Russia will lose the current war, but Russian society needs to reckon with its brutal past.
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
Professor Luke March is a Personal Chair of Post-Soviet and Comparative Politics; Deputy Director of the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre at the University of Edinburgh. Among his research interests are the politics of the former Soviet Union (especially Russian and Moldovan politics, political parties in the FSU, democratization, and institution-building); Russian nationalism, Russian foreign policy discourse; the radical left in Europe; populism; contemporary communism.
Do you think there is a likelihood of further escalation between Russia and Ukraine in light of the recent accident at the Kerch bridge?
Well, I think we’re already seeing it. Putin’s rhetoric and the appointment of Surovikin as commander in Ukraine, plus the recent intensified bombings on civilians, indicate an increased propensity to attack civilian infrastructure and give the impression that Kremlin will stop at nothing (including, implicitly, nuclear weapons) to gain its aims. I.e., this is terrorism and intimidatory tactics. In truth, this is just an intensification of what has gone on already, and it’s difficult to see it having much effect on the battlefield, where Russia is slowly losing. Obviously, it puts pressure on the West to call for negotiations to avoid the nuclear scenario in a situation where Putin wants to ‘freeze’ the conflict lines and consolidate his so-called gains (e.g., the virtual control of the south-east ‘Russian oblasts’). Any negotiation at present would be in Putin’s interest, so he’s interested in making support for the war waver in the best way he knows how, intimidation.
Do you think there is a possibility of a Russian domestic revolution and the arrival of a democratic regime due to failures in war and high casualties? Or even if Putin is gone, will there be another person who will continue things as usual?
It’s very unlikely from the current vantage point, but it can’t be ruled out – apparently, solid authoritarian regimes can crumble from within very quickly, as Putin knows from personal experience. Currently, it looks like the heightened controls have driven any opposition abroad or underground, managed the co-option of the so-called ‘systemic opposition’ parties in the Duma, and meant that those who have increased misgivings with the war keep their heads down and don’t say anything, even though some reports say this applies to significant sections of the Russian elite. People need to lose their fear and begin to organise collectively, which seems a long way off. However, the partial mobilisation has shaken some support in the regime, and the failures and high casualties will not diminish. The outcome of any weakening of Putin is difficult to predict. Currently, the ‘war party’ is ascending, so any replacement seems like-for-like or someone taking a harder line. It won’t be a western liberal for sure, but it might be someone who is more of an economic pragmatist (e.g., like Medvedev used to be) who can gradually wean Russia off confrontation. A revolution will be messy, though (if Putin goes, Kadyrov in Chechnya will soon go with him, and some of the problems in the North Caucasus may reoccur). And a revolution will only succeed if it is a fuller social revolution that challenges the post-Stalinist police state and goes far beyond a mere change of leader(s).
If we look at the Russian ideological approach, they never considered Ukraine a state but part of the Russian sphere of influence. Do you think their ultimate objective is to take over the whole of Ukraine’s territories, no matter the costs?
You’re right to say that the Kremlin is waging the war no matter the costs – Putin and co have gone on ad nauseam about how ‘existential’ defeating Ukraine is for them. However, in line with the last answer, the more the war goes on without victory, the more the question of the costs being justifiable will be raised, even behind closed doors. The ultimate aim has been to have a client state within the sphere of influence (as they’ve finally achieved with Belarus). I don’t think the precise territorial definition has been agreed as different versions have been floated. Clearly, they wanted a fairly seamless, 3-day victory march to be welcomed by flowers at the outset. When that hasn’t worked, they’ve had to recalculate. From various speeches of the propagandists on TV, it seems that many are indifferent about Ukraine’s western territories, which historically ‘weren’t ours’ and would be a particular problem to control. After the collapse of the effort to take Kyiv, they’ve focussed on the ‘land bridge’ in the south, which, ideally, they’d like to extend to Odesa and Transnistria. They’re a long way off that, of course and will struggle to hold what they’ve got over the winter. However, this is a long-term conflict against NATO/West via Ukraine (in their view), so the concern must be that any land gain now will be used by Moscow as the launchpad for a future war when/if Russia regains military strength. I.e., military defeat won’t necessarily end the idea that Ukraine isn’t a state among those parts of the security apparatus that will want to rearm and make the war correctly next time.
In one of your recent articles, you mentioned an ideological and dogmatic shift in Russian politics after the invasion. What could the possible implications of such a shift for Russia domestically and Ukraine externally be?
The ideological shift has been developing apace for the last decade (i.e., after Putin ‘won’ his election for the third time in 2012). The drift towards ‘civilisational’ rhetoric asserts Russia’s distinction from/superiority over the West based on far-right values (national, cultural superiority, chauvinism, aggressive nationalism, etc.) has been intensifying. So the war is, in large part, a product of this ongoing process. Clearly, at the outset, since society and a large part of the elite weren’t expecting a full-scale invasion, this shift wasn’t particularly intense beyond the elite (and even then, only certain parts). The question is whether that is still the case since there is obviously mass support for the war, although a lot of that relies on indifference and depoliticization, which has been a hallmark of the Putin regime from day one (he doesn’t want the population to care about politics, but rely on the Good Tsar to sort everything out for it). Hence the hesitation about full-scale mobilisation. The war has shown the elite and its propagandists develop from chauvinist attitudes towards Ukraine to turbocharged genocidal intent (witness the transformation of Dimon Medvedev). So other big questions (as alluded to above) are whether the post-Putin elite will remain ideologised/genocidal and whether Russian society (if that exists) can have some reckoning with what has been done in their name. It will be difficult for post-war Ukraine to live peacefully with a neighbour that hasn’t fundamentally assessed and atoned for its own culpability.
Can the West do more to help Ukraine and punish Russia for starting the war?
Yes. On the one hand, it’s holding to the existing line of support for Ukraine through a difficult winter where the domestic impacts of the war (e.g., on energy prices and inflation in the EU/UK) are becoming very visible, despite the calls of some for early negotiations, and the possible emergence of reduced solidarity over Ukraine from new governments like Italy’s. After the winter, the decoupling of the EU from Russian oil and gas will begin to be more viable. On the other hand, there is the need to supply Ukraine with continuous and better offensive and defensive weapons (e.g., air defence, to end the constant terror tactics of Russian bombs against civilians and civilian infrastructure). This will attrite the Russian war effort and increase the likelihood of more demoralising (for Russia) PR coups (e.g., a second strike on the Kerch bridge). Time is not on Russia’s side, but the earlier Ukraine can push its advantages, the shorter the war will be. In common with the above, there should be no return for Russia to any form of relationship with the EU/UK until it makes reparations and atonement for its genocidal intent. I fear we’ll be waiting a long time for this, but otherwise, the risk of a repeat will always be present. Another issue is supporting Ukraine economically and helping it recover over the long term. Some countries can do much more to help Ukrainian refugees (I’m looking particularly at the UK over this). The UK has been strong on military and rhetorical support but much less good on humanitarian support.