Russian politics has moved from crisis mode to a new normality. And the divorce from the West is permanent
Back in 2022 high stakes were at play. Everyone wanted to know whether Russia would be able to withstand the tipping point. Could Moscow keep its economy from collapsing under sanctions and would it be able to consolidate both the elites and broader society?
Last year ended with a lack of clear answers to these questions. However, 2023 has brought more certainty. The rupture is over: Russia is living in new conditions of confrontation and is coping with them.
The main outcome of the past twelve months is the transition to a new normal in foreign and domestic policy. By comparison, 2021 was a time of gathering stormclouds. Back then, an imminent turning point was in the air but many wanted to believe it wouldn’t happen. The mood of the thirty years since the end of the Cold War – peace, openness and cooperation – had become too familiar.
In relations with the West, the tide began to turn long before 2021. Cracks started to appear as early as the late 1990s and, since 2014, have become increasingly irreversible. But, as is often the case, the possibility of major change was hard to believe precisely because the inertia of everyday life distracts from signs of tectonic shifts. Of course, in hindsight they are always clearly visible and make sense. But, in the past itself (ie, what was then the present), few people want to believe in what’s coming.
The year 2022 was a year of dynamic chaos, featuring Russia’s transition to a new reality in its political and social order. The trigger for the change was the outbreak of contradictions in relations with the “collective West.” The military operation against Ukraine and the subsequent chain of confrontational events became a concentrated expression of the crisis: with an acceleration of the arms race, NATO expansion, large-scale sanctions, attempts to isolate Russia, military and financial aid to Ukraine, and other factors all playing a part.
So where do we stand now? And what are the parameters of this new reality?
The first is relations between Russia and the West. In 2022, they entered a format of acute confrontation. It was marked by the delivery of large-scale military and financial aid to Ukraine, a fresh expansion of NATO and a course towards the remilitarization of Europe. Right now, the bloc’s members fear direct military conflict with Russia because of the risk of nuclear escalation, but see little risk in increasing the quantity and quality of arms supplied to Ukraine.
The deliveries include both Soviet-era weapons and ammunition left in stockpiles, and Western-made gear. However, the increase in stocks has so far been limited by financial and industrial capacity. As the conflict drags on, these may be overcome over time.
Ideologically, Russia and the West have become principled rivals. There are no compromise solutions to their contradictions. Each side expects to impose its own conditions on the other.
The West does it by exhausting Russia with sanctions, sending direct aid to its military opponent, using information warfare and evoking its influence with neutral or friendly countries.
Russia does it by inflicting a military defeat on Ukraine and demilitarizing Kiev, as well as by asymmetric retaliation.
The parties do not have the capabilities to destroy each other, but they are counting on victory. The West assumes vulnerabilities in the Russian economy and the theoretical possibility of internal upheavals could lead to a radical change in foreign policy and the country’s defeat. Russia believes that the increasing number of conflicts in which the US, and the West as a whole, will be forced to become involved in will put too much of a strain on their resources, and it’s also counting on disagreements within the Western bloc itself.
The second is the military situation in Ukraine. 2023 began with much-hyped expectations fromKiev’s planned counteroffensive. It was fueled by informational and political statements by Western leaders and its success was supposed to justify, among other things, large military and financial injections by Ukraine’s Western partners.
The failure of the offensive can be considered one of the most important military results of 2023. The Russian army did not opt for an immediate retaliatory attack, instead exerting pressure along the entire front line.
Right now, Western diplomats have rational reasons for exploring the ground for ceasefire talks, even if their government’s positions have not officially changed. Moscow, on the other hand, has no good reason to agree to a halt in the fighting. A pause will allow Ukraine to rearm, increase the capacity of its military-industrial complex and resume the conflict at a moment favorable to Kiev. Obviously, Russia believes that only a painful and large-scale defeat of Ukraine can lead to the consideration of Russian demands and interests. Moreover, such a defeat can be either a crushing blow or from attrition. The second option appears to be the fundamental one.
The third is sanctions against Russia. The year 2022 was marked by a “sanctions tsunami,” when a wide range of restrictive measures were imposed in a very short period of time. These included the blocking of sovereign assets and financial sanctions against systemically important companies, export controls, import bans on oil, coal, steel, gold and other goods, transport and other restrictions. In 2023, all these measures were extended. They caused damage, but they didn’t crush the economy.
The shock effect hung in the air in 2022 and was replaced by a plateau in 2023. The US, the EU and other sanctions initiators have tried to combat evasion of the restrictions. Secondary sanctions are being introduced and criminal cases are being opened against alleged violators, including Russian citizens. But even these measures do not radically increase the campaign’s effects. Also, Moscow shows no interest in raising the issue of sanctions relief in response to political concessions.
2023 saw the formalization of new doctrinal foundations of Russian foreign policy. One of the key events was the appearance of a new foreign-policy concept. Among the conceptual innovations is the notion of a state-civilization and the perception of the external world as a set of civilizational entities with varying degrees of political consolidation. Theoretically, this is one of the most serious changes of recent times, and it has strengths and weaknesses. Thus, serious theoretical and political-philosophical elaboration of the new approach is needed. But the very fact of its emergence indicates the beginning of a movement to rethink Russian identity, to answer the questions “who are we?”, “who are we not?” and “who are our significant partners?”
Changes are also taking place in Russian society. 2022 was characterized by shock after the start of the Ukrainian conflict. This was inevitable, given the radical nature of the foreign-policy changes. In 2023, Russian society seems to have adapted. Despite the conduct of large-scale military operations, the country has generally maintained a stable and fairly predictable way of life. Some alarming effects, such as higher inflation, labor shortages and the decline of a number of industries are combined with record low unemployment, the rapid development of new market niches following the withdrawal of foreign companies, and an industrial revival based on import substitution and military contracts.
The internal situation remains stable, an important psychological factor for society. Meanwhile, the attempted military mutiny in June and its failure demonstrated the stability of the political system. The adaptation of society to new conditions is also part of the new normal.
How long will it last? What new transitions await us in the future? How exactly will Russia manage them? All these questions remain unanswered.
For now, it is clear that the upheaval of 2022 has been offset by the stabilization of 2023.
This article was first published by Valdai Discussion Club, translated and edited by the RT team.