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All of Putin’s open fronts

When he launched the war on Ukraine in February of 2022, Vladimir Putin said that he thought that the Russian people would be able to distinguish “true patriots from scum and traitors.” This was again expressed at a rally in Moscow a month later, where he also stated that Russia’s “fifth column” was made up of those who had left the country or refused to serve in the army. But he was wrong: the first big blow wasn’t delivered by any democratic dissident, but by the very same mercenaries that, just a few weeks ago, he congratulated for the conquest of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

The Wagner Group’s rebellion last weekend has shown cracks in the Russian leader’s hold on power. Added to the consequences of the failed military coup attempt – which took place right in the middle of the war against Ukraine – are other open fronts where Putin is exposed. He’s facing international pressure, faltering domestic support, isolation from his people and a bleak economic outlook.

The silence of many Kremlin insiders during the advance of the mercenaries towards Moscow was far louder than the diatribes unleashed by Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin against the Ministry of Defense. Meanwhile, the reaction of the Russian people – who supposedly support their leader – has also been striking. As rebel troops made their way to the Russian capital, no public demonstration formed in support of Putin. On the contrary: groups of citizens feted the mercenaries.

The population’s indifference to the coup has set off alarm bells in the Kremlin, after 23 years of Putin’s uninterrupted rule. The president is now trying to regain contact with the public – he greatly distanced himself from the masses during the pandemic.

Putin has also shown signs of trusting his advisers less and less. After allowing the departure of Wagner’s boss to Belarus, one of the most popular Russian generals – Sergei Surovikin – was questioned about his close relationship with Prigozhin. The internal division of the army has become even more palpable after the mutiny, with a lot of displeasure aimed at Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu – a member of the president’s inner circle, but not a career military man.

Putin’s plans have suffered setbacks in the past week. The military industry is working at full capacity and the missiles to attack Ukraine haven’t been exhausted yet – but the Prigozhin-led insurrection has revealed disenchantment among Russians. The Wagner boss has received a lot of sympathy from soldiers for having dared to criticize the high command. On top of all this strife, massive tax hikes and the devaluation of the ruble reveal that the economic situation is not as buoyant as the Kremlin claimed. International sanctions are making a dent.

Time is running out for Putin’s regime – and the presidential elections are on the horizon, scheduled for March of 2024. After 16 months of war – with rising indifference among the citizenry – the margin for error is narrowing.

Yevgueni PrigozhinYevgeny Prigozhin, in Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023.

Russian society: between indifference and fear

At the end of Moscow’s New Arbat avenue, a monument honors the “three defenders of democracy” who were assassinated there when they demonstrated alongside thousands of others in front of the coup plotters, who tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in August of 1991. They died at the hands of a battalion led by a then-unknown Sergei Surovikin – until a week ago, one of the most acclaimed generals of the Russian Armed Forces and a comrade of Yevgeny Prigozhin. But unlike three decades ago – and despite the request to close ranks around the president – citizens didn’t take to the streets to show their support for the government, following the failed rebellion against the high command and against the Kremlin on June 23 and 24. Fear, indifference and boredom were the feelings that the military and political confrontations aroused in ordinary Russians.

“In 1991, it was clear that there was a good side and a bad side. Now, there’s no option: it’s bad or bad,” a Muscovite jokes. He began university when the coup by the communist leadership against Gorbachev took place. Back then, he wasn’t afraid to show his face publicly in support of the reformer. But today, like many others, he prefers to speak anonymously. “The best thing for us will be the least bad option,” he adds.

Another woman – Asia – believes that the political situation is out of her hands. “I understood that the situation was serious (when the Wagner coup attempt occurred), but I couldn’t influence it. I was scared. I made a plan about what to do if something really serious happened,” she tells EL PAÍS. Her alternative was to go to Kazan, some 500 miles east of Moscow. Many Russians went to their dachas – country houses and cottages on the outskirts of cities – until everything calmed down.

