As the Russian invasion intensifies in Ukraine, Moscow finds itself embroiled in a parallel conflict: a contest of economic and political resistance against the West.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had prepared Russia for sanctions such as those imposed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, as if he dared Western countries to cut off their citizens from Russian trade, in a kind of game of look, to see who blinked first. .
However, the severity of the Western measures far exceeded expectations, devastating not only the Russian economy, but cutting its citizens off from travel and even from Western brands like Apple and McDonald’s.
Now both sides face a test of their ability to maintain domestic support for a confrontation whose costs will be borne by ordinary citizens. More than a battle of wills, it is the test of two opposing systems.
Putin’s Russia, which rallied around nationalist fervor in 2014, now relies on propaganda and repression. Western leaders are increasingly appealing to liberal ideals of international norms and collective welfare, which are in decline, at least so far, they hope.
The economic balance strongly favors the West. One study calculated that an all-out trade war would reduce the combined gross domestic product of Western countries by 0.17%, but the reduction in Russia’s GDP would be devastating by 9.7%.
Public opinion may also favor the West, where polls find broad support for tough measures against Russia, while Putin is reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the war for fear of sparking further protests.
Aun así, los Occidental líderes deben maintain la unidad in más de 20 divisive democracies, persuading a ciudadanos, desde Canada hasta Bulgaria, de que el aumento de los precios de la energía —que puede ser solo el comienzo de los economic impactos— vale la sadness.
Inevitably, there will be political divisions within the West, said Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Polls tell us nothing about how people will react to economic hardship and large numbers of refugees,” Shapiro said.
The question is when.
In the meantime, Putin must maintain his control over Russian citizens and the network of political eminences who support him. If the tolerance of these actors for the rapid increase in the number of war casualties disappears in the face of Western determination, it could jeopardize not only their war, but also their control of power.
The question of who tires first can determine the fate of Ukraine as much as any arms transfer or tank assault. And while the outcome is impossible to predict, a host of economic indicators and political signals offer some clues.
The Western Challenge
Perhaps the secret weapon of Western countries, almost as important as their economic advantage, is the sudden desire of their citizens to act in a concerted and unified manner.
In polls, Europeans across the continent express a moral obligation to punish the Russian invasion, as well as a belief that Russia now poses a direct threat to their country.
In a survey of seven countries just before the invasion, most said they were prepared to personally bear the economic cost of isolating Russia, which provides much of Europe’s energy . National surveys suggest the percentage may have increased.
In Germany – the biggest economy in the European Union and often decisive for Russia-related issues – only 38% supported the increase in military spending in September; now it’s 69 percent.
In previous clashes, European leaders have often gone against the wishes of their constituents to confront Moscow, seeing it as an imperative.
Today, leaders like Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron are seeing their approval ratings rise as they take on Russia. Far from minimizing the costs for ordinary citizens, some take pride in it.
Political risks are further mitigated by the electoral calendar: Macron is virtually the only Western leader to be re-elected this year and a strong favorite to win.
Yet President Joe Biden is under pressure from Republicans and voters to take on Russia and keep gas prices from rising. If the politics around the crisis change, Biden may feel compelled to adapt, especially as November’s midterm elections approach, already anticipated as difficult for his party.
And the slowdown in Russian energy exports – already underway as Russian businesses are hit by the turmoil – is set to hit Europe hard. Germany imports more than half of its gas from Russia, as does Austria. Some Eastern European countries use Russian gas almost one hundred percent.
Western Europe gets most of its gas from other countries, such as Norway and Algeria. Yet, as Russia runs out of buyers, fossil fuels will become scarcer and therefore more expensive around the world. Energy bills for some Germans are already expected to rise by two-thirds this year.
To ease the burden, European governments are implementing major energy subsidies, worth 15.5 billion euros, or about $17 billion, in France, 5.5 billion euros in Italy, 2 billion euros in Poland, 1.7 billion in millions in Austria, to give a few examples. Many target low-income households.
