Category Archives: Ukraine

toward a new equilibrium in Russia?

Anna Colin Lebedev (University of Paris-Nanterre) recently wrote a 30-tweet thread about current Russian opinion that I found illuminating.

She discounts the value of surveys because they make two assumptions that do not apply in Russia (if anywhere): there is a correlation between discontent as measured by polls and explicit acts of resistance, and leaders care about discontent because they want to be reelected. Both are premises of the “public sphere” model elaborated by Habermas, which is only partly applicable in the USA, and hardly at all in Russia. There, Lebedev writes, the risks of explicit protest are very high, but the state may respond favorably to “legal complaints (for example, within the military) … agreements, workarounds, [and] personal contacts.” (I am translating from Lebedev’s French and responsible for any errors).

To use a phrase from James C. Scott that Lebedev doesn’t cite, Russians often opt for the “weapons of the weak“: everyday resistance, foot-dragging, noncompliance, and grudging compliance. These options are available not only to the truly weak but to the people whom Lebedev calls the “intermediate elites who run municipalities, administrations, military institutions, and even businesses.” These elites were already skilled at quiet noncompliance, and many recent examples have been reported: e.g., the Mayor of Moscow declaring prematurely that the objectives of mobilization have been fully met, or teachers failing to administer the awful new civics curriculum that I discussed here while their superiors turn a blind eye.

Lebedev writes: “There are two ways a tree can fall: it can be cut down, or it can be rotted from the inside while it still looks solid. An insect that devours the tree from within is not visible and does not make a difference. But many insects together destroy the tree.”

Destruction isn’t inevitable, and Russia may simply slip down to a new stable equilibrium. As I understand it, for the past two decades, Putin has had: 1) carrots, 2) sticks, and 3) a reputation for competence. His carrots are mostly economic: the Kremlin controls vast revenues that it can distribute to businesses and business leaders, regional governments, security services, and institutions like the church. The sticks can be brutal: consider numerous murders, prosecutions, and the cities of Grozny, Aleppo, and Mariupol. A reputation for competence is essential for making people heed carrots and sticks; otherwise, they will try to get away with doing whatever they want. Putin has appeared competent even to many of his critics. For instance, in the Red Sparrow series by Jason Matthews, he is a diabolical genius.

Entering 2023, Putin has fewer carrots because state revenues are down and the costs of the war are absorbing his funds. If Russia goes ahead with the massive expansion and modernization of the military that Putin’s team have promised, there will be little money left for other constituencies. The Kremlin is still a deadly force when people openly attract its notice. More than twenty critics suddenly died in mysterious circumstances during 2022 alone, not to mention the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians. However, the security services have their hands full and probably cannot address widespread noncompliance. Finally, Putin’s reputation for competence is shattered among Russia’s “intermediary elites,” if not yet among ordinary Russians. To me, it is especially noteworthy that the Russian state probably miscalculated the size and preparation of the army, because this error suggests that it cannot even see itself clearly. The reason was probably corruption rather than deliberate resistance, but these two behaviors merge in practice.

One can easily imagine a downward spiral, in which diminishing “state capacity” on the Kremlin’s side encourages less compliance by intermediary elites, who fail to generate the money, valid information, and mobilized soldiers that the state demands, thus further weakening the Kremlin’s position. The security services might continue to play Whack-a-Mole with actual opponents, who would be vastly outnumbered by ordinary scofflaws.

However, I don’t think the spiral will necessarily go all the way to collapse. The situation could stabilize at a level where Putin simply has less control over his vast country, rather like the situation in the 1990s.

I generally favor decentralization and polycentricity, but the consequences of diminishing state control in Russia will depend on who fills the vacuum. Russians will not be better off if people like the Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin or the Chechen boss Ramzan Kadyrov prosper at the Kremlin’s expense. My late colleague Mancur Olson argued that a “stationary bandit” (a ruler who has a stable monopoly on power) is more likely to promote the national interest than a bunch of “roving bandits,” who will only extract resources for themselves.

A weaker central state would be vulnerable in a crisis, but that does not mean that Putin (or a likeminded successor) would necessarily avoid crises. Facing an explicit enemy, such as a foreign government or a breakaway republic, might generate some genuine patriotic support and help to restore state capacity. Thus the Kremlin might continue to pick fights within the borders of the Russian Federation and beyond.

Chinese investors with connections to the Chinese state might also increase their sway within Russia. I am not sure whether that would be good or bad for Russians–or the world.

