The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 is often attributed to the then leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perceived close ties to the West, particularly with Washington. Many in Russia, including its current leadership, continue to hurt from what they view to be the downsizing of the once mighty Soviet empire more than three decades ago. Now, however, it appears as if the same leadership may be further downgrading Russia’s global might because of the war in Ukraine.
Indeed, Moscow has unwittingly unified its adversaries in the West, with the latter now working in concert to provide Ukraine with all manner of assistance and punish Russia with sanctions. The once flagging levels of co-ordination between the US and its European allies have clearly picked up. Russia had long insisted that any move to induct Ukraine, formerly of the Soviet Union, into Nato amounted to a red line. Today, Ukraine may not be any closer to joining the western security alliance, but the war is pushing other neutral countries in Europe, such as Finland and Sweden, to seriously consider the idea.
The sanctions have been especially punishing on ordinary Russians, many in the West wondering if that would put any pressure on the leadership in Moscow.
Despite US President Joe Biden’s recent remark that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”, western governments have strenuously denied that regime change is on their agenda. And yet, some of the measures they have taken since the war in Ukraine began seem to be attempts at immobilising the Kremlin and isolating it from the international community.
It’s a tricky strategy, because Moscow is unlikely to back down in the face of such pressure. On the contrary, it is likely to double down in Ukraine, as the focus of the war shifts to the Donbas region in the country’s east.
Questions abound, as I am told, at various levels in Russia, about what the endgame of the conflict is. What, for instance, would the status be of the two Ukrainian territories in Donbas? What flag (or flags) will be hoisted there? Who will pay for their reconstruction after the war is over? What currency will be accepted there, especially since the rouble is not used in that part of Ukraine? These are fundamental questions that the Kremlin will need to demystify sooner than later.
The picture isn’t any clearer on the diplomatic stage either. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has backtracked from giving the impression that there is progress in the negotiations with Ukraine in Istanbul, instead accusing Kyiv of reneging on its promises. The Ukrainian delegation, on the other hand, has engaged with a clear set of objectives and created room for compromise. That there has yet to be a deal could be down to there being little for the Russian leadership to take to the people by way of a win.
The West seems to have won the media battle, too, having made tactical leaks of its intelligence showing Moscow’s plans before the war began. It hasn’t helped Moscow’s cause that the war continues to rage on in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance more than a month since the operation got under way.
And if the war continues to intensify, Russia’s international isolation is only likely to grow, with more steps such as its recent suspension from the UN Human Rights Council expected. But the Russian people wouldn’t want to be isolated.
Such a scenario makes it difficult for Moscow to create an effective narrative, especially in time for the upcoming annual national holidays.
The first 10 days in the month of May are a period of celebrations in Russia, beginning with Labour Day and leading up to Victory Day on May 9, which commemorates the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in the Second World War in 1945. The question, then, is what sort of narrative Moscow would create during this year’s holidays – particularly as a military victory in Ukraine in less than a month seems highly unlikely.
In the absence of an outright win, therefore, one can expect further escalation in Ukraine – with the Russian intention being to force the West to back down.
That may or may not be an effective strategy. For now, however, as the war continues to undermine the country’s influence in the global arena, it is difficult to imagine the mood in Russia being anything but sombre.