In Russia, All Policy Roads Lead to the War | Mint

In Russia, All Policy Roads Lead to the War

Just as in domestic politics, the war is becoming a mainstay of the Kremlin’s economic policy.
Just as in domestic politics, the war is becoming a mainstay of the Kremlin’s economic policy.

Summary

Over the past year, the invasion of Ukraine is at the core of Russia’s domestic, economic and foreign policy.

Vladimir Putin broke with tradition when delivering his New Year’s televised address on the last day of 2022. For more than two decades, the Russian president had appeared alone, usually in front of imposing Kremlin backdrops. This time, he stood before a group of men and women in military uniforms who he said had been taking part in the “special military operation"—the Kremlin’s code for its brutal war against Ukraine.

It was a sign of things to come. The 12 months following Putin’s unorthodox address have shown that the war is at the core of Russia’s domestic, economic and foreign policy—the organizing principle around which most decisions are made.

First, on domestic politics: My colleagues Andrei Kolesnikov and Denis Volkov have found that the war has general approval among about 75% of the population. Many Russians see the conflict as one between their country and the West, not Ukraine.

More specifically, my colleagues have found that up to 22% of the population strongly support the war and oppose cessation of hostilities. Another 53% are somewhat more passive in their support, and most of them agree with the government’s course. So if tomorrow, Putin would argue that Russia should start peace negotiations, many of these people would accept that, too.

What war?

That data reinforces what is clear on the ground—that the war has been fully internalized by the majority of Russians, at both the popular and elite levels.

It makes sense. Unlike Ukraine, one-fifth of whose territory is occupied and which is subject to missile and drone attacks every day, most of Russia hasn’t looked like a nation at war throughout 2023—except some settlements on the border with Ukraine that witness regular shelling, and, of course, the territories occupied and annexed by Russia, including Crimea. In fact, when the Ukrainians launched attacks against government buildings in Moscow this summer, Muscovites shrugged and life continued as normal.

“The real downside is that if you live outside of the city, when wining and dining in central Moscow you need to get home by 1 a.m. to beat the drone attacks, just like you would beat the traffic," one of my contacts said to me.

What’s more, fewer people than last year are ready to express any form of opposition. Since the full-scale invasion last year, nearly 20,000 people have been detained for antiwar actions, and some have faced Kafkaesque trials and draconian prison terms. So despite occasional acts of individual bravery, Russia hasn’t witnessed any mass antiwar protests since September 2022, when a partial mobilization was announced.

At the same time, the elites have demonstrated remarkable cohesion and the inability to challenge the Kremlin’s course. Even the failed mutiny by the infamous mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose improvised march on Moscow in June was soon followed by his fiery death in a plane crash, has only strengthened Putin’s grip on power.

A war economy

Just as in domestic politics, the war is becoming a mainstay of the Kremlin’s economic policy. In the 2024 budget, military spending is set at 6% of GDP for the first time since Russia’s independence in 1991, exceeding social expenditure. Around 39% of the budget will go on the war in Ukraine, including beefing up Russia’s defense industry and payments to soldiers, and domestic security.

And that isn’t all. The rest of the Kremlin’s economic policy is shaped by the war and resulting Western sanctions, including efforts to encourage import-substitution, reintroduction of capital controls, and a tolerance to high budget deficits.

War and the boom in military production has driven unemployment to historic lows of 3%. The money that families of those killed and wounded in Ukraine receive from the state is a genuine windfall for the poorer regions from which the Kremlin is predominantly drafting soldiers, and where going to fight in Ukraine has become a rational economic choice for many: the ability to earn more money—dead or alive—than they could ever make in any other legal way under Putin.

This “coffin money," compensation for injuries, and soldiers’ salaries are driving domestic demand and being channeled to finance domestic production or purchase the Chinese imports that have replaced Western brands. As a result, the Russian economy is expected to grow by 2.8% this year, despite mounting sanctions from the West. Bypassing the sanctions has become a cottage industry, and millions are being made by creating logistical and financial schemes to circumvent Western restrictions and smuggle in goods that feed Putin’s war machine.

Foreign ties

Finally, war has also become a central tenet of Russia’s foreign policy. Every relationship with a foreign power is assessed from the viewpoint of whether ties to that country can directly help Russia’s war effort through the supply of military goods, by filling the Kremlin’s war chest, or helping Moscow punish the West for its support for Ukraine. This new reality gives tremendous leverage to countries that are still willing to do business with Russia, allowing them to extract hefty prices for their services to Putin’s war effort.

When in September, Azerbaijan resorted to military force to resolve the decadeslong conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow didn’t lift a finger to protect the interests of its treaty ally Armenia, mostly because Baku and President Ilham Aliyev’s patrons in Turkey have become indispensable in helping the Kremlin to withstand sanctions.

Moscow was forced to source artillery shells, drones and missiles from Iran and North Korea in exchange for large payments and sharing sensitive military technology with these pariah regimes, and to take sides in regional conflicts where Moscow had previously hedged its bets. This is why the Kremlin’s muted reaction to the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas and ensuing full-throated criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza would once have been unimaginable, but is hardly surprising in 2023.

Nor is it any surprise that in 2023, China has finally become Russia’s single most important foreign partner. The relationship with Beijing checks all three boxes, providing the Kremlin with critical components for its war machine, keeping the Russian economy afloat, and making sure that U.S. influence is kept in check by a more assertive and military powerful China.

In 2024, when Putin is set to win a new six-year term in staged elections slated for March, he will continue his course of destroying Ukraine in the hope that he will be able to wear down the Ukrainians and their Western supporters. With war the organizing principle of Russian life, the continuation of aggression against Ukraine and the crusade against Western interests at home and abroad is becoming the raison d’être for the entire machinery of Putinism.

Alexander Gabuev (@AlexGabuev) is director of Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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