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Why is the Kremlin so committed to this war? Sociologist Alexey Levinson outlines the thinking behind Russia’s war in Ukraine
In early June, the independent polling agency the Levada Center published survey data showing that three quarters of Russians believe the “special military operation” in Ukraine is “progressing successfully.” Almost 25 percent expect a Russian victory in “less than six months,” while about 20 percent expect it to come in about a year, and another 20 percent expect victory in over a year. In the 20 years that the Levada Center has been operating, experience has shown that there’s often a wide gulf between the expectations of the Russian public and the worldviews of those who lead the organization. In this essay for Meduza's “Ideas” section, Alexey Levinson, the Levada Center’s social research director, lays out his view of what Russia is hoping to achieve with this war.
What will Russia look like when this war is finally over? We know what regular Russians think about this question. They believe everything will be as it was “before,” and that the country will be led by the same people who lead it now: in May, 72 percent of survey participants wanted Putin to remain president after 2024.
But how do the country’s leaders themselves see the future? Our surveys can’t give us access to their secret thoughts; instead, we have to make inferences based on what we know.
The Levada Center has paid careful attention to Russians’ attitudes towards Putin and to the country’s other political leaders, including, in particular, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Our research indicates that Putin, like Zhirinovsky, has managed to adapt his worldview to the new circumstances that arose after the successive collapses of the communist and the democratic paradigms. The result is a combination of fragments of the Soviet and post-Soviet perspectives placed atop archaic structures that divide the world into “us” and “them,” with certain norms assigned to each group. This is how many Russians have viewed the world in recent years — and why they’ve welcomed most of Putin’s recent actions.
What scared the Kremlin before the war?
The primary issue concerning Western scientists — and, often, politicians — in recent years is the global climate crisis. If current trends — namely the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the result of burning hydrocarbons — continue, global catastrophe may be inevitable. According to scientists’ predictions, Russia will be no exception.
Judging from a number of interviews with experts, however, Russia’s leadership isn’t greatly worried about these ominous predictions. In fact, one popular belief in Russia holds that the country will come out of climate change on top because it will gain territory fertile for growing wheat, while other producer countries’ arable land will shrink.
At the same time, a number of leading Western countries have made it a goal to shrink their carbon emissions, and later to end them completely. Russia, too, signed the Paris Agreement, finding its demands easy enough to meet. But the agreement led other countries that buy petroleum from Russia to begin preparing for a fairly rapid renunciation of fossil fuels as they transition to other energy sources — and this threatened to bring Russia’s role as Europe’s main fuel supplier to an end. Not only would that spell a huge loss of political influence for the Kremlin, it would also wipe out a sizable share of Russia’s budget revenue.
To make matters worse, EU countries have enacted so-called “green laws” and imposed duties on imported goods, which are calculated based on the carbon emissions that result from the goods’ production. This makes it impossible for Russia to sell many of its goods at competitive prices.
In Russia itself, the need to “overcome the oil addiction” has long been a topic of discussion. It’s no secret that a resource-based economy has its fair share of shortcomings. The problem is that nobody has been able to come up with a viable alternative.
Using indirect evidence, we’ve come to the conclusion that over the course of 2021, Russia’s leadership gradually became convinced that if Europe’s energy plans come to fruition, Russia will lose its status as a global power. The only way out was to become Europe’s new hegemon. If Russia could use force to bring the largest country in Central Europe (and subsequently a number of other countries or territories) into its own camp, it would obtain enough political, if not economic, capital to equal the world’s other great powers, the U.S. and China. The world would be divided into spheres of influence — and Europe would fall squarely into the Russian one.
Both Russia’s citizens and its rulers knew what to do next. The EU was in decline, the U.S. had elected a weak president, and Ukraine was a “circus” led by a “clown.” Russia, meanwhile, had a powerful military and a mighty leader.
It’s possible that Russia’s initial intention was simply to demonstrate its power by amassing troops along Ukraine’s border. If everything went according to plan, the U.S. and its “satellite” countries in NATO would then ask for negotiations themselves. At that point, Russia’s leaders would demand the territory they already considered “theirs” — and they would get it.
But in late February, it became clear that Russia’s enemies didn’t want to do things the easy way, and Russia was forced to mobilize its troops.
Who's fighting who?
Russia belongs to a large group of countries that share a number of key features. In these countries, the elites find themselves just as subordinate to their leaders as the rest of the population. As a result, it’s not the leaders who get replaced regularly — it’s the elites.
With respect to the relationship between rulers and elites, history has created three zones in Eurasia. The first zone consists of countries with a healthy civil society, autonomous elites, and a stable democratic order. The second consists of autocracies and despots, where rulers enjoy complete control over elites. These rulers’ power tends to be limited by little other than their lifespans.
Then there's a third zone: the zone of transitions. This is the zone where autocratic governments are gradually replaced by democratic ones, where migrants physically pass through on their way from authoritarian countries to democratic ones, and where governments combine features of authoritarianism with features of democracy or periodically shift towards one extreme or the other.
Another reason the concept of “transition” is significant for these countries is that transfers of power from one ruler to the next are critically important moments in them. An autocrat’s death in one of these countries generally leads to a chaotic struggle for power among elites. The winner becomes the new ruler, and the entire process starts over. In other cases, submissive elites put an end to an autocrat’s rule before his death. Sometimes they manage to secure their own rights and initiate a transition to a different, more democratic form of government. Other times, they just bring about the rise of a new autocrat.
Modern Russia falls in this zone. In Ukraine, despite many similarities to Russia, various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups form a common state with no clear majority or minority groups. As a result, Ukraine has had several presidents in the twenty-first century, while Russia has had only one.
Right now, the border between Russia and Ukraine is a point of contact between two transitional societies. Ukraine is on the outskirts of the West, while Russia is on the outskirts of the East; the battle between them is a drama of transition. In the last few decades, Ukraine has seen multiple power struggles between elites, with an increasing share of the population supporting pro-Western politicians as a result. The Orange Revolution and the Maidan Revolution only increased the odds that Ukraine will end up in the Western community.
The view from the Kremlin
Given how things are going, do Russia’s rulers believe they need to achieve something decisive in Ukraine? Not necessarily. As they see it, Ukraine has already been hit so hard that it will be licking its wounds for at least a decade, even if the entire EU rushes in to help; Russia might as well continue dragging out the “special military operation,” winding it down gradually to save face. In Russian leaders' view, Western countries have clearly changed their minds about writing Russia off completely; they’ll be willing to compromise to avoid too many economic losses of their own.
So how do the authorities imagine a post-war Russia? It certainly won’t have overcome its oil addiction, even if profits aren’t what they used to be: China will continue to buy Russian petroleum, which will find its way to Europe regardless of any embargoes. It will still have a capable army, and other countries will have taken notice. Russian leadership will be ready for anything, to an extent not found anywhere else in the region, and the people will support it. Life will go on: the buses will run, the porridge will still be there, and there will be plenty of gas in the pumps. People will go to work and school with the knowledge that Russia is strong — and can do it all again if it needs to.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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