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Putin’s growing domestic crisis


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Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist and editor of the socialist website Rabkor (Worker Correspondent), whose writings regularly appear in English on Russian Dissent.

In this interview with Federico Fuentes, Kagarlitsky provides insight into the domestic factors behind the Russian regime’s decision to invade Ukraine, why President Vladimir Putin is seeking an “everlasting war”, the critical role being played by the left in anti-war organising, and prospects for social upheaval in Russia. A much shorter version of this interview first appeared in Green Left.

Discussions in the West regarding Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have largely focused on NATO expansionism, the Kremlin’s imperialist ambitions or Putin’s mental health. But you argue none of these were the key driving force behind the invasion. Why? 

When a huge event occurs, such as the war on Ukraine, there are generally various factors at play. But you have to put these factors into the context of real political and social processes. In that sense, all these factors, along with the long-term conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the conflict within Ukraine and between Ukrainian elites, are present. However, these factors do not explain much; they’re very superficial.

Let’s start with NATO. NATO’s expansion is definitely real. NATO not only expanded into former Eastern bloc countries, such as Poland and Hungary; it also expanded into former territories of the Soviet Union, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In that sense, NATO cannot technically expand any closer to Russia, as its frontier is already less than 200 kilometres from St Petersburg. We should also not forget that in the early years of Putin’s rule, Russia had very good relations with NATO. Putin himself confessed he wanted Russia to join NATO. It was the West that refused Russia’s membership when relations started to deteriorate – precisely because of the conflict in and around Ukraine.

Yet it was always clear that NATO was not going to accept Ukraine as a full member because this was going to pose a big problem for NATO. In many ways, Ukrainian ambitions to join NATO created more problems for NATO than for Russia, because it meant Ukraine wanting NATO to spend lots of money on Ukraine’s military. The irony is that Putin’s attack on Ukraine not only led to Sweden and Finland joining, but it has now made Ukrainian membership possible. Up until February 24, the chances of Ukraine becoming a full member were remote. Now, the situation has changed, and the perspective of Ukraine becoming a de facto NATO country is not only very real, it is already becoming a reality. So if we want to view this war as a conflict between Russia and NATO, then it is obvious that Putin’s policies have been counterproductive and achieved the exact opposite of what is presented as an excuse for the war.

In terms of Russia, or rather Putin’s imperialist ambitions, this was also present: You just have to watch or listen to Russian propaganda to see how it goes beyond all limits in terms of jingoism and racism. Russian propaganda continuously states that Ukraine shouldn’t exist, that Ukrainian territory is actually Russian territory that has been conquered by Ukrainians. It says Russia is going to liberate these territories from the population that lives there; that they are not the right population for that territory. All sorts of racist, fascist statements are made on state channels. It’s an absolutely incredible flood of aggression, xenophobia and hatred.

We could also say that the internal conflict in Ukraine is to some extent a cause of the war. But this conflict has been present for eight years, with very little change. Frozen conflicts can persist, sometimes for hundreds of years, without leading to war. When they do lead to war, the real causes of the wars are to be found not in the origins of the conflict but in the context of concrete situations. Take for example, the Malvinas/Falkland Islands conflict between Britain and Argentina, which persisted for centuries. The explanation for why a war erupted in 1981 cannot be found in the origins of the conflict, but rather in the internal crisis within the Argentine military junta and, to some extent, Margaret Thatcher’s need for some kind of success story to help turn around the polls. So this was exactly the right time for war to erupt: both sides needed the war for their own domestic reasons.

So the real question is why did this war erupt now, despite problems within Ukraine and between Russia and Ukraine existing for years. Even just a week before the war, most rational Russian political commentators were extremely sceptical that a war would break out, because everyone knew Russia was absolutely not ready for war. This brings us to the issue not of Putin’s mental health, but his capacity to make rational decisions. Everyone knew the war would not turn out the way it was planned or announced by Putin’s team. Nevertheless, they went to war. This demonstrates that these people were not able to even calculate the most basic things. I am no military analyst, but even I could predict that Russia had no chance of taking Kyiv and achieving a full-scale victory. You had to be totally incompetent or totally disconnected from reality to think otherwise. Yet government propaganda said the exact opposite. Well, it is pretty clear now who was right. In that sense, Putin’s mental health and the way decisions are made in the Kremlin played a role.

