Opinion: Putin has just planted a land mine in his regime

Editor’s note: Editor’s note: Andrei Kolesnikov He is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of several books on Russian political and social history, including “Five Years of Liberal Reforms.” The origins of Russian Modernization and the legacy of Egor Gaidar”. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.


Moscow
CNN

In a nationally televised address on Wednesday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization. This means that he has essentially broken an unwritten social contract with the Russians: we, the citizens, allow you, the authorities, to steal and fight, but in return you stay out of our private lives.

Starting a new phase of the war, the Putin corner is dragging a significant part of the Russians behind. It has declared a de facto war on the home front, not only on the opposition and civil society, but also on the Russian male population.

Why is Putin taking the risk? Because he has encouraged the lack of public attention to the war for several months. The mobilization is full of serious unrest in society. For this reason, in fact, he decided to make a partial mobilization, rather than a full one. In the long run, he placed a mine under his regime; in the short term, it will face sabotage.

For so long, Putin has fomented instability among the masses for war, which will now cost the Russians, who are becoming cannon fodder.

How could Wednesday’s announcements get the Russians out of their comfort zone – who had become complacent about the “special operation” in the current situation?

So far at least, the dominant emotion felt here (or rather, the lack of it) was indifference. This indifference comes in many shades: genuine, imitative, or self-cultivated.

The Russian, who is in the 30% who support the “special operation” (almost 50% “definitely” support it, slightly less than 20% do not support it) does not have his own opinion, he prefers to borrow it. television or Putin blocks bad news and alternative sources of information for himself. But sometimes he does not like the war itself, and a person in this 30% can change his attitude towards Putin and his initiatives.

The indifference of ordinary people benefits Putin. We, the citizens, do not interfere in the affairs of our political class and we support their initiatives, but in return we ask them to maintain the impression of normality.

This is exactly what Putin is doing, skillfully combining partial mobilization for the war and himself (which happened immediately after the invasion) with demobilization. Entertainment programs are back on TV, fireworks were lit during the annual Moscow City Day festivities (an ironic joke on this day was that Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin celebrated the start of the counter-offensive in Ukraine), and people are living their normal lives (interest in events. Ukraine has had a low summer throughout

But even those who were indifferent could not ignore the Ukrainian counterattack. Even here, too, there was a reluctance to know the truth: if the officials said it was not a retreat, but a gathering of troops, then it was so. However, even the Kremlin’s official talk shows were full of admissions of defeat.

This did not arouse the desire for peace – this is also present in the mood of those who support the operation in general – but it caused an explosion of attacks and hate speech. There were already calls to “take off the white gloves” and actually punish Ukraine. This is exactly what Putin has done by launching missile attacks on infrastructure – power plants and hydroelectric installations. This is revenge and anger, but anger that reveals weakness rather than strength.

Radicals are happy with Putin and call for war to the bitter end and general mobilization. But the Kremlin dictator lacks the resources, especially human resources, to achieve a quick victory (which is why he has begun to recruit cannon fodder, even from convicts serving their sentences).

That said, it is not profitable for Putin to upset the middle class, who are happy to watch the war from their sofas on TV, but are not about to go to the trenches. Moreover, general mobilization would divert the human capital needed for the economy; simply, there would be hardly anyone to work with.

Dissatisfaction with Putin on the part of black radicals is not a new phenomenon. However, it has not yet appeared in such a vivid way. However, they have no chance of competing with Putin – the ultraconservative radicals will be crushed with the same force as Western liberals: the dictator will not accept competition in the niche of war and imperialism.

Russian public opinion is very inert, and something extraordinary will have to happen for the mood to seriously change. The same goes for financial problems. So far the socio-economic crisis was not so obvious. The full start of this is being delayed, but, some economists say, it will probably appear in late 2022/early 2023.

While public opinion is in a state of inertia, Putin has the opportunity to find words to pass off defeats as victories. He could stop the war right now by describing losses as gains. And he did so to a certain extent, when he decided to repair the losses by announcing that referendums would be urgently held in the four occupied territories of Ukraine upon accession to Russia.

It is clear that Putin is not ready to stop what he has started. He believes that Russia will succeed on the battlefield. Or at least he would gain more power in the occupied territories, declaring himself Russian, in which case any fight would be considered an attack on Russia. And then the “special operation” will have the opportunity to pass to the official war and create the possibility of general mobilization. Now Putin has only announced a limited and “partial” mobilization.

And that could all be a mistake. The longer Putin delays ending the war – even in the face of his most publicly stated “friends” including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the harder it will be to make peace later, in any conceivable terms. as a victory

Yes, public opinion is mentally prepared for a long war, but who knows when the fatigue of constant tension, which must be relieved by carefully guarded indifference, will break and change its mood. Putin says he has time and the Russian military is in no hurry.

But as time goes on, failures will become harder and harder to pass off as victories, especially for the dubious 30% who “prefer” to accept.