when I was embedded with his unit in Chechnya. He made an impressive career in the Dzerzhinsky division (part of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs), and later transferred to Rosguardia, the Russian National Guard. Promoted from Deputy Commander of the spetsnaz detachment to Commander of the elite “Vityaz” SF Center, he received the Golden Star of the Hero of Russia from Putin, which he earned for taking part in last year’s invasion of Ukraine. Same source said “without a doubt, colonel Beloglazov will be promoted to the rank of Rosguardia major-general before the end of 2023”.
My source also claimed that all newly minted Heroes of Russia received a one-time three million rubles ($33,000) monetary compensation. Naturally this included bonuses for injuries received, and for the Hero of Russia award.
Such payments and extraordinary career promotions to the military, and to workers in defense enterprises, are an important factor in the ability to wage this war, for several reasons. In large cities people often seek to avoid possible mobilization; in small settlements these sums are very significant; and this facilitates belief in the justice of the war, and even the pattern of brutality against Ukrainians.
Propaganda and money are better than just propaganda.
Vitaly Leybin says: “Among those losers are the educated young people who are feeling hopeless in their home country, and those people who are most connected by work and culture to the West. Yes, judging by the emigration – many famous Russians (film-directors, writers, journalists, movie and rock stars, artists, politicians, economists, philosophers) are on the side of Ukraine, but they are in the minority and they are stigmatized at home, and the potential Russian “peace party” is between two fires – both from the forces supporting Ukraine who demand the punishment and disintegration of Russia, and from the Russian authorities themselves, who say that peace talk is covert support for the enemy. In general, the option of a truce is not discussed by the society, although it is relatively popular, but – if the authorities start discussing the option of peace talks by propaganda means, this option would “come alive” and become more popular.”
The fact is that the so-called “special operation” against Ukraine is supported by the overwhelming majority of Russians. People who focus on their own lives and daily routine rightly believe that the question of war and peace is not solved by them, and their support for their government derives from the fact that it is simply their own government. How could it be otherwise?
Journalist Leybin agrees: “It is unlikely that most Russians love war, but they are convinced that ‘since the Russians are resented by everyone, we will have to fight.’ Rallying the population around Putin is not the bloodlust of the Russians, but the consequence of the lack of real choice in the minds of citizens.”
Truly, the overwhelming majority of citizens believe in the need for a final victory over Ukraine and NATO at all costs. A small part of those “believers” are an exalted politicized class, and the global majority – the “ordinary people” – simply believe the government that “there were no options and there is no other option;” that “war was inevitable”; that “if not with Ukraine, then with some Holland there would still be some kind of war.” In today’s Russia, the options of capitulation or overthrow of the government are zero, and a turn of public opinion is not to be expected. The ideology of angry Ukrainians, who in the minds of Russians are the “traitors to the Russian world” and “Western defectors” is purely nationalistic. Therefore, tragically, Russians are convinced that their enemy is not against the Russian authorities, but against Russia and everything Russian, including language, culture, and history.
Vitaly Leybin continues: “The suicidal policy of the Russian authorities has seized the minds only because people see no alternative – that is, they believe the ‘native’ government more than the governments of opponents. Society within Russia chooses from what is considered possible, and people’s choices are simply negligible – you are for Russia or for Ukrainian nationalists with the West. Such a choice is not very attractive, and most people in any country would choose ‘their own sons of bitches’ even if they don’t admire them. But the real trouble is that the third choice – the anti-war one – has not been shown: not against Russia, but for peace, immediate peace, compromising and not humiliating for the Russians.”
It is obvious that Putin, as the leader of Russia, bears personal political responsibility for the beginning of the war, its crimes, and its mistakes. But this does not mean that his “phenomenon” is its cause. Any propaganda is easier to explain with the transition to identity. As in Hollywood movies for teens, if there is a superhero, there must be a supervillain. Who needs to understand what is really happening when you can just appoint one person responsible for everything? In fact, though, it is much more complicated.
Journalist Leybin admits that “Russia’s escalation is due, among other things, to the ugly evolution of the political regime in Russia, in particular its authoritarian degradation, loss of connection with reality, lack of incentives for critical political discussion and recognition of its own mistakes. In Russia, a group of people from secret services with a conspiracy method of thinking but with the rhetoric of a great country came to power. They have pushed other progressive – or at least more moderate pro-Western groups – away from the controls. It was also added to the ‘fear of bad reports’ and the conscious withdrawal from the collision with realities.”
The potential Russo-Ukrainian conflict was discussed for decades before Putin. “It will be extremely painful with Ukraine,” wrote the future Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1968, who at that time was not yet exiled from the USSR – he had eight years still before moving to Vermont! Solzhenitsyn recalled the Ukrainian friends he had met in the GULAG, in the Ekibastuz camp. It was then, in a series of frank conversations, that he learned the horrific details about the Ukrainian Holodomor (the famine engineered by Stalin in which millions of Ukrainians starved to death in the early 1930s), and the various stages of the armed Ukrainian nationalist movement. He thus realized the depth of contradictions between the Russians and the Ukrainians.