So what would you say were the real causes of the war?

I think there were two major causes.

The first one is basically global and long-term. It was the Great Recession of 2007-8, which changed the global economy and Russia’s situation within it. The recession revealed the tremendous weakness of the Russian economy. Yet, at the same time, Russian oligarchs benefited from it. When the recession erupted, Russia’s economy declined at a much faster rate than any other major economy in the world. Then it recovered faster than any economy in the world. Why? Because Russia’s economy was dependent on raw materials, and in particular oil. To deal with the Great Recession, the US Federal Reserve began printing money, much of which ended up in financial markets and, ultimately, as speculative investments. Oil is a perfect commodity for speculative investment, as it is deeply connected to financial markets. Yet, at the same time, it is part of the real economy. So the Federal Reserve’s policy led to an enormous increase in oil prices, which in turn created a situation where, while the Russian economy continued to deteriorate, Russia was showered in petrodollars, with more and more income going into the pockets of the oligarchs and the state. A Russian economist once commented that the Russian government’s best friend was the Federal Reserve. The Russian government depended directly on money printed by the Federal Reserve: the more money the Federal Reserve printed, the more money Russian elites got. They didn’t have to do anything except wait for the Federal Reserve to print more dollars. That was their whole strategy. But once the Federal Reserve started to print less money, or at least started to use this money in a different way, as happened during COVID-19, then this became a problem for Russian capital.

All this led to an enormous expansion of corruption. Russia was always very corrupt, but corruption now hit new heights. Russian elites were faced with an incredible crisis of overaccumulation, much like what Rosa Luxemburg described in her book. One solution was to channel this extra money towards military expansion and producing a lot of military hardware, But then you have to use this military hardware somehow if you want to continue investing more money into this sector.

But that’s just one side of the story because, at the same time, the domestic situation was drastically deteriorating. While all this money was going in the hands of the elite and a small sector of the middle class, healthcare, social services, welfare – sectors that were already tremendously underfunded – underwent further cuts to expenditure in order for the elites to accumulate even more capital. One example of this was the pension reform of 2018, which faced stiff opposition.

Imagine how an average Russian citizen felt. They knew that there was an enormous amount of money flowing into the hands of the oligarchy, the state bureaucracy, top administrators, and Putin’s friends. They could see the construction of incredible palaces – forget about Versaille in France; just near where I have my dacha [holiday home], you can see some huge walls as you drive from there to Moscow. What’s behind these walls? Palaces. We know that because the internet allows you to discover everything. These palaces are much bigger than what you will find in Versaille. And this is in an area regarded by the wealthy to be second-class; it is not even where the wealthiest Russian oligarchs live.

So people see that and see that the material situation of the great majority is getting dramatically worse, that real income is declining and prices are rising, that they are having problems getting decent jobs. All this generates tremendous discontent. This discontent is very often not political, but it creates a terrible mood. So much so that it has even become a problem for the Russian government’s war plans, because it cannot mobilise people for the army. People will just not fight for this regime. Nobody wants to make any sacrifices for them, because they are hated by everybody.

On top of this, you have the fact that political institutions – even the fake parliamentary democracy that we had with elections contested by parties that were very much under the regime’s control – have been destroyed over the past two years due to attempts by Putin’s teams to consolidate power. Putin is getting older and more ill, so the problem of a transition of power is very real, but any kind of institutional transition is not possible in this context.

So how do you deal with all this? Well, the best solution is to come up with some kind of extreme and extraordinary situation. A situation that justifies a state of emergency, whereby the people who make decisions can override any institutional or constitutional hurdle and make whatever decisions they want to make. And a war is perhaps the best way to create such a situation.

Given what you say about the Kremlin’s obvious lack of strategy going into war, is there any sense as to what Putin’s aims are in Ukraine, and whether they are interested in negotiations with Ukraine to obtain them? 

The invasion was very much improvised and did not have any long-term strategy behind it. Once the regime’s improvised strategy failed, they clearly started inventing new causes and goals for the war post-facto. We are dealing with a very rare case in which a country wages an aggressive war but struggles to define what its goals are or explain them to the public. This is partly because the elite is confused, they don’t know what to do and they’re desperately looking for a way out. But at this point they cannot find one.

