Putin’s decision to go to war with Ukraine evokes totalitarianism in Russia
The restoration of Russia’s power, similar to that the Soviet Union or Russian Empire once had, is Putin’s long-term vision. Yet, the attempt to achieve Russia’s greatness through the war against Ukraine has led to growing political repression, militarisation, and incoherent attempts to construct an ideology that supports the regime’s policies.
The war helps to reinforce Putin’s personal power and test loyalty of the elites; it also provides an excuse to repress those who openly resist the government’s policies.
Increased international isolation limits the spread of liberal Western ideas in Russian society, which the regime considers to be among the main threats to its stability. During one year of the war, the Kremlin finally eliminated independent media and non-governmental organisations. Most members of the political opposition as well as liberal intelligentsia voluntarily or forcibly have left Russia.
The war has exposed the inefficiency and corruption of the regime, revealed limits of Russia’s military power and lack of potential to secure its economic and technological development. Its dependence on energy export has increased; however, there is no alternative to such an economic model. The regime hopes to redirect trade towards ‘friendly’ countries; meanwhile, Russia buys irreplaceable goods and technologies from the ‘unfriendly’ West by circumventing the imposed sanctions. They have not led to a collapse of the economy, but Russia’s economic problems, for example, dependence on raw material exports, inefficient logistics, declining production due to shortages of components and technology, and substantial budget deficit have been building up steadily and are likely to continue to do so in the short term.
The majority of Russian population has been passively supporting the war, but the mobilisation has revealed that this support is not so strong as the regime’s propaganda has been trying to portray. Dissatisfaction with the regime’s policies is currently passive and manifests itself in mobilisation evasion or complaints about poor supply and disorder in the Armed Forces. Russian society has started losing its confidence in propaganda and the number of supporters of peace talks is growing. With the economic situation deteriorating, dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s policies is likely to increase in the near term. The regime seeks to avoid such a situation, tries gradually to accustom Russian society to realities of the war by employing the rhetoric on ‘special military operation’, ‘partial’ and ‘limited’ mobilisation, and imposing martial law only on part of Russian territory.
The ruling elite and security forces remain loyal to the regime and its policies. They obey orders unquestioningly and support the regime with public militant rhetoric. Private businesses support the mobilisation and donate to the Armed Forces. It is likely that the loyalty is driven by the fear of reprisals, conformity, and lack of an alternative to Putin. Most of Russia’s top officials were forced to accept the new reality because they had no prior knowledge of the decision to start the war against Ukraine. Putin avoids replacing officials even when the war clearly reveals their incompetence. It is likely that currently he tries to avoid creating additional stress for the elite.
There are tensions and anxiety about the future among government officials and representatives of large companies. Former practices of the regime, such as imitation of democratic procedures, competition among Kremlin factions, oligarchs’ corrupt activities in Russia and abroad, will have to cease due to the regime’s increasing totalitarian tendencies and state control over the economy.
We assess that Russia’s ruling regime is capable of continuing the war and maintaining social control through political repression in the short term. This strategy requires mobilisation of state resources, which undermines political and economic foundations of the regime. It is possible that failures on the battlefield, further mobilisation, and a sharp deterioration of the economic situation will have a negative impact on the regime’s stability. In the current social and political environment, the most likely alternative to the Putin’s regime is another authoritarian regime, so Russia likely will remain a threat and source of instability in the region at least in the medium term.