AMAC Exclusive-By Daniel Roman
The war in Ukraine is still raging, but one loser is now clear: Russian prestige. Unlike the loss of men, material, or economic prosperity, all of which Vladimir Putin likely can weather, a loss of prestige is potentially fatal to a leader. The war, rather than restoring Russian prestige, now seems likely to undermine it, and that may be what costs Putin his position.
Beyond concerns about NATO expansion, Vladimir Putin launched this war to restore the prestige of Russia. It was an effort to erase the humiliating image of Russia which had emerged in the 1990s (an image which was encouraged by Obama and Biden’s treatment of Russia as a third-rate power). A victory over Ukraine, an American and Western ally, would have shown Russians and the world that Russia mattered. A defeat was, at the time, unthinkable – and not just by the Kremlin. At the onset of the conflict it was widely viewed that a Russian victory, while likely to be of limited value in resolving Russia’s real problems, was probable.
Instead, to quote Boris Yeltsin’s Prime Minister Viktor Cherynomyrdin during the 1990s when the once-great power seemed unable to feed or clothe its own people, “we wanted the best, but it turned out like always.”
In Ukraine, Putin wished to “solve” the threat posed by NATO expansion and the refusal of the West to cede Russia a sphere of influence. To do that, he needed to demonstrate that Russia was a force to be reckoned with, one whose desires and power had to be taken into account. Rather than proving that point, the last eight weeks have proven nearly the opposite.
Nothing illustrates this more than the farce which followed the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet this past week. At 12,490 tons, the Moskva is the largest warship to be lost in combat since the Second World War, narrowly outpacing the Argentine battle cruiser General Belgrano which was torpedoed by a British submarine during the Falklands war. The Ukrainians claim to have successfully hit it with two missiles after distracting its air defense system with a drone. Russia initially insisted that it caught fire due to an accidental ammunition explosion and the ship was on its way to Sebastopol for repairs, before conceding, after twenty-four hours, that it had sunk.
The sinking of the Moskva is not merely a loss of military capacity, but of prestige, which is why even if Russia is able to emerge from this conflict with control of some additional wasteland in Ukraine’s East and a million resentful pensioners, Russia will be less secure, with Russians having less faith in themselves, and Russian military prowess scoffed at not just by enemies but by “friends” in China and Iran.
The sinking represented a further irony for Putin who began his career with a similar disaster. In the summer of 2000, the Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered submarine, sank in an accident in the Barents sea. Putin’s government, then newly installed, refused repeated Western offers of help, denying that anything was wrong, while the crew suffocated. Putin’s refusal to return from vacation in Sochi led to widespread mockery and attacks from Russia’s then independent media, helping trigger the first of a series of crackdowns which would turn Russia’s nascent democracy into the authoritarian dystopia it is today. Putin cannot help but remember the Kursk, and people all over Russia will recall it as well.
Much speculation has occurred in the Western press about the prospects of “regime change” arising from within Russia. In all likelihood, there was never much prospect that Putin would ever be toppled for launching the war. After all, governments have rarely fallen because a war was morally unpopular. Even the U.S. Invasion of Iraq in 2003 was highly popular at the time. For all of the brutality involved in the conduct of the war in Ukraine, the grievances behind it are popular in Russia, and most Russians, even those who may not have wished for this war, now believe that they “are all in this together.”
However, while governments may not have problems in starting wars, they can rapidly find themselves in trouble for failing to win them. Voters and nonvoters (in authoritarian states) evaluate governments based on their performance, and the most critical test is the ability to defend the state. Much can be forgiven in terms of a failure to provide goods or services as long as the money was going toward national defense. On the other hand, if it looks like the government neglected that, the charge becomes not negligence but treason.
The trigger for the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II was a speech in the Duma by the conservative deputy Pavel Milyiukov in which he cited one example after another of incompetence in Russia’s WWI effort. From the removal of competent officers at the behest of Rasputin and the Empress, to the failure to supply ammunition or food to troops, to rampant corruption, Milyiukov closed each example with the rhetorical question “Is it stupidity or treason?” The implication was it no longer made a difference. Stupidity on such a scale during war time amounted to treason.
Russian boys are dying by the thousands if not the tens of thousands. Russian warships with crews of 500 are sinking. Russia controls less territory after two months than it did after one month. Troops lack food, ammunition, or basic air support. Russian mothers are not likely to rise up in outrage at Putin over the treatment of Ukrainians who are shooting at their sons with the support of Westerners who are currently “canceling” Russia and are responsible for their credit cards not working. But they are likely to blame Putin for their sons dying because Russian troops ran out of fuel, lacked artillery support, or were thrown forward in a frontal assault.
Putin can survive the hatred of the West, sanctions, and some limited military setbacks. What he cannot survive is the perception of incompetence and stupidity on the part of his government, which amounts to charges of betrayal of Russia. Machiavelli said it was better to be feared than loved. Putin is in danger of making Russia hated, mocked, and unfeared. And it is that which may make Russians turn their ire on him.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.