Discover more from Public Sphere
Putin Goes MIA
Putin is 'stuck' in 2022, while a scorched earth pro-war flank emerges
This past week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking remotely from Kyiv, asked an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin was still alive. "I don't quite understand if he is alive or whether he makes decisions, or whoever else makes decisions there. What group of people [could be making decisions in Russia]?"
Zelensky was responding to the notion that he should engage in peace talks. His question of whether Putin is really present is a relevant one in Russian politics. A vacuum has opened up and a vocal, pro-war camp has emerged, as well as a very quiet peace camp. Putin, meanwhile, is nowhere in this debate between those who think the Ukraine war should be escalated and others who think it should end.
The most significant figures in the scorched earth group are Ramzan Kadyrov, strongman of Chechnya, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, a pro-Russian paramilitary organization. Both of these men command actual forces, and thus feel free to make criticisms of Putin. Prigozhin and Kadyrov have felt free to criticize the Russian military's code of conduct and have slammed its prohibition on men growing beards. Prigozhin called YouTube the "information plague of our time," and harangued Putin for not blocking it. More significantly, he has focused much of his forces on a small town in Eastern Ukraine, Soledar. While some U.S. officials have speculated that Prigozhin wants the salt mines of the town, many of them won't be operational for a while. The most immediate gain is likely symbolic: to show that his forces can give Russia a victory. Ukraine acknowledged that its forces had withdrawn for tactical reasons.
Prigozhin's forces are brutal. This past week, a commander, Andriy Medvedev crossed the heavily guarded Russian border into Norway, applying for asylum. In an interview with Russian human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin, he said that he knew of at least 10 summary executions of recruits, who had been drawn from Russian prisons. "The commanders took them to a shooting field and they were shot in front of everyone. Sometimes one guy was shot, sometimes they would be shot in pairs," he said. (Medvedev himself said he spent at least four years in prison for robbery.)
There are many Russian elites who would rather the war be over, but they are divided and atomized, and above all, silent. According to the political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya of R.Politik, a first camp consists of elites who "hope for the war to stop as soon as possible and concede some possible interaction with the West on how to get out of the crisis." A second camp consists of "pragmatists from the pro-war camp, who simply see what is happening on the ground and no longer believe in victory, given the resources Russia disposes."
In recent months, Putin has declined to make any new pronouncements about the war or answer questions -- even in a very scripted way -- as his year-end press conference was canceled. A speech he gave on January 18 commemorating the Siege of Leningrad had old rhetoric about Ukrainian "neo-Nazis" and drew a comparison between World War II and the Ukraine war. It's a comparison that he's likely to continue making in the absence of future initiatives.
Where does this leave Ukraine? In an uncertain place. By not either siding with the pro-peace or the all-war camp, Putin is turning the conflict into a meandering, forever war. Moves like changing the lead commander to Valery Gerasimov don't indicate any real change in strategy but simply reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Before the war, Putin internationally was seen as a man in control of his country, a strongman, a figure whose personal destiny is intertwined with the nation. He still sees himself that way. But Stanovaya writes that he is "obsolete" and "stuck somewhere in early March of last year." In 2023, it's not a good place to be in, and he doesn't seem like he'll get himself out of it anytime soon.
Public Sphere is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.