The Week In Russia: Putin’s ‘Disastrous Gamble’

Russia moved to seize four more regions of Ukraine, but battlefield setbacks pose a major challenge to the land grab and have led to an unpopular mobilization drive, prompting many young men and others to flee abroad. As President Vladimir Putin turns 70, are he and the country at a turning point?

Memorial, a Russian group that has fought for human rights and historical justice since the Soviet era and is struggling to survive as the state seeks to shut it entirely, won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in a pointed rebuke to Putin amid his persistent clampdown on civil society and dissent.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Laughable Land Grabs

Wait, what? The Czech Republic is laying claim to Kaliningrad, the small Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea?

Well, yes, but only on social media. It’s a meme campaign meant to skewer Moscow’s attempted annexation of a wide swath of Ukraine, laying bare how breathtakingly baseless it is in the eyes of the international community.

Posts advancing the pointed Czech joke multiplied in a week during which Putin’s latest and largest land-grab bid moved quickly through parliament after he signed treaties on September 30 with the men Moscow has declared leaders of four Ukrainian regions partially controlled by Russian forces — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya — and made a patriotic speech proclaiming them to be “Russian forever.”

There are faux commercials advertising travel to “Kralovec” — Czech for Koenigsberg, as Kaliningrad was called before it was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945. The motto “Kralovec is Czechia” mocks both the “Crimea is ours” jingoism surrounding Russia’s seizure of the Black Sea peninsula in 2014 and posters put up on Red Square ahead of the Kremlin signing ceremony that read, “Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya are Russia!”

There’s a real historical link to the Czech Republic: Koenigsberg, founded in 1255, was named in honor of King Ottokar II of Bohemia.

There’s even a plan for Beer Stream 1, a pipeline that would pump crisp Czech pilsner northward to supply the Baltic exclave — and poke fun at Moscow’s increasingly open attempts to use gas and oil exports to snuff out European Union support for Ukraine amid Russia’s war on its neighbor.

It’s a lighthearted approach to a subject that is, of course, extremely dark and may get darker as Putin’s aggressively extravagant designs on Ukraine hit up against the reality of setbacks on the battlefield and solidarity in the West.

Since Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, Russian forces have killed thousands or tens of thousands of people, many of themcivilians, and ransacked, razed, or severely damaged hundreds of cities and towns, forcing millions from their homes.

Moscow stands accused of what U.S. Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya described on October 6 as “chilling patterns of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including evidence of war crimes committed by members of Russia’s forces.”

‘Liberation’ And Death

In Russia, on state television and speeches by Putin, the conflict is painted in an entirely different light: not as a war of aggression aimed to subjugate Ukraine and causing untold suffering but as both a fight to free Ukrainians from a “neo-Nazi” government and a struggle against NATO and the West in which Russia’s existence is at stake.

In an address before signing the agreements that Russia falsely claims make the Ukrainian regions part of Russia, Putin asserted that his country has embarked on a “great liberating mission” rather than a war of conquest.

In the weeks and months before the February 24 invasion and in the days afterward, it became increasingly clear to those watching him that his stated views and historical claims about Ukraine were “divorced from reality,” as author and analyst Mark Galeotti said of Putin hours after the first Russian missiles struck cities across the country before dawn that day.

In speeches and articles revealing what emerged as an apparent obsession with Ukraine, Putin made a mixture of baseless claims and badly flawed arguments against its right to exist as a fully independent country uncoupled from Moscow — even as he repeatedly asserted that many Western states are U.S. “vassals” that have voluntarily or forcibly abandoned their sovereignty.

He has simply ignored many historical facts, such as the overwhelmingly popular vote for independence in Ukraine in 1991 and Russia’s formal acceptance of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity following the collapse of the Soviet Union that same year.

But if Putin’s portrait of history has long depicted something detached from the facts, it was not until after the invasion — when it became clear his apparent goal of a quick capitulation by Kyiv would not be achieved — that the stark difference between his vision of Ukraine’s future and reality came into relief.

That gap has widened ever since, and for Putin that’s a problem.

The event in the St. George’s Hall at the Grand Kremlin Palace on September 30, a week before Putin’s 70th birthday, had the trappings of a victory ceremony: a celebration of the acquisition of new lands and of the leader who made it happen.

But it came after weeks of gains by Ukrainian forces, particularly in eastern Ukraine, and a day before the Russian Defense Ministry announced it had withdrawn its troops from the strategic Donetsk region town of Lyman, a significant setback.

Seven months into an invasion that many say Putin expected would be over in Moscow’s favor within days, Ukraine’s advances have raised questions about whether Russia may not just fail to control the four regions it claims in their entirety but eventually lose all the territory it has seized — possibly including Crimea.

Myth And Reality

They have also prompted Putin to decree a military mobilization that has brought hundreds of thousands of Russian men and their families up against the reality of a war that had previously been possible to ignore and sent tens of thousands fleeing for foreign countries.

The developments pose what seems to be a growing threat to a president whose popularity and grip on power hinge to a significant degree on imagery and propaganda: the depiction of Putin as an indispensable leader who has raised Russia from its knees, in both economic and geopolitical terms, and brought stability.

His grip has been at its weakest when palpable reality shears sharply away from that narrative. It has been undermined repeated by avoidable calamities that reveal corruption, negligence, and rot where the propaganda says there is loyalty, law, and order, such as the deadly mall fire that broke out a week after his election to a fourth term in 2018.

Image and reality parted substantially during the COVID-19 crisis: Putin at first suggested Russia would avoid the pandemic, but Russia has now recorded fewer deaths than only three countries: the United States, Brazil, and India, whose populations are far larger.

Putin has weathered those reality checks and so far seems to face no imminent threat to his hold on power as a result of the war and mobilization.

The Russian retreats have engendered apocalyptic remarks on talk shows, vocal criticism of Russian military brass, and increasingly visible bulldog-bumps in the carpet that covers battles between rival factions in the ruling elite. But “criticism of Vladimir Putin remains absolutely off limits,” Francis Scarr, who watches Russian state television for BBC Monitoring, wrote in a tweet.

That could change if things get worse for Russia on the battlefield or if the economy suffers more severely from Western sanctions than it has to date.

By launching an unprovoked invasion that undermined the country’s stability and security rather than improving it, Putin “prioritized his personal obsession above Russia’s interests,” Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an article published the day after the offensive began.

Seven months later, the Russian setbacks in Ukraine are bringing new questions to the fore: How far is Putin prepared to go in his quest to make reality conform to his goals in the war on Ukraine, and how far are those around him — and the Russian populace as a whole — prepared to go with him?

Putin “is explicitly demonstrating that he is going to do whatever it takes to win, even at the risk of undermining his own regime,” Russian expert Tatyana Stanovaya, founder and CEO of the political analysis firm R.Politik, wrote in an October 6 article in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“Blindly believing in his own rectitude, Putin may resort to nuclear weapons if events in Ukraine continue to confound his ambitions,” she wrote. “The key question is whether Russia’s elites and broader society are prepared to accompany their president on this journey to hell, or if Putin, in doubling down on his disastrous gamble in Ukraine, has only paved the way for his own end.”

Editor’s Note: The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on October 21.

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