How is Vladimir Putin hanging on to power, having dragged his people into such a disastrous war? I ask one of Russia’s most well-known political scientists.
“That a good, straightforward American-style question,” Ekaterina Schulmann, currently a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, replies, delving into explanation. Beyond pointing out that dictators frequently outlive disastrous wars, she explains that the Russian state may be corrupt, but it is also highly functional on many levels.
“Right now the economy is still functioning because Russia is a partly market economy, which makes it more adaptable and resilient than the Soviet model. Administration, especially civic administration, is running the country in a more or less efficient manner. There has not been a collapse of public transportation, public services, health care, education, and goods are supplied to shops.”
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What Russia is not, she adds, despite all its manufactured patriotic fervor, annual military parades and paeans to the hypersonic missiles in its arsenal, is a “militarized society.” By marching headlong into war, the Kremlin is playing with fire, Schulmann says.
“It has set itself a task it is not very well adapted to. It is not a military dictatorship. It’s a bureaucratic autocracy, a personalized autocracy, a kleptocracy in economic terms,” Schulmann posits, adding that the country has been living well off its resource distribution for the past couple decades but now has “entered one of the very few spheres of reality where you can’t lie your way out, where hypocrisy, imitation and lip service are not everything.”
With huge battlefield losses racking up, well-documented shortcomings of the military, and criticism of how poorly Russia has prepared its men for war, there is still high approval for Putin’s “Special Military Operation,” as he insists on calling the invasion of Ukraine.
The latest somewhat credible poll puts support for the war at 75%. But Schulmann argues that poll numbers are not what they seem since there is a high rate of refusal to participate. She says something like 90% to 95% of Russians often refuse to take part in opinion polls or bail out when the topic becomes too political.
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“There is no such thing as support in a non-free society,” she says, adding that many Russians just accept the status quo because it’s easier. But she believes any actual ideologically driven support for the war would be somewhere around 20% to 30% and the biggest demographic in that group would be older men.
What about dissent in the ranks of the inner circle? “What we can assume is that there is ongoing computation in the minds of the elites as to whether it’s better to stick to the status quo or try to change it,” she said. Schulmann believes the current calculation is that it would be more dangerous for them to attempt change. “We should not underestimate the power of inertia,” she says. “The ruling classes are not the fastest thinkers.”
But how has this bloody year changed the fabric of Russian society? Other than general nervousness and a certain loss of spirit, Schulmann says, not much.
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“Russia is not being turned into some sort of unified, ready for action bloodthirsty fascist group of people,” Schulmann concludes. “Those who talk loudest and attract most attention are not most representative of the mood of society. Unfree societies are generally silent.”
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