Denís – a fictitious name, since he wants to preserve his anonymity – was in Kazan that weekend. “I was observing the situation from a distance and felt somewhat more secure. I couldn’t avoid a mixture of emotions that went from fear and euphoria to panic… I [was curious] about what the final result would be,” affirms this young man, who is in his thirties. “I don’t side with either side – I just hope that any change happens gradually and not through a revolution. The last thing I want to see is another senseless war,” he adds.

“It’s all over” and “it’s been a circus” are two of the most-repeated phrases by Russians. And despite the fact that a column of thousands of rebels advanced toward the capital less than 10 days ago – shooting down combat helicopters and capturing military installations in the process – many citizens have already stopped talking about this episode.

“By Sunday, nobody remembered anymore,” says Anna. A native of Voronezh – the second region through which Wagner passed while threatening to enter the capital – she recounts by phone how her family and friends experienced the recent events. “My parents wanted to go to the country house for the weekend, but [the authorities] declared an anti-terrorist operation – all exits from the city were blocked. In the end, they stayed at the house of some friends. They didn’t understand my panic.”

The Russians could see – even through official channels – that an armed mutiny was taking place in their country. “I don’t understand the panic,” a friend wrote to Anna. “The news is talking about a burning warehouse and that the police and the National Guard have reinforced the city… but while I was driving to work, I saw nothing. Overall, everything is fine.” A fuel tank was shelled by Russian forces to make it difficult for the rebels to advance. “[I was told that] the son of an acquaintance couldn’t get home [because of the blockage],” Anna says.

Russian state media experienced the crisis “not with fear, but with adrenaline.” “I didn’t understand anything,” continues an employee of a television channel, who wants to remain anonymous. “On Friday night, I thought that everything had been fabricated – I didn’t believe anything. On Saturday, I had the feeling that something was up, but that it would end well. And they fixed it!” he writes via text. He emphasizes a personal opinion: “I would say that it was thanks to the president [Putin] and [Aleksandr] Lukashenko” – the president of Belarus – who mediated the confrontation. Prigozhin finally stopped his advance towards the capital and withdrew his mercenaries from the occupied military facilities in Rostov-on-Don, to later go into exile in the neighboring country.

“This indifference of the Russians to what may happen to the government is an indication that they don’t support him (Putin]) and that it can be very easy to [switch out one leader] for another,” says Oleg Lukin, a Russian researcher for the geopolitical analysis website El Orden Mundial (The World Order). “This event reinforces the idea that Russia is a country taken hostage. In this case, by a criminal organization that wanted to overthrow another.”

Hours after Wagner’s rebels withdrew – to the cheers of the residents of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh – Muscovites were back to normal life. But Putin was rattled. After being cut off from the world by the pandemic since 2020, he immersed himself in a crowd on Wednesday, on a visit to Derbent, capital of the Russian Republic of Dagestan. Hugs, screams, selfies – a gesture aimed at showing that he still has the support of the average Russian.

Although various political voices called for unity around the president as soon as the mercenaries’ rebellion began, the State Duma didn’t meet until Tuesday to address the crisis and call for unanimous support for Putin. “The lesson we learned on June 24 is very simple: we are more united than ever,” said Leonid Slutsky, the leader of Russia’s populist and ultranationalist Liberal-Democratic Party.

The rebellion coincided with a survey being carried out at the time by the independent Levada Center. The survey showed that the crisis had sunk the public image of both the mutineer and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin’s approval plunged from 58% to 34% earlier this week, while support for Shoigu fell from 60% to 51%. It’s also striking that the Chechen president – Ramzan Kadyrov – is more popular, at 71%. After the mutiny broke out, the leader of the little republic took more than half-a-day to make a statement in favor of Putin.

Before the riot, 19% of those surveyed by Levada were willing to support the owner of the Wagner Group if he ran in the 2024 presidential elections. This figure dropped to 10% after his rebellion against the government.

Putin’s approval has remained stable at around 82%. However, another survey carried out by the Levada Center from June 22 to 28 shows that the percentage of the population that thinks that the country is “going in the right direction” dropped from 67 % to 61%. The figure reached 53% on the Saturday following the riot. The Russian elite has taken note of the success achieved by the critical Prigozhin and Kadyrov, who took a stand against a Kremlin and a Ministry of Defense that simply do not admit mistakes.