But Western resilience may be on a countdown. Unless European countries radically rethink their gas import infrastructure or embark on the fastest ever switch to renewables – two options considered technically feasible, but expensive – they could run out of fuel the next day. next winter.
The economic impacts could go well beyond heating costs. Several European industries are already slowing production due to rising energy prices. Russia also exports much of the world’s copper and other industrial materials.
At the same time, although Europeans express broad support for welcoming Ukrainian refugees, it is unclear whether this will last.
Europe is already expecting a sharp increase in refugee arrivals this summer, many of them from Afghanistan. Western leaders have been extremely sensitive to anti-immigration backlash.
“There are still important divisions that are overshadowed by the emotion of the moment,” Shapiro said.
Perhaps the West’s greatest ally in maintaining unity is Putin himself. By massing forces on NATO’s borders and producing shocking images of destruction in Ukraine, he has given the Europeans something to rally against, distracting them from their disagreements, for now.
The challenge from Moscow
Unlike 2014, when many Russians cheered their country’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin almost immediately resorted to repression and censorship, threatening heavy prison sentences even for calling the invasion a ” war”.
This has accelerated a sort of authoritarian feedback loop in Russia, in which increased repression is fueling popular discontent, even beyond the extremes of recent years.
However, Putin belongs to a very particular club of autocrats – individual autocrats rather than parties or military dictatorships – for whom popular support is a secondary concern.
Rather, these leaders derive their power from the support of political elites, such as the heads of security agencies or state industries, explained Erica Frantz, an academic who studies authoritarianism at Michigan State University.
“That’s not to say ordinary citizens don’t matter, but if we’re looking at the regime’s vulnerabilities right now, the focus should be on those indicators of elite discontent,” Frantz said. .
Authoritarian elites, hiding behind great personal wealth, can more easily weather the economic hardship that ordinary Russians will experience. They also tend to give leaders a lot of leeway in times of war, and that may be why authoritarian leaders rarely lose power in the face of battlefield casualties, research shows. .
However, these elites are not fooled by state propaganda. And they are not indifferent to the fate of their country.
Polls of Russian political elites in 2020 revealed that the majority supported Putin precisely because of the achievements that are now under threat: stabilizing the country and earning respect abroad. Many also expressed concern about his handling of the economy and opposed military adventurism in Ukraine.
“The crisis will be more serious for at least three years. It would be like taking the crisis of 1998 and multiplying it by three”, explained Oleg Deripaska, eminent Russian billionaire, in a rare rupture with the Kremlin, evoking the 1990s, catastrophic for Russia.
Sanctions could harm Putin’s relationship with the elite by limiting his ability to distribute the spoils they expect in return for his support. The same could happen to popular discontent, if it gets bad enough for those elites to wonder if Putin is endangering Russia’s stability.
“Russian public opinion is becoming such a problem that Putin is waging two wars: one in Ukraine and one at home,” Sam Greene, Russia researcher at King’s College London, wrote this week.
The danger is not just the anti-war protests, which have mostly been associated with segments of society already skeptical of Putin. Bank runs or other forms of mass economic panic, according to Greene, could trigger a sense of national crisis, even nullifying the optimistic lies of state media.
By concealing the scale and nature of the invasion, Putin is tying his hands, preventing his government from properly informing citizens of the problems ahead. We cannot ask citizens to unite around a war which, as you insistently repeated, does not exist.
Just as European disunity is all but inevitable as losses mount, the Russian elite’s apprehension may only be a matter of time.
“The indicators of elite discontent we’ve seen so far are unusual in Putin’s Russia and should therefore be taken seriously,” Frantz said, referring to comments by Deripaska and a few others.
Although he stressed that Putin may well overcome the crisis he himself created, “in the long run, this external pressure – coupled with internal discontent – could lead to Putin’s downfall.”
Max Fisher is a New York-based international affairs journalist and columnist. He has reported on conflict, diplomacy and social change on five continents. He writes The Interpreter, a column that explores the ideas and context behind major current world events.@Max_Fisher • Facebook