Ilya Matveev and I were invited to talk about Russian responses to the invasion by Russia of Ukraine. We decided to use our six minutes of this experimental podcast platform ‘conversation six’ to talk more about Defensive consolidation. I use this phrase (here’s another take on it) to characterize the majority reaction to the war at home in Russia and here are my notes for the talk:
Why it’s still not a rally
There a low level of active patriotic responses to war (beyond symbolic Zedtivism), a lack of declaration, or effective framing, of war as an ‘attack on us’ – this is not what most people are ready to internalize, despite what the media says. Indeed, there’s a lack of unconditional belief in Russian state media – it’s gone too far in the direction of open propaganda and post-truth that there are signs people’s trust in it is going down. Added to that there are realities that are hard to ignore: Ukraine as an obviously weaker state than Russia – so why is it a threat? Culturally, politically, socially it really was seen (rightly or wrongly) as a ‘brotherly nation’. Zelenskyy as a puppet and ‘ukrofascists’ of course have some traction, but this is all pretty superficial because it has low salience to most people. And the absence of a real casus belli means that overall there’s far too much cognitive dissonance around for a majority, or even a big minority, to ‘rally’.
So, defensive consolidation is this highly ambiguous and contingent set of responses – it includes finding excuses to justify to oneself what’s happening, but which are logically very tenuous and even self-contradictory. To me what is noticeable among a lot of anti-Putinists is a kind of sunk cost fallacy – “Putin was wrong, but now we’ve started we see the world is against us, but precisely because of that we must go on regardless to the bitter end, because to lose will mean a broader disaster”. And even this is not necessarily an immediate geopolitical way of thinking (i.e. about NATO as threat) but tied to longstanding feelings of being a periphery and ‘other’ of the West.
Why is it consolidating? Because it involves a cleaving to forms of immediate authority but I don’t think that’s sustainable over time. So for example, people ask their village ‘elder’ what to do and he answers – collect diapers to send to IDPs. People do this, but already a wave of solidarity is passing for refugees. We see this at every level – ‘what can I do’? People genuinely of course have a desire as part of a socius to do something, but as Ilya says in the talk, the logic of Putin’s Russia is demobilization because of fear of any independent action and civicness. And in fact, when people ‘cleave’ they often find zero leadership and zero answers – authority is so very hollow in Russia.
So, will defensive consolidation break down and under what conditions? The consolidation will partly morph into new and emerging forms of microcivicness, because there is this huge pent up desire to improve Russia. Ironically, the war shows this more clearly than ever. People know they live in a country that lacks many of the goods others, including Ukrainians, take for granted or are willing to strive for. This is not sustainable. Right now I am tracking individuals and micro-associations that search for new forms of activism – from environmentalism to covert anti-war actions. Could this turn into a coalescence of diverse forms of social mobilization with time? Maybe not. How will Russia change? Probably in the least predictable way – in the first Chechen war, people could not have predicted Soldiers’ mothers at the forefront of resistance and protest. Now, who knows what the future catalyst would be to push elites to end the war? Could it be ethnic minority religious groups? Could it be militant unpaid workers? Could it be a consumers’ protest against rising prices?
Creeping mobilization meets hard limits in Russian state capacity
Some brilliant investigative journalism from BBC Russian Service and others has laid bare that the invasion was even more poorly planned and executed than we previously thought. Many soldiers were barely ‘led’ at all (in fact misled). And there are striking details in this long piece, from a lack of night vision equipment to descriptions of soldiers fending for themselves. Later the piece gives a lot of detail about the growing resistance among soldiers to continuing military contracts. Elsewhere the same author has given a good explanation of the war crimes in Bucha as stemming from the same problems of leaderless, drunk, desperate and brutalized-brutalizing troops. Add into the mix doubts about whether the state will actually honour payments to wounded and provide even basic medical treatment beyond emergency care (which is woefully inadequate anyway). My favourite topics of stunted state capacity and the incoherence of governance meet up in this shitshow of a war. Any creeping ‘mobilization’ will be similarly incoherent – enlistment officers face even more obstacles than before because no one really wants to die for Putin (illustrated well in the BBC piece). Urgency too is always the enemy of this state’s machine. You screw up and the boss asks for it ‘yesterday’, even though he didn’t give you the tools to get it done in the first place. As with so much else, we end up with something worse than the previous improvised solution. It seems clear now that the Great Russian Army was an ‘improvised’ solution to the problem of force projection in a massively corrupt and cronyism-ridden Military Industrial Complex. We had a Potemkin village of an army, now with creeping mobilization we will get something ragtag that doesn’t even resemble a modern army. Like the Russian meme about IT projects – instead of good planning, testing and development, in Russia it’s ‘slap shit together and deploy’. We could call this the revenge of a century of ‘avral’ (rushing production targets).
Putin clearly does not want to declare a state of war – it brings too many uncertainties, and even personal risks to him. He doesn’t like that. His whole career has been about making short term, usually conservative decisions to avoid immediate risks, but which bring a huge long-term tail risk. Michael Kofman just wrote about how mobilization is a complex topic; although he emphasizes high manpower capacities on paper, I would emphasize that the state lacks capacity, political will, and actual popular support to translate that into reality.