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Putin will never have enough

Andrei Pertsev sums up the first week of 2024

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This New Year’s Eve, Vladimir Putin chose not to deliver his traditional address to the nation against a backdrop of rows of masked soldiers, as he did last year. Sociological surveys have long shown that people are tired of the war and do not want to be reminded of it. A speech with military overtones would be just such a powerful reminder. But the next day Putin went to the Vishnevsky hospital to meet wounded soldiers. The event itself was remarkable in terms of the statements that the president made while talking to the soldiers. Unfortunately, they do not allow for optimistic forecasts in the short term, but they do give some hope in the strategic perspective.

Judging by his speeches, Putin is confident that despite the difficult situation at the front, he has already won a victory over Ukraine. On 1 January he told the soldiers that «the enemy has run out of gas», Western countries can no longer help Ukraine with weapons, but Russia’s military-industrial complex has ramped up production. The president and propaganda have long said that Russia is at war not with the neighbouring state but with the entire «collective West.» This used to explain the problems and failures of the Russian army at the front. In this cynically pragmatic context, such statements made propaganda sense. After the front stabilised and the Russian army began to capture some settlements, the top Russian leadership became the main consumer of its own propaganda. This is not the first time this has happened. In the past, Putin often repeated distorted news broadcast by TV propaganda, for example, about Marius the giraffe that was killed in a Danish zoo, the non-existent ‘paedophile party’ that he claimed had been founded in Europe, or the actual banning of the words ‘father’ and ‘mother’ in Europe. A few months ago, at public events, the president began regularly repeating Defence Ministry reports that the Russian army was destroying dozens of advanced Western tanks, armoured vehicles and missile systems every day, with minimal losses.

These optimistic summaries have led Putin to believe that he has not only defeated Ukraine, but is already on the verge of defeating the West: «Despite the fact that from time immemorial [the West] has had such a goal — to deal with Russia, it looks like we will deal with them first,» he told the military. In the nearest future this optimistic attitude does not bode well. Putin is used to «finishing off» any opponent he sees as weak and almost defeated. The story of businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the support group for Dmitry Medvedev’s second term (mainly the Magomedov brothers, Medvedev’s main financial backers) and the Russian opposition in general prove this. Most likely he will try to do the same with Ukraine, which in his eyes has already been «defeated,» and with the West, which has allegedly become weak. The media have already written that Putin has plans to seize the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Dnipro, and it is very likely that this information sounds rather plausible. Such logic is reminiscent of the actions of a gambler who believes that a big win is imminent and throws either what he has already won or the last of his personal resources on the table. More often than not, such a character loses, unable to keep track of wins and losses. This is what happened to Putin, who, on the advice of Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, decided to withdraw from the OPEC agreement to limit oil production in 2020. The calculation was simple: the price of commodities would fall, destroying American shale oil producers. Nothing of the sort has happened, and the main victims of the fall in prices have been the Russian budget and the ruble exchange rate.

We can expect that Putin will invest the last of his resources into the war for a decisive breakthrough and a victory that he believes to be very close, perhaps launching another wave of mobilisation after the elections. The success of the offensive is unlikely: the Ukrainian army has new lines of defence, and another attack from Russia will only reunite Ukrainian society, parts of which have begun to doubt the outcome of the war. In Russia, in turn, this new escalation (and possible mobilisation) will create a new wave of anxiety and frustration with the government. Putin may now appear almost a winner, but his inability to stabilize the situation, his losses and even his gains, his agitation and his already crystalized desire to defeat the West could make the Russian president a loser.

The president will sacrifice more and more on the altar of what he sees as an almost «guaranteed» victory over the great enemy. For example, Putin’s public statements show that he is convinced that Russian citizens are ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of his military ambitions. Sociological surveys show that this is far from the case. Putin likes to talk about the success of the Russian economy, which has withstood the pressure of sanctions, even though the problems caused by sanctions have only just begun. This failure of judgement and inability to assess reality could lead him to attempt a «final push for victory» that would be a serious blow to his regime. If there is a post-election mobilisation, it will make people feel cheated and trigger, in the very least, a new wave of emigration, of men fleeing the draft, but possibly also protests. An arms race with the West (and this is also a likely scenario) will tear the economy apart the economy, which has begun to crack under the strain of military spending, and will also lead to protests. These are hypothetical scenarios, of course, but Putin’s past actions make them likely.

