War as the new normal Unable to achieve victory in Ukraine, Putin must perpetuate and routinize the war to stay in power
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, conceived by Vladimir Putin as a lightning-speed “special military operation,” has entered its second year without any remaining sense of clear military or political objectives. Nor is there any plausible account of how any gains from the invasion could possibly offset Russia’s losses from the war. For Meduza’s Ideas editor Maxim Trudolyubov, this absence of stated rational goals is not accidental. Putin’s reasons for prolonging the war, he writes, have less to do with foreign policy than with the Russian president’s need to buttress his autocratic power at home. The less successful he is in his “military operation,” the more likely it is that Putin will continue embroiling Russia in routinized warfare, in order to postpone the defeat that might signal the beginning of the end for Putin’s seemingly limitless presidency. It is for the sake of keeping the domestic threats at bay that Putin is now trying to reorganize Russian society around perpetual warfare.
It has become a habitual gesture for Vladimir Putin to divest himself of responsibility. One of his oft-repeated phrases, “we didn’t start this war, but it is our job to end it,” might have sounded less out of place if spoken by Volodymyr Zelensky. In fact, it did come from Zelensky’s 2019 inaugural speech, in which the newly-elected Ukrainian president said precisely this, referring the Russian-occupied Donbas. Putin has coopted Zelensky’s maxim without so much as crediting the source. Coming from Putin, though, the phrase rings hollow and false, not just because he did, in fact, “start this war,” but also because he is utterly incapable of ending it.
This incapacity is rooted in the political system Putin himself has created, part of which is the disorganized, unwieldy, and uncontrollably violent military that doesn’t stop at crimes against civilians. No leader can conduct a war marked by atrocities like those that shocked the world when the Russian army retreated from the Kyiv region, without forfeiting his chances of shaping the conditions for peace. As a leader, Putin cannot extricate himself from this war without facing the gravest accusations and possibly even threats to his life. As a result, his only way out of warfare is to crush the adversary, if he can. But given how big an ‘if’ this is, his best option is to perpetuate the war, since any conditional peace would probably mean Putin’s removal from power, followed by severe repercussions.
How dictators wage wars
The British historian E. H. Carr (1892–1982) thought that foreign policy is haunted by the specter of war the way domestic politics is haunted by the specter of revolution. Hein Goemans, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, developed Carr’s thought a step further: in his book Leaders and International Conflict (2011), co-authored with Giacomo Chiozza, Goemans argues that international conflicts develop precisely when leaders grow anxious about the transfer of power and try to preempt domestic revolutions by externalizing the political tensions.
This human anxiety about the loss of power is understandable, but it plays out differently in different types of regimes. A leader who can expect peaceful and orderly succession when the next election comes, or else when the term limit in office is reached, will act differently from a head of state who lives in fear of a violent coup. Their differences will most come to the fore in how these leaders will confront the dilemma of either continuing a war or making a peace deal. In his book War and Punishment (2000), Hein Goemans compiled and analyzed comprehensive data on the past two centuries of armed conflict, isolating three main types of leader behaviors with respect to the War–Peace dilemma. Goemans distinguishes three kinds of leaders: democratic leaders, dictators, and moderately repressive autocrats. (At the time of writing his book, he placed Putin in the latter category.)
A dictator threatened with removal by a coup or an insurrection is often convinced that going to war might improve his position. Being able to choose the time and place to start a conflict, as well as its character, gives him a sense of control, together with the hope of buttressing his power and neutralizing dangerous internal competitors. It must be said, too, that their fears about internal risks are well-grounded. While only seven percent of democratically elected leaders face adverse consequences for their actions in office within a year of leaving, that risk is 41 percent for authoritarian leaders, write Goemans and his co-author Alexandre Debs in their 2010 paper, “Regime Type, the Fate of Leaders, and War.”
Democracies and war
A democratically elected leader has a fair chance of contented retirement spent writing memoirs, even after a military defeat. It isn’t unheard of for a leader to be re-elected after an unsuccessful military campaign. (Take the recent case of Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, re-elected after the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh.) Conversely, a victorious war does not guarantee victory in a democratic election. Winston Churchill’s electoral defeat right after the Second World War is, perhaps, a textbook example of this reversal. Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s political defeat after Turkey’s successful incursion into Cyprus in the 1970s is another example of this pattern.
U.S. President George H. W. Bush is a particularly interesting case in this regard. His presidency was marked by America’s illegitimate, UN-condemned, but nevertheless successful invasion of Panama in 1989–1990. A year later, Bush, Sr., became the leader of an international UN-backed coalition in the Gulf War, a victorious war for the U.S. (in which even the crumbling Soviet Union fought on its side). Later, he saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. From an American point of view, this was yet another triumph.
