By: Steve Gutterman
Russia backed down in a grain-deal standoff. President Vladimir Putin delivered remarks meant to “recruit,” “confuse,” and create “room for maneuver” amid setbacks in the war on Ukraine, now in its ninth month with no sign of a resolution. Muted gatherings honoring the victims of Stalin and the Soviet state are an unsurprising sign of the times.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Putin’s apparent obsession with Ukraine has led him to do things that might be called crazy, although there are plenty of other adjectives that would describe the unprovoked invasion of that country, where tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions driven from their homes as Russian forces have destroyed villages, towns, and cities in over eight months of bombardments and ground attacks.
But over 23 years as president or prime minister, Putin has frequently shown a pragmatic side, pulling back to reduce the risk to his grip on power and popularity when he realizes he is about to go too far -- or has already done so. In many ways, it is too late for Putin to erase the effects of his miscalculations over Ukraine, which he seems to have believed would be subjugated within a few days or weeks of the February 24 invasion.
But on a smaller scale, observers could almost hear the gears grinding as Putin reversed a decision to suspend participation in a painstakingly negotiated July deal to unblock grain exports from Ukraine, which are crucial for global food security.
On October 29, Russia announced it was withdrawing from the deal, at least temporarily, after accusing Ukraine of unleashing a drone attack on warships off Sevastopol, the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, the peninsula Moscow occupied and seized from Ukraine in 2014.
But four days later, the deal was back on – or rather, Russia was back in it. “Climbdown” was the word of the day as analysts said that Russia appeared to realize – too late to avoid embarrassment – that there was little it could do to thwart the exports without taking actions that could increase the ire of the international community and set it up as a cause of exacerbated world hunger.
“The UN, Turkey and Ukraine called Moscow’s bluff, continuing the ship convoys regardless” of the Russian withdrawal, Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, wrote on Twitter. “Faced with the choice of sinking third-country merchant ships or an embarrassing climbdown, Putin chose a climbdown.”
While Moscow said it had returned to the deal because it was satisfied with Kyiv’s assurances that Ukraine would not use the Black Sea grain shipping corridor to attack Russia, other experts echoed the more credible explanation for the flip-flop.
“The Kremlin itself fell into a trap from which it did not know how to get out,” R.Politik, an analytical firm headed by Russian expert Tatyana Stanovaya, wrote on Twitter. “The deal was suspended, but it turned out that the Kremlin does not have the leverage to stop grain exports. There is no way, unless one could do it militarily, which was not part of the plan.”
“Putin had to retreat and make a good face…with a bad game,” R.Politik wrote. “That is significant -- however obsessed Putin is with Ukraine, his historical mission and his belief in being right, he remains a rational politician, able to retreat if necessary.”
Russia has done a fair amount of retreating in Ukraine since the first days and weeks of the invasion, when its forces seized territory in the north, south, and east. They were driven out of northern Ukraine entirely after failing to take Kyiv. In the past two months or so, they have also pulled back substantially amid Ukrainian counteroffensives in the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions in the east and the Kherson region in the south.
There have been signs this week that Russian forces were abandoning the city of Kherson, the only regional capital they have taken over since the February 24 invasion, but Kyiv said it could be a setup.
But does the display of rationality with the grain deal mean that Putin won’t use nuclear weapons if his back is against the wall in Ukraine? That’s impossible to say, though there’s no lack of speculation – some informed, some less so – about whether he might do the unthinkable.
After months of very thinly veiled threats to potentially use nuclear weapons, Russia seems to be seeking to convince the world that it won’t. A senior diplomat made unequivocal-sounding remarks to CNN, and a November 2 Foreign Ministry statement seemed designed to ease concerns after Putin appeared to broaden the short list of circumstances under which Russia might use nuclear arms.
Then again, it was Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, among others, who said repeatedly that Russia would not invade Ukraine – and when it did invade, he said that it hadn’t. So how much can the ministry’s reassurances really be worth? Plus, much of the statement seemed devoted to emphasizing that if any incident involving weapons of mass destruction does occur, it will be the fault of Ukraine and the West – though Russia’s evidence-free claims that Ukraine is preparing to set off a “dirty bomb” got a rebuke from UN inspectors.
Meanwhile, nobody has retracted any of Putin’s remarks on the issue, including his comments on October 27 at the Valdai International Discussion Club, a closely choreographed forum he uses to send signals to Russians and the rest of the world – and where for the umpteenth time he could have made a clear statement about the use of nuclear weapons but chose, instead, to obfuscate.
Responding to one of a hail of softball questions, he used convoluted language to make a clear but completely deniable suggestion that Russia could use nuclear weapons to protect its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, or “the security of the Russian people” – hurdles far short of the main potential triggers of a nuclear response in official doctrine: a nuclear attack or a conventional attack that threatens the very existence of Russia.
But it would be foolish to turn to a Putin speech for a clear statement of intent – or for much of anything in the way of valuable information, for that matter.
“Folks, life is short, surprising and meaningful. Putin's speeches aren't. Choose wisely,” Sam Greene, a professor at the Russia Institute at Kings College London, wrote on Twitter shortly after Putin’s remarks.
“Putin’s speeches are not meant to inform,” Greene elaborated in a subsequent blog post. Instead, he wrote, they have three main objectives: to “recruit” Russians and foreigners in his support, to “confuse,” and to “provide room for maneuver.”
In the months since the February invasion, Putin’s room for maneuver has shrunk.
The grain-deal climbdown was one of many setbacks for Russia, on and off the battlefield. Heavy losses in the war he expected to win quickly have prompted Putin to decree a massive military mobilization that has led tens of thousands of men or more to flee the country, while others are sent off, unprepared, to face death in Ukraine.
It was also a personal blow to Putin, whose cultivated image at home as a successful leader is being undermined by these developments, despite efforts to slough the blame off onto others.
“Putin’s need to continually project strength” is one of the main weaknesses of his centralized system of rule, Daniel Treisman, a political science professor at UCLA, wrote in a November 2 article in the journal Foreign Affairs that asked the question: "What Could Bring Putin Down?"
“Amid wartime stresses, Putin must simultaneously deal with battlefield reversals, elite conflicts, economic failures, shrinking budget revenues, unrest over mobilization, and labor protests. And this list will only increase,” Treisman wrote. “As the burden grows, so does the danger of loss of control.”
“The war is exacerbating the system’s internal weaknesses,” he wrote, “nudging it in the direction of collapse.”
Since the U.S.S.R. fell apart in 1991, many Russians – including rights activists, responsible historians, and progressive politicians – have said that the Soviet Union’s main successor would never thrive without a clear reckoning with the state’s crimes against the people.
While he has acknowledged the Soviet government’s crimes at times, Putin has taken Russia in a dramatically different direction over 23 years as president or prime minister. And with the invasion of Ukraine, he has cast the future of his own country deeper into doubt.
Amid oppression at home that has worsened since the invasion as the Kremlin seeks to stifle dissent over the war, a day of remembrance on October 30 provided a glimpse of a Russia that might have been – and might still be someday, though for the moment it seems to many like a distant dream.
In several cities, small gatherings were held to mark the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions. Many of the events were part of Returning the Names, an initiative under which demonstrators read out the names of victims of repression under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
The gathering was prohibited in Moscow.
Returning the Names is an initiative of the human rights group Memorial, which first held such gatherings in 2006 – and which was outlawed and shut down by Putin’s government this year.
"This event is about the fact that nothing is more precious than human life and that the government did not have the right to murder people in 1937 and it does not have that right in 2022," Memorial said on Twitter.