The Russian side through the eyes of a rational glory-seeker
Since the beginning of the war, Russian state media has preferred not to show maps of the conflict while at the same time creating the feeling among a significant part of the population that the Russian army has been steadily, if not quickly, advancing all year long, causing irreparable damage to the Ukrainian side. Of course, many Russians are “rooting” for their army. If we draw an analogy with sports, it is more like rooting for a national team than for a specific club. Club fans are more active: they tend to take an active interest in the life of the club and feel part of both victories and defeats. Meanwhile, national team fans seek glory and are certain of victory. Defeat triggers a deep emotional crisis, though the next day the shock is forgotten – until the next big tournament.
It is not considered acceptable to speak openly about the military failures – and when reasoning after the fact, experts loyal to the authorities claim that Russia would have defeated Ukraine by itself long ago, but war with the entire NATO alliance is causing temporary, unfortunate delays, which will be corrected. Some publicists have given a more cautious assessment of the situation at the front while citing historical comparisons to nevertheless sound an “optimistic” note. For example, it was pointed out that the Russian army had to retreat before (during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and in 1941), though in the end, “sooner or later,” Russia invariably won – so something like that will happen this time too.
That is not to say that such historical reasoning is particularly popular.
It seems that the layman is much more receptive to the idea that defeat is fundamentally impossible. Fear of that hypothetical prospect either automatically blocks further rational reasoning about what is going on or leads to the idea of nuclear weapons as insurance against such a scenario. When people reach that thought, they do not experience much enthusiasm and prefer to cut short their reflection.
If you look more rationally, then the Russian side still has several resources that can give it the upper hand. First and foremost, it has considerable military capacity that can be unlocked if the authorities decide on a new wave of mobilization, especially since the first wave went better than everyone expected. Still, gauging that capacity remains difficult. In this regard, there was an internet meme last fall: “Will the reserve army ask where the regular army has gone?” However, the manpower is still there – though it will be harder to recruit. If the first wave of mobilization was concentrated in rural areas and small towns, then the second wave will have to take more residents of big cities, where the economic and patriotic motivation is weaker and there are more opportunities to hide.
Another ace is the nuclear card. In this regard, everything remains murky. Moscow’s attempts to periodically raise the stakes with nuclear rhetoric seem to meet with a coolly ironic reaction from Western countries. In addition, Russian officials’ eyes seem to light up less now when talking about “nuclear retaliation” compared to last autumn. Nevertheless, the line between threat and bluff remains unclear and would be so all the way up to an attempt at a real escalation, were it to happen.
Russia could continue to try to sniff out the myriad contradictions in the camp of Ukraine and its allies. However, the first year of these efforts was fruitless, as the contradictions so far have been rather effectively resolved. Much will depend on whether the front line in Ukraine will remain at the top of the global agenda. If so, then the unity can help overcome and easily neutralize the intrigues of individual players – in Budapest, Beijing or Ankara. Still, there are no guarantees that an alternative item will not emerge on the global agenda moving forward.
Finally, the Russian side has some margin of safety in the sense that it can radically shift gears in the event of major setbacks. Moscow has demonstrated the ability to toggle conflicts before: take Georgia (nearly forgotten by propaganda after the departure of Mikheil Saakashvili), followed by the Syrian opposition and ISIS (before losing interest in the story, in 2015-16 state media drove home the importance of the Russian army’s presence in Syria, where it was supposedly heading off the threat to Russia from the south). Of course, against the current backdrop, it will not be easy to move along – though it is not impossible. Especially if society wants to forget about the Ukraine conflict more than it wants to figure out who lost. The Russian side through the eyes of a moderate alarmist
The rhetoric of people who believe that things are not going in Russia’s favor has been elaborated much better. If we put aside reports about a “patriotic upsurge” and “rallying around the flag,” then several gaps can be found. The first is between the radicalness of rhetoric and the moderateness of society and the establishment, where there are dozens of people lying low for every hawk. (For more on why the rhetoric of the Russian authorities is much tougher than their actions, see this article
by Mikhail Vinogradov.)
The second gap is between manifested decisiveness and the general listlessness of the actions taken, a feeling of fatigue and a lack of energy. The size of these gaps is not yet critical, but they definitely exist.
Russian politics is not currently a space for resolving contradictions, which have been frozen over, unable to come to the surface. To what extent they can continue to be kept “under the lid” can only be determined in practice. In addition, it is not just the traditional conflicts between social groups, ideologies or territories. The conflict over the involvement of private military companies in the military operation has shown, for example, that the struggle to maintain their own dominance (or monopoly) in the military sphere is no less important for the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff than the overall outcome of the operation.
Sooner or later,