“The Ukrainian issue is among the most dangerous questions of our future; it can inflict a bloody blow at the very moment of liberation, and minds on both sides are poorly prepared,” wrote Solzhenitsyn. “Just as it is useless for Ukrainians to prove that we all hail from Kiev, the Russians do not want to understand that the Dnieper people are different, and a lot of offense and strife was sown by the Bolsheviks. As anywhere and everywhere, these murderers only trampled and exacerbated wounds...It will be very difficult to reduce conversation to prudence.”
The Communists defiantly did not want to acknowledge the problem, and insisted on the official, idealized Soviet “brotherhood of nationalities” line, which for many years had been successfully cemented by common historical events (grandiose Soviet industrial projects) or common enemies (German Nazis, later NATO, then the Soviet war in Afghanistan).
But forty-five years before the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the war in Donbas, Solzhenitsyn warned about the creation of “zones of tension” between Russia and Ukraine, and bitterly wrote that the West only plays into the hands of nationalists, pushing Russia out of the international diplomatic field, thus taking advantage of the weakness of a country ravaged by grave ethnic conflicts. “America fully supports every anti-Russian impulse of Ukraine,” he concluded.
Indeed, since Western countries have relied (as elsewhere in the former USSR) on support for anti-Russian forces and nationalist ideologies, instead of building democratic compromises and partnerships that included Russia, Western administrations forced the ex-Soviet republican elites to make an uncompromising choice between the West and Russia. Sometimes such crude tactics worked, sometimes not.
In Ukraine, everything went according to the long-range scenario. From the moment of Soviet disintegration in 1991 to 2004, nothing that would have caused serious concern for the future of the relations between the two countries had happened. In 2004, the first Maidan managed to make temporary compromises. In 2014, the compromises were trampled upon and war broke out, followed by a truce that did not end in peace. Military escalation was inevitable. Sooner or later, someone had to give up their sense of reality and show their nerve. In 2022, the resource of miracles was finally exhausted.
“The causes of the Russo-Ukrainian war are much deeper than we think, and the prospects and consequences may be even worse than they are today,” warns Vitaly Leybin. “Just as the victors of World War II did not draw enough conclusions about its causes, but easily blamed Hitler, whose vicious madness was obvious but was only a trigger, so is the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, if in the West they really (and not only in the simplistic ideology for the masses) think that only Putin (and all Russians at the same time) is to blame; then the West itself will face even bigger problems. Aggressive nationalism, state egoism, colonialism, and the humiliation of the losers were common sins. From democratic ideas, the world has returned to selfish ideologies, by building walls and boundaries.”
Simply persuading today’s soldiers to stop shooting at each other is no longer possible – they are driven by blind mutual hatred. The battle became even more absurd, turning into a violent fight over small, artillery-devastated, lifeless spots.
Putin is cynically betting on Western fatigue from a protracted war that may last a decade or more. The longer the war lasts, the greater will be the pressure of each new American administration on Ukraine. Zelensky will be presented with demands for negotiations on some acceptable terms. But does the West understand that the President of Ukraine has no one even to begin to negotiate with?
Putin used to say how Russia desired a “more friendly Ukraine,” but in reality, Russia does not need friends, only flunkies. And Putin is not a politician who wants to negotiate. He wants to issue ultimatums.
Society in Russia is suffocated by silence. There is no discussion of the most important things – those war crimes committed by the Russian military in Ukraine. It’s beyond discussion, it’s all off the table. The society silently succumbed to the official propaganda, which claims that the reports of mass executions, torture, atrocities and looting by Russian military and mercenaries are an organized “fake news” campaign of unfriendly Western media. To contravene this official line means to incur prison time and devastating fines.
One of the reasons why the West responded with such passion to the Ukrainian tragedy was, of course, Bucha. The West was shocked by the scale of the atrocity, and again, as in the aftermath of World War II, reproached itself for failing to stop this “new war crime in Europe.” And yes, it sounded like a loud, bell-ringing replica of what the Fascists did in the same territories in the last century – Babi Yar is just nine miles from Bucha.
Zelensky is seen globally as a representative of a victim-country where the Bucha massacre happened. And therefore, if we really aim to prevent another Bucha, the only way to stop the war is to force Putin himself into negotiations. This should be the Western community’s first priority, because the West did not prevent the war and thus made Bucha possible.
Russia is far from exhausting its resources and is fighting on foreign territory. This means that sooner or later the case will have to end with a compromise armistice – even if it can only be temporary.
About the Author
Dmitri Beliakov, born in Russia in 1970, is an award-winning photojournalist. In his 28-year career he has covered seven conflicts, including the First and the Second Chechen Wars, the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008, the war in Syria, and the war in the Donbass area. Among his many professional awards are: the OPC Borovik Award in 2005; First Place in the NPPA Portrait Series Awards in 2010; First Place in the POY Print Feature Story Editing/ Magazine in 2015; and the Amnesty UK Media/Photojournalism Award in 2019. His detailed profile can be found at his personal websites: http://www.dmitribeliakov.com; https://armenianjournal.com/