A synthesis of up-to-date analyzes of the war in Ukraine shows us that we have entered a new phase, one whose characteristics are so different from those at the beginning of the conflict, even from the beginning of the summer, that there may be a temptation to to confuse the analytical discourse with the emotional-idealist one.
Alexander GussiPhoto: Personal archive
The change came suddenly, it came as a surprise, although it could be anticipated, indeed it was anticipated. As early as August 12, in an intervention for Sens Politic, professor Armand Gosu announced that “Ukraine is close to taking over the strategic initiative”. It was not about over-sized optimism, but about a dramatic evolution of relations on the ground, an evolution that translated into the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive at the beginning of September. The front line is now moving against the Russian army, the euphoria of liberating territories occupied by it accentuates the dissymmetry that has existed since the beginning of the war between the motivation of the Ukrainian troops and that of the Russian troops. The moments of confusion, symbolized by the abandonment of Russian combat material in several areas, demonstrated the fragility of the occupier, we can even say that a prospect is glimpsed that even some in the West had declared they wanted to avoid: the humiliation of the great Red Army.
If only as a mere possibility, this prospect has the potential to go to the very root of the Putinist political regime. Born from a victorious war (the one in Chechnya, so from its own territory), Vladimir Putin’s regime focused from the beginning on a rehabilitation of the state’s authority starting from the dominance exercised by a militarized elite. The more liberties were curtailed and the vestiges of electoral democracy removed, the more important military victories became. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 in the first place, but also the campaign in Georgia in 2008, the intervention in Syria in 2015, as well as more or less assumed interventions in several African states, have increasingly linked the ideology and legitimacy of the entire regime of the military and international prestige that the Russian Federation was (re)gaining. The culmination of this ideological and institutional construction was the attack on Kyiv. The reaction to the initial failure of the offensive on the Ukrainian capital was to continue the war, a reaction that demonstrated the extent to which the Putin regime cannot afford to lose a war, especially this one. Defeats at the front in recent weeks, then the decision to partially mobilize, reinforce the conclusion that the regime cannot survive a defeat. At the same time, in the current context a Russian victory seems increasingly unlikely. In other words, the survival of the Putin regime also becomes unlikely.
The isolation of Putin from the international level, which was talked about too soon, has now become a reality. He has practically no real allies. Those who, through their neutrality, initially encouraged Russian aggression, today invoke the same neutrality in order not to help Russia. At the same time, the energy blackmail on the West failed. While the effects of the embargo are being felt on the Russian arms industry, Ukraine is the beneficiary of increasingly effective weaponry. Faced with this dissymmetry of resources in favor of Ukraine, Putin threw away his last assets in his September 21 speech: the reserve of people and nuclear blackmail.
The attempt to transform, through false referendums, the occupied regions (some already partially liberated) into annexed regions and therefore belonging to the Russian Federation is not credible at the international level. But it is the way in which Putin hopes to turn a war against Ukraine into a patriotic war, to defend his own territory, and thus restore his political legitimacy. This time not starting from the military victories achieved, but from the perspective of a defeat. Here we are not talking about a simple change of propaganda discourse, but even about the sudden change of the pivot of the Putinist discourse and its type of legitimacy. The change in perspective is so brutal that it signals to us a lack of solutions rather than a genuine alternative to restoring its own authority.
Yesterday the victory legitimized the authoritarian system, today the risk of defeat should justify a legitimate defense of the initially conquered areas. In fact, this perspective of defeat discredits the entire ideological approach of Putinism. Stalin, when he was on the edge of the precipice, resorted to the patriotic reserve and rediscovered orthodoxy, Putin exhausted them too, he has no other resources for collective mobilization. Putinism was essentially a doctrinal opportunism, it assimilated many contradictions, it could be reinvented provided it had absolute control of power. When cracks appear, when the source of legitimacy is exhausted, it cannot be reinvented.
It is known that the most dangerous moment for an authoritarian-totalitarian regime is that of the succession to power. The prospect of defeat makes the question of succession more serious than ever. Social discontent caused by the mobilization of reservists will increase, but equally destabilizing to Putin’s authority is the threat of using weapons of mass destruction. “It’s not a bluff,” Putin emphasized in his recent speech, a few days before President Biden anticipated the threat by replying “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!”. Not only does nuclear blackmail not work (beyond what the doctrine of nuclear deterrence already told us), we saw that from the first phase of the war, but today this type of blackmail is even more lacking in credibility because it comes from a much weakened leader . By trying to instill fear in Western societies, a cornered Putin risks being taken seriously, especially by those who are supposed to implement such an order. And who wants to participate in a collective suicide? Removing the leader is less expensive. Read the entire article and comment on Contributors.ro