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Russia's Quiet Home Front

“Our elites are afraid of ideas because they don’t know how to control them.”

Moscow,,Russia,-,August,,06,2017:,Russian,Military,Aircrafts,Fly
(By VLADJ55/Shutterstock)

Yuri Yevich is no stranger to the battlefield. The 49-year-old Donbas native has participated in three wars, including the current one in Ukraine, as a combat medic for Russian assault and reconnaissance units. “When our infantry and scouts are sent on missions, I take a weapon, put on my protective gear, and go into the field with them,” he said. 

When I spoke to Yevich following a recent deployment to Ukraine, he told me that if Russia wanted to ultimately prevail on the battlefield, cosmetic changes to its military strategy would not be enough. Yevich argued that Russia could only triumph if it undertook a “holy war of cleansing”—a process of sweeping reforms that would not only transform the country’s political and economic system, but also spearhead an ideological and spiritual mobilization of the masses.

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“It is critical for us as Russians to realize that our society and armed forces are currently not fully up to the challenges of our time,” he said. “We must either rise above these challenges and become truly invincible, or face certain death.” 

As 2022 comes to a close, Russia finds itself at a crossroads. Since September, Ukrainian forces have seized nearly 2,000 square miles of territory from Russian troops in a series of counteroffensives. These rapid battlefield gains have emboldened Kiev to pursue more ambitious political objectives, with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior officials declaring that no peace talks are possible until the Ukrainian military recaptures the Donbas and Crimea. 

Although Russia has been forced on the defensive, it shows no signs of backing down yet. In late September, the Kremlin announced a partial mobilization of its military reservists in a bid to replenish its fighting force in Ukraine. Many of these reservists have been deployed to the frontline in recent weeks and the rest are expected to arrive there before the end of the year. Simultaneously, Russia has begun conducting regular missile and drone strikes against Ukraine’s energy network, causing rolling blackouts across the country.

These recent developments have exposed a clear divide in Russian society. Hundreds of thousands of Russians are estimated to have fled the country in the weeks after partial mobilization was declared. At the same time, a nationwide volunteer movement has rallied in support of the Russian military, organizing crowdfunding efforts to supply troops with everything from warm socks to reconnaissance drones. 

To better understand what is likely to come next for Russia, I spent the past month interviewing combat veterans, businesspeople, intellectuals, and volunteers. They were unanimous in reaching a single conclusion: Winning a big war will require Russia to undergo big changes. 

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“We have to launch reforms even more ambitious than those of Peter the Great and comparable in scale to those undertaken by Lenin and Stalin during the 1920s and ’30s,” Yevich said. “The problem is that in both of these cases the reform process took place over decades. We will have to move much faster this time because we don’t have that kind of time now.”

For months, the Russian government sought to preserve a sense of normalcy among the general public. Officials repeatedly downplayed the possibility of mobilization, insisting that Russia’s existing force of contract soldiers was more than sufficient to prevail in Europe’s largest land battles since World War II. Even more conspicuous was the Kremlin’s insistence on referring to the conflict in Ukraine as a “special military operation” instead of a war. 

Egor Kholmogorov, a longtime political commentator and activist, told me that this apparent “demobilization” of society was not entirely surprising considering the complicated relationship that Russian elites had with ideology. He explained that although Russia’s elites broadly understood that they needed an ideology, they were generally reluctant to make any ideological promises that could limit their room for maneuver. 

“Our elites are afraid of ideas because they don’t know how to control them,” he said. “In particular, they are afraid that if they allow certain ideas to circulate freely, then they will become hostages to those ideas later on. That’s why they prefer to hint at ideological positions instead of saying them directly—there’s fewer obligations that way.”

Kholmogorov explained that as a result of this unease towards ideas and radicalism, Russian officials ended up treating ideological work as yet another administrative process, one whose main focus is on meeting certain internal indicators set by superiors rather than stirring national fervor. “We have essentially replaced ideology with public relations,” he said. 

