The six months since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war of aggression have been marked by deprivation and destruction, in Russia as well as Ukraine.
While the damage done to Ukraine since Feb. 24 – the cities reduced to rubble, the thousands of lost lives, the millions of refugees – is easier to see, Russia’s losses have also been significant.
Mr. Putin’s war has cost his country more than 300,000 citizens – including some of Russia’s best and brightest from the arts, media and IT sectors – who left either because they opposed the invasion or did not want to live in a country that was suddenly cut off from so much of the international community. Sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, Canada and other countries caused a 4-per-cent drop in the Russian economy in the second quarter of this year, a decline that is expected to worsen as the war drags on.
“The full-scale invasion was a pivotal moment in Russian history. It was the end of an era. Russia is a very different state right now – because of what Russia is doing to Ukraine, but also because of what Russia is doing to its own population,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based non-governmental organization.
HRW, which was ordered to close its 30-year-old Moscow office in April, was one of more than a dozen major NGOs and international organizations expelled from Russia since the beginning of the conflict. Many foreign media have also closed their Moscow offices, while others have had specific staff members – such as the author of this article – placed on a new Kremlin “stop list,” banning them from entering the Russian Federation.
The Kremlin calls the invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation,” and referring to it as a “war” can land someone in jail. Ms. Lokshina said the expulsions of NGOs and journalists were “evocative of the overt changes taking place in the country and the hostile environment for any criticism, any independent voices.”
Also destroyed in the war has been the notion of Russia as a global military power. The juggernaut that seized Crimea in 2014 and then reversed the tide of Syria’s civil war has been almost completely stopped in its tracks by the smaller Ukrainian army. Russia’s military is now synonymous with war crimes, not battlefield successes. The country’s previously vaunted intelligence services, meanwhile, have been exposed as either having been incompetent in their assessments of Ukraine’s willingness and ability to resist – or unable to communicate such unwelcome information to the Kremlin.
Russia has suffered an unknown number of battlefield deaths during six months of warfare that have seen Moscow abandon an early plan to capture the Ukrainian capital in favour of a slow-moving war of attrition that has seen the Russian army make only incremental gains in the southeastern Donbas region. Russia hasn’t updated its official casualty figures since March 25, when it acknowledged that 1,351 soldiers had been killed during the first month of fighting. Ukraine, which also keeps its combat losses secret, claims to have killed more than 43,000 Russian troops since the war began.
Demolished, too, is the idea that the West can and should try to get along with Mr. Putin’s regime. If the long-time Russian ruler went to war hoping to force the United States and its allies to treat his country as an equal – one with a “sphere of influence” stretching over most of the territory once ruled by the Soviet Union – he has instead made his country a pariah. In addition to the economic sanctions, Russian airlines are banned from flying over much of Europe and North America, and the European Union is debating whether it should stop issuing visas to Russians.
Some, including Britain’s The Economist magazine, in a recent article, argue that Russia transformed from an authoritarian state to a fascist one on Feb. 24 – pointing to, among other things, genocidal anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in Kremlin-controlled media, the use of the half-swastika “Z” as a symbol of the war and the growing cult of personality around Mr. Putin. Others argue that the designation doesn’t yet apply, as Mr. Putin still appears to be concerned with ensuring popular approval for his actions. The Kremlin, for instance, hasn’t yet ordered mass conscription or demanded the full mobilization of Russia’s economy to support the war effort, likely out of fear of how the public would react to such moves.
Polling of public opinion in Russia was fraught even before the war, so surveys showing that support for Mr. Putin remains near 80 per cent – as it has through most of his 22-year reign – are of questionable use. More telling is the fact that 42 per cent of Muscovites said in June that they were “concerned” or “very concerned” by the impact Western sanctions were having.
“The majority seem to be saying that they support [the war], but they’re delusional because they also say that they expect things to improve politically and economically in the future. They’re expecting things to go back to normal. They simply do not understand the scale of what is happening,” said Anton Barbashin, the editorial director of the Riddle Russia news website.
Mr. Barbashin, who is currently based in Europe (Riddle is blocked in Russia), said most Russians still receive their information primarily from state media, which emphasizes military advances in Ukraine – alongside the fact that prices are also rising and some goods are becoming scarce in the West. The Kremlin’s control of the narrative has recently been dented by a series of Ukrainian attacks on military targets in Crimea, which caused a flood of Russian tourists to cut short their holidays and flee the occupied peninsula.
The Kremlin’s information bubble, Mr. Barbashin said, would burst completely if Mr. Putin formally declared war and ordered mass conscription. “The suspicion has been that if it does go to open war, to mobilization, there would be a lot of opposition in Russia to that.”
Ms. Lokshina said her friends and contacts who remained in Russia – particularly those with children – were “despondent” over the country’s future. She said that while she doesn’t view Russia as fascist, it has moved from being a “highly repressive state,” one that was comfortable with limited forms of dissent, to one that is “becoming a dictatorship.”
“Many of us made the mistake. We genuinely thought it was an authoritarian regime, but we thought it was a pragmatic regime,” she said. “Now we all know this was not the case – because Russia is not only destroying Ukrainian cities, the Kremlin is also destroying its own country, doing enormous damage to its own people and depriving the younger generation of their future.”
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, August 23, 2022