May 2023 in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Turning Point or More of the Same?

June 8, 2023
  • Mikhail Vinogradov

    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation

Mikhail Vinogradov writes that, although the drone strikes on Russian territory and Ukrainian forays into border regions have generally not perturbed Russians, these and other developments from May and early June raise serious questions that the Kremlin will have to answer in the near future.
Damage from a drone attack in Moscow in May. Source: VK
Despite the latest escalation in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, there has not been a major change in the political trends for now. Expectations of a big Ukrainian offensive have been disappointed, though they have not gone away. The apparent vulnerability of Russian territory to drones and incursions would seem to give Moscow good reason for harsh rhetoric, but officials have been quite evasive. At first, Vladimir Putin spoke of the attacks as Kyiv’s reaction to Russian military successes, while at the end of the week, his press secretary Dmitri Peskov allowed for the possibility of achieving Russia’s goals “by means other than the special military operation” (still, the next day he disavowed the statement, saying, “we have no other alternative [to military action]”).

Did the drone attacks on Moscow mark a turning point?

The May developments left observers unsure about what was next: the old trends seem to have exhausted themselves, but new ones have not yet taken shape. Up until now, four stages of the conflict can be distinguished: February 2022 (the period of very high expectations about Russian strength); March-July 2022 (the slowdown of the Russian offensive with a partial withdrawal of troops); August-November 2022 (the Ukrainian offensive and counter-escalation attempts by Moscow); and December 2022-April 2023 (the freezing of the front line with the exception of a few hot spots like Bakhmut).

This dynamic raises pressing questions the answers to which we may learn in the coming weeks.

In terms of their significance, the drone strikes on Moscow and the surrounding area on May 30 are comparable to the bombing of the Crimean bridge and Ukraine’s September offensive. These strikes demonstrated that the Russian side had serious – though not critical – vulnerabilities.

Moscow was hit by air strikes for the first time in 80 years – the last German bombing of the Soviet capital took place in June 1943. It seems that this should have been a shock for Muscovites, commensurate with what they experienced after the apartment bombings in September 1999.

At that time, the residents of the city independently organized round-the-clock watches, whereas this time there was no particular alarm. The drone strikes, of course, did not go unnoticed, but they did not trigger panic, a grassroots safety movement, a surge in anti-Ukrainian sentiment or the growth in pacifist positions. It seems that Muscovites were more worried about the jamming of GPS signals in the city center, which disorganized taxi and car-sharing services. The drone strikes may not have seemed such an unusual event to Muscovites given the drone attack on the Kremlin in early May, which, however, also did not make a big impression.

The federal authorities clearly tried not to dramatize what was happening: the strikes on the Kremlin and residential buildings were not hushed up but were presented as successes of air defense that made it possible to avoid human casualties. Muscovites seemingly accepted this interpretation – or preferred not to question it.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian operation on May 22-23 near Grayvoron in Belgorod Region (see Nikolai Mitrokhin in Russia.Post on this) did not even register with the Russian public. The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) even recorded a drop in the level of anxiety between May 21 and May 28 from 53% to 43%, with the number of respondents reporting a calm mood among fellow citizens rising from 42% to 50% in the same time frame.

As a result, by the end of May, a contradiction emerged:
“The general uncertainty around the expected Ukrainian offensive would seem to undermine stability inside Russia, though it did not affect either the Russian authorities’ rhetoric or the urgency of decision-making.
Note that during the mentioned attack in Belgorod Region, rumors arose about the possibility of an emergency meeting of Russia’s Security Council. However, it turned out that its key members were busy with international matters: Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin was in China, Dmitri Medvedev was on a visit to Laos and Vietnam, and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev was meeting with representatives of “third world” special services outside Moscow.

Prigozhin: front man or trendsetter?

Another surprise in May was a serious expansion of the boundaries of what is acceptable on the public agenda. In particular, this was about a high-profile exception to the rules – Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner private military company. He put out a series of very sharp and ambiguous statements criticizing the current situation, the behavior of the elite and the leadership of the armed forces, somewhat reminiscent of the rhetoric of Igor Strelkov, Alexei Navalny, and even the early Boris Yeltsin during his fall in the late 1980s.

Prigozhin’s statements regarding the Ukraine conflict have also been very contradictory: from different angles, they can look like both unambiguous support and distancing – a signal of doubt about the advisability of further escalation given the fuzziness of Moscow’s results so far.

Experts, who have missed public domestic politics and colorful, independent statements – which have all but disappeared since the beginning of the war – have put forward a number of hypotheses about Prigozhin’s activity (see also  Nikolai Petrov in Russia.Post). Here are just a few:

1) Prigozhin is acting as a front man for influential political groups fighting to further weaken the position of the Ministry of Defense. The goal could be a change at the top or publicly setting up a scapegoat for potential setbacks in the event of an effective counteroffensive by Ukraine.

2) Prigozhin is trying to “refresh” the dried-up political agenda – one of the reasons being that he possibly wants to be among the key speakers for the presidential campaign – to revitalize politics or to make the current leadership look moderate against the backdrop of “radicals” and thus potentially more attractive for the majority. Meanwhile, by speaking about the ineffectiveness of the war effort, Prigozhin is appealing to critically minded voters, trying to convince them again of the need for the conflict with Ukraine.

3) Faced with internal problems or acting with an eye to the future, Prigozhin can also prepare public opinion for military setbacks, with the blame being directed toward the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, in order to prevent Vladimir Putin’s ratings from falling.

With all the rationality of the above assumptions, it is important to note that Prigozhin’s style is extremely unusual amid the current, lifeless politics, while the tools he uses (interviews and trips to the capitals of federal districts) look like elements of a political show.

