Putin a tsar without an empire needs a military victory.JPGw1440

Putin, a tsar without an empire, needs a military victory for his own survival

February 19, 2023 at 10:19 am EST

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a celebration and concert in Moscow’s Red Square September 30, 2022 after declaring that Russia would annex four Ukrainian regions in violation of international law. (For the Washington Post) Comment on this story


MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin likes to portray himself as the new tsar, like Peter the Great or Ivan III, the 15th-century Grand Duke known as the “Collector of the Russian Lands.” But Putin’s years of war in Ukraine has so far failed to secure the lands he wants to seize, and there are fears in Russia that he is leading his nation into a dark period of strife and stagnation, or worse.

Some in the elite also say that the Russian leader now desperately needs a military victory to ensure his own survival. “There is no loyalty in Russia,” said one Russian billionaire.

Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine began with hubris and a zeal to reshape the world order. But even as he suffered repeated military defeats – which tarnished his reputation worldwide and stained him with allegations of atrocities committed by his troops – Putin has tightened his authoritarian grip at home, using the war to crush any opposition and a closed, paranoid society to create hostile to liberals, hipsters, LGBTQ people and especially Western-style freedom and democracy.

The Russian president’s cheerleading squadrons swear he “just can’t lose” in Ukraine, thanks to Russia’s vast energy wealth, nuclear weapons and the sheer number of soldiers it can throw onto the battlefield. These supporters see Putin rising from the ashes of Ukraine to lead a proud nation defined by its rejection of the West — a larger, more powerful version of Iran.

But business leaders and state officials say Putin’s own position at the top may prove precarious as doubts about his tactics grow among the elite. For many of them, Putin’s move has wiped out 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s vision of Russia appalls many oligarchs and state officials, who tacitly admit that the war was a catastrophic mistake that failed in every aim. But they remain paralyzed, fearful and publicly silent.

“Although the elites understand that it was a mistake, they are still afraid to do something themselves,” said Boris Bondarev, the only Russian diplomat to publicly resign over the war, formerly at Russia’s UN mission in Geneva. “Because they’re used to Putin deciding everything.”

Some are confident that as long as he keeps the war going and wears down Western resolve and arms supplies, Putin can maintain his power without a win. For anyone in the elite to act, Bondarev said, “you have to realize that Putin is leading the country to total collapse. While Putin is still bombing and attacking, people think the situation is not that bad. There has to be a total military loss and only then will people understand that they have to do something.”

All camps seem to agree: Putin shows no willingness to give up. As Russia’s position on the battlefield deteriorated in recent months, it repeatedly escalated, shuffling its commanders, unleashing brutal airstrikes on civilian infrastructure and threatening to use nuclear weapons.

With his troops bolstered by conscripts and convicts and ready to launch new offensives, the 70-year-old Russian leader needs a win to maintain his own credibility. “Putin needs some success to show society that he is still very successful,” said a senior Ukrainian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive issues.

Moscow’s glittering indifference

As casualties mount in Ukraine and cemeteries fill in the Russian provinces, Moscow’s glittering facade conveys a hedonistic, indifferent city. Its restaurants and cafes are packed with glamorous young diners wearing designer European clothes, taking selfies with the latest iPhones, and ordering truffle pizza or duck confit washed down with trendy cocktails.

But underneath, Putin is creating a militarized, nationalist society that feeds on propaganda and is obsessed with an “existential” perpetual war against the United States and NATO. So far nobody in the administration has dared to raise objections – at least not publicly.

“What he says will be received like that,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Konstantin Remchukov said with a loud snap of his fingers.

The Russians leave War Russia in a historic exodus

Since Putin rose to the presidency in 2000, his legitimacy has rested on his popularity and standing among the elite, underpinned by his ability to incite fear by stripping some of their assets and jailing others. The defeats in Ukraine have weakened him.

The president seems forever haunted by the moment when the Soviet Union “abandoned its position in Europe” as a young KGB officer serving in Dresden when the Berlin Wall came down. And his pursuit of the empire lost with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union throws his country back into a gray, repressive and isolated past. For Putin, his efforts are an attempt to right what he perceives as historical wrongs. In his almost insanely revisionist view, Ukraine has always belonged to Russia.

But even if Putin somehow forces Ukraine to surrender and cede occupied territories, those in the elite who lean towards a more liberal society will lose the most. Punitive Western economic sanctions are likely to remain in place, and some oligarchs would no doubt be forced to pay to rebuild Russia’s new countries. Some analysts predict a full-scale purge of the oligarchs, others consider them insufficiently patriotic.

Already there are shocking glimpses of Putin’s new Russia: A couple in a Krasnodar restaurant were arrested, handcuffed and forced to the ground after being denounced by a police eavesdropper who overheard them quietly lamenting the war .

An elderly woman was on a bus pulled from her seat, thrown to the ground and roughly pushed out the door by passengers for calling Russia an empire that sends men into battle in cheap rubber boots.

Videos allegedly show members of the Kremlin-sanctioned but technically illegal Wagner mercenary group beating “traitors” with a sledgehammer.

Former central bank official Alexandra Prokopenko described an atmosphere where officials fear jail in the face of intimidation by the security services.

“It’s a concern for every member of the Russian elite,” said Prokopenko, who lives in exile in the West. “It’s a matter of survival for high and middle officials, all of whom stayed in Russia. People are now quite afraid for their safety.” She said former colleagues who are still with the bank have told her that they “do not see a good outcome for Russia at the moment”.

Increasingly isolated, Putin faces growing resentment from hawkish nationalists who believe he should have acted more radically to seize Kiev and from a liberal-leaning faction who see the war as a grave mistake. He’s narrowed his inner circle to a few hard-liners and toadies, ruthlessly eliminated opposition rivals, and built a formidable security apparatus to guard against any threat.