In Russia, with its cult of victories (a cult actively plugged by Putin himself), a leader who had triumphed not once, but three times would surely have risen to the status of a great historic figure. This didn’t happen to Bush in the U.S. Instead, the electorate, unimpressed by his economic policy, refused to bring him back for another term, electing instead an obscure governor of Arkansas who’d promised to improve the economy.
The bottomline is that democratic leaders are perfectly capable of embroiling themselves in military exploits. This isn’t what separates them from dictators and authoritarian heads of state. But an authoritarian regime is much more likely to use a war abroad to unleash repressions at home. Above all, dictators and autocrats are far more likely to perpetuate a war in their life-or-death struggle to remain in power.
War as the new normal
A regime that refuses to acknowledge its own mistakes (or worse, its crimes), insisting that everything is going according to the plan, will predictably come to a point when it has to present its crimes and errors as inevitable: It was fate. It befell the nation, and now everyone must deal with it. Difficult times happen.
Putin’s recent addresses, including his Federal Assembly speech last month, uniformly present the war as a new kind of normal. There’s nothing new, of course, in his being shy of calling things their own names. There’s no martial law, just graduated approximations; no mobilization except “partial”; nor is there any admission of the state of emergency into which the country is so obviously plunged. Unlike Zelensky, Putin has nothing to say about the aims of the war. He proposes no vision of a future victory, either. The war is presented as a “difficult situation” that formed somehow, maybe on its own, but more likely as a result of someone’s adversarial conniving. This “difficult situation” has no clear-cut beginning, nor a foreseeable end.
But interminable “difficulties” have their upside. In the picture that Putin is painting for the Russian public, the war becomes a link between the state and society. It has no cost at all to the public itself. No one has to pay for it, and the losses are carefully kept out of sight. Putin wants Russians to believe that society only stands to gain from the invasion, which leads to the creation of new jobs, gainful employment, social mobility, and ultimately stability. War means regular vacation time: you go to “work” in the combat zone, you take a break, you go back, all in an orderly, respectable fashion. If anyone dies or comes back disabled, the state has special care in store. It’ll all be paid for, and the new recruits, who will replace those already killed, should be well-funded from the start.
War is also profitable. The Kremlin is encouraging Russians to seize the economic opportunities created by the sanctions and by the mass exodus of foreign companies from the Russian market. Business must, in turn, subsidize the state’s militarization. What Putin doesn’t say is that, over time, corporations and individuals alike will have to increase payments to support the state’s military ambitions. If there’s one thing that years of diminishing real incomes have taught Russia’s president, it’s that hardly anyone will notice if the whole population at once gets poorer. (Those who don’t get poorer — the very rich Russians — hardly ever come into contact with everyday people.)
Putin’s main domestic allies are not, in fact, members of the military or the security apparatus. His vital collaborators are the civilian technocrats in charge of the social and economic spheres.
What could stop Putin?
The prospect of an inglorious finale makes autocratic rulers perpetuate wars at any cost, even if they realize that their original aggressive plans have failed. This is what happened to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1914, when, four months into the First World War, Germany’s Schlieffen Plan for the speedy invasion of France fell through. That fall, the cabinet concluded that Germany had no chances of victory, and none would be achieved. But they continued the war, for four more years, on the grounds that ending it would also end the German monarchy. Putin’s regime has painted itself into a similar kind of corner. Russia’s “Schlieffen Plan” for Ukraine crumbled in March 2022, but (just like the German leadership of a century ago), Russia’s political elites committed themselves to the war, in spite of its futility.
Hein Goemans looks at war as a process of exploration and learning. The things that countries may spend decades concealing from one another become plainly visible in battle. How well-armed and well-equipped are the armies, the troops’ morale and readiness for combat, the competence of those in command, the responsiveness of international partners and allies: all of this comes to light during an actual armed conflict.
If war were to be simply a rational matter, then after a few months of collecting this information, the sides could take stock of what they learned about one another — and possibly cut their losses, the way investors do. Yet clearly, the pragmatism of warfare does not fully account for the decisions made by the politicians who start wars.
Losing a war doesn’t have to cost a dictator his life or his place in power. Saddam Hussein lost the Gulf War and remained in power for over a decade, but only because he had his main opponents killed. Leaders who are not so sure about their repressive apparatus and its reliability, may prolong their wars, because a drawn-out military conflict keeps them in power, but peace might very well become their death sentence.
With the help of Russia’s government technocrats, Putin is trying to erect a new state organized around perpetual war, in which society has no other anchors but warfare and Putin himself as a leader. Desensitizing society to casualties is the first step towards the kind of routinized warfare that Putin dreams of. How deeply he manages to lead society into this new state depends on how much time he is permitted to remain in office.
If Putin acts as if deeply uncertain about his personal safety in case of defeat, this may well be grounded in what he has learned about his own security apparatus while at war with Ukraine. Having proven themselves ineffective, Russia’s military elites have also shown themselves to be unpredictable. This discovery may very well be a lesson that Putin has taken to heart.