Russia’s Halfway To Hell Strategy


On September 21, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his large-scale mobilization of fighting-age men, it was seen as a dramatic move toward total war. No longer could the Kremlin downplay the war in Ukraine as a mere “special operation” in which ordinary Russians had little involvement. Fearful of what was to come, hundreds of thousands of young men fled the country as rumors circulated that the security services were going to close the borders to prevent more people from leaving—and take drastic measures to pressure those who had left to return and fight. Many also assumed that Putin’s order would be followed by a second, even broader draft, and that all of Russian society would soon be put on a continual war footing.

Yet few of these rumors proved true. For the remainder of 2022, and even through the first anniversary of the war in late February, Russia’s borders remained open, and a second mobilization never happened. Instead, the country was left in a state of “partial mobilization,” as Putin had called it. Indeed, despite huge numbers of Russian casualties in Ukraine, not every family has been affected, and for many middle-class Russians, life has continued much as it did before.

The surprising reality of the September mobilization has highlighted a larger feature of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Often, the Kremlin has initially appeared to take a maximalist course. Instead of invading eastern Ukraine, it launched a full-scale assault on the whole country and tried to take Kyiv. In addition to deploying tanks, missiles, and heavy artillery, Putin has repeatedly made threats about using nuclear weapons. And he has seemingly been willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of men to fuel his war. At home, meanwhile, the government has announced extreme measures to clamp down on the Russian media and popular dissent as well as to put the Russian economy on a war footing.

Yet many of these moves have been considerably less severe in practice than they seem on paper. In Ukraine, despite increasing attacks on civilian areas, Russia has held back from using its full arsenal. And although Putin has done much to tighten his grip on Russian society in the year since the invasion, many of his most far-reaching domestic measures have been incompletely implemented. Again and again, the Kremlin has stopped short of total militarization and total mobilization—whether of the economy or of society at large.

By many indications, this partial approach to total war is not haphazard, nor is it simply the result of failed execution. Instead, Russia appears to be pursuing a deliberate strategy aimed at both the West and its own population. By staking out a maximalist stance on the war, the Kremlin can suggest to the West that it is prepared to do whatever it takes to win in Ukraine, without necessarily having to make good on its threats. At home, meanwhile, the Russian government can convey to ordinary Russians that it has the option of tightening the screws further, but that it is not going out of its way to alienate the population. In both cases, the strategy offers Putin an open path toward further escalation, but without the immediate costs.

Since the opening weeks of the invasion in February 2022, the Kremlin’s calibrated actions have often defied its total-war rhetoric. Consider how the government has sought to manage Russian society. Almost immediately, the military offensive was followed by a frontal attack on Russia’s independent media and civil society. In March, the popular liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy and the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta were shut down; journalists were forced into exile; and draconian new censorship laws were introduced. Most important, the government took aim at social media, apparently seeking to silence any circulation of independent information about the war.

Yet the measures were oddly incomplete. The Russian authorities swiftly outlawed and blocked Facebook, as well as some other platforms, including Instagram. For years, Facebook had been known for being one of the only online spaces where liberal Russians could talk freely about politics; unsurprisingly, the government designated Facebook as a company that conducted “extremist activities.” Many social media users took this step to mean that even logging in to Facebook might lead to criminal prosecution, and thousands of people deleted the Facebook app from their smartphones in case they were stopped by police and their phones searched. But enforcement never followed. Even more striking was the selective nature of the social media crackdown. The government has not censored YouTube or Telegram, the messaging app, which are two of the most popular platforms in Russia. Instead, they have been allowed to flourish, and become even more important, as the war has progressed.

A similar pattern has unfolded with Putin’s economic policies. In the spring of 2022, the Kremlin seemed prepared to take far-reaching steps to expand government control of the economy. Draft legislation on a nationalization program was promptly prepared and sent to the Duma, and foreign companies worried that their assets and operations would be seized. To many observers, there was also a logic for such moves: foreign companies were rapidly leaving the country, raising the specter of massive layoffs and possible social unrest—a scenario the Kremlin was anxious to avoid. It was for much the same reasons that the Bolsheviks had initially nationalized factories and banks after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Yet the 2022 draft legislation was never signed into law, and foreign companies were mostly left to make their own arrangements about their Russian assets. In October, the government did order industries that were crucial for the war effort to come under direct state control via a new special coordinating council on military supplies. But fears of a completely militarized economy have proved to be overblown.

