This post focusses on the effect at home of a bigger military conflict between Russian and Ukraine. It can be summarised as ‘more of the same, except worse’. My two main points are this: Russians have been desensitised to conflict. Unfortunately, open warfare would not fundamentally change anything. Secondly, the many voices that condemn Russians for the absence of widespread anti-war protest show their ignorance – not only about the reality of life in Russia, but how their own societies would perform in analogous circumstances. In the final part I will come back to the question of effects on the Russian regime.
I make no predictions in the post. Full disclaimer: I was dismissive of the possibility of a Crimea annexation and Donbas conflict in 2014. I was wrong then. Now, I still want to believe that the Russian security elite is fundamentally calculatedly and collectively timorous – despite all the noisy bluster. Here’s a sober, sceptical take I liked, if not feeling qualified to endorse it.
Firstly, the much debated military confrontation itself. I’ve little to add here. The millions of words written about the forms an invasion, punitive expedition or intervention would take are enough already. I limit myself to some obvious points. 1. Ukraine east of the Dnipro is full of people – airstrikes and missile attacks short of invasion, even against known Ukrainian military positions, would still cause mass civilian casualties. The Donbas conflict in 2014-15 saw disproportionate civilian casualties from indirect artillery/rocket fire hitting built-up areas. This is horrific, terrifying, and almost as bad as the Chechen conflicts. 2. Full invasion/intervention: combined arms advances of this sort require expert and practised command and control even the ‘forever-war’ UK-US axis struggles with today. Look at the amount of confusion, chaos and friendly-fire deaths as a proportion of casualties in the Iraq wars. I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the Russian armed forces, but their officer class is still underpaid, undertrained and overall of poor quality (which is why I agree with Farkas at the end of this). Protective equipment used by average squaddies is not great. Russia’s record in dealing with quality opposition in urban warfare is woeful. Draw your own conclusions.
Back to Russia itself: we should connect the crackdown on all opposition in the last years to the securitization and partial gendarmization of the Russian state that would ensure continuity in the event of a widespread armed conflict and a Western response. This might seem obvious to close observers, but I write this in response to two misconceptions: that the widespread fear and lack of appetite for war among Russians could somehow translate into real protest and opposition (it couldn’t). Second, that Russians are willing accomplices (they’re not). I reject any strong comparisons to fascism and to the debate on collective guilt of Germans after WWII. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
What would happen in Russia? Initial but very limited panic expressed in stocking up on food, currency and supplies. Even without war, there have been completely random salt and sugar panics in the last fifteen years spread by word of mouth when people fear sudden hikes in prices during the ‘closing’ season in late summer when the (mainly) poor maniacally stock vegetable and fruit preserves for the winter. Inexplicably, sometimes there’s a matchbox panic. Local shops used to make a killing – here’s an example from 2006. Call it a reflex of collective memory. It would pass very quickly – as others have pointed out, Ukraine has no military capacity to strike back beyond the conflict zone. Russians have panic-fatigue after years of sanctions, counter-sanctions and currency devaluation. There won’t be any ‘return to the land’ – the panic-planting of potatoes in kitchen gardens that historically was a barometer of social strife. Counter-sanctions have been very effective in developing domestic agriculture. Can the rouble fall any lower? Yes it can. Does it matter much now after a decade of stagnant or falling incomes? Maybe not.
In actual fact, there’s evidence that war ‘panic’ has already passed in Russia. Parts of the housing market have seized up completely since 2021 in anticipation of further currency devaluation. As has the used car market – now a store of ‘real’ value.
While the focus has been on arrests of political opposition, the politics of fear in Russia, as Guzel Yusupova calls it, goes much further, with public space in cities noticeably securitized since at least 2018. Things are better in the sticks where I live, but people still know not to draw too much attention to themselves if they have any reason to watch out for the police. And let’s face it, no one in their right mind wants to interact with the Russian police. However, I don’t want to overemphasise fear. It’s more discomfort, politically cognitive load and dissonance that incrementally increases year after year. It’s not a full-on police state, it’s not a dictatorship and it’s still not a fully-blown authoritarian state, but a Ukraine escalation would be an admission of the failure of the Putin project to sustain itself without resorting to an anachronistic Russian version of the última dictadura cívico militar. To be clear I’m not saying Russia would have a ‘dirty war’ on such a scale, but history can always rhyme: a declaration of emergency enables further and wider repression of any hint of opposition, further sidelining of even potential institutions, the removal from politics and the state of inconvenient fellow travellers that the paranoid elite would like to replace with clients. Under cover of emergency, widespread unpopular economic measures like wage freezes could be undertaken, as in Argentina. For a take on the wider polycrisis of Ukraine-Russia as a political economy story, Nick Trickett wrote this recently: “Arguing about Russia’s preponderance of military power is of the utmost humanitarian importance, but it misses the plain fact that the regime badly blundered if it thinks it can swallow a whale.”