Moscow, Russia, Sunday, June 25, 2023A sidewalk café in Moscow, on June 25, 2023
Alexander Zemlianichenko (AP)

Despite the failed coup attempt, the mercenaries’ products have not been banned. On the contrary, they’ve become bestsellers in Russia. This past Saturday, Wildberries and Ozon – the main Russian online retail platform – was offering between 12,228 and 16,278 items for sale under the “Wagner” label, including flags, fabric patches, key chains, mugs, t-shirts. Some depict the skull of the rebels… and even images of Prigozhin himself.

While online sales have skyrocketed, it’s much more difficult to find Wagner-branded wares in military goods and souvenir shops – at least, in the capital. “No, we don’t have anything,” a saleswoman responded this past week with obvious nervousness when asked if she sold anything from Wagner. The mutiny happened very recently – it still hasn’t been absorbed by the public that the group actually remains legal, thanks to the fact that Putin has guaranteed their safety: the mercenaries will be able to join the army, go to Belarus, or lay down their weapons.

The electoral horizon

The war is about to become part of the electoral campaign in Russia. There are nine months left for the presidential elections in March of 2024. Vladimir Putin has not yet announced whether he will be a candidate again, although, on a political level, he’s keeping the situation under control. The democratic opposition is in prison or in exile, while the parties that are part of the State Duma have reiterated their loyalty to the president after the Wagner uproar.

For the Kremlin, the most important elections aren’t the Russian ones, but rather the American ones next November. Putin’s great hope is the return of Donald Trump to the White House. This past week, in an interview with Reuters, the former American president – and current candidate for the Republican nomination – insisted that Ukraine must be forced to make concessions to Russia.

The Kremlin’s satellite parties have urged unity around Putin, but it has been striking that they took their own cool time to openly side with the president. The leader of the official opposition – the president of the Russian Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov – waited for Putin to address the nation before denouncing the military mutiny more than 12 hours after it began. And the president of the State Duma – Viacheslav Volodin, one of the first to criticize the rebellion – waited until 11 in the morning on Saturday the 24th, with the mercenary column already on its way to Moscow.

The general feeling is that Putin has only temporarily shut down the Wagner conspiracy by pardoning the mercenaries. “Some actors may have the impression that toying with power – and even [launching an] open rebellion – will not have consequences that are dangerous for them personally. They [feel that] they will win, or, at the very least, that they won’t lose,” says Mikhail Karyagin, a political analyst, referring to how the Wagner mercenaries were pardoned for their insurrection.

“How is the political system going to stabilize?” Karyagin wonders, recalling that, on one hand, the Russian authorities criticize an international order with unwritten rules… while also pointing out that the law doesn’t apply to certain people in the country.

Imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny announced in one of the hearings of his new trial that his team will reach out to the Russians who support the war to try to convince them of its failure. According to Navalny, 20% of the population has lost an acquaintance in combat, compared to 5.6% at the beginning of general mobilization last year.

Barely a tenth of Russians support Navalny, according to a survey by the Levada Center. However, a political threat can arise in the most unexpected of places. In the last national elections – the 2021 legislative elections – it was the head of the Communist Party in Moscow, Valery Rashkin, who led protests against alleged electoral fraud that took place through the electronic voting system. The demonstrations – which lasted a few weeks – were only extinguished after Rashkin was arrested.

Those elections took place in a more or less stable scenario. But the 2024 presidential elections – if Putin’s plans don’t change – will take place on the second anniversary of a war that has already cost more Russian lives than those lost in Chechnya and Afghanistan.

The battle in Ukraine

The Russian president is basically the devil in Ukraine, where citizens have received recent Russian instability with some relief. Kyiv has launched the long-awaited counteroffensive to recover occupied Ukrainian territory in the south and in the east.

