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Russians Are High On Putin's Supply
Dictatorship and expectation management
Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of a speech Stalin gave at a party conference. When he finished, everyone dutifully leapt to their feet in applause, and Stalin basked in it. He made no move to stop the adulation. No one dared to be the first one to stop applauding. Finally, after eleven exhausting minutes of worshipping the Dear Leader, a lone paper factory manager sat down — and then so did everyone else, all at once. He was arrested and made to confess to crimes that very evening.
Despite their total control of society and media, the Kremlin regime could not keep the bad news in Ukraine from reaching average Russians forever. Mothers eventually ask after sons killed or wounded or missing. The loss of the Moskva stung all the more because it was so unexpected.
Putin was not psychologically prepared for the possibility of defeat. He has not prepared the minds of Russians for the losses incurred so far.
Russian television personalities nevertheless fall over one another to be the most supportive of the war. Witness RT boss Margarita Simonyan opining last week that nuclear Armageddon is “more likely” than Ukrainian victory. She is no paper factory manager. Very serious people then discussed nuclear strikes on the UK, France, and Germany Very Seriously. By Sunday, the Russian infotainment cycle resembled a Roland Emmerich film script.
But this discussion is not serious. Nuclear-powered tsunamis are a comic book villain superweapon, not a serious threat.
Hardly ignorant of Solzhenitsyn, Putin is managing expectations. Whereas he had wanted to declare victory on the 9 May anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, the Red Square parade will now feature the Il-80 “Doomsday Plane” that is supposed to evacuate him from Moscow in the event of World War III.
National mobilization is a far more likely announcement than nuclear war, however. Thus far, Putin has not wanted to conscript a new army or put the economy on a war footing. With a second defeat in the Battle of Donbas looming, the nuclear propaganda is making psychological space for this unwanted resort.
Putin expects that Russians will be relieved by the outcome. “Oh, it’s just a call-up and not the end of the world! Whew. Praise the wise leader!” See how that works?
Some informed sources within Russia are openly pessimistic about battlefield events in Ukraine, though of course their proposed solution is to kill Ukrainians harder. This is the only critique of Putin’s war permitted in Russia. With the consequences of regime criticism so high, battlefield setbacks — such as Ukrainian advances from Kherson — only bear social media mention as cryptic verse.
With no one allowed to suggest peace, and everyone agitating for maximum war, Putin has room to do whatever he wants. World War III is not what he wants. Putin wants some semblance of victory over Ukraine. It is just too bad that Ukraine will not give him what he wants.
Russian state media will, though. It is a 24/7 conference of Putin propagandists, all applauding harder than one another, all performing for the Dear Leader until someone takes the bullet for everyone. We cannot know when they will stop, or who will stop first. We can only predict that they might stop all at once, some day, and then some poor, brave paper factory manager will face the consequences.
Or Putin can cut off the applause on 9 May himself by announcing a national mobilization. A prepared Russian crowd will cheer and clap, he will wave and walk away from the microphone while state TV cuts away to avoid showing him limp, and then the Russians will get busy with open, unabashed ethno-religious militarism.
Not that it will succeed. Russia’s army is nowhere near as choreographed as their propaganda. Any scenario for a victory with conventional arms diminishes by the hour. The last reel of this tragedy will be an orgy of artificial stimulation and violent downfall. We have already seen this film.