Russia

Russia, a country of perpetual war

Russia is an interesting society: if you ask any Russian if he or she thinks that Russia is governed well, the answer will be negative. If you then ask them whether Russia is an effective country, they will say “yes.” And there is some truth in that. Indeed, Russian ineffective governance and corruption have been known for ages now. Russian historians attribute all-encompassing corruption to Byzantium. It was from there that the system of governance called “feeding” was borrowed and incorporated into Russian lands. The “feeding” provided that the state never paid its representative in a province. Having huge powers he was supposed to “feed himself” with funds of the population under his control. Besides corruption, ineffective state service is infamous among Russians.

Nevertheless, Russians still believe they live in a great and successful country. And if you look at what Russia has achieved historically you see amazing results. Famous Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote, “The true defender of Russia is history, it has been tirelessly solving all the trials to which it exposes its mysterious fate for three centuries.”

Russia dominated the world. Europe witnessed Russian hegemony in the second quarter of the nineteenth century when Russia was the “gendarme of Europe”. Russia took over one-sixth of the globe, and there was a period in the twentieth century when about half of humanity was under Moscow’s direct or indirect leadership. Throughout human history, only very few states have been able to do this, so although Russia may be governed not too efficiently, it achieves results.

The same is true of ideology. As a rule, ideology was carried out by the state, the church, and the political parties in a completely unprofessional and ineffective manner, often making these important institutions a laughingstock in the eyes of the population. It was true for the Imperial Russia. It was true for the USSR. And it is true for Putin’s Russia. And yet, while being a laughingstock for its population the system of government somehow managed to shape public consciousness in the end. The significant percentage of voters for the Communist Party of Russia, which does not hold any communist ideology, but the name, proves it quite well.

Corruption, lack of professional state managers, and bad governance management practices needed something to harness them to bring results. And this harnessing mechanism in Russia is mobilisation. The system of state management in Russia has always provided a greater degree of resource mobilisation than in neighbouring countries. During the Livonian War of 1558-1583, there were about 5-6 million people in the poor and sparsely populated Moscow state. And Ivan the Terrible managed to assemble an army of a hundred thousand men, of course, the overwhelming majority of them poorly armed and untrained. It was unprecedented at the time with European armies being usually much smaller but well-armed and trained.

Antonio Possevino, a papal diplomat to Moscow state of the time, wrote that every tenth man did some kind of military service for the tzar. He added that in case of necessity, i.e. war, the tzar could conscript every seventh or even every third man. In Moscow state, an army of 200 000 people was always at call. Foreign diplomats quite often noted that for Moscow state it was not war but peace that was accidental as Moscow was always in a state of war with its neighbours.

Practically unlimited mobilisation capabilities do not urge you to plan resources well. As a state manager, you just do not need it. Any waste of resources can easily get compensated by high mobilisation capacities. If a state can mobilise almost the entire male population under its banner during a war, as well as its financial resources, why should it seek greater efficiency? Why would it need to learn to win not by numbers but by skill? A rationally thinking Russian public official does not spend time and effort on saving resources, he spends it on attracting additional resources.

And we see it not only in war but in the industry as well. Labor was cheap in both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. As a result, both tried to build huge factories with low labor productivity. The bigger size manufacturing sites in Russia had the same or less output than much smaller plants somewhere in Europe or the USA. Low wages and cheap natural resources made them as profitable as Western enterprises. Overconsumption of inexpensive resources made up for all other shortcomings.

And effective mobilisation needs centralised power. The lack of competition of the hierarchical Russian government virtually eliminated all reasonable restrictions on abusing additional resources. On the contrary, overconsumption was encouraged everywhere. The only principle of Russian state management is to control mobilisation efforts and boost them. No wonder Russia has always had centralised governance practices.

Mobilisation is the only method allowing Russian state to work. As mobilisation is a reaction to a crisis or a challenge, Russia always needs crises. Its state management just can not work without them. The Russian society has not learned how to substitute wars with other challenges that would be serious enough to mobilise the society. Since war is the most obvious crisis, Russia cannot afford years of peaceful life. It needs war. Otherwise, its ineffectiveness spirals the country down to economic and innovative degradation.

