How Putin Wants Russians to See the War in Ukraine

Take a walk through Moscow these days, and you will see giant, gaudy light displays—entire galleries and faux building façades composed of light bulbs. You will see gleaming arrays of luxury goods, messengers scurrying with cubic backpacks, and restaurants that fill up late in the day and stay full well into the night. Some of those restaurants have giant televisions, and you may see sports competitions, music videos, and news channels on them, but what you will not see is what dominates television screens elsewhere in the world: the images of the war in Ukraine. You will not see bomb shelters in the grand Soviet-era subways, bombed-out apartment buildings, or charred tanks. From most appearances, Moscow is a city at peace.

Anything that disrupts this appearance—whether it’s a person standing alone with a sheet of paper that says “No to War” or the small group that gathered and stood silently in Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Saturday night, or the thousands who have attended antiwar marches around the country since last Thursday, the day that Russia began its large-scale invasion of Ukraine—is intercepted by police quickly and brutally. Occasionally in Moscow, you might see a clump of police officers in riot gear and a prisoner bus parked on the side of the road, its engine off—which means that the people inside are getting very cold as the bus slowly fills up. In the center of town, police buses have been parked for days, apparently on reserve in case of a larger operation. OVDInfo, an organization that tracks political persecution, has documented about sixty-four hundred detentions since Thursday, in more than a hundred cities. Twenty-eight hundred of these—in fifty-six different cities—were on Sunday, February 27th, on the seventh anniversary of the murder of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

Last Thursday evening, Grigory Yudin, a sociologist and philosopher, and his wife Anastasia Yudina, a marketing researcher, went to Pushkin Square to protest the invasion. They got off the subway and then, Yudin told me, “Something happened. I realized that I was falling down.” Yudina was taking a picture of the swarms of police in riot gear at that moment. When she turned around, her husband had disappeared. Yudin had been loaded onto a police bus, and, with many other people, he was taken to a precinct on the outskirts of the city. The next time that Yudina saw him, about an hour and a half later, it was in an ambulance outside the police station. “He was in a neck brace,” she told me. “He was covered with dirt—they must have dragged him. He was confused.” Yudin had been in and out of consciousness. When we met on Sunday, at one of those cozy and delicious Moscow restaurants, Yudin still had a swollen eye and a noticeable scrape on his left temple.

We weren’t meeting to discuss the story of Yudin’s arrest and beating—these stories are plentiful—but because Yudin is one of the most insightful analysts of contemporary Russian politics and society. “I think now is a turning point,” he said. We were talking about the end of the world as we know it: Would it be the end of Vladimir Putin’s long reign or, well, the end of the world? “If they can’t secure a military victory—at least take Kyiv and Kharkiv—then Putin will shift to treating U.S. sanctions as a declaration of war. It will be the world against Putin, and Putin will have to raise the stakes—by, say, threatening to lob a nuclear weapon at the center of the world, which he believes is in New York.” We had our phones off during this conversation. When I turned mine back on after about an hour, I saw that Putin had put Russian nuclear forces on high alert. “So it begins,” Yudin said. And yet, he added, “In this new situation, I can’t really imagine that he will be able to maintain his hold on power. On the other hand, we have always underestimated his ability to hang on.”

Russian news channels released a short clip of Putin ordering his defense minister, Sergey Shoigu, and head of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov—the two of them sitting next to each other, like two kids summoned to the principal’s office, looking weary and bloated—to raise Russia’s level of nuclear readiness. State television presented the President as confident and decisive, but it seemed apparent Putin felt that he had been misled by his military. “He has clearly miscalculated on at least two counts,” Yudin said. It appears that the generals had promised Putin a blitzkrieg that had already failed. Putin himself, it seems, had imagined that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian military with open arms. “It’s this concept that there is no such thing as Ukraine, an insane idea on which he has based an entire military operation,” Yudin said. Putin appears to have wildly underestimated Ukraine’s military and the Ukrainians’ resolve.

Even the shrewdest dictators—which usually means the most paranoid—often come to overestimate their reach, their popularity, and their wisdom. They surround themselves with sycophants, shut out the rest of the world, and usually, sooner or later, make a misstep. Over his twenty-two years at the helm, Putin has winnowed down his circle of interlocutors. In the past two years, fear of COVID has forced him into near-total isolation. “This is a huge factor,” Mikhail Fishman, who hosts a political-analysis show on Russia’s last independent television channel, TV Rain, said. “He is alone with only his most loyal people, who basically live with him—his adjutants, his servants in a way, who make his way of life possible. . . . They are in the same pool, sharing the same vision, and there is nothing else. They, of course, think he is sent by heaven to save the world.”

What small ways Putin once had of checking in with outer reality have fallen away during the pandemic. One example is the conference of Russian and foreign political scientists that he has gathered every fall since 2004. But, in 2020, he came to the event only virtually, and last year he isolated himself from the gathering and appeared in person only once, to allow the attendees to ask him questions; he sat on a distant stage, with a moderator who had been quarantining for two weeks. According to Fishman, Putin’s closest advisers, if they request a meeting, must first sequester.

As we wrapped up our late lunch on Sunday, Yudin argued for his right to pick up the tab. “I have to spend this anyway,” he said, because Russian currency would soon become worthless. “Tomorrow, markets will collapse,” he predicted, and then Russians would begin to grasp the scale of the catastrophe that the country was facing. The next morning, the markets did crash; the Central Bank of Russia raised its interest rate to twenty per cent and froze the opening of its stock market. The ruble reached a historic low of ninety to a dollar, and Sberbank announced that it would charge some forty per cent more for actual dollars than it did before the war.

Banks appeared fearful of running out of hard currency, and, rumor had it, some bank machines were running low on rubles, but by Monday there were no observable bank runs in the Russian capital. Two centrally situated branches of M.Video, an electronics-and-appliances chain, were almost completely empty: no one seemed to be rushing to invest in durable goods. Taxis, car-share vehicles, and messengers on scooters and bicycles—all the visible signs of Moscow’s e-commerce and cyber convenience—were in place, even if credit cards, both foreign and domestic, were occasionally failing. In the evening, a long line of fashionably dressed young people were waiting for cappuccinos at a coffee shop at Flacon, one of several industrial plants in the city that have been converted to commercial use. A barista kept cheerfully announcing that Apple Pay, Google Pay, and MasterCard weren’t working but Visa was welcome. In fact, Apple Pay and Google Pay had been restricted since the first major tranche of sanctions kicked in, but some of the coffee shop’s customers didn’t seem to know that. Did they know that the main Russian banks had now lost access to SWIFT? Either way, no one seemed panicked. Two of my friends went to stock up on nonperishables. Both reported that the supermarkets where they got their toilet paper, coffee, and pasta were otherwise doing normal, slow, daytime business.

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