The main problem now is not that they do not want to negotiate; the main problem is that, no matter what they achieve through negotiations, they won’t be able to sell it to the public given the tremendous discontent that exists. This is why it is so hard for the Russian elite and Russian government to reach a settlement. It is not just a case of having to make a deal with Ukraine and the West, which they could do. They have to be able to sell any deal they make to the domestic public, which is something that they cannot do. No matter how this ends, it’s going to generate a massive moral, political, ideological crisis and, even perhaps, upheaval in the country…

From what you are saying, continuation of the war is therefore preferable for Putin than negotiations? I ask this because within the Western left, it is common to hear the argument that it is NATO and Ukraine who want to drag out the war and who reject negotiations. But your comments seem to suggest the opposite…

Absolutely. That is why, in recent statements, Putin has revealed his eagerness to prolong the crisis as much as possible. As I have written about, they have been very clear about waging an everlasting war that continues forever, in which agreements are never reached, because they do not know what to agree on. And, as I said before, it’s not because they cannot compromise or even because they do not want to compromise; it’s because they cannot sell this to the public domestically. Especially as the invasion did generate a strong sense of jingoism and genuine enthusiasm for the war among a section of society. They managed to consolidate the most reactionary, most aggressive, the most evil elements of Russian society behind the war. The problem now is that these elements have become dangerous even for the regime itself, because at the very moment the regime negotiates and achieves any kind of settlement, it will immediately become the target of these reactionary forces.

This was already visible in April, when a meeting between Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Istanbul agreed to some kind of settlement that included a Ukrainian declaration that it would not join NATO. This was something Russia could have used to justify its invasion and point to as a victory. But while the Ukrainians were ready to sign it, Russia did not sign. To understand why, we need to look at what happened inside Russia. The very same day that they announced this preliminary agreement, there was a real eruption of anger and hatred in the pro-government media, a real rebellion by the pro-war party, that included threats to kill negotiators. In response, Russia pulled back from the agreement. Faced with the forces from hell they had unleashed, Putin’s people became scared.

Then consider that, on the other side, you have anti-war sentiment that is very strong, even if it’s severely repressed. The Putin administration is very much stuck between a rock and a hard place, because you have very strong anti-war sentiment and you have a pro-war, jingoistic, militaristic, nationalistic movement that will become oppositional the very moment that the regime reaches a settlement.

The worst case scenario for Putin – and it is certainly not excluded that at some point this might happen, particularly if Russia is defeated militarily – is that these forces, which are very different and oppose each other on every single issue, could suddenly attack the regime simultaneously from opposite sides. This is what happened in Russia in 1917, when the tsarist regime collapsed not just because of the anti-war forces, but also because of the anger of those within the military and the regime who were not happy with the way the war was being fought. These two forces attacked the tsarist regime simultaneously, leading to its collapse. Putin’s people are aware of this history, but there is very little they can do about it.

I want to return to the anti-war movement in Russia, but I would like to follow up on a point you raised regarding the far-right nationalists forces that have been unleashed in Russia. This has to do with the discussion surrounding fascism in Russia and Ukraine. How do you charaterise the governments in Moscow and Kyiv and the role played by fascist or far-right nationalists inside or outside these governments? Has the war helped to stoke these tendencies or has it opened up space for other voices?

Both sides accuse the other side of being fascist, but I think that neither side is fascist. That said, the ideology of the far right, and the tendencies that are typical of right-wing populism, and even fascism, are present in both countries.

In terms of their political and social content, the two sides are not very different. Of course, there are differences. For example, Ukraine has a much weaker state. This creates spaces in which the far right can carry out non-state-controlled repressive activities, in some cases with the support of elements of the Ukrainian security services. The Russian state does not allow such things to happen. There are no private repressive apparatuses or paramilitaries because the Russian state has an absolute monopoly over repression. In Russia, repression is centralised, while in Ukraine it is decentralised. At the same time, unlike Russia, Ukraine has a civil society that is not repressed, precisely because the state is weaker. The state has not repressed civil society in Ukraine because it does not have the capacity to repress it like in Russia.

Another difference is that the Ukrainian oligarchy is not consolidated, while the Russian oligarchy is consolidated around Putin – or at least was until recently. The Ukrainian oligarchy was never consolidated because it didn’t have much in the way of oil or other resources that could be sold on the global market to generate easy income. Instead, Ukrainian oligarchs systematically fought against each other. This created an image of Ukraine as a pluralistic democracy, which it is not. Rather, it is a weak state with competing oligarchies, something more akin to what famous political theorist Robert Dahl called a polyarchy.

