Why Did The War Start And How Will It End? A Discussion with Andrei Kolesnikov
October 12, 2023
  • Andrei Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center
Russia.Post is launching a new section: we invited followers on our social media pages to submit questions for popular RP contributors. In September, Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Center in Berlin, answers Questions From Russia.Post Readers.
When and how will the war end?

I am not sure that it will end at all – as long as Putin rules Russia. While the [current] hot phase of the war could end with a peace agreement or truce (though that prospect is not yet on the horizon), the conflict could become “unfrozen” at any moment. In addition, no one is going to stop fighting on the second front – that of internal repression in Russia, the war between the Putin state and civil society.

What might push the sides toward peace is not so much Putin’s defeat (What would defeat look like in reality? It’s unlikely to be Moscow’s being captured by Ukrainian troops), but rather the Putin regime’s resources being exhausted. Moreover, it is exhaustion in a broad sense: not only military, political, financial, socio-economic, but also emotional and psychological. Still, this should not be expected to happen in the near future.

But when and if it does, the Russian elites will very likely be forced to liberalize the regime: they will have to replenish the reserves of resources wasted by Putin, which entails opening up the country.

There will be no disintegration of Russia. Resources at the regional level are also being depleted, and the regions are financially dependent on Moscow. Plus, most of their technocratic leaders are not in politics to become the ataman of, say, an autonomous Perm Region, but to get a good job in the federal government in Moscow. In the post-Putin period, the transition of power will create a certain number of jobs at the very top for which these people can compete.

What is the real reason for the war? Putin’s ambitions, fear of NATO expansion or something else?

Recently, the word “existential” has become fashionable. It explains everything and nothing at the same time. These “existential” reasons are due to the type of thinking of Putin and his circle, their ideas about the country and the world, which are incredibly archaic for the 21st century. Psychological reasons – the wiring of Putin’s brain, this man of revenge and resentment – I would not underestimate either.

It was once fashionable to say that Putin and his team had no ideology, that their ideology was money. It turned out that that was not entirely true: money and their staggeringly large-scale kleptocratic activities do matter, but even more important is the imperial and at the same time nationalistic worldview of the people who came to power at the beginning of the 2000s, their willingness to expend anything – be it financial or human resources – to achieve their fanciful goals, the “return and strengthening” of “their” lands.

The so-called “Russian idea” is unlikely to ever die, though it is not so dangerous as long as it does not take over the minds of the country’s rulers and does not become a completely official – in every history textbook – state ideology.
“Until the ‘Russian idea’ is marginalized to the ideological ghetto, until its advocates, who have brought so much grief to millions of people, are removed from power, this ideology, this imperial dystopia will continue to destroy.”
The ideology and the political regime following it (and the tougher the regime, the more terrible and absurd the ideology needed to justify and explain it) are of primary importance.

Why do Russians support the war?

Not everyone does. And the people who do support the war do so in different ways. In large part, they support it because they live here; because they adhere to the banal slogan, invented somewhere else, “my country, right or wrong;” because they share the quasi-patriotic discourse that is predominant and imposed on the state and society; and because in many ways they are hostages of the fortress “Russia” supposedly under siege by the West and are experiencing Stockholm syndrome in relation to the commandant of this fortress – after all, a hostage has nowhere to go.
Benito Mussolini. Kolesnikov compared Vladimir Putin to the Duce back in 2000 when he first came to power. Source: Wiki Commons
And one more thing. Indifference is the most terrible tool in the hands of a skilled autocrat: he rules not thanks to ardent supporters, of whom there are few, but rather thanks to indifferent citizens who will support any government only because it is in power; because they do not have their own opinion, or, as focus group participants often remark, “those at the top know best;” and because it’s more convenient to live this way without taking responsibility for anything.

What is the closest historical analogy to today’s Putin?

When Putin ran for president for the first time in the spring of 2000, I wrote a column that my newspaper Izvestia did not dare to publish and was published by Vedomosti. It was called Tea with Putin by analogy with Zeffirelli’s film Tea with Mussolini.
“I suggested that Putin, both politically and ideologically, is a figure strongly reminiscent of the Duce.”
A Russian anti-war picketer. Rostov-on-Don, February 24, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
At that time, many of my liberal friends voted for Putin, and I did not understand how they could not discern in this man an ultra-conservative, vozhd-type leader. The first symbolic action he took in December 2000 was bringing back the Soviet anthem – so that everyone would immediately understand where he would lead Russia. Even after that, they did not understand.

In fact, currently we are approximately in the situation of the late 1940s and early 1950s: both in terms of rhetoric and the absurdity of repression (the scale is not Stalinist, but the quality of persecution, punishment and sentences, as well as the wave of denunciations, is almost comparable), and in terms of textual overlap: “foreign agent” is another name for “rootless cosmopolitan.”

Will sanctions against all Russians help stop the war?

Of course not. As early as 2014 the sanctions began to psychologically rally around Putin many of our fellow citizens, who are incapable of reflection. Some people did not notice the sanctions, for others it was a reason to blame all the country’s problems, including social ones (a joke from that time, which has lost its relevance: “we never lived as badly as under Obama”), on the West and the US.

The Russian economy is partly a market economy, and this “partly” is enough for people to have food in their fridge and almost all the necessary goods in stores. The middle class – more precisely, the part of it that is democratic- and Western-oriented – is still in Russia and has lost a lot from sanctions. Putin and his elites do not care, but the living standards of the middle class are falling. In addition, politically these people feel squeezed between internal repression and external rejection of everything Russian. They have nowhere to run. Moreover, many of them were not just against Putin, but fought against him – and much earlier than the Western officials who came up with putting restrictions on Russians just because they have a Russian passport. All this plays into Putin’s hands and makes it easier for him to consolidate society around himself.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy