By Jacob Levitan
The television or the refrigerator is the Soviet twist on Rome’s panem et circenses method of placating the people. The regime can offer either thrilling television of Russia’s exploits or provide a full refrigerator, but not both. Since the Arab Spring, Russian TVs have shown Russian forces challenging the U.S.-led, rules-based world order where human rights and state sovereignty are seen as inviolable. Moscow saved the criminal Assad regime, militarized the Arctic Northern Sea Route despite its neutral international status, encouraged Minsk to weaponize migrants against the European Union, and completed its soft annexation of Belarus, deploying a garrison of over 30,000 in Belarus indefinitely. Now, the world is receiving daily visuals of Russian armored vehicles and helicopters invading Ukraine as Putin prosecutes an utterly unjust and unprovoked war of aggression.
Before this, Western publications fetishized Putin as the inscrutable Russian autocrat who holds the fate of Europe (and the post-World War world order) in his hands. Moscow fought ISIS in Syria, saved the Syrian Assad regime, interfered in Western elections, and deployed troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has fortified the Arctic and completed its unofficial annexation of Belarus into the Union State of Russia and Belarus, with 30,000 Russian troops stationed there indefinitely. For eight years, Russia has benefited from the slow-burning protracted conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas.
If President Putin maintained this status quo of low-grade war in Ukraine for eight years, why invade now? This is the culmination of Putin’s 15-year war against the U.S.-led world order, which Putin announced in his infamous Munich Speech in 2007. Now, Russia’s kleptocrats believe this may be their last and best chance to forcibly anchor Ukraine to Russia. The U.S. is focused on Asia, while American domestic splits have become ever sharper. The European Union still has no military force to combat Russia and is beholden primarily to Russian gas supplies.
What’s more, Russia can still find sympathetic Westerners in prominent positions. Hungarian President Viktor Orban has long been a pro-Russian voice in the European Union. Meanwhile, French presidential candidate Marine le Pen’s party has received Russian money. In the United States, prominent members of the far-right like Fox host Tucker Carlson and Republican Senator Josh Hawley echo Russian arguments. The Kremlin believes that the West will never be more divided than at the present moment. Yet even now, foreign and domestic challenges confront Russian power.
Russian aggression against Ukraine stems from the Putin regime’s fear and weakness, not its strength. The Russian regime’s authority within the Near Abroad – Putin’s term for Russia’s supposed “privileged sphere of influence” within the post-Soviet space – and within Russia itself has faced a series of crises since the 2014 Ukrainian Maidan Revolution. The 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution ousted Russia’s loyal ally and Putin’s fellow authoritarian Serzh Sargsyan in favor of the more democratic Nikol Pashinyan. Protests in 2019 spread across Russia from Moscow to the Far East, while in Kyrgyzstan, protests toppled the Kremlin-approved president Sooronbay Jeenbekov and replaced him with the jailed Sadyr Japarov. These events invited further tests of Russia’s power.
One such test was the Second Karabakh War in 2020, which saw Baku – encouraged by Ankara – recover nearly all the territory Azerbaijan had lost to Armenia in 1994 in the First Karabakh War. While Moscow managed to deploy peacekeepers into Nagorno-Karabakh, a longtime strategic goal for Russia, Putin failed to stop the Azerbaijani offensive as he had in 2016. What’s more, he could not prevent Turkish President Erdogan from embedding a Turkish contingent into the peacekeeping force.
Simultaneously, unprecedented nation-wide protests erupted across Belarus against the Belarusian strongman Lukashenko’s fraudulent electoral victory. Russians came out once more in demonstrations against the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexander Navalny in January 2021 and again when Moscow ordered the closure of the historic human rights organization Memorial in December 2021.
The start of 2022 was yet another fire in Putin’s house. On January 2 protests broke out in the western Kazakhstani city of Zhanaozen over a doubling in fuel prices and then spread throughout Kazakhstan. What began as economic protests rapidly escalated and took on a political dimension as protesters demanded that Nazarbayev leave, briefly seized the Almaty Airport, and even torched the President’s Palace.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian-led security organization consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan – for military assistance, calling the protests a “foreign terrorist attack” and “coup attempt.” The organization responded within hours, deploying on January 6 a multinational (but largely Russian) contingent of 2,500 troops to safeguard vital Kazakh infrastructure. The Kazakh security forces proceeded with the job of bloodily suppressing the uprising. By the time the unrest concluded on January 19, Kazakh security forces had detained 10,000 and left at least 225 people dead. Despite the CSTO’s swift departure, Armenians and Kyrgyz criticized their governments’ decisions to contribute troops to the mission.