A situation like this could last for a long time.

possible paths for the Ukraine war

  1. Russia regains momentum and expands its control of Ukrainian territory. Today, most non-Russian military experts discount this possibility, but war is unpredictable. Ukraine would certainly not give up, but it would experience rising external pressure to surrender some territory permanently.
  1. Russia holds a static defensive line, probably set back from the current front. (For instance, Russia would probably abandon Kherson and fall behind the Dnieper.) Ukraine would remain motivated to fight, but European support would become more questionable–and US support, too, if Republicans gain control of Congress or the White House. Putin would try to manage his domestic problems by maintaining a war footing and promising success in some undetermined future. The situation might stabilize, with Ukraine continuing to receive some foreign support and Russia managing to protect some of its 2022 gains. Sanctions would remain in place, but Europe would probably import some Russian energy, albeit less than it used in 2021. There might be considerable partisan warfare and perhaps some organized nonviolent resistance in Russian-occupied territory. The situation would be similar to 2014-22, but with new boundaries–and high costs for all.
  1. Ukraine continues to make breakthroughs. If Ukraine pushes deep into Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Russian forces in Melitopol, Kherson, and Crimea would be stranded on the wrong side of Ukrainian lines and in deep trouble. In that case:

a) Russia could experience a classic military defeat, as in 1905. Russia and Ukraine might or might not sign an armistice or a treaty, but in any event, the war would effectively end in Ukraine’s favor. Putin might survive by exercising repressive control, or he could be removed and replaced either by a better or a worse leader. The potential would certainly remain for Russia to start a new war later, but “rebuilding” an army that has turned out to be hollow would be a major undertaking.

b) Putin might try to avoid suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ukraine by escalating the conflict to include NATO. That would allow him either to salvage a victory by frightening NATO into demanding concessions from Ukraine or at least save face by presenting the West as his foe. (In that case, he would loosely resemble the Japanese military junta in 1945, who used the atomic bombings to cancel their own pledge to fight to the death). To escalate, Putin could:

  1. Attack Ukraine with weapons of mass destruction (WMD);
  2. Attack a NATO country with conventional weapons or cyber; or
  3. Attack a NATO country with WMDs.
  1. At this point, NATO would have a choice about whether and how to respond, ranging from a diplomatic effort to isolate Russia, to a targeted conventional or cyber attack, to a massive military strike on Russia itself. The possible outcomes would range from Putin’s backing down to uncontrolled escalation to WWIII.

I’m certainly hoping for #3a, a straightforward Ukrainian victory. It seems plausible, if only because Putin appears to hope that new troops will turn the tide, and that false hope could keep him fighting until he has simply lost. Again, war is unpredictable, but today’s reports of Ukrainian advances in Kherson Oblast make a victory seem more likely and a Russian rebound (#1) quite improbable. A stalemate (#2) would be harsh and unjust, but it is not difficult to imagine.

Russian escalation (#3b) is very dangerous for the world. I think it would most likely play out as a Russian WMD attack on Ukrainian military targets that prompts a global reaction that is not devastating and that gives Putin an excuse to settle the war. But the other possible results of #3b are all much worse.

an existential threat?

John Mearsheimer made the case against Ukraine on a well-attended panel discussion at the American Political Science Association. I don’t agree with those who disapprove of giving him a platform. If he’s wrong, his views should be aired so they can be rebutted, and I think that’s what happened when my Tufts colleague Oxana Shevel and other co-panelists debated him at APSA. If he has any actual insights, we should listen and use them.

I would emphasize a point that probably arose already in the panel discussion (some of which I had to miss). Mearsheimer said repeatedly that Russia faces an “existential threat” in Ukraine and is responding rationally and predictably. When he completed this phrase, it turned out not to mean a threat to Russia’s sovereignty, autonomy, or security within its borders. Mearsheimer meant a threat to Russia’s status as a great power.

I do not doubt that Putin and other Russian nationalists view a successful and European-oriented Ukraine as diminishing Russian global power. But this is the problem: Russia is not actually a great power.

In 2019, before the pandemic and the current full-scale war, Russia ranked right below Canada (population: 38 million) in GDP, and well below each of four European countries (Germany, the UK, France, and Italy). Its medium-term economic prospects were much worse than theirs because Russia is so dependent on fossil fuels. In population, Russia lies right between Bangladesh and Mexico (which has almost as big an economy), but its population has shrunk since 1992.

