Putin’s performance anxiety

The message coming out of last weekend’s visit to Kyiv by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is that Russia is failing in its war objectives and should be further weakened in the days ahead.

For those who have been Moscow-watching for many years, it is not surprising to see Russia struggle on the world stage.

When I was last in Russia in 2013, I quietly wished I would never return. Having studied Russian, been on assignment in the Soviet Union when it fell and traveled as far as Siberia, the country I once loved had seemed on that trip, gray and gritty. Even Moscow – once intriguing and interesting – struck me as a sad city seemingly paralyzed by its obsession with past greatness.

Today, as Russia battles for control over Ukraine, its image in the world, especially in Europe and the United States, is at a low point — so low that one begins to wonder: Is victimhood the fate of Russia and, if so, what does that mean for America and the world? Can a nuclear nation, forced to retreat inwards, be trusted to safeguard, let alone avoid, the use of weapons of mass destruction?

In some ways, having Russia perform badly in this war is almost as frightening as it is succeeding. Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly under mounting pressure to turn things around in Ukraine lest he face the wrath of his own people. A caged man with nuclear weapons amid public outrage is not a positive scenario, nor is it any guarantee of future stability in Europe.

Putin’s narrative inside Russia to date, judging by what is broadcast on state-run media, is that Russia has been forced to conduct “military operations” in neighboring Ukraine to safeguard its own security and repel Ukrainian forces bent on hurting ordinary Russians — the so-called “de-Nazification” rationale for war.

But Russia is increasingly looking desperate as it struggles to hold territory in the Donbas region, raising the question of whether Putin is simply bluffing his way through war. The notion of a Russia whose boldness and bullying simply reflect paranoia and weakness is not new. As Gregory Carleton, professor of Russian Studies at Tufts University, wrote recently in “The Conversation,” the idea of the nation (Russia) surrounded by its enemies has deep historical roots…Russia has long imagined itself as a fortress, isolated in the world and subject to perpetual threats.”

And to be fair, even paranoids have real enemies. History is replete with examples of invasions of former Russian lands, from Mongols in the 13th century to the Nazi invasion in the early part of World War II.

What is different now is that a weak Russia is lashing out in a way that almost guarantees its emergence from the war as a failed state. Not just failed in terms of its own aspirations but in terms of a degraded economy, military and social construct. That could be disastrous.

Economically, Russia was facing inflation, unemployment and capital flight even before the war. Although punitive sanctions take a long time to work, they steadily erode a country’s ability to conduct business in a highly competitive global economy. War can sometimes be an economic boon, but in the case of Russia, its economy relies on transactions – energy commerce, corporate entities, multinationals and financial deals –  all of which are at risk. By one estimate, this Ukraine war could set Russia back 30 years.

Militarily, the Russian casualties remain unknown. Estimates of the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine by early April vary from NATO numbers of 7,000-15,000 to the Ukrainian government’s pronouncement that 18,000 Russian soldiers have been killed on the battlefield.

On the nuclear side, although U.S. officials dismissed the recent test of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile by Russia as routine and non-threatening, such tests have the rhetorical and symbolic impact of causing anxiety, especially when you consider that Russia’s strategic arsenal includes 1,400 strategic warheads while the U.S. arsenal contains 1,350 strategic warheads. That is a bit too close for comfort even if you don’t believe in nuclear deterrence.

Socially, no productive civil society can exist in a vacuum. The absence of independent reporting from inside Russia is frightening. Polling is impossible. Interviews with ordinary Russians are barely being conducted, and despite social media penetration, we know little about true sentiment on the ground. Coupled with the absence of journalists in Russia are the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions that leave both Europe and Moscow without a full exchange of information. By some accounts, as many as 400 Russian diplomats in Europe have been expelled. Without information, accidents happen.

With so much uncertainty about what is happening inside Russia, and the notion that Russia could “lose” the war in Ukraine, the stakes this week are high. Diplomacy may be the only way to end a deadly conflict that risks Russia reaching a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, leaving nuclear insecurity and global energy uncertainty. A Russian society built on fear of outsiders may grow more insular and unpredictable. That is not an outcome that any of us should desire. We need to start rooting for diplomacy to end this madness.

Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of practice in public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Antony Blinken Antony Blinken Lloyd Austin Lloyd Austin Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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