Even as Russia has been putting out fires in its Near Abroad, it has successfully projected power abroad. The greatest display of Russian influence is in Ukraine. In 2014, Russia illegally seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and organized a separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s Donbas region that, prior to Russia’s invasion, claimed over 14,000 lives. Tensions began rising again in April 2021 when Russia deployed 110,000 troops along Ukraine’s border. Moscow began threatening to destabilize European security, implicitly threatening Ukraine, unless NATO pledged never to admit Ukraine into the alliance and remove troops from any former Soviet bloc member state.
Putin’s decision to invade may yet come to haunt him. Russian forces have invaded on three fronts so far, bombarding and besieging Ukraine’s cities, with Russian troops on the outskirts of ancient Kyiv. While there are conflicting assessments of the rapidity with which the Russians will take Ukraine (and all concur that it will), the Ukrainians may well bloody the Russian forces. Poorly equipped Chechens defended Grozny for six weeks against the Russian army in the Chechen wars. Equipped with modern Western weaponry, it is hard to believe that cities like Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Odessa (all cities of over 1,000,000, unlike Grozny which has less than 400,000) would fall bloodlessly. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top general, has claimed that Ukrainian forces have destroyed dozens of Russian tanks and armored vehicles. As of February 25, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed Russian casualties mounting to 450. Ukraine’s greatest export to Russia may soon become body bags.
Such a bloody campaign would sorely test the legitimacy of Putin’s regime. Putin has built his legitimacy by restoring Russia – by bringing the Chechens to heel, ending the economic chaos of the 1990s, and reestablishing Russian pride. Moreover, Putin attempts to portray the invasion as a ‘special military operation’ to save a captive Ukraine from a Nazi junta. But, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, citing his Jewish faith and grandfather who fought the Nazis, emotionally asked “How can I be a Nazi?” Thousands of Russians, from St. Petersburg and Moscow to the Urals, have already come out in protest against Putin’s war.
Everything Putin has done to shore up Moscow’s position has cost Russia. His regime relies on kleptocrats and gangsters who plunder Russia’s wealth and create policies leading towards a steady demographic decline. To secure the Caucasus, Putin subsidizes the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, an unpopular policy. In addition, he has pinned Russia’s survival to an entente with China, in which Russia is the junior partner in most respects. This subordinate status has also caused considerable resentment in Russia. Consequently, his approval rating has fallen from 86 percent approval in 2014 to 69 percent in January 2021. Additionally, domestic criticism of Putin’s policies is rising.
On January 31, retired General Leonid Ivashov, an anti-democratic nationalist and chairman of the All-Russian Officer’s Assembly, slammed Putin’s policies and threats against Ukraine. In a public letter to Putin, General Ivashov called the Putin regime’s domestic policies, not NATO or the United States, the greatest threat to Russia. He even demanded Putin’s immediate resignation. Meanwhile, the pro-Putin party ‘Yedinaya Rossiya’ (United Russia) is losing ground in the Duma to the Communist Party, which is swiftly becoming a real opposition. Across society, discontent has climbed as real income continues to fall.
Moscow possesses the strongest indigenous army on the European continent. While Russian power is undisputedly at its zenith since the Soviet collapse, portents of its decline are visible. President Putin’s aggressive policies aimed to destabilize NATO, but they have had the opposite effect by bolstering NATO’s resolve. They have even prompted Sweden and Finland to draw closer to NATO. Germany canceled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The G7 members, the European Union, and South Korea have hit Russia with comprehensive sanctions, with U.S. and European sanctions targeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin himself. Washington has also enacted sanctions designed to comprehensively cut off Russia’s technology supply chains.
Russia’s current aggressive policies have come, as always, out of a sense of fear and opportunism. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a sign that Russia is reaching its high-water mark. By bringing back such a blatantly imperialist war to Europe, he has destroyed the U.S.-championed rules-based world order. Russians may soon come out to demand that the Kremlin start providing refrigerators over televisions, but Moscow has already begun to fundamentally reshape the world order. As the war in Ukraine unfolds, the United States and the West must be active participants.