To be sure, Russia has a large military. In 2019, it ranked fourth in the world in military spending and sixth in the number of military personnel (at least on paper). But it arguably could not afford this expense. The Russian military cost 4.3% of its GDP, versus 3.7% in the USA, which nevertheless spent 11 times as much. That year, the proportion of the population that was enlisted in the military was four times as high in Russia as in the USA (an economic burden). And Russia was probably getting bad value for its military spending because of endemic corruption.

Russia has a vast supply of nuclear weapons, sufficient to end civilization. Nuclear weapons guarantee its security against a foreign invasion, and certainly pose a risk to other countries. Perhaps they are an asset in a conflict like the current one, because the US would be more likely to supply Ukraine with aircraft and long-distance guided missiles absent the nuclear threat. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are difficult to use to support conventional political aims.

It is a dilemma if Russia lacks the underlying basis for being a superpower yet views any events that diminish its great-power status as existential threats. However, the proposed solution of allowing Russia to act like a superpower is not only unjust; it is also unrealistic. Sooner or later, Russia must navigate the difficult road that Britain and France began to travel after 1945, reluctantly and incompletely acknowledging that they could no longer have empires. The USA should also make that transition, but in our case, the imperative is justice rather than necessity, since we actually retain the capacity to project global power.

See also: Russia in the larger history of decolonization; when states are blind

civic education in Russia

The Russian Education Ministry recently unveiled new curricular units for grades 1-11 under the label of “Talking About What is Important: Our Country is Russia.” I learned about the curriculum from this article in Meduza, but the magic of Google Translate allowed me to read the whole thing in English. It’s fascinating as a window into Russian pedagogy and state values, as well as a dim reflection of practices that some Americans would advocate–or even use already–for our children.

Perhaps the creepiest part comes in the Materials for Grades 5-7. Students compete in teams to answer quiz questions, such as “What is the tallest building in Europe?” (answer: Lakhta Center, St. Petersburg) and “What order do the colors appear in the Russian flag?”

At this point, the lesson plan says:

Teacher: While the results of the game are being summed up, I want to note that regardless of points scored, you are all great, because you know a lot about geography, history and culture of our country. …

We see manifestations of genuine patriotism even today, above all during the special military operation. Its launch on February 24 of this year was announced by the President of Russia V.V. Putin. In his speech, the President noted: “Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate actions. The People’s Republic of Donbas turned to Russia with a request for help.” Among the goals of a special military operation are to protect the population of Donbas, subjected to bullying and harassment by the Kyiv regime, to disarm Ukraine, and to prevent the deployment of NATO military bases. The Russian armed forces, together with the forces of the DPR and LPR, are actively working to achieve these goals. Huge military and other assistance of the collective West to the Ukrainian authorities is prolonging the fighting and increases the number of victims of the operation.

Over the past months, we have learned the names of our heroes, Russian patriots. Here are some more facts. Captain Alexander Romanov during the battle discovered a group of Ukrainian nationalists and decided to push them into the minefield. As a result of the operation, the nationalists surrendered, Captain Romanov personally neutralized 26 men. Thanks to the successful operation, Russian troops occupied the salient without losses.

(The list of heroic feats continues.)

Another snippet, this one from grades 3-5, provides a portrait of a Russian classroom as the Ministry imagines it:

Teacher: Today let’s think together again about what it means to love your Motherland, and how to learn it. For this it is important to answer the question “What do we call the Motherland?”. It is both simple and very complex issue. Of course, the Motherland for us is our country Russia. And what else? I would like to hear your answers.

Sample answers of children: “The motherland is also the people who live in our country, and our family, and the place where we were born, and the culture”.

Teacher: Let’s listen to the lyrics of the song “Where the Motherland Begins” by Veniamin Basner to the words of Mikhail Matusovsky. …

I had the opportunity to work with Ukrainian teachers in Kyiv in 2017, so I knew their national curriculum at the time. It had patriotic elements, but also democratic, classically liberal, and cosmopolitan aspects, and it seemed to align with guidance from the Council of Europe. I did not see anything about democracy or individual rights in the new Russian materials, even as lip-service.