So there are differences, but it does not change the fact that the ideological content of Russian and Ukrainian nationalism is very similar and the social nature of the state and capitalism in both countries is very similar. Both are dominated by oligarchic, peripheral capitalism.

However, it is important to note that there are some very positive signs on the Ukrainian side. Let’s be clear, there is no way that you can have an anti-war movement in Ukraine. That is understandable because Ukraine is the country that is being attacked. It is a victim of Russian aggression. When your city is being bombed and shelled daily, you cannot protest against your own armed forces, who are fighting back to keep you safe.

But there is a growing tendency against Ukrainian nationalism within Ukrainian society and a growing debate about what to do, if and when Ukraine wins. It’s a very active and sometimes aggressive debate, in which one of the most interesting characters is Oleksiy Arestovych. He is from the military and is an advisor and spokesperson for Zelensky. I’m not sure how strong his position is within the administration, but he has become very popular, both in Russia and Ukraine. Arestovych keeps pushing a message about what kind of new Ukraine should emerge from this war: one that overcomes divisions between east and west, between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. He speaks about the need to appropriate Russian language as the language of Ukrainian identity, to promote Russian culture in Ukraine, and to give hope to those from Russia who want to live and work in Kyiv. He says the new Ukraine has to overcome divisions and integrate everyone.

Because of this, he is systematically attacked by the far right, including via threats against him and his family. Ukrainian nationalists hate him, but there’s very little they can do, because he has become a popular figure, including within the army. It is important to note that on the frontline, the Ukrainian army is mostly composed of Russian speakers. On top of this, you have the Territorial Defence Force, a volunteer force which has about 200,000 armed troops fighting in eastern Ukrainian, who are also predominantly Russian speakers. So it seems quite possible that Ukraine is going to undergo some very serious shifts in the directions of a more integrated society once the war ends. It is also not excluded that it may face some sort of civil conflict – even potentially a civil war – but it’s too early to judge.

Let’s now turn to the anti-war movement in Russia. What is the current state of anti-war organising? 

When the war started, there were initially quite a lot of protests in Russia, but they were brutally repressed. The reality is that there was no way in which you could protest on the streets, because you would immediately be beaten up and put in jail. The government’s repression machine managed to early on win the struggle for control of the streets, though they needed a lot of repression to achieve this. It is important not to forget that there had been massive protests, involving hundreds of thousands of people, during the past two years, along with a long-term sustained effort by the repressive apparatus to destroy these movements. They achieved this, at least temporarily.

People can now be sent to jail just for making a public anti-war statement. Simply using particular words can mean you face jail time. They sentenced a municipal deputy in Moscow to seven years jail just for saying something critical of the war during a session of the municipal council. When I publish something in Russian, I never use the word war, because just using the word war means I could receive a fine or jail. So you can imagine what the atmosphere is like.

Nevertheless, if you look on Russian social media networks, where you can post anonymously, the atmosphere is very negative towards the war. People are very critical and publish a lot of very angry texts against the war.  So the anti-war movement is very weak, but it has tremendous potential.

What role has the left played in anti-war organising? What can you tell us about the positions taken towards the war by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation? 

The official parties within the Duma support the war and the regime, including the two parties that pretend to be “left-wing”: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and the so-called social democrats of A Just Russia. But if you look deeper, you can see that where they have any rank-and-file activists on the ground, these people are usually very anti-war. Quite a lot of them are now leaving these parties. Some have declared their opposition publicly, such as Yevgeny Stupin, a very charismatic and well-known [CPRF] deputy in the Moscow City Duma, or Andrei Danilov, an interesting and popular intellectual from Yakutia. There are also new leaders emerging, including from within these parties. You have, for example, Anna Ochkinawho was one of the major voices of the left within A Just Russia but who left the party, making a public statement against the war. In that sense, while the leaders speak out in favour of the war, they are not supported by any serious forces on the ground. On the ground, the left is, I shouldn’t say it is “well” but it is definitely alive, and it is definitely active and growing.

