Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was undoubtedly initially a personal decision by Vladimir Putin, fueled by foreign policy revisionism and historical revanchism. At the same time, it would be completely misleading to assume that there would have been no war had Putin not been in power.
Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, once said: “Putin is a smart man, but he is also a bad man”. That may be so, but it is completely short-sighted to personalize Russia’s foreign policy. Behind the aggressive foreign policy that Russia has been pursuing since 2008 at the latest, there is a broad consensus among the elites of the Russian military and security sector. Distrust of the West, a feeling of being treated unfairly and the belief that Russia has the right to re-emerge as a great power within parts of its historical borders unites this camp.
Excluded from this consensus are, of course, the economic and financial experts in the government and also a large part of the business community in Russia. However, both actors play almost no role in decision-making in the country’s foreign and security policy.
It is therefore not true that Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine is just “Putin’s war”; it’s a war that the vast majority of senior leaders support. In any case, the Russian attack is a war waged by the country’s entire security and military elite.
Hopes or even expectations that after Putin leaves the presidency – through resignation, death or dismissal – a successor will make a radical change of course are therefore completely misplaced. However Putin leaves office, his successor will come from the same milieu responsible for this fatal war decision. No successor would sign the surrender of Russia. There isn’t a single pro-Western actor in Russia who has the slightest chance of assuming power in the state.
No improvement is expected in Russia
Internally, too, no liberalization is currently to be expected. Putin’s successor will continue his legacy: an atomization of society fueled by fear, repression and propaganda; suppression of political dissent; centralized governance; an authoritarian style of leadership and the same disregard for (democratic) institutions that Putin shows.
The legacy is also an apathetic, resigned and shrugging populace. Due to imprisonment or forced exile, the personnel and organizational basis for a new democracy movement is missing in a post-Putin era.
In view of this repressive internal pressure from the state leadership, it is also largely inadmissible to speak of the invasion of Ukraine as a “Russian war”, understood as a war that would be actively supported by significant sections of the population. It is only a small part of the population that actively supports this war.
A much larger part of the population shrugs at this war; they have been resigned for a long time and do not expect a change for the better from the state leadership. Another part of the population does not understand why this war is being waged, but thinks that Putin, as a wise tsar, will know what he is doing.
The war also takes the Russian population hostage
A minority of the population, the “creative class” of the better paid, better educated and urban population opposes this war. However, tough censorship laws and fear of physical attacks by the state do not allow this protest to become visible. In addition, many from this segment of the population are now abroad and have left Russia. It would therefore be completely unfair to claim that this is a war of all Russia.
It would be completely inadmissible to describe the invasion of Ukraine as a “Russian war”. However, some commentators have repeatedly referred to the alleged full joint responsibility of the Russian people. This deliberately feeds Russophobic attitudes and means that many people no longer want to have anything to do with Russian culture.
No, this war is the “war of the Russian ruling caste” that is taking large sections of the Russian population hostage. A circumstance that will not disappear even if Putin is ever ousted from power.