We must teach students about politics, government, history, and social issues–to equip them to participate on an equal footing. However, civic education is always dangerous, because the government is able to compel children to learn about itself. I realize that conservative critics believe that American public schools teach youth to support expansive state policies and bureaucracies that they oppose. For me, a greater risk is a curriculum that idolizes the nation and its existing system and policies–much like the Kremlin’s. These disagreements are inevitable and even healthy. The best we can do is to have an ongoing, critical, diverse, deliberative, and influential public debate about what students should learn, so that this crucial question is not settled by politicians alone.

when states are blind

Although an account by former Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev and a Washington Post article today by Greg Miller and Catherine Belton should be read with caution, these sources paint a consistent picture.

Before the February invasion, the Kremlin believed that the government of Ukraine was compromised and the Ukrainian public would support a Russian occupation. Russian agents had strong reasons to disbelieve both assumptions; they had even conducted reliable polls in Ukraine that showed a high willingness to fight. But they had no incentives to tell their superiors the truth.

Putin also believed he was ordering something like 200,000 soldiers to invade and occupy a compliant Ukraine, but the real number may have been closer to 100,000. Commanders all down the line had incentives to lie about how many men had actually been recruited, had reported for duty, had remained on base, and had received basic training and essential equipment.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian security services received US and British intelligence that Russia was preparing to invade and duly reported those assessments to President Zelensky. But they also knew about poor Russian preparation and thought that the invasion was probably a bluff. At the same time, many Ukrainian officials feared that Russia had fatally compromised own security services–mirroring the Kremlin’s assumptions. US intelligence also underestimated Ukraine’s potential in the case of war, which may have delayed US military aid.

Clearly, the errors were worse on the Russian side, and they may be continuing. A study by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and colleagues claims that “business retreats and sanctions are catastrophically crippling the Russian economy,” contrary to what Russian government statistics currently suggest and what Russian leaders may sincerely believe. Likewise, Russian apologists for their own system who cite conservative values, like traditional gender roles and faith, seem blind to facts. Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have three of the four highest divorce rates in the world. Eight percent of Russians attend church regularly, as compared to 48% of supposedly decadent Americans and 19% of Ukrainians.

Time will tell who is right about the Russian economy and other issues. The general point is that no government can automatically or easily know what is going on. A government may not even know how many soldiers are enlisted in its own national army, let alone how the economy is really performing or how the public would respond to new events.

A government can allocate resources to collect information. When William the Conqueror suddenly obtained absolute power over England, one of his first acts was to order a census of its land and people, the Domesday Book. However, state capacity is always limited (there was no new English census for two hundred years after William’s), and money does not straightforwardly buy truth. It can even create incentives to mislead. Miller and Belton report that the Kremlin now regards Viktor Medvedchuk as a traitor because he delivered nothing in return for huge payments from Russian intelligence.

The more authoritarian a government is, the more it can give itself the right to collect information. It can employ surveillance, coercion, and even torture. On the other hand, authoritarian governments tend to monopolize information, depriving themselves of independent checks on what they believe. They invite people to lie to obtain preferment or avoid punishment. And they often focus on collecting information that most directly affects their own survival (such as the names of potential opponents) rather than information that would help them govern effectively.

I suppose that an authoritarian government that is broadly popular, such as the Soviet Union at the height of WWII, may perform decently well because individuals are motivated to try to do what they say they are doing. For instance, military officers don’t merely claim that they have followed orders; they do their best to follow them. But when authoritarian governments have lukewarm support, they are highly vulnerable to misinformation.

To various degrees, democratic governments restrict their own ability to collect information. At the limit, a highly democratic government could not employ spies, because it would be fully transparent to its own citizens. (That would deprive it of some ability to collect information–for better or worse.) There are many other reasons for democratic systems to misunderstand reality, including groupthink and confirmation bias, an urge for popularity, short time-horizons, failures to invest in research, and sheer human error.

We should never assume the reliability of information provided by any institution. For instance, today’s Washington Post article is not Gospel truth; it is a piece of reporting that depends on sources who have interests and journalists who have frameworks. But it is equally foolish to reject all official information as biased. Often the best we can do is to examine the processes and incentives that have generated data. For instance, if the people inside a system are reasonably protected against political interference and reasonably likely to be rewarded for accuracy, the system is more credible. And if information that comes from several autonomous organizations converges, the odds improve that the results are valid–although cultural and ideological biases could still operate at that level.

Overall, authoritarian governments tend to be unreliable sources. Often they pay the price for their own errors.

See also conflict v mistake as a framework for politics; is society an artifact or an ecosystem? (and what that means for citizens); China teaches the value of political pluralism; etc.