In the early morning of the first day of the war on Feb. 24, President Vladimir Putin defined the objectives of the country’s “special operation” as “protecting the inhabitants of Donbas, demilitarizing and denazifying Ukraine,” and “bringing to justice those who have committed innumerable bloody crimes.”
Continuing a Soviet tradition — the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and Afghanistan in December 1979 — Putin said that he had “decided on a special military operation” in response to a request from the leaders of Donbas. And he stressed that “Russia has no plans to occupy Ukrainian territories.”
Two and a half months later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complimented his boss, saying that the special military operation was “designed to put an end to the reckless expansion and the reckless course of total U.S. domination.” Four months later he corrected Putin: “the geographical objectives of the ‘special operation’ have changed. Now it is not only the DNR and LNR [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics], but also a number of other territories.” And one of the generals even issued the enigmatic statement that “control over the South of Ukraine is another path to Transnistria [a Moldovan break-away state supported by Russia], where facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population are also being observed.”
Ultimate goals multiplied in the statements of various Russian officials, from security chief Nikolai Patrushev and parliament chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, Sergei Lavrov and presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, and Putin himself. Now they included “preventing war from starting on the territory of Ukraine”; “restoring the statehood of the LNR and DNR within the borders of 2014”; and “achieving a guarantee of Ukraine’s real neutral status.”
The “demilitarization” of Ukraine? In the six months of war Ukraine has received the most modern Western-made weapons worth tens of billions of dollars that it did not have before. Just the latest tranche for weapons, air defense systems, surface-to-air missiles, radars and artillery from the U.S. government was valued at $2.98 billion.
Denazification of Ukraine? It seems that no one except the Russian Chekists doing reconnaissance has seen them, and if someone else did see some Nazis, there were about as many of them in Ukraine as there are on Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Adolf Hitler’s birthday. None of the dozens of journalists from around the world who broadcast their reports from Ukraine have met any Nazis or fascists. But the rhetoric from various Russian official and quasi-official speakers makes us think that some of the thousands of recordings of Hitler’s speeches were put to good use.
Protecting the Russian-speaking population of the eastern and southern regions? Where were they protected — in the almost completely destroyed city of Mariupol, where more than 89% of the population considered Russian their spoken language? Or in Kharkiv, which has been mercilessly bombed for week after week, killing civilians, and where 95% of the population speak (spoke?) Russian? Or Mykolaiv, where over 50% of the population, according to the census, speak Russian as their mother tongue, and which is being destroyed by cluster bombs, according to a Philadelphia Inquire reporter who was just there? A curious defense strategy: pile up the corpses of the people you’re defending.
Putin, and Peskov after him, called the goal of the military operation the restoration of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics to their 2014 borders. Today Russian troops control almost all of the Luhansk region and less than 60 percent of the Donetsk. Judging by reports from the fronts, this situation is not going to change any time soon.
So, the first, second and third goals weren’t met. Maybe “U.S. dominance” in Eastern Europe has been undermined and NATO has been pushed away from Russia’s borders?
It certainly doesn’t look like it. A year before the war, in February 2021, there were 4,650 soldiers and officers under NATO command, and now there are almost ten times as many — 40,000. In the near future, the number of NATO troops will increase to 300,000. This, military analysts say, is the largest increase in NATO strength since the end of the Cold War. The border between Russia and NATO countries also doubled after Finland and Sweden joined the alliance — from 1,207 to 2,575 km.
And now — the cost. According to American intelligence, the irrecoverable losses of the Russian Armed Forces in the six months of the war amounted to 70-80,000: 15-20,000 dead (during the 9 years and 2 months of the Afghan war about 15,000 Soviet soldiers and officers were killed), and 60,000 wounded and captured (in Afghanistan over 110 months — about 35,000).
Over the six months of war, the Russian army has lost 3-4,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers. Almost all the country’s high-precision weapons have been used, and the production of new missiles is held up because they can’t get microchips and semiconductors, which are under sanctions. Anti-ship missiles and Soviet Grads, which have a range of several hundred meters, are being used for strikes.
The shortage of hardware has forced the Russian army to scavenge for weapons, transfer them by quasi-trade ships from the military base in Syria, buy drones from Iran, and even consider North Korea’s offer to buy artillery from them.
The situation with manpower is even worse. Due to their heavy losses, Russia is carrying out “voluntary mobilization.” According to various estimates, 30-35,000 volunteers have been sent to training camps with subsequent deployment in the active army. Soldiers are also being recruited from high-security prisons and deployed in private security companies. Battalions that carried out peacekeeping duties in Nagorno-Karabakh and troops from de facto annexed South Ossetia are also being sent to the front.