Communists shot themselves in the leg

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has ruined the plans of the presidential administration, which sought to provide Putin with a high-status, clear, but completely safe set of sparring partners for his presidential campaign hand-picked from among the leaders of the Duma parties and factions. Zyuganov refused to run and forced his fellow party members to support Nikolai Kharitonov, a Duma deputy and former CPRF nominee in the 2004 presidential election. In so doing, Zyuganov killed several birds with one stone: firstly, he would most likely have received a record low result if he were to run. The Communist Party’s popularity is declining: its core voters are dying off, and people who used to vote for the Communists in protest no longer do so because the party leadership supports the war and Putin personally. During the next campaign, Zyuganov will be 85 years old and will no longer be able to participate. We can say that the CPRF leader did not want to end his career with a failure. Secondly, due to his age, participation in the presidential campaign would have cost him a lot of effort and hard work. For quite some time now, the leader of the CPRF has rarely travelled to the regions to campaign for the Communists. This year, for example, he did not come to Khakassia, where the fate of the last Communist head of the region, elected in the protest wave, was being decided. Now Zyuganov no longer needs to strain his strength and health. In addition, the CPRF leader has created problems for the presidential administration: it will be more difficult to fulfil the KPI for voter turnout with Kharitonov running for CPRF, who is little known even among the communists.

But Zyuganov has created ever bigger problems for his own party. For its activists, Kharitonov’s nomination is a de facto drain on the campaign. It is unlikely that rank-and-file Communists will bother to figure out Zyuganov’s motives. It is obvious to them that the party has given up the fight by nominating a weak candidate who will allow Putin to build up his record result. To the Communist activists, it is obvious that the Communist Party leader did not go out of his way to cause serious trouble for the presidential administration. Even if Zyuganov could not or would not run himself, the Communist Party had every chance to nominate a politician capable of making the country’s leadership nervous. These could be figures with a strong protest profile, such as Duma deputy Vyacheslav Markhaev or ex-Saratov MP Nikolai Bondarenko, former or current governors or ex-CPRF presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin. A weak Kharitonov, who is too shy to criticise Putin, demotivates the CPRF’s activists. And it is not only the protest-minded party members with more or less modern convictions who are demotivated, but also the so-called hard-core Communists, supporters of Stalin who would love to see the return of all the Soviet practices and policies. It is quite likely that Kharitonov will take not even second, but third or fourth place. This would be a symbolic event for the CPRF, which reduces its chances of retaining its status as the second most popular party in the country. In light of the regional elections and the 2024 State Duma elections, this problem will be very acute. It can be said that Zyuganov has been helped in this by the presidential administration, which has long dreamed of throwing the CPRF out of second place and depriving it of its status as the main systemic political force. In addition, the propaganda is already taking full advantage of Zyuganov’s fears of a poor performance in the presidential elections, making a big deal out of these fears in every possible way, thereby further demotivating the Communists.

Now the most likely scenario for the future of the Communist Party is its complete loyalisation, its orientation towards the Kremlin in exchange for the pre-agreed percentages in the elections. In return, the Communists will make sure to get the Kremlin’s approval for their candidate lists and jettison anti-Kremlin and even anti-government slogans. Prominent protesters will gradually leave the party, they will be followed by Kremlin-loyal figures, career-oriented apparatchiks and politicians since it is easier to make a career in the ranks of the «United Russia» Party than in a systemic but formally oppositional party. Zyuganov, who tried to avoid the image of a candidate who lost popularity and got the lowest result in his political career at the end of the main elections, risks ending his career in the much more disgraceful status of the gravedigger of his own party.

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