by Gilbert Doctorow
There has been a lot of commentary in our mainstream media about how the war with Russia that began on 24 February 2022 has forged a nation in Ukraine with a common identity under the brilliant leadership of President Zelensky. This nation found self-confidence in its seeming ability to withstand an armed invasion by the powerful neighbor to the east and even to strike back with success measured in large territorial gains in the Kharkov oblast first, and then in the Kherson oblast. Hardships have been shared. Dreams of victory maintain a buoyant mood, we are told.
That one quarter of the Ukrainian population has now fled the country is not discussed. I am counting here not just those who fled to the West but those who fled to Russia. And why should the significance of this be discussed? One quarter of the population of all three Baltic States, one quarter of Romanians and Bulgarians also fled their countries as from the early 1990s when they experienced economic ruin following the breaking of ties with Russia and attempted, unsuccessfully at first, to integrate into the European markets. That Ukrainians are fleeing military action whereas the others I have named were economic refugees, the end result for the residual populations and their re-constituted nation states is the same: a kind of self-inflicted ethnic cleansing and concentration of the more “loyal” strata of the population in the nations that emerged from the crisis.
Meanwhile no observations about nation-building have been made with regard to Russia since the start of the Special Military Operation. That should come as no surprise, given that our experts in American and European universities and in think tanks have transitioned away from being Russian studies centers, which is how they were set up and financed as from the beginning of the Cold War in 1949. The Harriman Institute at Columbia University and the Davis Center (formerly, the Russian Research Center) at Harvard have become Ukrainian study centers in all but name. No matter that at Harvard they already had a properly designated and separately sponsored Ukrainian Center dating from the 1970s. University administrators follow the money and the professorate goes along for the ride.
However, studies of the emerging Ukrainian nation will have a near term “sell by” date. This nation run by ultranationalists is doomed by the coming defeat on the battlefield and removal from power of those who have led the nation building exercise down the wrong road of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Meanwhile, the New Russia that is also being shaped by the challenges of all out war will be with us for a long time to come. We will see it in the shifting geopolitical and military balance of forces globally. I would advise our scholars in the United States and Europe to rethink what they are doing with their time if they are to have any relevance to future political decision-making.
In what follows, I will sketch several areas of particular interest in the transformation I see in Russian society, the economy, and international posture as a New Russia is forged by war.
The consolidation of Russian society is a much discussed topic these days on Russian talk shows. One dimension of this has been the political cleansing, the voluntary departure or removal of the 1990s vintage West-loving Liberals who, to a large degree, despised their fellow citizens and, whenever possible, spent their free time in Europe or the States.
One of the leading voluntary exiles who left the country just ahead of warrants to appear in court to face corruption charges was Anatoly Chubais, who had built his fame or infamy in the 1990s as a director of the privatization programs that helped to create the circle of so-called oligarchs that dominated Russian political life until they were tamed, imprisoned or expelled by President Putin early in the new millennium. There were, of course, hundreds and thousands of lesser devils who have been a counterweight to the forces of patriotism through the entire Putin presidency.
These anti-Putin personalities have enjoyed untouchable status in such institutions as the Higher School of Economics in Moscow or the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg.
The latter has been under attack for several years by Russian film director and political commentator Nikita Mikhalkov on his own television program Besogon. Mikhalkov denounced the Yeltsin Center for disseminating treasonous propaganda and for collusion with the American consulate in Yekaterinburg.
The Yeltsin Center exists under the patronage of Yeltsin’s widow, Naina, and she, like Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s widow and daughter as well as other odious figures from Boris Nikolayevich’s time in power, has enjoyed the personal protection of Putin. Unlike Western leaders, Vladimir Putin has never gone back on his word, and protection of ‘The Family’ was part of the deal which gave him the presidency in 1999.
Going back 18 months or so, Mikhalkov’s program was taken off the air. It would be safe to say that his remarks on the Yeltsin Center were a major factor in this political decision from on high. However, today Mikhalkov has been restored to a place of honor. You can find his recent broadcasts of Besogon on youtube. His thinking has been taken up by Vladimir Solovyov among others. And so the Yeltsin Center is today denounced as the ‘Yeltsin Sedition Center’ by right-thinking political commentators on state television. Most of its directors are now abroad in self-imposed exile.
The Higher School is being cleansed of its worst elements from the standpoint of Russia’s new patriotic leadership. And so it goes up and down the country. I will not attempt to judge here the legality or effectiveness of the processes at work. But that they are at work is undisputable. That the cleansing is popular with the broad Russian population is also undisputable.