Each day of the war costs taxpayers about $500 million. In July, Finance Ministry statistics showed a federal budget deficit of 892 billion rubles, a drop of 22.5% in oil and gas revenues despite high energy prices, and a nearly 30% drop in revenue from tax collection. The expected loss of GDP by the end of the year is 8%, with a further contraction of the economy over the course of a year and a half or two years. These are the calculations for the summer of 2022, when many private Russian banks can still to conduct transactions with the rest of the world and the country is not cut off from SWIFT. But there can be no doubt that the West will choke the Russian economy before it begins to be choked by its own declining level of technological development, and the Russian military-industrial complex will no longer a threat to Europe and the world.
What Putin wants
An investigation by Washington Post journalists indicates that Putin’s initial goal was to totally occupy all of Ukraine.
This seems strange, given that Stratfor military analysts played out five or six scenarios for Russia’s war with Ukraine back in 2015 and concluded that the Russian Armed Forces would need between 91,000 and 135,000 troops just to seize the so-called left bank of Ukraine and an equal number to hold the occupied territories. The total is 182,000 to 270,000 troops needed. Military analyst Alexander Goltz wrote in a 2014 article for The New Times that Russia would need at least 100,000 troops to hold southeastern Ukraine alone. Note that both analyses came out before the Ukrainian Armed Forces were reformed and equipped with the most modern weapons.
Today there are approximately 170,000 Russian soldiers and officers on the Ukrainian fronts, and 20% of Ukrainian territory is occupied. A simple extrapolation shows that Russia would need about a million men to occupy and hold the entire country. Meanwhile, Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin signed an order to increase the army by 137,000 starting on January 1, 2023.
My Moscow sources who met with Putin on the eve of the military operation do not believe that the Federal Security Service deceived the Russian president by convincing him that everything was ready by Feb. 24 for a quick capture of Kyiv or a blitzkrieg. This was much discussed in the first months of the war and recently covered by the Washington Post.
First of all, they said that in the week before operation began, Putin listened to a variety of people, both those who supported the war and those who opposed it. It is highly unlikely that Chekists or army officers gave him false information, but they probably gave him the information that he wanted to see.
Secondly, they say that there was no plan for the army to occupy the entire country. The goal was to eliminate President Vladimir Zelensky (or force him to leave the country), and then, the KGB officers thought, there would be a domino effect: mayors and regional leaders would either run or swear allegiance to Russia in droves. The logic was as follows: Yanukovich, a “tough guy” with experience of prison and gangster capitalism, was so frightened by the Maidan demonstrations away in 2014 that he fled the country. So what could anyone expect from “that clown Zelensky”? The fact that Zelensky did not leave, did not surrender, did not ask for peace came as a great surprise to Putin: the habit of thinking that the world is run like it is in Russia and that politicians everywhere are a priori greedy and opportunistic has once again let the Kremlin down.
Then what does Putin want? “To tear Ukraine to pieces,” said a source at the top of the Russian political elite. “But now I think the Kremlin is ready to codify the status quo,” said another. That is, Putin is ready for peace talks concerning a map in which 20% of Ukrainian territory is controlled by Russian troops.
I am often asked why there is no widespread anti-war protest in Russia. My answer is to cite the figures quoted by OVD-Info. More than 16,000 people have been detained and over 20,000 cases were opened under Article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Offences (“Violation of the established order of organizing or holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches or pickets”).
Almost every day the few surviving regional websites report that in one place a man with a “No to War” T-shirt came outside and was immediately handcuffed; and in another place a woman held up a “Putin is a war criminal” banner and was, of course, taken away; or even that in a third place a person held up a Mir (“Peace”) state credit card and was taken in for protesting.
In recent months 3003 people were convicted of committing misdemeanors under laws of military censorship — for “discrediting the army” — and hundreds have been charged with “intentionally spreading deliberately false information.” What false information did The New Times, for example, disseminate, for which it received four administrative penalties? We wrote about the bombing of Kharkiv, Odesa and Mykolaiv. But since the information the outlet published had not been published on the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the judge concluded that it hadn’t happened. Besides, according to the prosecution, as early as Feb. 24, the Commander-in-Chief said that a special military operation was being conducted in order to protect Russia from an invasion … from the territory of Ukraine.
According to lawyer and human rights activist Pavel Chikov, 85 criminal cases have been opened to date for “discrediting the army.” A certain unspoken rule has been established for well-known people: first, the authorities provide three “administrative cases,” followed by a window of 3-4 weeks for the person to leave, and if he/she does not leave, there is a search — just before 6 a.m. — and then arrest.
This was the case, for example, with Ilya Yashin, Marina Ovsyannikova, and Evgeny Roizman. Alexei Gorinov, a municipal deputy in the Krasnoselsky District, did not get an administrative conviction. He was immediately sentenced to a criminal offense for “military fakes” and sentenced to seven years in prison.
So, the first and foremost reason for the lack of large-scale anti-war protest is fear, which had been the main tool of the KGB during the long years of Soviet power.
When I asked people at a market in Tver, “What do you think of the special military operation,” only unequivocal supporters replied. Everyone else either declined to answer or slipped behind phrases like, “we don’t know everything” or “who knows who started it?” People who agree to speak in a pre-arranged place asked not to specify their profession or place of work since “the town is small and they’ll figure it out.”