“I’d better not tell you what I think of him,” replies Anastasia, a 22-year-old girl, on a street in the Ukrainian capital. After his attempts to subdue the democratic spring in Kyiv over the last two decades, Putin launched the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the war in Donbas, in the east, and, finally, the great invasion in February of 2022. He did it driven by an imperialism reminiscent of the Soviet Union, supported by his particular misrepresentation of history, which considers the neighboring country – which became independent in 1991 – to be an artificial entity. Putin’s obsession with Ukraine – with its “de-Nazification,” as he insists – and his determination to take it over by force have left him isolated from the rest of the planet, while also exacerbating global food, economic and energy crises.

Nobody feels, in any case, that Putin’s ambitions are going to evaporate after the notorious conflict with Wagner’s boss. “It’s not true that Putin is forced to back down from his plans for Ukraine. He hasn’t in 16 months – and I don’t think it will happen in the future,” says Yevhen Mahda, director of the Institute of World Policy in Kyiv. “Putin believes that Ukraine is an artificially-created territory – he believes that the United States is at war with Russia in Ukraine (…) and that this country is occupying what he calls ‘historical Russian lands,’” the political analyst explains. In that sense, he has systematically tried to subdue his neighbor. “In February of 2022, [the Russians] hoped to capture Kyiv in three days, force Ukraine to change the government… and then hoped to use Ukraine’s potential to push further into Europe,” Mahda notes. Now, the Russian leader is facing the counteroffensive that Kyiv has launched.

Fighters of WagnerWagner Group mercenaries in Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023.STRINGER (REUTERS)

“Putin is under a greater threat than me,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky concluded this past Friday, during a meeting with Spanish media outlets. “Only Russia wants to kill me – everyone wants to kill Putin.”

A bleak economic outlook

The Russian economy is faltering. Its financial system withstood the international punishment in 2022 better than expected, but the effect of Western sanctions, the drastic reduction in public revenue derived from the sale of energy and the increase in military spending have resulted in a budget deficit of 3.4 trillion rubles, or $42 billion. The Kremlin’s need to further boost military spending to try to reverse the dynamics on the battlefield has clashed with its intention to mitigate the impact of the war on Russian society as much as possible, so as to avoid outbreaks of discontent.

The unprecedented battery of sanctions that the EU, the United States and other allies approved at the start of the invasion caused the ruble to plummet to record lows – the Moscow Stock Exchange suspended trading for a month. Various analysts projected a contraction of more than 15% of Russian GDP in 2022, while US President Joe Biden assured that it would be reduced “by half in a few years.” After the first shock, the Central Bank doubled interest rates to boost the ruble and injected liquidity into the banks, while massively increasing hydrocarbon exports to China and India. The trade surplus grew by 70% last year, exceeding $300 billion, while GDP only fell by 2.1% less from where it stood at the start of the pandemic.

The effects of the sanctions on Russian crude oil were minimal until 2023. Since December, the EU, the G-7 and Australia have imposed a total veto on imports and a cap of $60 on the price of barrels of crude from the Eurasian giant (when carried by Western tankers). In the first five months of 2023, revenues from the sale of Russian oil and gas plummeted by 52% compared to the same period the previous year, while the ruble hit its lowest level against the dollar since the early stages of the war.

Faced with a gloomy economic outlook – and with the troops deployed to Ukraine increasingly exhausted and lacking supplies – the Kremlin is looking for formulas to multiply military spending without having a profound impact on the quality of life of Russian society, which has already taken a hit due to inflation. The total amount that Russia spends on the war is unknown – since the spring of 2022, the public budget is less and less transparent, with the government financing the invasion through indirect channels.

Even so, the increase in Russian military spending has been less than might be expected, given the signs of weakness exhibited by its army in Ukraine. The Economist estimates that Moscow doesn’t spend more than 3% of GDP on the war, while the USSR invested more than 60% in some stages of World War II. The German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimate that, since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has raised total defense spending to around 5% of GDP – up from 3.6% in 2021.