This approach was on full display during the early months of the Ukraine conflict, when bureaucratic efforts to rally public support for the military focused on releasing patriotic paraphernalia and organizing concerts and flash mobs. Although state media framed the conflict as an existential battle for Russia’s future, Kholmogorov noted that official rhetoric often struggled to provide ordinary Russians with a clear explanation of what exactly their country was fighting for. 

This information strategy was enough to win the support of a majority of Russians for the Kremlin’s “special military operation,” but not enough to keep them engaged the longer the fighting dragged on. Surveys from the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent pollster, found that whereas 75 percent of respondents named the Ukraine conflict the most memorable event of the month in March, only 34 percent gave the same answer in August. 

That’s why what came next ended up being such a shock to Russian society. In early September, Ukraine launched a surprise counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region, recapturing dozens of towns and settlements force over the span of several days. Ukrainian forces made new gains a month later, when they broke through the frontlines in the southern Kherson region and seized control of Lyman, an important transport hub in the eastern Donetsk region. On November 10, Russian troops withdrew from the city of Kherson, the only regional capital that they had captured since the start of the conflict. 

Why was the Russian military forced to give up such a large amount of territory over a relatively short period of time, in some cases with little or no battle? The most obvious reason was that Russia simply did not have enough manpower to hold a frontline that was 620 miles long. During the Kharkiv counteroffensive, Russian forces in the region were by some estimates outnumbered eight to one. There were also widespread reports about coordination issues due to a lack of adequate communications equipment. 

Russia’s decision to withdraw from Kherson was primarily motivated by logistical concerns. Months of repeated Ukrainian shelling had seriously damaged the bridges across the Dnieper River, forcing Russia to increasingly rely on pontoon and ferry crossings to supply its troops in Kherson. Although this new arrangement appeared to work, Russia’s high command warned that Russian soldiers were at risk of eventually becoming trapped on the right side of the river.

Yevich told me that more fundamental problems were behind the recent setbacks. He said that the Russian military had become “very relaxed” after years of fighting exclusively in limited regional conflicts. This sense of complacency was further exacerbated by a culture of lower-level officials “reporting to the leadership that everything in the army is good, when not everything was good.”

Over the past two months, Russia has undertaken a clear shift in military strategy. In late September, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to call up 300,000 military reservists for combat in Ukraine. The order also directed Russia’s military industrial complex to significantly ramp its production of weapons and equipment. At the same time, Russia has since mid-October begun waging a sustained air strike campaign against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The attacks have reportedly succeeded in disabling nearly half of the country’s energy facilities. 

Whether these measures are enough to turn the tide back in Russia’s favor is an open question, however. Vladislav Lobaev, the founder of Russia’s largest private sniper rifle manufacturer, Lobaev Arms, told me that Putin’s mobilization decree significantly eased bureaucratic red tape for enterprises such as his. “Previously, getting a license to produce rifles for the military was difficult since we formally produce hunting and sport rifles,” he said. “These sorts of issues are now resolved almost immediately.” 

At the same time, however, Lobaev argued that Russia needed to do much more to ramp up its military production, especially now that hundreds of thousands of mobilized reservists were heading to the front. “The military operation revealed that we need more of everything—missiles, equipment, ammunition, and medicine. It turned out that there are a lot of holes in a lot of places and it will take quite a bit of work to fill all of them,” he said. “We need a full-war economy, but it needs to be done intelligently.” 

Lobaev said that first and foremost, the Russian government needed to expand the pool of companies involved in military-industrial production by easing the barriers to entry. “It’s impossible for new players to enter the system in the status quo because it works exclusively through supplies of weapons and equipment,” he said. “If you don’t have a designation, then you have to apply for a tender, but that is difficult and heavily marred by lobbyists of established players.”