To the extent that Russia is seeking to fight a total war, as many Western commentators have suggested, Putin’s handling of the mobilization question has been especially striking. Not only has the Kremlin avoided a second wave of mobilization, despite significant manpower demands, but it has also made extensive use of mercenaries from the Wagner paramilitary organization, some of whom have been recruited from Russian prisons. In this way, rather than pursue a full-scale mobilization, the Russian government has for the time being opted to use other resources while keeping the mobilization only partial. The tactic appears to be serving its purpose: in recent weeks, Wagner has been the only unit that was on the offensive, and although it has suffered heavy casualties, its losses are not of concern to the military.

At the same time, Putin has shown relative restraint toward officials or agencies within the government that are implicated in some of the war’s failures or that seem to disagree with his own policies. Historically, when authoritarian regimes go to war, they almost always use repression to make the country more unified, usually by ruthlessly attacking perceived internal enemies. Typically, such crackdowns are aimed at those who dissent from the leader’s views, as well as elites, to make sure they do not waiver from the official line. Such repression can sometimes be systematic, as for example in Russia itself under Stalin and other leaders. Indeed, Putin seemed to be firmly on this path even before the invasion, sending high-level officials and governors, as well as officers of Russia’s FSB security service, to jail by the dozens.

Yet when the invasion started, and quickly went badly, Putin limited his anger toward the siloviki, the security elite. The FSB’s Fifth Service, the arm of the agency in charge of keeping an eye on Russia’s immediate neighbors, was the first to receive the president’s wrath. It was the Fifth Service that had briefed Putin about the political situation in Ukraine and suggested, incorrectly, that the government in Kyiv would quickly collapse. In March 2022, the head of the service, Sergei Beseda, was secretly placed under house arrest and was soon shuffled off to the Lefortovo Prison—the notorious prison where leading political prisoners and spies have long been sent.

Next, it was the National Guard’s turn: in the same month, the deputy head of the National Guard, Roman Gavrilov, was forced into early retirement: he had been in charge of supplying the National Guard’s special forces, which had been sent to war woefully underequipped. Some units had been given anti-riot gear instead of armor and ammunition, as if they had expected to meet protesters, not Ukrainian troops, on the streets of Kyiv. There were rumors that Gavrilov had been arrested and that various army generals would soon be fired or imprisoned as retribution for the army’s poor performance on the battlefield.

But then, within a few weeks, the repressions suddenly stopped. Some were even undone: Sergei Beseda was released and returned to his office in Lubyanka and then deliberately displayed at several public events. What is more, in February 2023, his son, Alexander Beseda, was given a remarkable promotion to become the head of the government department that oversees all the security agencies.

With Russia facing increasing pressure from the West and humiliation on the battlefield, hard-line parliamentarians, propagandists, and members of the secret services have been evoking Stalinism as an example of a way to run the country properly during wartime. And some observers, noting the extreme measures that have been mooted, have suggested that Putin is already following a Stalinist playbook. But such an approach would require much more dramatic steps than Putin has actually taken. During World War II, the entire Soviet government was militarized; even Stalin and his ministers wore uniforms and assumed the rank of general. The economy and the society at large were completely mobilized and turned into what became known as a “home front,” with parts of the population and entire factories moved to other regions under orders of the Stalin government. For all the talk, the Russian government never adopted a full-scale Stalinist approach to managing the war at home.

Finally there is the issue of nuclear weapons. Since at least the summer of 2022, Putin has put on the table the option of using a tactical nuclear weapon to change the situation in Russia’s favor. (In September, he announced that Russia was prepared to use “all available means” in its war and that “this was not a bluff.”) Even setting aside the Kremlin’s rhetoric, hard-liners close to the regime have suggested that the Russian military and Putin considered using a tactical nuclear weapon—for instance, against the defenders of Mariupol in the spring of 2022. Despite major Russian setbacks, however, Putin did not choose that path. Instead, he has doubled down on a conventional war, which he has amplified via mobilization and massive airstrikes on Ukrainian infrastructure.

Throughout the past year, then—arguably the most difficult year for Putin in more than two decades in power—the Russian president time and again escalated on many fronts, at home and on the battlefield. And yet he has never quite followed through in bringing Russia into a total war. Why?