However, the consolidation of Russian society is noteworthy not so much for the dross that it has expelled as it is for the closer bonds that it is forging in the population at large based on new self-confidence and support for the war effort in Ukraine.
In past essays, I mentioned the phenomenon of volunteer work across the Russian Federation to solicit and collect contributions in money and kind to support the Russian soldiers in the field. I spoke about the letters to the soldiers from school children, about the food and clothing sent to the front by newly formed local NGOs. I add to this the phenomenon of volunteering to fight that is remarkable in scope and in who is coming forward. These include Duma members, administrators and legislators from oblasts reaching across European Russia, across Siberia to Kamchatka and the Far East. These volunteers receive military training in specialized units, among them one named “Akhmat” in honor of the father the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and under his direct supervision.
Time spent in the Donbas by Russian volunteers, even those not directly engaged in battle, is not risk free. We all learned a week ago of the nearly fatal injuries sustained by Dmitry Rogozin, one-time RF Ambassador to NATO here in Brussels and for a number of years the head of Roskosmos. We do not know what tasks he was performing in Donbas as a volunteer, but we do know that he was caught in an artillery barrage and that he had to undergo an operation to remove metal fragments from the vertebrae of his neck.
Meanwhile, Russian cities, led by Moscow and St Petersburg, have made collective contributions of manpower to assist the war effort, something you will not read about in The Financial Times. In the time since the September mobilization, while the proper conditions for a major offensive against the Ukrainian army are not yet met, the Russians have been busy doing groundwork to ensure that there will be no further Ukrainian breakthroughs along the 1,000 km front such as happened in Kharkov oblast in the late spring. They have dug in and created second and third lines of defense consisting of well executed trenches and pillboxes. And who did much of this? It was done by the 20,000 municipal workers sent down to the Donbas by Mayor Sobyanin of Moscow and an additional 10,000 civilian workers sent by Petersburg.
News of these volunteer works has spurred feelings of pride across Russia. At the same time, the country’s resilience in the face of economic warfare by the Collective West has been evident to everyone. The policy of import substitution has turned into a broad program of reindustrialization. Success stories are featured daily on the news.
The government is giving cheap credits to manufacturing start-ups to provide encouragement. With new, high paying positions being created, it is no wonder that the Russian unemployment rate has moved down close to 3%. That all by itself favors confidence and pride in society.
The other side of the same coin is growing contempt for Europe and the Collective West. Russian news is providing accurate, not propagandistic coverage of the energy crisis, rampant inflation and anxiety of European populations. This, in combination with the acts of vandalism and destruction perpetrated against Russian war monuments in the Eastern states of the EU, in combination with other manifestations of Russophobia in Europe in the cultural and tourism domains, has turned even the hitherto Western leaning Russian intelligentsia into patriots by necessity.
In my most recent comments on the New Year’s celebration on Russian state television, I remarked on how recruitment to Russia’s leadership cadres in the future is likely to come from among the heroes on the battlefield today.
For guidance in this matter, I look back to what happened in the several decades following the launch of Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Those who followed Gagarin also set down new records and feats in space that other countries, including the United States, only duplicated years later. These included the first woman in space, the first space walk or the longest time in orbit. These heroic men and women were not given just ticker tape parades in the capital. They were given seats in the (largely ceremonial) legislative organs of the USSR.
We may well expect today’s decorated soldiers similarly to be offered preferment and find places in the Russian Federation legislative and administrative bodies. But there is a lot more to expect in terms of advancement today. Given that field officers have very practical and useful experience for running commercial enterprises, whereas astronauts generally did not and do not, we may expect to see the decorated officers take an honored place among the top managerial caste in Russia as it retools and industrializes. There is nothing extraordinary in that. After WWII, after the Korean War, most top executive positions in American corporations went to veterans.
I have spoken about re-industrialization. But there are also other changes in Russia coming out of this war that are driven by the US-led sanctions. The forced abandonment of Europe as its largest economic partner has compelled Russia to expand ties with China, with India, with the Global South. This is grudgingly getting some attention in The Financial Times and other Western media, which have reported on the new infrastructure being built and being planned to increase energy exports to China and India, for example. A week ago, a gas field in Eastern Siberia using a newly completed 800 km long pipeline is now feeding directly into the Power of Siberia main pipeline to China.