War in Ukraine How in a year of conflict Russia

War in Ukraine: How, in a year of conflict, Russia "has become a different country"

Sanctions imposed by Western countries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine have hit the country’s economy badly. What further isolate Vladimir Putin on the international scene.

A year after the start of its invasion of Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, Russia still seems triumphant through the voice of its president. Despite losses on the ground, she is stepping up her efforts and may soon launch a new offensive. Vladimir Putin even vowed on Tuesday, February 21, during his state of the nation address to proceed “step by step, carefully and methodically” with what the Russians are calling a “special operation” in Ukraine.

However, the rhetoric, cocky and belligerent, hides the reality: Twelve months after the lightning-fast invasion began, the conflict has had a negative impact on the Russian economy. At the same time, propaganda and censorship have increased in the country, and the last areas of freedom are shrinking like a trickle.

An economy slowed down by sanctions

During his speech on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin claimed to have secured his country’s “economic stability” despite the series of sanctions imposed by Western countries on February 24, 2022. According to the statements made by Economics Minister Bruno Le Maire in March 2022, “the economic collapse of Russia” is to be caused, they have not brought the country to its knees. But according to the Russian statistics agency Rosstat*, its GDP shrank by 2.1% in 2022. “Russia is able to find the means to finance itself,” confirms Julien Vercueil, economist at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (Inalco) to franceinfo to consume oil and rent gas from the rest of the world”.

However, inflation rose to 12% over a year in January 2023, according to the Central Bank of Russia*, and had even peaked at 17.8% in April 2022 of the Russian currency, leading to a peak in inflation in the first few weeks after February 24 “explains Julien Vercueil.

“The state has of course supported certain sections of the population in order to limit the effects of inflation. But it still bites the purchasing power of the most vulnerable.”

Julien Vercueil, economist at Inalco

at franceinfo

The reduction in exports of goods and technology ordered by the European Union is also weighing on the Russians. “The price of cars has almost doubled and people can’t find spare parts to fix them,” says Vera Grantseva, a Russia specialist and teacher at Sciences Po Paris. New car sales also collapsed in 2022 (-59% over a year). the Association of European Businesses, which brings together manufacturers in the industry.

Because in addition to the sanctions imposed by the states, more than 1,000 companies have at least temporarily suspended their activities in Russia since February 2022, according to a count by Yale University*. Thousands of jobs have therefore been cut, even though the unemployment rate was officially historically low in November 2022 (3.4%). “It shouldn’t be interpreted in Russia the way it’s being done in Europe. The labor force is shrinking, which keeps the economy in a situation of near full employment, even as the economic situation destroys jobs,” explains Julien Vercueil. In other words, the number is a farce: in the country facing a demographic crisis, the number of active people in the labor market has been falling for several decades.

The population “in a bubble”, far from the conflict

Despite the economic crisis, the Russian people continue to officially support the invasion of Ukraine, despite the stalemate in the conflict. According to a poll by the independent Russian institute Levada* published on February 2, 75% of Russians supported the “special operation”. The many dead soldiers and the war crimes denounced by Kiev and NGOs have not changed public opinion. Logical, since the authorities carried out “very demagogic and aggressive propaganda” and “almost total censorship”, notes Russian sociologist Lev Goudkov with franceinfo.

The few independent media outlets were therefore banned in the months after the conflict began. It is still impossible now to speak publicly of “war” under penalty of ending up in prison. It’s simple: “Russia has become a different country from March 2022, Vera Grantseva explains to franceinfo. It has become a totalitarian state where any expression of freedom leads to prison.”

The result of this tightening of state censorship was that the public will to resist was stifled. While there were some demonstrations when the conflict was announced, they were sporadic and quickly stopped. According to the NGO OVD-info*, more than 19,000 people have been arrested for opposing the war since March 2022. The figure may seem low, but “it is enormous given the risks taken”, according to the expert, who explains that “about 15% of the population is actively opposed to the war”.

