Putin calculates the risks of the conflict for Russia





Russia insists that it does not want a war in Ukraine, but the bet of the Russian president, Vladimir Putinof increasing tension on the border to obtain security guarantees from the United States and NATO has its risks, both internal and external.

Western leaders make an effort to present Russia as an iron dictatorship and Putin as a modern Machiavelli, but the reality is more complex. No one can control the unforeseen consequences of a war, starting with the economic ones; Within the apparatus of power there are different positions and the state of majority opinion must be taken into account.

“It is a risky bet, of course – admits Francis Serra Professor of International Relations at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and specialist in ex-Soviet space – but Putin is used to and we are used to this type of risky plays“.

What do the Russians think?

“Public opinion has little or no information about what is happening At the border, the media are not reporting the situation because they are maneuvers,” he explains to RTVE.es Maria Jose Perez del Pozoprofessor of International Relations at the Complutense University and expert on Russia.

It is difficult to get an idea of ​​public opinion in a country with few independent media and where protests are repressed. The Levada Center tries to press that opinion with a series of surveys that allow to get an idea. Levada has been designated as a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin.

In a survey conducted last April, when the conflict in Donbas began to heat up, 48% of those surveyed blamed NATO and the US for the escalation.but opinion was evenly divided on whether or not Russia should intervene.

Although the possibility of war is among the recurring fears of Russians (along with illness, poverty or being abused by the authorities), recent polls show that the most pressing concern is the economy. The 63% fear an economic crisis in 2022compared to 37% who believe a war against a neighboring country is likely and 25% who expect a confrontation with NATO or the US.

The economy, the Kremlin’s Achilles heel

The Russians have reason to worry. inflation is skyrocketing and doubles the forecasts of the Central Bank of Russia (the forecast is 4% and exceeds 8%). Last Thursday and Fridaythe ruble weakened on news of clashes in eastern Ukraine.

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If the US and the EU put in place the “massive” sanctions that they have threatened, and which would exclude Russian banks from the international communication system (SWIFT), would be a serious blow to big Russian companies.

At the moment, Russia is benefiting from the increase in gas prices that the crisis itself has caused. “It can offset the extraordinary expense of military deployment, which adds to the losses of Russian economy poorly adapted to economic modernization and badly in need of large investments in infrastructure“, considers Pérez del Pozo.

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The Russian economy practically depends on the production of hydrocarbonswhich has advantages but can also engender risks. For example, the conflict threatens to derail the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is set to increase the amount of gas Russia supplies to Germany.

“Until a year ago it could be said that Russia was not going to enter into a conflict because it was interested in selling gas – Francesc Serra abounds – but this has changed because China has shown interest and has signed contracts to buy Russian gas. Russia is no longer so dependent on what it sells to the West, but it could not cut off gas transit to Europe, the economic cost would be too great.”

No popular support for a war but no internal opposition

Andrew FergusonProfessor of Politics and Governance at the HSE Moscow University, assures that among ordinary Russians there is no desire for war with Ukraine. “When Putin says he doesn’t want war, it’s a reflection of general public opinion,” he says, though he adds that there are also those in the corridors of power who would prefer a tougher stance on Ukraine.

To the fears for the economic repercussions, is added the emotional factor. “For any Russian this would be almost like a civil warit would have to be very fast and bloodless, and I don’t think that’s possible,” he says.

Ferguson contrasts the current crisis with the unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014.”That action had great support, it was seen as a reunification, not as an annexation. Whereas a war in eastern Ukraine would basically be seen as an attack on a brother, a very special neighbor, and there is no appetite for that among the population.”

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This does not mean that a military intervention provoked an internal reaction of protest. Ferguson confirms from Moscow that the authorities are in control and can anticipate any protest.

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There are no strong opposition forcesneither with an alternative program, nor with the possibility of destabilizing the apparatus”, assures Pérez del Pozo. “Putin is an expert in selling his speech – adds the UCM professor – Foreign policy has always contributed to consolidate his popularity, it is a source of internal endorsement”.

“It is true that there is a new middle class, with other political and social sensitivities – recognizes Francesc Serra – Youth distances itself a lot from the Russia that supports Putin, but Putin can take advantage of the feeling of threat and victimhood that has been created to regenerate this social cohesion around it”.

According to surveys by the Levada Center, Putin enjoyed a popular approval of 69% in January 2022and only 29% disapproved of his government.

The limits of diplomacy

For now, and except for the cyberattacks and the reports of violations of the ceasefire between Kiev and the secessionists, Russia and the US continue diplomatic efforts. This Thursday, Moscow responded in writing to Washington in the last exchange of proposals, those responsible for the diplomacy of both countries will see each other next week.

Ferguson warns of the risk that diplomacy “exhausts itself” because “nobody knows what can be the solid basis for a stable peace”.

“What Russia wants is a strategic relationship with NATO more integrated into the UN collective security system, which allows greater control over the extension of the Alliance. For Russia it has to do with these ideas of collective security, especially indivisible security, which is a concept that they bring up again and again in diplomatic dialogue,” he explains.

“I don’t see any signs of progress in those dialogues,” he says. Ferguson, which does not expect progress in the negotiation regarding the Minsk Agreements either. These agreements, agreed in 2015, provide autonomy for the secessionist regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, which for the HSE professor entails “the pretext for greater instability.”

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“The subject of a possible ukrainian neutrality it is a path that has a long way to go – considers Pérez del Pozo – and a bilateral agreement to reduce arsenals would be possible”. In any case, Putin always has the option of withdrawing his forces and claiming the version he has always maintained: that only they were on maneuvers in their own territory. “From the point of view of discourse, Putin is not going to get caught“, adds the teacher.

Frances Serra recalls that Russia has experience in freezing conflicts and leaving them without a definitive solution. “Russia is very comfortable with instabilityis what has fostered in Ukraine, Georgia and other ex-Soviet areas, coercive diplomacy.”

The result for Russia: between international respect and isolation

The Kremlin’s propaganda, both internal and external, plays the trick of victimhood, which could be reinforced by increasing the Alliance’s capabilities on its eastern flank.

From Moscow, Andrew Ferguson perceives that the regime tends to close in on itself in the face of threats. “The Russian fortress mentality it is a defense instrument. For some Russian strategic thinkers, isolationism is something Russia has to live with“, Explain.

“Russia has many weaknesses – points out Francesc Serra – It has a strong Army, but military spending lower than that of NATO; an unstable economic situation; a political leadership that is already many years old and is wearing thin; an aging population, with serious demographic problems . have a lot to lose. Putin’s move is also understood there: he thinks he can win a lot, and the first thing he aspires to is respect, that Russia be taken into account. And he’s right, because the West has behaved arrogantly.”

María José Pérez del Pozo underlines the desirability of a constructive dialogue for all parties and “get out of this vicious circle of statements in which the biggest losers are the Ukrainians and then public opinion around the world.” Especially for the EU, which, according to the UCM professor, “needs Russia as much as Russia needs the EU. There is a natural geographical link”.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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