The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia’s Potemkin power

The signs of Russian strength in Ukraine are not very compelling.

India's Ambassador to the United Nations T.S. Tirumurti addresses the U.N. Security Council during a meeting at U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan on April 5. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

The war in Ukraine is going on seven weeks now, with appalling Russian losses, horrific civilian losses, meager territorial gains, significant strategic reversals and seemingly no end in sight for the conflict itself. Efforts by others to make it appear as though Putin has some master strategy seem, in retrospect, vaguely ludicrous.

Old beliefs die hard, however, so as a result the safe space for foreign policy observers is to point out how much remains in doubt. Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh, for example, recently asked, “Can Putin still succeed — despite the bloody shambles he has made of his would-be conquest so far? The outcome remains up in the air.”

Hirsh offers up a panoply of reasons for why things might still break Putin’s way, including: polls suggesting that Russians are rallying round the flag, the Russian ruble rallying from its immediate post-invasion nosedive, the Russian army being more likely to conquer the Donbas, and Putin’s ability to weaponize anti-Americanism to rally China and the rest of the global South into supporting — or at least not opposing — Russian actions in Ukraine.

Hirsh is not entirely persuaded by his own narrative, and eventually offers a contrary one as well. That said, I want to focus on these data points in particular, for two reasons. First, they are the most common data points trotted out to suggested that Putin might prevail after all. Second, they are not as compelling as they seem at first glance.

Consider, for example, the alleged surge of Russian support for the war. No doubt, this is partially grounded in actual polling data. But the shift toward totalitarianism within Russia also means that even independent polling of Russians must be taken with a large grain of salt. As the New York Times’ Anton Troianovski notes, “the building paranoia and polarization in Russian society” means that “citizens are denouncing one another in an eerie echo of Stalin’s terror, spurred on by vicious official rhetoric from the state.” This does not sound like genuine support so much as fear of angering the czar. And it is precisely this fear that, according to U.S. intelligence, is preventing Putin from receiving accurate information about the war.

Similarly, the performance of the ruble is a classic Potemkin recovery. The Russian government has forced exporters to deposit any earned foreign currency into the Russian central bank in exchange for rubles. This created sufficient demand for the ruble to stabilize, but it is a meaningless exchange rate. As Rachel Ziemba explained to Voice of America, “Russia’s economy, by virtue of the sanctions and the coping mechanisms the central bank has employed, has become much more an internal economy, a smaller economy.” This means the future Russian economy will be more autarkic and less productive, particularly as it hemorrhages young people. Little wonder that the World Bank projects the Russian economy to shrink by more than 10 percent this year.

As for Russia’s ability to rally the globe, again, color me skeptical. Despite concerted Russian efforts to stop it, the U.N. General Assembly voted to kick Russia off the U.N. Human Rights Council by a vote of more than two-thirds. This is the third General Assembly vote that Russia has lost in a venue that Russia often finds friendlier than the United States.

Perhaps the most interesting signal about the lack of global support for Russia’s position has been the failure of any other country to follow Russia’s lead and recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as sovereign states. Not even Belarus, which has acted as a useful base for Russian forces, has done that. Instead, they are busy dealing with railway sabotage.

As for Russia’s other near abroad allies, it would appear that they want nothing to do with the war in Ukraine. As the Economist noted last month, “Kazakhstan is watching Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with apprehension verging on horror.” The rest of the central Asian countries are “treading a fine line” between not alienating Russia while not expressing support for the invasion of a sovereign state. If Russia cannot even coax treaty allies into supporting its position on Ukraine, it is hard to see how the rest of the world will be willing to bandwagon with Moscow.

I elided whether Russia will experience greater military success by focusing on the Donbas rather than all of Ukraine. It is certainly possible. That said, Russia has screwed up its prosecution of this war in many different ways. The New York Times account by Andrew Kramer of the Russian military’s inexplicable decisions once it occupied Chernobyl boggles the mind. In contrast to a Ukrainian military that seems to have profited from absorbing Western military culture, Russian forces seem retrograde and hidebound by comparison. If Ukraine is able to deploy the heavy weaponry it is now receiving from NATO countries as effectively as it did earlier arms shipments, Russia is likely to face ongoing, appalling losses.

Russia remains a great power, and it remains possible it will cadge some territory from Ukraine when the war is over. This is a country and a leader that has obsessed over its status in international politics over the past 15 years, however. Given how the war has played out, it seems hard to envisage a scenario in which Russia is viewed as more powerful now than it was two months ago.

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