Pro-Kremlin analysts see escalation – pumping in more soldiers and ramping up military production – as the way to victory. That seems to fit Putin’s character.

But nobody really knows the current military objective or what Putin might consider a victory. Some believe he will be content with conquering all of Ukraine’s eastern regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russia began fomenting a separatist war in 2014. Others say he has not given up on his plans to take Kiev and overthrow the government.

In September, Ukraine’s first major successful counteroffensive glared at Putin’s instincts in a crisis: an optimistic redoubling aimed at cutting off any path to compromise. His unlawful claim to annex four Ukrainian territories despite not having militarily control of them was a bridge-burning tactic designed to draw sharp new red lines on the map of Ukraine.

His speech at the alleged annexations in the St. George’s Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace reached a new hysterical height over what he called the West’s “open satanism” and its desire to engulf Russia and destroy its values.

“They don’t want us to be free; They want us to be a colony,” he said. “They don’t want equal cooperation; they want to plunder. They don’t want to see us as a free society, but as a mass of soulless slaves.” He has repeatedly described the desire to build a multipolar world in which Russia regains its rightful place among the great powers.

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At times, Putin sharply reprimands one of his officials for failure, while leaving others fearful of public humiliation. He elevates and rewards thugs like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, but quickly reins them in when they step out of line.

Strangely enough, at times Putin seems to have lost touch with the realities of his war. Days after pro-war bloggers reported last week that dozens of Russian tanks and many soldiers were lost in a failed attack on Vuhledar involving Russia’s elite 155th Guards Marines Brigade, Putin boasted to journalists that “the marines work the way they do she should – right now – fight heroically.”

In the meantime, deep pessimism has spread throughout the country. Those who believe the war is lost range from liberals to hardliners. “It seems impossible to win a political or military victory,” said a state official on condition of anonymity to provide an honest assessment. “The economy is under enormous stress and cannot last long in such a situation.”

Publicly, Putin has expressed no concern about Russia’s brutal killings of civilians in cities like Bucha, Mariupol and Izyum, while his propaganda machine dismisses news of such atrocities as “fake.” The International Criminal Court is investigating war crimes in Ukraine and the European Parliament has called for the creation of a special court to try Russia’s crime of aggression, the invasion of Ukraine.

But pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov said talk of prosecuting war crimes only strengthened Putin’s resolve.

“What will Putin’s answer be? Fight – and it doesn’t matter what the price will be,” Markov said.

The Kremlin’s image makers convey Putin’s power through staged events in which he sees the archetypal dictator – often a lone figure in the distance laying flowers at monuments to military heroes of the past. His staged performances, starring supposedly ordinary Russians, feel scripted and contrived, with participants giggling in nervous awe. The same faces keep popping up in different settings – dressed as soldiers, fishermen or churchgoers – raising the question of how many real people the President has ever met.

As war casualties mount, Putin and top propagandists extol a fatalistic death cult, arguing that dying in Russia’s war is better than a car crash, alcoholism, or cancer.

A Russian musician modestly protests the war and pays the price

“One day we will all leave this world,” Putin told a group of carefully selected women portrayed as the mothers of mobilized soldiers, many of whom are actually Kremlin activists or relatives of officials, in November. “The question is how we lived. For some people it is unclear whether they are alive or not. It’s unclear why they die, because of vodka or something else. When they’re gone, it’s hard to tell if they lived or not. Her life passed without notice.”

But a man who died in war “didn’t give his life in vain,” he said. “His life mattered”

Venerable human rights organizations like Memorial and the Sakharov Center were forced to shut down, while respected political analysts, musicians, journalists and former Soviet political prisoners were declared “foreign agents”. Many have fled or been imprisoned.

As sanctions take hold, prices rise and companies struggle to adapt, economists and business leaders predict a long economic decline amid isolation from Western technology, ideas and value chains.

“The economy has entered a long period of Argentineization,” said a second Russian billionaire. “It will be a long, slow dismantling. There will be less of everything.”

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Through the war, Putin has profoundly transformed Russia, tightening restrictions on freedoms and causing hundreds of thousands of Russians to emigrate. Going forward, pro-democracy liberals will no longer be tolerated, analysts say.

“The pro-Western opposition will disappear,” Markov said.

“Anyone who does not support the special military operation does not belong to the people,” he said, using Putin’s term for war.

But Russia’s second billionaire said he was convinced that one day the country would somehow become “a normal, European, non-imperial country” and that his children, who have US passports, would return. “Of course I want them to return to a free Russia,” he said. “To a free and democratic Russia.”

Dixon reported from Moscow and Belton from London

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The newest: Fighting in eastern Ukraine continues while Russian forces make slight progress in their attempt to encircle the town of Bakhmut. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked Western allies for fighter jets as Russia launches a spring offensive. Read the latest here.

The fight: Russia has been targeting Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure with rocket and drone attacks since October, causing frequent power, heating and water cuts in the country. Despite fierce fighting, neither side has made significant gains for months. Western allies agreed on a new wave of sophisticated weaponry, including Leopard tanks, in hopes it could change the balance of the battlefield.

A war year: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has sparked a historic exodus of his own people, with data showing at least 500,000 and perhaps nearly 1 million have fled Russia since the conflict in Ukraine began. Despite this and extensive sanctions, the Russian economy has remained more resilient than many expected. However, there are signs that Putin’s luck is running out.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the war began – here is some of their most impressive work.

How can you help: Here are ways people in the United States can support the people of Ukraine, and what people around the world have donated.

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