Will Putin’s Russia Choose War? It would be a Folly

Igor Lukeš

Igor Lukeš

Univerzitní profesor

Just before Christmas 2021, Russia presented NATO and Washington with a list of harsh and provocative demands. Their acceptance would be tantamount to loss of sovereignty and agency of Eastern Europe. To make it worse, it was formulated as an ultimatum that had to be accepted in toto. It was not, Moscow stressed, a restaurant menu from which one could “pick and choose.” Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia of July 1914, drafted by Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold, included such a provision, and we all know the consequences.

The West quickly rejected Russia’s attempted Diktat, to use a term made infamous in the late 1930s. But it has caused many to worry. Was it meant, perhaps, to justify an imminent escalation in Ukraine? Having amassed some 100,000-175,000 troops along its western border, Moscow has seized the initiative. One is reminded of Tsar Alexander’s remark during the Congress of Vienna that with one million men under arms he didn’t feel compelled to rely on diplomacy. Does Vladimir Putin believe himself to be his country’s modern-day tsar?

It is possible. There are hints of it in the current saying in Moscow that those in the West who will not listen to foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will hear from defense minister Sergey Shoygu. Putin’s approval rating at home has declined since the heady days in June 2015 when it soared toward 90 percent. But it remains comfortably high with 63 percent in November 2020; he is not losing his grip. In fact, thanks to a fancy constitutional trick, he could remain at the top of the Kremlin pyramid until 2036. There is not much precedent for such staying power: the aforementioned Alexander the Great, the conqueror of Napoleon, ruled for a mere twenty-four years.

Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has reemerged as a major player. In the 1990s, before he took the reins, the West had ignored Moscow. It now trembles, yet again, at the thought of Russian tanks. There is near panic in the most exposed countries. Reacting to Biden’s recent virtual summit with Putin, an Estonian politician complained he could smell “Munich” in the air. Poland sent President Andrzej Duda to Kyiv, where he met Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nauseda. They together expressed full support to their besieged Ukrainian partner Volodymyr Zelenskiy. During a press conference, Duda warned NATO against yielding to the Kremlin’s demands. There had to be “no concessions to Russia.” At the same time, Sweden’s top general, Micael Bydén, flew to Washington, where he met with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley. Bydén warned that—in light of Russia’s aggressive posture along the Ukrainian borders—the United States might have to reinforce its military presence in Europe.

Novaya gazeta editor and the recent Nobel winner, Dmitry A. Muratov, noted in his acceptance speech in Stockholm that Kremlin authorities are preparing the country for war. The Levada public opinion survey indicates that the patriotic brain-washing works. The Russian public holds the West to be responsible for the crisis in Ukraine—50 percent say so—while 16 percent find the Ukrainians guilty and only 4 percent find flaw on Russia’s side. The lead commentator on Russian state television laughed at the threat of western sanctions, noting that the Soviet Union had lost over 20 million people in World War II. “Bring it on,” he seemed to be saying. “You’ll see how tough we are.” Russia’s ostentatious preparations for a renewed aggression against Ukraine notwithstanding, the public has been successfully massaged to accept the view that Russia is a country longing for peace but surrounded by enemies who stop at nothing.

Is Putin doing this for real? No one can rule it out. However, if he is smart, he will not escalate the present tensions. To paraphrase John le Carré, the Russian knight may seem tall and scarry and, viewed from a distance, his armor is shining. But the poor creature inside is not well. Consider the following:

  • The size of the Russian economy is comparable to that of Italy and Turkey and is dwarfed by the real GDP of the United States and China.
  • Russia’s population has declined by 10 million from 1990 to the present, a drop with no precedent in peacetime. Male life expectancy is 66 years. On average, men in impoverished Guatemala and worn-torn Syria live longer than in Russia.
  • The environmental crisis is serious everywhere, but Russia has been hit especially hard. Its consequences are reflected in the country’s public health crisis. To improve the situation will be hard and very expensive.
  • Organized crime has been subsumed by Russian special services and put to work on behalf of the Kremlin oligarchs and the state. But it has penetrated the governing structures in the provinces, where it conducts itself as the true master. Consequently, Putin and his team control large cities, but not the distant parts.
  • Putin’s switch to full-scale authoritarianism has triggered a predictable brain-drain. The best, the brightest, and the ambitious—historically Russia’s greatest resource— have been leaving the country in droves. Combined with the public health crisis and the degraded environment, it amounts to a demographic catastrophe.
  • The country fills its coffers by exporting natural gas and oil, and energy production tends to be profitable. However, this is likely to decline if efforts to decarbonize the European market continue. Russia has nothing to substitute for the projected shrinking demands for oil and gas. It is competitive only as an arms exporter.
  • The above is bound to wreak havoc in the ranks of the Kremlin-linked billionaires. They are co-owners of the Sistema, and when the demand for oil and gas, the source of their wealth, is reduced, the consequences will be wild.

Under such circumstances, Putin needs to realize that he has already achieved his objectives in Ukraine by under-provoking the West. The Anschluß of Crimea and the frozen conflict in Luhansk and Donetsk make it impossible for the country to join NATO any time soon. Launching an all-out war now would be counterproductive. The United States and the European Union are on record that it would lead to harsh consequences, including the expulsion of Russia from the Swift banking system, a step dreaded by Russia’s superrich elite, including the Kremlin oligarchs.

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Putin avoided the hard challenges that awaited him when he became president. He has done nothing to deal with the public health and environmental crises; the country is not prepared for a future without heavy reliance on Russia’s oil and gas. Instead, he has taken the easy road. He has rebuilt the armed forces and, with the use of tanks, has reclaimed the status of a great power. Escalating the crisis in Ukraine would throw his country back into the dreaded irrelevance that tasted so bitter to him in the nineties.

published: 27. 12. 2021