This is why Putin always needed wars. He started with the war in Chechnya eliminating hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, then he continued with Georgia, depriving it of 20% of its territory. He contributed to the war in Syria. He authorised the Wagner Group military operations in Africa. He needs wars because he runs Russia, even if he may not realise it.

He may realise though that he needs a war to try to consolidate Russian society, most of which after years of everyday propaganda believes that the West wants to destroy Russia, or to justify why after so many years of high energy prices the economy is so good as some people expect it. And the truth is that the war is an integral factor in the existence of Russian society and state.

The idea of perpetual war is not new to contemporary Russia. While a century ago Trotsky called for permanent revolution as the only possible format for confronting the world of capital, a century later Putinism’s ideologists have improved this idea into the concepts of “permanent war” and “creative chaos”. Since 2010 Vladislav Surkov, Alexander Dugin, and other “methodologists,” “philosophers,” and “strategists” propelled the idea of “permanent war” as the optimal state of Russia. They openly stated that war is a vital state for the country, the only state in which it can realise itself.

Putin also follows the “perpetual war” tactics hoping for the fatigue of the West, whose elites are highly dependent on the moods of the electorate, unlike those in Russia. He reasons for the fatigue of ordinary people, who are not yet ready to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of some distant piece of land, somewhere out there in the east, another grueling war between the Slavs.

Putin needs an ongoing, uninterrupted war to rule Russia indefinitely. Putin can only stay in power as long as there is a war. The war with Ukraine has exposed many internal conflicts among the most powerful elite groups. As soon as the war is over, they will be tempted to replace Putin. Maybe not, but the risk of such an outcome is too high to take. That is why war must always go on.

The invasion of Ukraine has also made it easier for Putin to suppress those Russians who are less inclined to subjugate. New laws punish such people with up to ten years in prison if they oppose the war, and the Kremlin has decided to shut down the country’s remaining quasi-independent media and nongovernmental organisations. Both steps have further reduced the risk of mass protests that could oust leaders. The war also prompted an exodus of about a million people discontent with the regime. After the war ends, many of these Russians seem intent on returning home rather than trying to integrate into foreign societies, creating a future problem that Putin would probably prefer to avoid.

The ongoing war also insulates Putin from challenges from the elites. Authoritarian systems such as Putin’s are already resistant to coups, as they keep elites weak and tie their future directly to the future of the leader. Being at war further protects autocrats from this threat. The work of political scientists Varun Piplani and Caitlin Talmadge has shown that prolongation of interstate conflict reduces the risk of coups. War isolates leaders, eliminating many of the key ways in which elites can overthrow them. Meanwhile, Russia’s security services have benefited greatly from the war, as Putin increasingly relies on them for repression. Therefore, they have little incentive to act against him.

Antipathy and aggression towards the West are also in the history of Russia. Previously quoted Fyodor Tyutchev was also a diplomat and a very valuable propagandist for the tzar. He wrote “There can be no union between Russia and the West either for the sake of interests or for the sake of principles, we Russians must invariably remember that the principles on which Russia and Europe stand are so opposite, so mutually deny each other that life is possible only at the cost of the death of another. Consequently, Russia’s only natural policy towards the Western powers is not an alliance with one or another of these powers, but the separation, their division.”

So the Russian challenge of 2021-2022, or better say ultimatum, to the West repeats Russian history. The same thing happened at the end of Nicholas I’s reign. Trying to solve a diplomatic crisis with France Nicholas 1 occupied Moldova and refused to withdraw. This led to the Crimean War of 1853-1856, which Russia lost.

Putin saw many benefits in an ongoing military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, finally escalating it to war. He does not want to stop it hoping for a large frozen conflict. Considering himself a connoisseur of history to which he constantly appeals, attributing many decisions to the “restoration” of historical justice Putin seems to have misinterpreted history. Besotted by the historical glory of Russia he is but to repeat the fate of Nicholas I who lost the Crimean War and died. And it is still not clear whether it was a natural death, murder by poisoning, or suicide.

Vitaly Charushin

Vitaly Charushin is a Russian pro-democracy activist and member of Advisory Board of Creative Cluster, a French-tech ecosystem partner. He has previously worked at the National Democratic Institute in Moscow.

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