This naturally causes ferment among some of the elites, who are trying to figure out whether there is a real crack in the ranks of the jingoist lobby or whether it boils down to political manipulation or an addiction to media attention on the part of Prigozhin himself.

The popular thesis that the Kremlin purposefully seeks to use Prigozhin to help control the camp of “angry patriots,” dissatisfied with the slow pace and lack of results of the special operation, looks rather dubious.

Although the term “angry patriots” has become widespread, at least some sociologists question the size of this group. Their potential influence on the apathetic ordinary man, who is generally indifferent to the issues of war and peace, is also not obvious. The official agenda does indeed ignore many high-profile issues in relation to Ukraine.
The authorities avoid discussing successes and failures, seeking to create a general feeling among the mass audience that everything is gradually moving in the right direction.
Кonstantin Zatulin, a prominent Duma deputy, said on June 1, 2023: "We don't have enough grounds to become complacent and believe... that we will definitely win [the war]." Source: VK
Such accentuated dryness and lack of controversy could indeed lead to disappointment, albeit on the part of a small group. Many experts identify three key strata in Russian society:
• loyalists, who accept the official rhetoric;
• pacifists, who are anti-war;
• and apathetic ordinary citizens who do not express their own position and perhaps make up the majority.

Thus, if “activists” from among the angry patriots do exist, then their number is considerably less than each of these three strata. It is no coincidence that some sociological data shows that the number of people in favor of waging war to a victorious conclusion is quite close to the number of people who would like to conclude peace as soon as possible (especially if the Russian leadership were to come out with this idea).

Note that well-known hawks (Igor Strelkov, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Konstantin Zatulin) began to publicly discuss scenarios without victory as potentially possible. Though they avoid giving their own assessment of such a scenario, it nevertheless sets a precedent for publicly saying that victory will not necessarily be achieved.

Presidential elections in 2024: do they matter or not?

Around the beginning of spring, the state apparatus received a signal to start preparing for the presidential elections in 2024. The contours of the campaign are still poorly visible, and an official candidate has not been announced (though after the constitutional amendments of 2020, talk about a possible successor was practically banned), but the general guidelines for the relevant officials have been set.

In March-April, the campaign took an unexpected blow: the bill on electronic draft notices looked to portend a second wave of mass mobilization, which torpedoed the entire logic of preparing for the elections.

However, public anxiety was quickly extinguished: though the law was adopted in an extraordinary procedure, a second wave was not announced. The bet is still on attracting contract soldiers with high salaries.
However, the incident with the bill on electronic draft notices in itself showed that the start of the presidential campaign and increased mobilization measures might conflict.”
As the presidential elections approach (especially if they follow a scenario in which inertia predominates), the authorities will have to provide clarity on a number of issues. It would be more comfortable to get some respite so that public opinion can be presented with demonstrable, positive results for 2022-23 and a governing model for the next term can be put together.

Another hypothetical pole that experts have staked out is the ratcheting up of external pressure to disrupt the elections or have the campaign proceed against a negative backdrop and with the highest possible costs for the regime.

A third option is also technically possible – martial law being declared and the elections cancelled. Since the introduction of martial law in certain areas at the end of 2022 did not lead to serious changes, some experts consider this to be a backup option, which would allow the vote to be called off at the last moment – especially since the Ukrainian authorities are leaning toward putting off their own elections.

At this point, this option is not being seriously considered. It is generally accepted that external events – whether it is military successes or failures – do not fundamentally affect the domestic political situation. The backup option seems likely only if the regime makes serious mistakes that lead to a clear discrepancy between polling data and the desired election result or intra-elite rifts.

Probing for weaknesses

The key uncertainty is not so much the frontline situation itself, but the degree to which Moscow’s external opponents approach the search for its vulnerabilities.

Until 2022, the regime managed to avoid such tests – it interpreted internal problems as purely external, and no one inside the country tried to publicly exploit the regime’s possible problems and failures.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has changed the situation, as the logic of wartime encourages each side to look for each other’s weaknesses. However, the quality of this probing varies. Whereas Kyiv is historically well aware of the specifics and nuances of the functioning of the Russian military machine and, if necessary, can rely on the intellectual and informational assistance of Western allies,
Moscow is not immersed in the nuances of the Ukrainian situation in such detail, and expert conclusions sometimes do not differ much from ideological clichés and reports of Russia’s superiority.
In late May, the town of Shebekino in Belgorod Region became the target of the biggest attack on a Russian town since the start of the war. Source: VK
As for the economic and socio-political situation, Moscow can be generally satisfied with the results of stress tests so far. The scale of economic challenges is not decreasing, but there is no critical deterioration in the economy, and the ability of business to adapt turned out considerably higher than expected.

The same applies to public opinion: a significant part of the population concentrates on positive news of varying degrees of truth or prefers to close themselves off from the flow of news altogether, ignoring the media and immersing themselves in everyday life.

Within the elite, vulnerabilities have also been hard to spot at this point. The cited statements of Strelkov, Prigozhin and Zatulin sound radical against the backdrop of the restrictions on public discussion of the conflict, which have been respected over the past year, but in themselves these statements do not mean a loss of control.

The authorities’ emphatic reluctance to dramatize the drone strikes on Moscow, as well as their sluggish response to the excesses in Grayvoron and Shebekino in Belgorod Region, may not be a very successful tactic, though it seems justified to the political leadership, since it was successful last year after the incidents with the cruiser Moskva and the Crimean Bridge.

More worrying today is the risk that vulnerabilities will be exposed in broader areas such as command and control, border and infrastructure security, fortifications, and the general motivation of soldiers. As with any large system, managers cannot be sure that reports about there being no weaknesses are entirely reliable. This results in a general rise in nervousness among political top managers, who fear that their quick responses could have been calculated in advance by the other side.
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