In an article in late January, I mentioned that “a Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be just a new phase of the war that began in 2014,” resulting in either the annexation of the Donbas region to Russia or the beginning of a full-fledged war between Russia and the West.
War has already broken out in Ukraine. News agencies, television and social media abound in evidence of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, but also in images, facts and statements that demonstrate the determination with which Ukrainians are struggling to defend their country.
What does Putin want? Where will the Kremlin leader stop? Is there a risk for a nuclear confrontation? How will the world look like after the war? These are just some of the questions that haunt decision makers and citizens alike.
Partly – and with the amendment that no one has a crystal ball to accurately guess the actions of the Kremlin leader – the answers can be found in opinion articles recently published by the pro-Putin Russian intellectual elite (on channels such as Valdai Club and the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy).
From the analysis of such articles and “by reading between the lines” we can extract some elements that outline answers to some of the questions above. Obviously, it is all about pointing out how the pro-Kremlin analytical millieus perceive the ongoing war; but still, aren’t we interested in how Moscow looks at the current situation?
The way that the pro-Kremlin intellectuals perceive the ongoing war matters in the context of Russia’s stalemate in Ukraine, a stalemate that seems to have been unanticipated by the Russian politico-military elite. In a way, it seems that the Ukrainian resistance is largely influencing the assessments on Russia’s future relationship with the West.
It is important to bare in mind that the pro-Kremlin intellectuals do not shy away from the idea of conflict with the West – neither in terms of terminology nor in terms of „a new normal in Europe”, characterized by the conflict with Russia).
How did we got here? As in the case of classical Kremlin propaganda, the West is blamed by the pro-Kremlin intellectual elite. Russia believes that it has been forced by the West (especially the US/ NATO) to attack Ukraine. Russia thinks that, eight years since the annexation of Crimea, nothing worked in order to settle the Ukraine dossier. Moreover, there were eight years marked by constant provocative actions by the West. From Kremlin’s standpoint, the attack on Ukraine is a legitimate action, dictated by national interests.
Again, an intertwining of narratives between officials, classical propaganda and pro-Kremlin academia: Russia has always sought to reach a compromise with the West, but the West not only ignored Moscow, but also orchestrated provocations in order to test Russia’s limits.
What will the world look like after the war? Theaggression against Ukraine is perceived as a new beginning. It is the time of Russia’s rebirth, of a great reset in international relations. Russia assumes that nothing will be the same from now on, but claims that not only Moscow will suffer, but absolutely everyone.
The war in Ukraine is perceived as a return to normalcy. The normalcy of war (including in Europe). It is, for Moscow, the birth of a multipolar world, the moment when the West was punished for ignoring geopolitical realities and being arrogant.
In Russia’s view, the West should not be shocked by what is happening in Ukraine, since the US, in its turn, has bombed and militarily occupied states such as Serbia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This justification is interesting because, in essence, it highlights a contradiction: Russia claims the merit of challenging the world order imposed by the US, but on the other hand it claims that it has copied Washington.
What will happen to Russia? Pro-Kremlin analysts do not see a problem with the survival of the current regime. The messages convey that, regardless of the outcome of the war and the extent of the Euro-Atlantic sanctions, the Russians will get used to the new realities, they will become even more united in the face of the Western danger.
Two elements are ignored in this evaluation. The first one – the protest movements and the youth. So far, the protests in Russia have not been an element of real pressure, but things may start to change with the casualties in the Russian army. There is every chance that the young people, the main pressure element against the regime, will be joined by relatives of those who are either died or were taken prisoners in Ukraine.
The myth of the “besieged city”, heavily exploited by Russian propaganda, will no longer be “heard” by the public when citizens do not see exactly who is besieging them or when personal dramas will be spreading across the country at a faster pace than state rhetoric.
The second element: the pressure of the system on Putin. It is very likely that the vertical of power in Russia will survive this war. After all, the non-systemic opposition is still weak, with no administrative experience and divided. But the political survival of the current system does not mean that Putin will remain at the top of the pyramid.
What the intellectual propagandists don’t say? References to the relationship with China are minimal and generally in the classic register of “mutually beneficial cooperation”. However, it is impossible for the Kremlin not to know that the main beneficiary of Russia’s defeat will be neither Ukraine nor the US, but China. Moscow international theorists and practitioners also know for sure that two hegemones can never survive side by side. From this perspective, the multipolar order that Russia wants, will only give rise to even more opponents. And the so-called Western pressure will soon be doubled by an even stronger pressure from China.
The situation is still extremely volatile, and the these assessments are only a snapshot. What matters is that these assessments show that we are at a point of no return: no matter the outcome of the war, the security landscape in Europe will never be the same. Most likely, Russia too will never be the same – but Moscow still has a chance: the withdrawal from Ukraine. At the moment, this is the only chance for oligarchs and top decision-makers to hope to somehow rebuild the bridges with Europe.