In Pskov, Pskovskaya Guberniya journalists and Yabloko activists were beaten up as early as March 5. After that, many well-known people in the city left for the neighboring Baltic states. The ones who stayed behind don’t even post on social networks, leave alone take part in any street actions.
In Novgorod, in front of the hotel where I was staying — which I had intentionally not booked in advance — there was a large black SUV from which photographs were very obviously taken of all the people I’d arranged to meet. They don’t talk to strangers about the war there, and if they do agree to answer questions, it’s because they have a relative in, say, Kharkiv, and they speak with horror about what is happening.
In Serpukhov, none of the people interviewed agreed to speak under their real name. They are afraid of losing their jobs, although one said confidentially that he and a friend agreed that if they are forcibly mobilized, they will immediately surrender to the Ukrainian armed forces.
The second reason for civil passivity is the lack of leaders.
Some — like Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza — are already in jail, while others — many tens of thousands — went into exile in the early weeks of the war. People live by example: if celebrities and well-known people have left, I was told, then it means “we will be trampled.” They try to find Polish, Baltic, or Jewish roots and leave.
Finally, the restriction on access to information plays an important role. Since the beginning of the war the General Prosecutor’s Office and the courts have blocked about 7,000 websites on the basis of laws about military censorship; all independent mass media, central and regional, agencies, foundations are blocked without exception; entire editorial boards have emigrated from the country. Hundreds of politicians, journalists, and public figures have been given the vile label of “foreign agent” — in my case, for the money earned from a YouTube channel. At the same time, the number of VPN downloads has risen sharply —by 25 times! — since the beginning of the war. In July 25 million Russians were using VPNs. In other words, Russians don’t only have access to propaganda television channels; they can find alternative information on the Internet.
This does not make life any easier: a whole range of websites, services and banks, from state services to Yandex cards to Kommersant and RBC sites, do not work if the VPN is turned on, phones heat up and their batteries drain at an alarming rate. But the main problem is something else.
Studies show that people don’t like to have a hard time finding information, they want to be spoon-fed news, preferably with a dose of infotainment to make it go down easier.
The ruling elite
During the six months of the war, I did not meet a single person who was more or less well-known, or high-ranking, or rich, who openly supported the war. I was told, however, that one former deputy prime minister and now head of a state corporation came to the offices of the Presidential Administration wearing a black T-shirt with a defiant “Z” on his chest. Whether this person was trolling the administration or wearing the T-shirt as a sign of eternal loyalty remains unknown.
Another source began his conversation with a statement: “The election of a retired KGB officer as president was a mistake, it should never happen again.” I didn’t argue the point, of course, but it would have been better if this realization had come 22 years ago. A third source insisted we talk on a balcony and stand so close that we were practically embracing. The fourth was so afraid that the Chekists would tap our conversation that he suggested we meet in a restaurant a couple of dozen kilometers from Moscow. The fifth repeated several times that “society has completely failed to thoroughly consider the implications of using Novichok against opponents.” Apparently the terror that the door handle of your luxury palace or car might be smeared with a military nerve agent never leaves many of the top Russian ruling elite for a moment. That fifth source also complained bitterly that he could not use his private plane. “All planes immediately stopped getting software updates. Of course, we could ask a young man with a black briefcase to come in and hack the software. But I asked the pilot of my plane, ‘Could there be a glitch with the system when we’re in the air?’ ‘Of course,’ he replied. We have to fly Aeroflot, although even their software was probably updated by the same young man with the same briefcase.”
I asked a variety of people what percentage of the top Russian ruling class supported the war. The answers ranged from a low of 10% to a high of 30%. Hundreds — if not thousands — of people at the top have lost millions and billions of dollars, expensive real estate in delightful European countries and the United States because of sanctions and/or the collapse of the stock market. All they get for their loss is endless lamentations from wives and mistresses that “living in this Russia” was not part of the deal. Children studying at Western universities and boarding schools in Britain, Switzerland, and the United States were forced to return to Russia when their educational institutions refused to accept their parents’ toxic money.
That said, people mentioned the names of a couple of billionaires who, despite the sanctions and huge personal losses, called for “striking” Ukraine with nuclear weapons. There is also grumbling in the middle stratum of power brokers, who have lost a lot in mutual funds and especially in cryptocurrency.
No one can predict how the political situation in Russia will develop now. Some give the regime until the spring of 2023, others predict a further intensification of repression in the coming months and are confident that the regime has enough strength to survive another ten years. They insist that the upcoming 2024 elections and the next round won’t change a thing.
I’m not so sure. I’m not sure that Putin’s ruling class, which is made up of dollar millionaires and billionaires and is used to making money in Russia and spending it all over the world, will agree to live and die in a cage.
But we shall see.
This article was first published in Russian in The New Times.
The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.