One thing to note is that a lot of people from the liberal opposition have left the country. The government publicly labelled a number of them “foreign agents”. Everyone knows that the next step after being labelled a foreign agent is that you are put in jail, which is why many have left. They have labelled me a foreign agent, I imagine with the intention of wanting me to leave, but I’m not going to leave. An interesting by-product of this policy has been that, while most of the leaders of the liberal opposition have left the country – with a few exceptions, such as Alexey Navalny, who was already in jail, and Ilya Yashin, who was recently put in jail – those who have stayed in Russia are mostly from the left. So, interestingly, the left is now becoming a kind of hegemonic force within the anti-war movement.

The anti-war movement is real, even if it’s been forced underground. And it is radicalising, because people are beginning to understand that it is not just about the war: it’s about the political and social system. A very interesting sign of this is that segments of the liberal opposition that used to be very suspicious of anything left-wing, are now moving leftward. For example, Yashin recently declared that he had certain disagreements with Navalny because he himself identifies more as a person of the left, which was a surprise to us because we always thought of him as being a liberal. Another example is Yulia Galyamina, a very charismatic and important figure of the liberal opposition, who recently made a statement that her best friends in the movement are communists. So there is definitely a shift to the left within the movement.

Finally, I want to turn to the West’s aim for Russia and the issue of regime change. You wrote recently that while western leaders “will not allow Russia to win the war … they don’t necessarily wish for a change of the Russian regime.” This seems to cut across the dominant narrative in the West, and even the Western left, that behind the US’ motives in the Ukraine war is to weaken Russia and promote some kind of regime change. Why do you believe that they are not interested in changing the Russian regime?

Well, it depends on what you mean by regime change. If by regime change you simply mean changing the name of the president, then that is exactly what the West wants. They definitely want Putin to step down because Putin went too far, because Putin is totally unreliable, because Putin is toxic and, to some extent, he’s crazy or at least unpredictable and dangerous. So they want to get rid of him.

But do they want Russia to become a democratic, open society, dominated by people who are not corrupt and who care about the social and economic development of the country? I definitely doubt it. What they want is Putinism without Putin. They might also want some minor cosmetic changes, such as placing certain liberal economists in the government, although, it must be said, that the government is already dominated by neoliberal economists. All these economists, inside and outside the government, share the same views and approach to the economy. They all share the same idea of Russia being integrated into the global economy as a seller of raw materials and energy, and therefore increasingly dependent on Western markets.

The West definitely wants Putin to step down and the Russian elites want exactly the same thing – there is a total consensus on this. There is just one small problem: Putin is not going to step down. Moreover, if and when he finally does step down – in whatever form this might take – it will not be the end of the story, as Western and Russian elites hope; instead it will be the beginning of a much deeper crisis.  By this I am not talking about Russia falling apart; I’m talking about social and political struggles within Russia for power and influence.

Real change means turning Russia into a democratic society, one dominated by domestic interests and not by the interests of foreign markets, foreign capital and Russian investment abroad, which is an important issue for Russian elites when it comes to decision-making. Russian society wants a different kind of economic development and people understand that this is necessary. This goes completely against the perspective envisaged by elites in Russia and the West.

In some sense, we have a situation that is very similar to the one Russia faced in 1916-17, when it was clear that the British and Germans were fed up with the tsar. This created a very strange situation, because the Germans and British were at war with each other, but they were in agreement that Nicolas II had to go. The Germans wanted this because they expected that Russia would then negotiate and get out of the war. The English expected a new regime to continue the war in a more effective manner. If you recall, Nicholas II resigned and then a revolution started – something that was not contemplated in either the plans of the Germans or British.

I think the situation today is very similar: they want Putin to go but they want the regime to stay largely intact, even if perhaps there might be a certain winding back in the level of authoritarianism to what existed before 2020. Essentially, a “return to normal” without Putin and without some of the more extreme repression and extreme militarisation. But it’s not going to happen that way. The regime will collapse sooner or later – and probably sooner rather than later. Much depends on the Ukrainian offensive – if it happens, when it happens and how it happens. It may end up leading to a political transition in Russia. I cannot say this will happen for sure, but it may, if the Ukrainian offensive succeeds.

But the important thing is that there is no going back to the status quo ante. Ukraine is going to undergo tremendous changes. And Russia will undergo even deeper changes. As a Belarusan comrade recently said to me, we – meaning Russians, Belarusians, all of us ex-Soviet Union and ex-Russian imperial subjects – have a good tradition: Every time we lose a war, we either start radical reforms or revolutions.

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