‘Russia ends nowhere,’ they say Sociologist Grigory Yudin discusses a year of war and what comes next
Interview by Margarita Liutova. Abridged translation by Emily Laskin.
Sociologist Grigory Yudin was one of just a few Russian experts who believed in February 2022 that a military clash between Russia and Ukraine was inevitable. In an article published just two days before the invasion, Yudin predicted that a major war loomed in the near future, that Russians would follow the Kremlin in blaming the West, and that sanctions would do nothing to stop Putin — all of which came true. In February 2023, Meduza special correspondent Margarita Liutova spoke to Yudin about why Putin needs a “forever war,” and what might ensure the emergence of a broad anti-war movement in Russia.
There’s a widespread view about contemporary Russian politics that says war is an endless process for Putin, and Putin himself seemed to confirm the idea in his recent Federal Assembly address: He said nothing about how Russia will win and what will happen after that. Do you think that Putin’s plan is really eternal war?
Yes, of course, the war is now forever. It has no goals that can be achieved and lead to its end. It continues simply because [in Putin’s imagination], they are enemies and they want to kill us, and we want to kill them. For Putin, it’s an existential clash with an enemy set on destroying him.
There should be no illusions: while Putin is in the Kremlin, the war will not end. It will only expand. The size of the Russian army is increasing rapidly, the economy is reorienting toward guns, and education is turning into a propaganda tool and war preparation. They’re preparing the country for a long and difficult war.
And then it’s obviously impossible for Putin to win?
It’s absolutely impossible. No one has set any goal [for the war] or offered any definition of victory.
So, can we consider the point to be the preservation of Vladimir Putin’s authority?
They’re almost the same thing. He thinks of his rule as constant war. Putin and the people who surround him told us long ago that there’s a war against us. Some preferred not to mark their words, but they seriously think that they’ve been at war for a long time. It’s just that now this war has entered such an aggressive phase, and there’s obviously no exit. War itself is normal, in their worldview. Stop thinking that peace is the natural state, and you’ll see the situation through their eyes. As the governor of Khanty-Mansi [Natalya Komarova] said, “War is a friend.”
On February 22, 2022, you published an article on openDemocracy, in which you described an upcoming major war and Putin’s dismissive attitude toward the sanctions that Western countries imposed in response. In the second half of the article, you argued that “the war with Ukraine will be the most senseless of all the wars in our history.” Do you think Russian society has started to realize this over the past year?
No, in my view, it hasn’t. It was clear to many, many people from the very beginning, but since then that category has barely grown. In Russia today, you find this powerful feeling, and it’s one of those rare occasions when Vladimir Putin connects with a significant part of society. It’s far from everyone who shares his wild theories, but he does connect with people. Even more importantly, he produces this emotion himself. And that emotion is resentment — monstrous, endless resentment. Nothing can mollify this resentment. It’s impossible to imagine what could compensate for it. It doesn’t allow people to think about establishing any kind of productive relationships with other countries.
You know, it’s like a young child who gets deeply offended and then hurts those around him. The harm grows greater and greater, and at some point, he seriously begins destroying others’ lives, as well as his own. But the child isn’t thinking about that; he isn’t thinking that he somehow needs to build relationships.
I think that the feeling of resentment, which has been overflowing lately in Russia, is supported at a very high level, and we haven’t yet reached the point where someone might realize that we [Russians] have normal, legitimate interests, and we need to reach them by building relationships with other countries in the right way.
There’s a good saying in Russia: “Water is borne on the shoulders of the offended,” [meaning, roughly, that a grudge is a heavy burden]. At some point, we’ll understand that this resentment works against us, that we’re harming ourselves because of it. But at the moment, too many of us want to be offended.
Whom do Vladimir Putin and Russian society resent? The whole world? The West? The U.S.?
[They resent] a world order that seems unfair, and, accordingly, whoever takes responsibility for being “superior” in this world order, meaning the United States of America.
I always remember something Putin said in mid-2021. He said, completely unprovoked, that there’s no happiness in life. It’s a strong statement for a political leader, who of course doesn’t have to bring people into heaven but should in theory make their lives better.
But it’s as if he says: “There’s no happiness in life. The world is a bad, unjust, difficult place, where the only way to exist is to struggle constantly, to fight, and, at the outer limit, kill.”
