Analysis: After eight years of conflict with the west, many Russians appear resigned to whatever course Putin chooses
Russia’s buildup of a potential invasion force on Ukraine’s borders has produced little reaction at home despite western threats of devastating economic consequences that would harm tycoons, top businesspeople and the general public alike.
Since 2014, recurrent rounds of sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of the MH17 jetliner, the 2016 US elections interference, the Salisbury poisonings, the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny and other international scandals have steeled Vladimir Putin’s elite supporters and prepared them for the worst.
Many tripped over themselves to publicly show their loyalty to the Kremlin during the 2014 crisis, despite facing crippling sanctions as a result. “You must pay for everything in life, including knowing [Putin],” said Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire friend of the Russian president who was sanctioned in March 2014, in an interview with state media.
Behind closed doors, top businesspeople and officials browbeat each other into staying loyal in the face of personal sanctions. “Our country is under sanctions. And the president is alone on the parapet,” Vladimir Yakunin, the then head of Russian Railways, said during a leaked account of a heated committee meeting in 2014 on whether to integrate Crimea’s football teams into the Russian league – a decision some feared would earn them personal sanctions.
After eight years of persistent conflict with the west, the elite and the public appear largely resigned to whatever course Putin chooses in his quest to assert dominance over Ukraine.
Despite signs pointing toward a greater conflict, polling and anecdotal evidence indicates that many Russians do not feel the threat of war as intensely.
“This talk of war is more done on the western side,” said Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in a television interview this week. “On the Russian side, there is none of that. There is no feeling of an impending war in Ukraine. But military pressure is certainly there, and military pressure is certainly to continue; the military pressure may increase.”
Russia has positioned more than 50 battalion tactical groups – or nearly a third of its total – within striking distance of Ukraine. More main battle tanks and other armoured vehicles have been filmed departing Russia’s far east on flatbed railcars, indicating the buildup is continuing even as high-stakes negotiations were under way in Europe this week. Top Russian officials have indicated talks are at an impasse.
“I do not see any grounds to sit down, convene another meeting and begin the same discussion all over again in the coming days,” said Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister who represented Russia at this week’s negotiations with the US in Geneva. He demanded that the US deliver concrete counterproposals or Russia would be forced to ensure its security via other means.
While the Kremlin has delivered bombastic rhetoric blaming the west for the conflict, there has not been a similar outburst of nationalism like the one after the annexation of Crimea. “We don’t notice much enthusiasm … the government’s ratings continue to fall, despite the possibility of a large-scale confrontation,” said Denis Volkov of the independent Levada Centre.
The events of March 2014 also energised opponents of the clash with Ukraine, a portion of the Russian opposition that risked openly opposing the growing conflict in Ukraine. Liberals “are aghast of President Vladimir Putin’s warmongering, and they are very vocal in their condemnation of the Kremlin revanchism, but the situation in Ukraine itself is not the focus of their conversation,” wrote the journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan.
Ultimately, there is little in terms of domestic politics to restrain Putin from going to war in Ukraine if he so chooses.
The Kremlin has spent years preparing for a broader economic conflict with the west, including building up considerable cash reserves that would insulate it from the economic shock of new US sanctions. And as the experience of 2014 shows, its powerful oligarchs will also be expected to shoulder their burden in the coming conflict.
“Personal inconveniences and costs to one’s business can and should be neglected when it comes to the interests of the state,” said Timchenko in the interview. “There can be no compromise here.”