The most plausible scenarios of Russia’s development (or degradation) are inertial. However, sometimes this development becomes abrupt, and shocks appear. Like, for example, the capture of Crimea in 2014, the nullification of Putin's terms and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in 2020, or the beginning of the “special operation” in 2022. There have already been several shocks within the war. For the population of Russia, in addition to the start of the war itself, the second shock is the partial mobilisation. For the population of Ukraine, in addition to the ground nightmare, it is the missile war.
Nevertheless, the inertial sluggishness of events is no less important than the shocks. Big poll numbers, dominant sentiments and the socio-economic situation are all subject to erosion, but slowly and inertially. It is erosion that will eat away at the social and state fabric of Putin's Russia next year: the erosion of socio-economic indicators, including the real disposable income of citizens; the erosion of consumer sentiment; and the erosion of the labour market, accompanied by technologically regressive import substitution and the primitivisation of the economy and, therefore, jobs – all leading to an accumulation of anxiety and discontent. But this will be slow and adaptive, without collapses, disasters or mass protests.
The New Abnormal
Violence, militarism, the sacralisation of the state, the glorification of death for the fatherland, imperial feelings, pride in dark and mythologized pages of history – all of this is becoming an encouraged social norm. Anticipatory obedience, indifference, inability to think independently, borrowing opinions from television and officials (“the bosses know best”) – all of this has become a mass phenomenon. And despite the high level of anxiety and the fact that war fatigue is already being felt and more people in recent months would like to have peaceful negotiations, this trend – the cultivation of obedience and indifference by Russians – will continue to manifest itself in 2023.
There is a difference between those who aggressively support Putin and the “operation” and those who hesitate, have no opinion and behave opportunistically only in order to live relatively peacefully. There is also a difference between these two categories and the roughly 20% of the population who do not openly support Putin and the war. There is a generational difference: the elderly, especially women (in fact, many men in Russia do not live to a respectable age), who repeat the mantras of Kremlin TV talk shows, are more inclined to support any initiatives of the authorities, the young are less so. But overall – because of the demographic structure of the society – the older generations decide for the younger ones how they should live and what (or whom) they should die for. They voted for Putin, they are the main group that supports authoritarianism and war, they express their satisfaction with the military mobilisation and the tightening of legislation on foreign agents, LGBT people, etc.
All these factors will continue to apply by inertia in the coming year. A significant part of the population behaves as it would under occupation: cautiously and in a conformist way. And Russia will continue to lose its able-bodied and educated population at the best ages in terms of economic development: these people will flee from a possible new mobilisation or seek education and work abroad, seeing no prospects in Russia.
Hostages of an Autocrat
Putin has built an authoritarian “garrison state” – a state organized to serve primarily its own need for military security – with elements of totalitarianism, forcing part of society to share responsibility for the war; teachers are forced to indoctrinate children and ideologists write special ideological courses for students. Moreover, for many categories of citizens who depend on the state for their jobs, silence is no longer enough – sometimes they must publicly support the regime; partial mobilisation has turned almost every man into a potential soldier of Putin.
This model has not caused serious protests, except for a few isolated cases, and is unlikely to provoke them in the future. Yet the level of anxiety among the population that resulted from the mobilisation, as well as the increase in the number of those willing to negotiate peace, indicates if not an accumulation of discontent, then a clear war fatigue. Putin will have to refresh his messages to the population several times in 2023, alternating between calm and mobilisation (primarily in the emotional sense, but probably also in the military sense) periods. So far, these messages have not been formulated. And they are necessary because in 2023 preparations for the main mobilisation campaign of 2024 will begin – Russia’s presidential elections. It makes no sense to cancel them. They are a tool to demonstrate to the wavering masses that the overwhelming majority of our compatriots still support the dictator, and the best way to survive in this system is to accept this as a fact.
We are unlikely to witness a split in the Russian elites. At least they can’t do it publicly. No conspiracies are possible when the establishment members are afraid of Putin and, most importantly, of each other. They are all hostages of the autocrat, they are in the same submarine with him, and will either resurface together or sink together. And so, they prefer to serve him. Or at least pretend loyal service.
In 2023, Putin will continue to play into the idea of a “world majority,” i.e. Asia, Africa and Latin America, which are supposedly supporting him. However, being a prisoner of this illusion, he will only alienate the former Soviet republics (especially Kazakhstan) and increase Russia’s dependence on China.
Possible new waves of military mobilisation, martial law, the closure of the country, the use of nuclear weapons, more mass repression within the country – all these options remain more or less plausible for 2023. For future generations, these problems will be solved by the elderly, the predominant age cohorts in society who are also at the top of the power pyramid. Each of these events could disrupt the relatively smooth flow of the inertial scenario. There are rational arguments against their occurrence. However, there were a lot of rational arguments against the possible invasion of Ukraine a year ago. And they did not work.