Resentment of the outside world is deeply rooted in Russia, and it gets projected onto the U.S., which seems responsible for the world. At some point, the United States really did take responsibility for the world — not completely successfully. And we see that the resentment I’m talking about is definitely not only in Russia (where it of course exists in a catastrophic, horrible form).
A significant part of the world has well-founded complaints about the current world order, and against the U.S., which took responsibility, became a hegemon, and has benefited from the world order in many ways. We see that parts of the world that are engulfed by this resentment are more understanding toward Vladimir Putin.
I wouldn’t say that this understanding becomes support, simply because Putin offers nothing [to the world]. Putin wants to do the same things for which he criticizes the United States. So, supporting him is difficult, but many want to join in the resentment.
Is resentment rooted in Russian society from before Putin, in the nineties? Or has it been cultivated under Putin?
There are some grounds for resentment [in Russian society]. It’s related to the instructive role that the U.S. and some parts of Western Europe took on. Ideologically, [that role] was framed in terms of modernization theory, which said that there are developed countries and developing countries, and the developed countries — kindly and supportively — will teach the developing ones: “Guys, you should be arranged like so.” Generally speaking, no one likes to be lectured. Especially a big country that has its own imperial past.
In fact, the situation that developed in the 1990s was much more complicated. [After the collapse of the USSR,] Russia was invited to join a whole host of key international clubs, and Russia influenced decisions on key global questions. But that instructive tone [in relation to Russia] was there. It was the result of a profound ideological mistake: In the conditions of the socialist project’s collapse, it seemed [to many] that there was only one correct path, the famous “end of history.” So, there were preconditions for resentment, but there were also preconditions for other emotions.
There were [also] many competing narratives [about the meaning of the USSR’s collapse for its citizens]. One held that it was a people’s revolution, a glorious moment in Russian history and the history of other nations, because they managed to take control of a hateful, tyrannical regime. That conception, of course, doesn’t lead to resentment.
But Putin chose resentment. In part, probably, because of his own personal qualities. And resentment is contagious. It’s a convenient emotion: you always feel, first of all, in the right, and second, you feel undeservedly trampled on.
You’ve said more than once that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine. What exactly do you anticipate? Moldova, the Baltic states, a self-destructive war with the U.S.?
His worldview sees no borders. This formula has become a practically official line: Russia ends nowhere. This is the standard definition of an empire because an empire recognizes no borders.
I’ll remind everyone of [Putin’s] ultimatum [to the U.S. and NATO] in December of 2021 — it’s crystal clear, it says in plain text that all of Eastern Europe is Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence. How that will be worked out, whether it means a formal loss of sovereignty or not, what difference does it make? And this zone without a doubt includes East Germany, just because Putin has personal memories of it. It’s really hard for me to imagine that he truly thinks of that territory as not his. Putin definitely intends to restore the Warsaw Pact zone [the former Eastern Bloc countries under Soviet influence].
I often hear, “It’s irrational. It’s senseless. There’s no possibility of this happening!” Not long ago, people said exactly the same thing about Ukraine. They said the same thing even more recently about Moldova, and now we’re hearing that the leadership of Moldova, Ukraine, and the U.S. believe that Moldova is in grave danger. We’ve already seen that Moldova was figured into the plans of the current military operation; it just hasn’t gotten there yet.
Russia’s general strategy is something like this: let’s bite off a piece, then that piece will be recognized as legitimate, and in the next phase, on the basis of that recognition, we can take something else.
[In this strategy’s logic,] we’ll bite off, roughly, eastern Ukraine, with the help of some kind of truce. Soon, we’ll start to hear voices from Europe, saying, “Well, it was their land, after all. Everyone agreed, it’s fine.” Well, wait a minute. If it’s “their” land — Russian land — because people there speak Russian, then what about eastern Estonia? You might say, “But Estonia is in NATO!” But will NATO fight for Estonia? Putin is absolutely sure that if the durability of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty [the article ensuring collective defense] is tested at the right moment, NATO will fall apart.
To be clear, I don’t see what I’m talking about as the likeliest possibility. I’m describing Putin’s strategy, but Putin doesn’t rule the world. He’ll get as much as he’s allowed to get. But a scenario like that isn’t impossible to imagine.