Yevich also called for more far-reaching changes. He told me that although partial mobilization would help Russia narrow the manpower gap with Ukraine and hold its current positions, Moscow needed even more troops if it wanted to go back on the offensive. Yevich likewise said that even if Russia succeeded in completely annihilating Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, continued Western military assistance would allow Ukrainian forces to continue fighting for at least some time. 

“There are no easy recipes for victory,” he said. “I think that Russia will have to go through years of changing our society, just like we did after the initial defeats to [Sweden] in the Great Northern War and to Nazi Germany in 1941.”

Some of the reforms Yevich advocated include putting the Russian economy on wartime footing, completely restructuring the armed forces, centralizing government power, and getting rid of the oligarch class. 

However, in his view, the biggest change needed is for Russia to make a decisive ideological shift “from the values of materialism to those of service.” Yevich emphasized that formulating a clear ideological mission for Russian society had become a far more urgent task now that hundreds of thousands reservists were heading to the front. 

“A soldier won’t be able to endure the hunger, cold, and fear of death that accompanies war unless he has a clear and deep understanding of why he must overcome these hardships,” he said. “When you are in the midst of a big war against a serious opponent, rejecting material values is key because you have to put your life at risk every single day.” 

Such a message has already begun to gain momentum among some Russians. Since the outbreak of the conflict nine months ago, volunteer groups all across Russia have collected donations to buy clothing, medicine, weapons, automobiles, and even unmanned aerial vehicles for soldiers on the frontlines. Beyond providing financial support, many volunteers personally travel to the combat zone to deliver their aid packages and figure out what other shortages need to be addressed. 

“The contribution of volunteers is of very high importance, perhaps even central importance,” Lobaev said. He told me that the sniper rifles his enterprise produced for the troops were overwhelmingly funded by volunteers. “People in Washington need to understand that Russian society views this conflict not as a war over some distant desert, but as a national war for our territory,” he said. “The same grandmas who are crowdfunding sniper rifles today will support a nuclear strike tomorrow if necessary.”

Yevich told me he knew volunteer groups that, without any help from the government, had fully equipped an entire army corps with radio devices. These same volunteers went to help raise public awareness about the Russian military’s shortcomings in equipping its troops. 

“The volunteer movement is the seed from which a new Russian society is born—one centered around service instead of materialism,” he said. “Volunteers are not waiting for the army and government to solve all our problems, but are instead actively working to save our country and future.”

It would be a mistake to assume that the volunteer movement consists solely of Kremlin supporters. Roman Yuneman is a Moscow-based opposition politician who ran for public office during the 2019 regional elections. He ended up losing his race by a narrow margin of 84 votes to a candidate from the ruling United Russia party. Yuneman subsequently founded a political nonprofit called “Society of the Future,” whose mission was to promote a “strong and free Russia” by helping to train the next generation of democratic politicians. 

When I spoke with Yuneman, he admitted that he, along with many of his colleagues, believed that Russia’s decision to send troops into Ukraine was a strategic mistake. “But no matter how opposed we are to Putin, we will always support Russia because we don’t have any other country,” he said. 

Shortly after the start of the conflict, Yuneman’s Society of the Future began assembling humanitarian packages for refugees who fled from the combat zone in the Donbas. His most recent project has been to deliver 23,000 heaters to the residents of Mariupol, which was captured by Russian forces in May after nearly three months of heavy fighting. “When we arrived in Mariupol in September, we discovered that the city was totally prepared for the heating season,” he said. “It soon became clear that if we don’t take on this problem, then no one will.”

At the same time, Yuneman conceded that there was only so much that volunteers alone could to address Russia’s shortfalls. He argued that Russia would struggle to make serious progress on the battlefield or at home unless the government was prepared to reform the country’s rigid bureautic system, which he said lacked public accountability and discouraged lower-level officials from taking responsibility for attempting to solve problems. 

“We need not only for society to change, but also the government. It is simply too big a player to solve serious problems without it,” he said. “As volunteers, we can provide thousands of heaters to Mariupol, but at the end of the day someone needs to restore the central heating and water system in the city. That someone is the government.”

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