Since the early stages of the war, the total-war concept has clearly been in Putin’s thoughts. In April 2022, Putin told the Duma that “all parliamentary parties, despite their competition with each other, invariably come out with a unified position when it comes to basic national interests, to solving issues of defense and security of our Fatherland,” making clear that no debate about the war was to be tolerated. Then, in July, Putin told the leaders of Russia’s political parties that it was the collective West that had started the war in Ukraine, indicating that the war in Ukraine is part of the centuries’ long existential battle between Russia and the West. And he made his New Year address flanked by soldiers.

Yet judging by Russia’s actions, it has in practice sought to do something different from wage total war. Throughout 2022, the Kremlin made a point of showing that more drastic options were available to it: it could always do more. But it also showed that, for the time being, it was content to go only so far. The point here was that by laying out these extreme options—nationalizing industry, mobilizing the economy, pursuing systematic repression, or even using tactical nuclear attacks—the Kremlin has staked out space to escalate. It has already announced, in effect, what more it could do, whether on the battlefield or in conducting repressions at home.

For Putin, this approach serves multiple purposes. The primary target may be Western governments, which are deeply concerned about the possibility of uncontrollable escalation. The Kremlin is adamant about showing them that it has many options but has thus far kept things under control—unlike Kyiv, which in its desperation is, according to Russia, prone to escalation. At home, Moscow’s approach also serves another purpose: to demonstrate that it is capable of calibrating its response to Western sanctions and military failures, and that it does not need to go all the way until it truly must.

Putin’s halfway strategy has scored some notable successes. Throughout 2022, for example, the Russian economy was not hobbled by excessive militarization or government control. To the contrary, Russia’s economic contraction was smaller than most Western analysts predicted. Moreover, the strategy also helped Putin maintain a fine balance between tightening the rules and not alienating Russia’s economically active urban middle class. For their part, many ordinary Russians have been glad to ignore the war as much as possible, and the Kremlin’s strategy has skillfully played on these feelings: it has allowed many Russians to pretend that they will not be affected by the war.

Indeed, the strategy has also been aimed at those who fled into exile. Many Russian men who went abroad to avoid being mobilized have since been signaled that they will not be punished at home if they return. On February 1, for example, Russia’s Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov reported to Putin that 9,000 “illegally mobilized citizens”—people who are supposed to be exempt from mobilization because they perform critical jobs in IT or in the banking and financial system—had already been returned home. The Russian authorities are also seeking ways to lure the country’s exiled IT specialists—which it needs to sustain the war effort—back to Russia. The government has promised workers in this category exemption from the draft and a free plane ticket home. Putin knows his people well: some Russians, desperate to believe there is a way back to prewar reality, are returning to Russia thanks to this strategy.

In some crucial areas, Putin’s incremental approach has backfired. For example, in the months since the war started, many independent journalists, investigators, and bloggers who had originally fled the country have launched their own YouTube channels, taking advantage of the lack of censorship. Now, dozens of political shows, interviews, and uncensored videos offer Russians the opportunity to get the truth about the war every day. Throughout the past year, many people have developed a habit of getting their news from YouTube, and that includes older Russians as well as young people. Indeed, it was through YouTube and Telegram that many Russians learned of the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha and the humiliation of Russian troops in Kherson.

At the same time, millions of Instagram users have learned to used virtual private network (VPN) services to access the platform. As a result, although many of them were not previously interested in political content, they now have access to alternative news sources about the war from the non-Russian Internet. Thus, by the time of the war’s first anniversary in late February, much of Russia’s urban population was able to circumvent Russia’s Internet censorship. (So far, however, it has not made a big impact on public opinion because many still chose to believe the government’s own propaganda.)

Nevertheless, in the first year of war, Putin’s partial escalation strategy has generally served him well. It has allowed him to maintain political stability through a combination of intimidation and indifference. Internationally and domestically, it has helped him prepare Russia for a very long war without making the kinds of sacrifices that might ultimately cause the population to rebel. And above all, it has given him flexibility. The more radical options—including economic nationalization and full mobilization—are still open, and the country’s bureaucracy is already prepared to set them in motion.  

The question is, how long can this not-quite-total war be sustained? The longer the war goes on, the more Putin will have to take some of the more drastic steps he has threatened. And at some point, he will run out of room to play with.

Source : Foreignaffairs