However, most Russians would keep the war at bay, “even if they view it with fatalism,” adds the researcher. The years of restrictive policies that have led to the demobilization of citizens are to blame, explains franceinfo Carole Grimaud, a teacher of Russian geopolitics: “The Russians are convinced (…) that their voice is useless, there is a civil society in Russia that has that not fully educated.” Supported by propaganda and misinformation, the majority of Russians live in a bubble far removed from conflict.

“Russians are trying to live normally, choosing a psychologically comfortable position, without talking about politics and not reading too much about what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Vera Grantseva, Russia specialist

at franceinfo

Some upheavals, such as the public dissatisfaction of soldiers’ mothers or the flight of several thousand Russians abroad, could have suggested a reversal of the situation towards the Russian president. “Soldiers’ mothers demand better equipment, better conditions, we are not against war,” declared Anna Colin Lebedev, lecturer in political science in Paris Nanterre, on February 16 in the program “L’ Event” on France 2.

Could the consequences of economic sanctions force Russians onto the streets? Not really, says Vera Grantseva: “Even before the war, the population was pretty poor outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, so it’s not a big change.” A differentiated conclusion with franceinfo by Mathieu Boulègue, researcher at the Chatham House think tank, who judges that the treaty that “kept Russians from being interested in politics” in exchange “for a better living environment” no longer works because the population is not does better live”.

An emphatically ultra-conservative policy

Faced with this breach of the social contract, Vladimir Putin employed a strategy he was used to: portraying a beleaguered Russia that must defend its interests. “He describes the war as a conflict against the West in general,” explains Vera Grantseva. Add to this a defense of conservative values, with the Kremlin chief regularly attacking homosexuality and trans people who are brazenly associated with pedophilia.

In October 2022, the country’s parliament also decided to tighten the law against “LGBT propaganda”, which has been in effect since 2013. A way to mobilize the Russian population for a social project directed against Western countries. And if this strategy isn’t new, it’s accelerated since the invasion began. The result: “Whereas in the 1990s, Russians wanted to live like in the West, that is no longer the case today,” summarized Tatiana Jean, director of the Russia Center of Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), invited by Tuesday “C in the Air” on France 5.

This stiffening of discourse has been accompanied by behind-the-scenes changes. “There used to be a little more freedom of expression for the elite around Putin, it was above all important to be loyal. Now it is unthinkable not to be for the war,” summarizes Vera Grantseva. And if someone questions Putin’s policies, he becomes a traitor.” A situation that favors “the most radical advisers” in the head of state’s entourage and has consequences for the country’s foreign policy.

A country isolated on the international stage

The rift between Moscow, Europe and the United States, which began to widen in 2014 with the invasion of Crimea, has deepened over the past year. On February 21, the Russian parliament even voted to suspend the New Start treaty, the last bilateral nuclear disarmament agreement linking Moscow with Washington.

Cut off from the west, the Kremlin faces east. He can always count on his Chinese ally not to directly condemn the war because “they share the same critical view of the Western and the liberal world,” recalls Mathieu Boulègue. This proximity can be explained primarily by mutual economic interests.

“Russia needs China to save its economy and China is taking advantage of this to buy up parts of the Russian economy at low cost.”

Mathieu Boulègue, Associate Researcher at the Chatham House Think Tank

at franceinfo

Iran, Belarus, Kazakhstan… The Kremlin holds several allies against the West. But as always, “Vladimir Putin sticks to his isolationist logic,” insists Mathieu Boulègue. The national interest first, the international after”. As Tsar Alexander III said: “Russia has only two allies: its army and its navy”.

For the time being, the Moscow army is holding out. By when? At the end of January, Norway estimated that 180,000 Russian soldiers had died or been injured on site since the beginning of the war. “Paradoxically, Putin expects that the European democracies will tire of war because it is expensive, because it cannot be won by military means,” emphasizes Vera Grantseva. Evidence of repeated support for Ukraine from the European Union and the United States seems to prove him wrong at the moment.

* Links with an asterisk are in Russian or English.