Espreso. Global

Why it is important for Putin to end war before US elections

28 November, 2023 Tuesday

As paradoxical as it may sound, Russia (Putin) does not want, and perhaps even fears, a war of attrition. Although Putin is demonstrating to the world that he is ready for this war

Over the last two weeks, several Russian liberals, and others as well, have circulated pseudo-sensational news claiming that, for the first time, the number of Russians opposed to war has surpassed those in favor. However, opinion polls have indicated this shift not just recently but since the spring of 2023 (based on research conducted by the Institute for the Future).

Nevertheless, it's crucial to recognize that the core group of active war supporters constitutes about 10-12% of Russians, while consistent "non-supporters of the war" (a more accurate term than opponents) make up approximately 20%. These proportions have remained relatively stable for at least the last six months. The categorization of Russians into pro- and anti-war groups is somewhat arbitrary and not entirely accurate.

Russian society has been essentially split between the 18-30 age group and all others since before February 24, 2022. These two demographics represent distinct segments of Russia, though even within the 18-25 age group, over 25% are supporters of the war.

What has really happened over the past six months is a noticeable shift in the 30-50 age group, characterized less by outright "anti-war" sentiment and more by a sense of "something is wrong, but I'm still afraid to talk about it." Currently, there are signs that discontent may be building within this generation. The dissatisfaction stems from the intersection of the ongoing war and the declining quality of life, all set against a backdrop of uncertainty about the future. They haven't yet connected the war to the absence of a promising future for their children, and this is the information reserve that we all have.

At the same time, we should not overestimate the level of deterioration of life in Russia. Recent studies show that 18% say their lives have not worsened. 40% say that their financial situation has not changed, and 42% say that life has become worse. However, those who complain about not having enough money for food and medicine make up only 15%.

But even these figures are important - the 30-50 generation is the core of this deterioration, and everything we see in the Russian budget for 2024 shows that it will get worse.

But here we come to one of the most important points: no matter what anyone says, there is a certain consensus in Russian society right now to unite around a not-so-popular war. And this consensus can be deformed by only three things: time (all information works by accumulation), the lack of victories of the Russian army, and the deterioration of life. Each of the three factors can play independently, but the cumulative effect is, of course, the most important.

With regard to time, everything is clear. As for the victories (Avdiivka, Kupyansk, Bakhmut), they are alpha and omega for Putin now, on the one hand, because of the elections, and on the other, because of the potential deterioration of budgetary resources starting in June-September 2024. Currently, all budget surpluses are directed exclusively towards the war effort. The government can maintain the ruble exchange rate and minimal price increases leading up to the elections. They might sustain this for a few months post-elections, but thereafter, they may have to release control over the ruble and implement unpopular measures, posing a threat to the regime under certain circumstances.

There is another side of the coin: as long as there is a war, it is believed that the Russian authorities can put the economic well-being of the population on the back burner. And so far, this is absolutely true. However, there is one "but.” The repressive apparatus is ready for minimal protests, but as Prigozhin and Dagestan showed, the FSB, the Russian Guard, and the police miss serious challenges.

There is one more aspect - Putin's psychotype. He does not like and is afraid of long wars. He feels uncomfortable in this situation. His tactics are always the same: raising the stakes - blitzkrieg - calming down - revenge with a delay in time.

Yes, Putin is adept at biding his time, but the current situation is undeniably uncomfortable for him. However, this discomfort should not be exaggerated. The compensating factor is the absolute paralysis of the elites. While there was initially a certain paralysis in Putin himself and even the emergence of a collective Putin at the beginning of the war, after Prigozhin's murder, Putin realized that there was no elite conspiracy, no internal competition. He understood that he could, and indeed must for his own survival, re-engage in pitting the elites against each other. The killing of Prigozhin opened Pandora's box, as Putin had promised him his life, and for perhaps the first time on the domestic scene, he did not keep his word.

But with all this, the economic situation is such that by the middle to the end of next year, most Russian citizens will begin to talk about a deterioration in living standards (only space oil prices can save them). And Putin (and his inner circle) are afraid of this moment.

There is another important aspect: the desire to become the third party in the US-China negotiations. So far, economic dependence on Beijing, complete confrontation with the United States, and most importantly, the inability to show anything in a conventional war and the technical lag of the Russian military-industrial complex do not give Putin even a hope of becoming the third (the virtual summit in India, by the way, showed this very clearly). In fact, this aspect is one of the determining factors for the possible (based on today's situation) timeframe of the war.

Summarizing all this, we have to understand a few things:

  1. For Putin, it is extremely undesirable to prolong the war from an economic point of view and in view of the deterioration of life
  2. For Putin, it is desirable to end the war before Trump arrives. Trump, as a "mediator," puts an end to Russia's prospects of becoming the third power with China and the United States. China has so far withdrawn from mediation, but it will also want to play this game.
  3. Russia's military economy is deployed, it can exist for a long time under the current system of government, but it has exhausted (almost exhausted) its potential for growth (no people), which means that after the peak in 2023, a decline in the second half of 2024-2025 is possible.

To summarize, we can assume with a high degree of probability that Putin has set himself two reference points: taking at least something (preferably Avdiivka) by March 17, 2024 (election day). The second reference point is August-September 2024, when negotiations on suspending the war until the US elections are held.

I will remind you of three factors that deform the military consensus in Russia: time, lack of victories at the front, and deteriorating life.

Putin needs some kind of victory and a prospect for people that is less than infinity (now, by the way, most Russians believe that the war will end in 2024). At the same time, if nothing is done by the fall, there is a high probability that the war will last all of 2025. And the main reason is that Putin is afraid of becoming a target of US and Chinese policy.

P.S. I would like to emphasize once again that this is a basic scenario, and it is based exclusively on Russian logic. Other scenarios are also possible.


About the author: Vadym Denysenko, political scientist.

The editors do not always share the opinions expressed by the blog authors.

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