What would Russians think about the war? Well, like now, many people would be wholly ignorant, beyond knowing the basic media talking points from eight years of conflict (Ukrainian government is bad, etc). One thing that annoys me is the continuing assumption that, because Russians historically have consumed information via TV, they still do so, and that current affairs are particularly salient. Would we say this about our own societies? Both these ideas are out of date by at least 10 years. What we do know is that Russians do not, on the whole, think Ukrainians are an inferior people to be subjugated. They don’t think they are ‘nazis’, and, well, they don’t think much about them at all, to be honest. I doubt a much bigger war would change that. Yes, a small minority are performatively outraged by ‘colour revolutions’ and the ‘CIA plot that was Maidan’, but these are a particular subsection of a subsection of middle-aged men who have too much time on their hands. I don’t deny there was a rally-round-the-flag effect in 2014-15 with the annexation of Crimea, but that was a long time ago now, and, as I commented recently, most Russians have conflicted feelings now about Crimean incorporation. A false flag operation to justify further intervention would not have even a fraction of the effect of the propaganda from eight years ago, such as the false story of Ukrainians crucifying children which is still visible on Channel One’s site, or the reports of a ‘genocide’ of thousands of Donbas residents, published by the Russian government newspaper. Of course that doesn’t mean the awesome arsenal that is mainstream Russian TV media won’t be enrolled in a military-jingoistic propaganda campaign. Parts of it have been almost continually at it since 2014.
Denis Volkov of Levada writes in Ridl of an apparent consensus in Russia about fear of war, blame of the West, and expectation of escalation. However, his conclusion that Russian public opinion is ‘homogeneous’ suffers from the typical salience problems of polling and focus groups (when moderators say: ‘X is in the news, what do you think?’). Others have recently pointed out that Russians, when not prompted to talk about geopolitics, are much more likely to talk about domestic issues. To be fair to Volkov, he admits this – people have fatigue about Ukraine, confrontation and are not genuinely interested. Volkov says because they’re not fully engaged they therefore accept the narrative of NATO encirclement. I would disagree here. In reality one encounters a lot more diversity in opinion about Russia’s neighbour as one gets further in time away from 2014. This, in case I need to spell it out, is a good thing. At ‘worst’ one could say there is ‘resignation’ in Russia that war is possible but this resignation is a product of the complete political powerlessness of the majority.
Nicos Poulantzas wrote about the rise of authoritarian statism in the Western democracies in the 1970s. While direct comparisons to Russia today are as open to criticism as my Argentinian junta ones, I want you to indulge me a moment longer. Poulantzas’ point was that crisis tends towards forms of state authoritarianism that do not need open repression, but act via the state apparatus in an insidious, creeping way. There is a retreat of the rule of law because of bureaucratic power (or juridical preemptive policing ‘with the law and against the law’), but this is not fascism, there is no ‘break’ and Poulantzas writes in opposition to Foucauldian version of power effects. Further, these forms of authoritarian statism see the executive as much as hostage (to conflicting interests among the elite) as arbiter.
While writing mainly about the French Fifth Republic, Poulantzas has some sobering observations about executives that attempt a monopolistic ‘super apparatus’ with Bonapartist pretensions. Homogenization of the state tends to backfire, as do shifts towards plebiscitary manipulation; contradictions between economic interests are exacerbated, indeed, some negative economic processes of consolidation may accelerate; the ‘masses’ are not integrated (partly because politics is replaced by a single party centre*), and pernicious networks like security interests are ‘crystalized’ in a permanent structure in parallel to the official state. Poulantzas, though he died in 1979, was remarkably prescient about the direction of western democracies. My point is that we should be on the one hand more sensitive to Russian foreign policy as a symptom of domestic crisis in Russia, and on the other that Russia is not an ‘exceptional’ (i.e. fascist) state and is subject to the same cyclical tendency to towards crisis in the power bloc.
Bob Jessop has a critical update to Poulantzas and Stuart Hall here that underlies much of my own thinking about how under Putin Russia developed a form of authoritarian neoliberal statism. You can read my open access piece on that topic here. Unlike my argument that Russia is a kind of vanguard neoliberal state Jessop prefers tracing historical neoliberal regime shifts rather than ‘varieties’ or global neoliberal logics. My final point here is that Ukraine has the potential to accelerate conjunctural tendencies in the Russian state at home, as much as influence Ukrainian and European geopolitics.
*hello there, British politics and welcome to the cartel party era!