As exciting as it might be for many pundits to try to figure out what’s going on in Mr. Putin’s head, the scarce information available isn’t likely to tell us anything useful. We ought to instead focus on what we do have data about: the domestic reality that influences the Kremlin’s decision-making, along with the evolving military situation in Ukraine. What we would see if we did so is that the Kremlin’s interests and goals in Ukraine are not fixed but fluid, changing with the ebbs and flows of both domestic Russian opinion and military facts on the ground in Ukraine. At the beginning of the conflict in spring 2014, the Kremlin’s goal was presumably to conquer the whole southeastern land belt and create an overland channel to Pridnestrovie. However, the Kremlin overestimated pro-Russian sentiment, failing to create separatist movements in Kharkov, Kherson, Odessa, and other Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, and so it adjusted its goals. At the moment the Kremlin’s most likely intent is to force Ukraine to amend its constitution to incorporate the Donetsk and Lugansk regions back into Ukraine in a way that gives Russia leverage over the country’s politics.
Proponents of sending military aid to Ukraine emphasize that it’s necessary in case the war escalates. But an even more plausible goal would be to drain the Kremlin’s resources by forcing it to spend more on this war. Up until now, the Ukrainian war has been relatively cheap for Russia (discounting the long-term costs of sanctions and an investment slump), but it hasn’t been free.
Outside observers tend to think of Russia as a highly mobilized and militarized society. But the reality is that Russians, despite the intense propaganda delivered by domestic media, don’t approve of Russian military engagement in the conflict. Take, for example, the results of the last poll by the pro-state Russian Public Opinion Research Center, published on February 5. Even their figures show that an absolute majority of Russians (67 percent) oppose military engagement in Ukraine. Interestingly, these numbers are distributed equally across all social strata: the young and the old, Muscovites and small town residents. Only a fifth of respondents support Russia’s military action in Ukraine. The Levada Center, a more independent polling agency, reports similar figures. If anything, the number of warmongers in Russia has fallen since this past spring, and even back then it didn’t exceed a quarter of all respondents.
Even the Russian military is unhappy about this war. AWOL cases in the army have doubled from 388 in the first half of 2013 to 629 during the same period of 2014; the number of recruits feigning illness to evade service increased nearly fourfold from 33 to 115. Some officers and contractors openly refuse to fight in an undeclared war in which they could be killed and secretly buried somewhere in Russia or Ukraine. Recruiting servicemen has become an increasingly difficult challenge for the Russian state. This is one of the reasons that many volunteers sent to Ukraine come from other post-Soviet republics and Chechnya. Ethnically Russian soldiers and draftees often end up in Ukraine by force or deceit.
Note also that this antiwar sentiment is widespread despite the Kremlin’s unprecedented effort to mobilize the population through television propaganda. As pointed out by Russian political analyst Kirill Rogov, the current mobilization sharply differs from three previous ones (Chechen war in early 2000, anti-oligarch crusade in 2003 and Georgian war in 2008) in that Russians don’t expect any fundamental improvements to the domestic political or economic situation as a result of the Ukrainian conquest. Hence Putin’s elevated public approval numbers are temporary. The fact that, despite the enormous and ever-increasing resources spent on propaganda, the Kremlin has been unable to replicate the poll results from previous mobilizations testifies not to the enormous possibilities of power (as many analysts suggest), but rather to the exhaustion of these reservoirs of public support. Chances are that worsening economic conditions will rapidly erode the existing consolidation, as indeed some sociologists are already reporting.
For the Kremlin (which is far more rational than is usually acknowledged), Russian society’s refusal to mobilize for war and the brittleness of its support levels means the stakes of the Ukrainian conflict are higher than ever: the Kremlin can’t have Ukraine, but can’t let it go either. Letting go of Ukraine completely would mean a defeat for the Kremlin (don’t forget that most Russians still support humanitarian and non-military aid for the rebellious Ukrainian regions) at just the time that most would begin feeling the effects of a drastic economic decline. At the same time, the Kremlin can’t directly engage in Ukraine; it has to hide its unpopular military engagement from the public, and it is therefore limited in the amount of resources (both human and economic) that it can spend in this war.
All of these facts explain why the authorities have been hiding Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine from the public since the beginning of the conflict. Information on war participation by Russian soldiers and draftees has been suppressed in Russian media. There were numerous reports of unexplained military deaths across Russia during the summer and fall of 2014, but many of these casualties are buried in secret and unmarked graves. The relatives of the slain soldiers have been silenced with threats, cash payments, and even in some cases mortgage repayments. Journalists who try to investigate these cases are silenced as well. Lev Shlosberg, a Russian political activist and a member of the Yabloko opposition party, has received multiple death threats while investigating the private burial of contract servicemen in the Pskov region. Since these weren’t enough to convince Shlosberg stop his investigation, last August he was badly beaten and hospitalized with traumatic brain injury and temporary amnesia. In response to Schlosberg‘s inquiry, the military prosecutor’s office replied that it was not in the interest of the Russian Federation to disclose the circumstances of death of the Pskov soldiers. Likewise as recently reported by the human rights organization “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg,” all Russia’s military units, commanders of military districts, and departments (with the exception of one military unit) have refused under different pretexts to provide numbers of servicemen deaths for 2013-14. Such data has been reported in the previous years and is not normally deemed a state secret. Last October Russian authorities arrested and charged with fraud Lyudmila Bogatenkova, the head of the branch of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk, who was one of the first to announce that the 11 Russian soldiers declared dead in August were killed in Ukraine.
Along with journalists and NGOs, ordinary people have been silenced as well. The most recent case is that of Svetlana Davydova, a housewife from the small provincial town of Vyazma, who now faces up to twenty years in prison for state espionage. Davydova reportedly called the Ukrainian embassy after she overheard two Russian soldiers talk on a public bus about a group of fellow soldiers sent to Ukraine, where they would presumably be passed off as pro-Russian separatists. Cases like Davydova’s clearly aren’t directed at misinforming the international community; no one in the West had heard of her prior to her conviction. The goal, rather, is to deter the Russian people from talking openly about Russia’s military participation in the conflict.
This means first and foremost that the Kremlin believes it has to hide the true cost of the war from Russians. Potential arms deliveries to Ukraine would prompt a counter-response from the Kremlin, forcing it to direct even more resources toward mobilization. At some point this escalating cost will break the current wall of silence in Russia. Something like this played out with Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, ultimately undermining support for the regime. As Karl Marx said, history repeats itself…