It’s easy to imagine that Putin and his team held such views on, say, February 24, 2022. But a year has passed, and the West has not collapsed and in fact is providing Ukraine with appreciable support. Could this year’s events, including the results of the Russian military campaign, have influenced the perceptions you just described?
They could, and they definitely did. The whole year showed [Putin] that, since the West has seized onto Ukraine, it clearly indicates that it’s a key region and [the West] was planning an attack on him precisely from there. Apart from that, [in Putin’s view] it’s good that this year’s problems came to light before the real war, which Russian leadership considers inevitable. It would be much worse [according to their logic] to take such an army into a [future] big war. So, everything that happens strengthens Putin, in his own eyes.
They’ve been preparing this war for many years. It would be strange if they went into it with only one plan. [Putin’s logic is like this:] “Yeah, things didn’t all work out according to the best scenario — no problem, we’ll press on. We’re prepared to shed as much blood as necessary on this, and they’re not.”
I’m not saying that such tactics will be successful. In fact, I think that Putin’s logic dooms him to defeat, and that he subconsciously wants to lose. The question is how many people will die before that happens. But if we want to make predictions, we have to understand the logic that [people in power in Russia] are operating under.
Do you think anything could make Putin doubt his own perceptions about the world?
When we discussed the topic of this conversation before the interview, you commented on the current state of Russian society, its atomization and blocked collective action, and you noted that a conversation like this can actually strengthen the feeling of learned helplessness, which you didn’t want to do. Are there ways to talk to society that don’t feed this sense of helplessness?
If the main emotion in Russia is resentment, then the main affect, on which everything is built now, is fear. It’s existential fear — fear of a specific person’s wrath, or fear of war, or an abstract fear of chaos.
Fear is beaten out by hope. That’s the opposite affect. People need to be given hope. In this sense, the absolutely understandable, well-founded accusations [against the people of Russia] are politically shortsighted. Again: they’re understandable, well-founded, and legitimate, but they’re politically shortsighted.
The question is how to give people hope in this situation. Hope is related to a demonstration that everything can be different, that Russia can be organized differently. The truth is that, until [Russians] realize they’re at a dead end, there’s not much motivation to listen to such things, because they’re scary. It’s connected to a challenge to the status quo. And that’s threatening enough to convince people not to get involved.
In Russia, any normative discourse has been snuffed out. It’s been difficult for a very long time to ask how society should be organized, how to do it fairly, honestly, and well. A few years ago, respondents [to a sociological survey I ran] responded, “In Russia? There’s no way.” This is the suppression of normative discourse, but there will be a demand for it, inevitably, when people realize they’re at a dead end. In this situation, it’s important that people have hope.
You’ve presented the discourse that is most often heard regarding Russian culture right now: that it’s imperial, that it birthed and nurtured a slave mentality…
I think that Russian culture has a large imperial element, and the time has come to deal with it. The collapse of an empire is a good moment to do that. Will it extinguish Russian culture? No. It might not even extinguish the works of any given author. Can you find imperial ideas in a given author’s work? You can, and you must. Why the need either to reject completely or accept completely? You’re not marrying anybody and pledging a vow of unconditional love.
Culture develops through reworking itself, including through criticizing itself. But the criticism can’t be a complete rejection.
Culture itself provides the positions from which to criticize it. There’s nothing demeaning in this; there’s no problem in seeing [imperial ideas] in Russian culture, isolating it, and examining how it’s related to other elements.
Can you give an example of a recipe for wisdom and hope from within Russian culture?
Well, the classic critic of imperialism in the history of political thought is Vladimir Lenin. It was Lenin who spoke about “Great Russian chauvinism” in relation to Ukraine, and he attacked imperialism in other countries. Today, in universities all over the world, the study of imperialism begins with Lenin.
Russia also gave global political thought the ability to think beyond the state: Mikhail Bakunin, Leo Tolstoy, Peter Kropotkin, and in some regards also Lenin. The list goes on. Russia has not given rise to one significant statist or centralist thinker. All ideas about centralization in Russia are imported. Ideas about freedom, mutual aid, and dignity run in the other direction.
What do you think about the divide between those who have left Russia and those who have stayed?
It seems to me that all of us, and our country, are in trouble. It would be good if everyone who’s now outside of Russia thought about how to help those who are in Russia. And if everyone in Russia thought about how to help those who are suffering far away. We’ll get through it, but we can only get through it together. Only together.