“Unlike Ukraine – which activated a war economy – Russia is trying to avoid cutting public spending,” says Guntram Wolff, director of the DGAP. “The option of mobilizing all the country’s resources to finance the war, Soviet-style, would be tremendously detrimental in economic terms and extremely dangerous for Putin,” the German economist adds. Lucie Béraud-Sudreau – a researcher at SIPRI – believes that the Kremlin “still has plenty of room” to increase military spending without adopting drastic measures for the population. Both Wolff and Béraud-Sudreau stress that the Russian National Wealth Fund has assets worth more than $150 billion.

Several factors further darken this economic picture. On the one hand, the West has frozen $300 billion worth of assets belonging to the Russian Central Bank. On the other, Moscow is investing huge amounts into rebuilding the Ukrainian city of Mariupol – its biggest conquest in 16 months – and in social benefits for those living in the illegally-occupied regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Demographic bleeding and the flight of companies and human capital have also exacerbated the serious economic situation. More than a million Russians have gone into exile since February of 2022, while 300,000 men were forcibly mobilized and sent to the front. The unemployment rate is at historical lows – 3.2% – but various sectors, such as the armaments industry, have been seriously affected by the shortage of qualified labor and the impossibility of importing Western technology. Moscow has forced regional governments to assume part of the war expenses – such as uniforms and military equipment – for young people recruited in their territory. The quality tends to be dubious.

The union of adversaries on the international stage

The future of Putin’s regime depends, to a large extent, on the evolution of the international context. The development of the war in Ukraine or the fluctuations in the Russian economy are linked to decisions made by the West, China and other major players on the global stage.

From the outset, the 40 countries that have imposed sanctions on the Russian economy or the 30 countries that support Ukraine with weapons have played a fundamental role. Supplies are essential to the balance of forces in the war, while the sanctions – although they haven’t broken the Russian economy – have hurt it badly.

On this front, the outlook for the Kremlin isn’t good, since its adversaries are determined to remain united. Since the start of the invasion, NATO has expanded, the EU has responded with unity and overcome dependence on Russian energy, while relations between peaceful democracies have been strengthened.

Secondly, China’s action is of enormous importance. Beijing has been displaying its determination to strengthen a strategic relationship with Russia, with which it shares a suspicion of the Western world’s power. Trade between the two countries from January to May of this year was 40% higher than the previous year. China has bought more Russian energy and increased exports to a Russia that is under sanctions.

However, the relationship between Beijing and Moscow has clear limits. China hasn’t provided known military support, while the Asian giant is also avoiding the export of advanced and sensitive products, fearing secondary sanctions from the United States – a vastly more important trading partner for China. In any case, this development of Sino-Russian relations is, essentially, a path that leads to Russia being placed in a position of inferiority to – and dependence on – China.

Xi Jinping, Vladimir PutinRussian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Moscow, March 20, 2023.
Sergei Karpukhin (AP)

Third, Russia’s relationship with a broad sector of countries that some define as being “non-aligned” or part of the “Global South” is also a relevant factor. Although 141 countries condemned the invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly, 45 abstained or were absent, as they didn’t want to impose sanctions on Russia or cut ties with Moscow. India, in particular, is getting some relief through large oil and diesel purchases. Brazil is waging a diplomatic offensive, which the Kremlin is thankful for, since the South American nation’s government is demanding that Moscow’s reasons for invading Ukraine – and the alleged provocation by the West and Kyiv – be taken into consideration. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election in Turkey was also good news for Russia.

Here too, however, there are difficulties for the Kremlin. India doesn’t intend to cut ties with Moscow, but New Delhi is slowly moving away from its reliance on Russian arms sales and closer to Washington. The influence of Brazil is very low, while the crisis with Wagner complicates the projection of influence in African countries, where the mercenary group has been Russia’s main representative. Meanwhile, the relationship with Saudi Arabia and OPEC – which was solid in recent years – has shown signs of deterioration and divergences in recent weeks.

Finally, Moscow is also questioning the projection of its influence in what it considers to be its backyard. Central Asian countries – such as Kazakhstan – are increasingly looking to Beijing for investment. In the Caucasus, historically Russian-backed Armenia has faltered in a conflict with Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. And, in Europe, Moldova has stepped on the accelerator to join the EU.

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