What Putin Broke

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

When Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine, the destruction was widespread. Not just to Ukrainian victims of the aggression, but to Russia’s image and its future.

Russia’s first casualty was the reputation of its much-vaunted military. The battalion tactical groups, the centerpiece of the reformed Russian army, failed in battle. The much-expected devastating cyber-attack on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure from Russia’s much-feared cyber troops never happened.  

In retrospect, it should not have been so surprising that the successes scored by Russian troops in Crimea in 2014, against disorganized Ukrainian resistance, or the Syrian campaign against lightly armed guerrillas, did not presage success against a determined opponent fighting for national survival.

The bad planning and training, inadequate equipment, and ill-maintained weaponry did not spell complete defeat. Shrewd experts had already noted in the spring of 2022 that the Russian army often enters its wars in bad shape, then learns from its mistakes.

And yet something more profound had happened. The greatest damage was inflicted on the basic moral principles on which the Russian (and before that Soviet) army had operated for decades. This is built on the legacy of the victory in World War II (usually called the Great Patriotic War in Russian.) Despite atrocities in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria, when it came to the May 9 celebrations of victory in 1945, Western military attaches invariably toasted wartime cooperation, sacrifice, and heroism.

Now, this has changed: the army of defenders has become the army of invaders. The Kremlin justified the invasion by alleging that Ukraine was run by Nazis. This ludicrous smear backfired. It led to intensified scrutiny of the accepted history of World War II and of the notion that the Soviet army then (and the Russian army now) was a liberating force. When Ukrainians began toppling the monuments to Soviet generals, for example, it aroused no criticism from other countries: only from Russia.

Inside Russia, the military became confused. Theirs was an army that, supposedly, defended the country, but never invaded (the war in Afghanistan was seen as a small deviation.) Now it became impossible to deny that the army was waging an aggressive war. Amid the confusion, the military turned to mysticism and the church, which praised the virtue of martyrdom for the motherland. It is a very long way from a 21st-century professional army.

The war not only compromised Russia’s army and history. It also destroyed hopes for Russia’s future. For years Kremlin propaganda had said the technology would fix the country’s corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. The authorities invested heavily in the digitalization of the economy and state management (not least a state-of-the-art surveillance state.)

Even the Western sanctions failed to ruin this in the first year of the war. But the Russian government succeeded. In 2022, the most capable Russian IT companies, like Yandex, were harassed into complete obedience by the Kremlin: as result, many talented engineers left the country, probably for good. Even more specialists left when mobilization was announced in the fall.

The war also isolated the education system from the West. Most exchange programs for Russian students and academics have been canceled; professors and researchers from Europe and the US ceased traveling to the country, and Russian students are not welcome anymore in European universities. Russia withdrew from the Bologna process, and initiated a return to the old post-Soviet education system, disconnected most of the world, aside from Mongolia, China, Central Asia, and some African countries.

Including the restrictions of the Covid pandemic, this means that by 2024 Russia will have an entire generation of young professionals who — Soviet style —  have never studied abroad nor even seen a foreign professor. Most will never recover these lost opportunities.

The EU visa ban for Russian tourists caused a huge reversal — from Europe to Asia. There has always been a divide between big cities and regions in terms of holiday destinations. Metropolitan Russians longed for Europe, their provincial counterparts preferred the East – Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Bali, and the United Arab Emirates. With visa and airline bans, the route to Europe became almost completely blocked. The most advanced, westernized part of society, or what’s left of it, shifted to the consumer habits of the more backward provinces, meaning a move to the East, including in culture. Hollywood movies are not available, Korean TV shows are becoming popular. (Similarly, Korean cosmetics are replacing popular French brands.)

The majority of Russians, who live in small towns, didn’t notice this, because they rarely travelled to Rome or Paris, but the middle classes in big cities like Moscow and Saint-Petersburg feel angry and resentful. Oligarchs, bankers, and businessmen, who couldn’t adapt themselves to the new reality under Western sanctions, chose Dubai. 

Many moved their money to UAE banks, obtained residence permits for their families, and now shuttle between two countries. Russian pop singers and stand-up comedians followed the rich and the money.

The number of tourists visiting Russia last year was one twenty-fifth of the pre-Covid year of 2019 — falling from 4.9 million to 200,000. Most are from China.

Putin’s war, in short, has not just undermined Russia’s most cherished historical myths. It has also destroyed its future.

And he’s not done yet. 

Irina Borogan  and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

(c) CEPA

One comment

  1. The writer makes a really good point that after all these decades of watching the Moskali claim to be the victim of WWII they are now…and historically correctly, the aggressor and have destroyed any reputation they tried to assemble.

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