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Op-Ed: Last person out of Russia, turn off the propaganda

Russians aren’t waiting to see what happens next.

The twice-daily Allegro express train from St Petersburg to Helsinki has been packed with Russians and Finns eager to get out. The Finnish government has decided that operating the rail link is no longer possible under burgeoning EU sanctions against Russia. — © AFP
The twice-daily Allegro express train from St Petersburg to Helsinki has been packed with Russians and Finns eager to get out. The Finnish government has decided that operating the rail link is no longer possible under burgeoning EU sanctions against Russia. — © AFP

Emigration from Russia has been quick. Russians aren’t waiting to see what happens next. In what might be a grim prophecy, one Russian said he had no vision of the future. That’s a bit too accurate. What happens next in Russia could be truly disastrous.

Oppression is also on the rise in Russia. Having declared social media like Facebook “extremist”, the state is cracking down on even the idea of opposition, much like the Soviet Union. Authorities are even checking people’s phones for connections to opposition parties. Unsurprisingly, Russians are getting out of Putin’s paradise ASAP.

The mass movement of Russians is already making waves in the region. In Georgia, too many Russians are arriving. In Turkey, Russians are taking advantage of an option to become citizens by buying real estate, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

The economic bullets are hitting the targets

The economic impact of sanctions on Russia is hard to quantify. There is definitely a major impact. One simple fact is defining the issues. Most Russians aren’t billionaires.  They don’t have access to workarounds like cryptocurrencies and foreign cash holdings.

These are the very early days for the economic effects. It’s very likely that things will get worse, and soon. An all-too-familiar scene of queues for food is re-emerging. Queues mean shortages and limited access to a range of consumer goods.

Nor can the Russian government do much immediately to manage these issues. It’s practically impossible. Adapting to a sudden economic disruption, let alone a disaster, can’t be easy, or quick. More sanctions, including on the sale of Russian gold, a major reserve for Russian economic policy, are coming.

Add to this enchanting picture of futility:

  • The sheer cost of a large war. (Billions per day.)
  • Severe loss of revenue through loss of trade. (Likely to get a lot worse if energy sales stop.)
  • Backlash from Russian soldiers returning from Ukraine. (That’s becoming a serious issue. The casualties aren’t exactly endearing the war to Russian families.)
  • Loss of foreign assets. (The Russian economy isn’t actually very big. Those assets were critical to its cashflow and basic business.)
  • Loss of skilled people. In just a few weeks, that’s already a huge issue; not a good sign for Russia.

 A less obvious issue – The people who created this unspeakable mess are unlikely to know how to fix it. They’re unlikely to be able to fix it, in fact. Any fix requires the goodwill of an antagonized world. Adding some extra vinegar, accused war criminals also have other things on their minds.

Any future Russia will have a lot of damage control and repairs to do. Add likely obstruction from Putin and Putin supporters, and that’s not going to be easy.

Russia is in denial.

Ukraine is now an unmitigated, unwinnable scenario for Russia. The risk of escalation with things like chemical warfare, nukes, and biowarfare is real.

This is arguably one of the most dangerous times in history, for some very unconvincing reasons:

Escalation is an alternative to a backdown. The fact that escalation could make things almost unimaginably worse, of course, probably isn’t under consideration. Saving face at the prices of a global nuclear war? Not worth thinking about.

Militarily, tactical nukes and other weapons won’t do much on the ground. The Russian forces in Ukraine are now a horrendous mess. They’re in no condition for combat. Even in the south and central east, they’re being outmaneuvered and outfought. They’re losing and being pushed back. They couldn’t do much, if anything.  Add to this the fact that NATO will definitely respond to escalation. Ukraine would get instant countermeasures to use against any range of weapons short of nuclear war.

The Russian military is losing command cohesion as well as direction. The Ukrainians are calling the shots in the field and have the initiative.  Russian senior advisors and generals are disappearing. Quite a few commanders are dead. Appointing someone else also doesn’t solve the horribly dysfunctional real military situation.

Strategically, the Russians have nothing to negotiate with. The Russians can’t hold the territory they have. The ground captured won’t be negotiable to the West, let alone the Ukrainians. The most likely demand is for a complete return to pre-war borders. The two breakaway regions might be an issue, but definitely not a major issue.

Russia can’t even afford to admit its casualties. This is a potentially disastrous situation. Thousands of dead and wounded can’t be covered up for long. This issue will come back to bite, hard, in Russia.

Putin’s choices?

Putin’s choices are severely limited:  

  • He can continue the war: This could well be even worse. With or without nukes, the current war or an escalated version of it can’t be won.
  • He can step down: Unlikely. He wouldn’t give up power just to be at the mercy of anyone else.  
  • He can wait for a coup: Not a great option, but theoretically he’d have some support and protection.
  • He can negotiate with Ukraine. A better option and perhaps the only real option. This could be managed to produce a face-saving exercise, but doesn’t solve the sanctions issues.
  • He can negotiate with the West. This is almost impossible, but diplomatic circles could create a scenario for ending the war.  

Suicide by propaganda?

The trouble is that the massive hype put behind the war has made Putin’s position very difficult. He can’t suddenly contradict it. The propaganda machine has killed so many possible outs and choices he might have otherwise had.

His credibility is a major asset, and all that frenzied propaganda has been working against his credibility around the clock. Worse, proof of failure could be fatal simply because of the propaganda.

If he looks weak, his opposition could be unstoppable. The propaganda will be a lethal weapon against Putin, and they’ll definitely use it. It doesn’t really matter who the opposition is; that propaganda is what’s keeping the war going.  

President Vladimir Putin spoke at a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea
President Vladimir Putin spoke at a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea – Copyright POOL/AFP May Tse

Never mind the theories about Putin’s health. He’s the only person who can stop this war and stop it from getting worse. That is a major problem, and it must be in the mix for ending the war.  


The opinions expressed in this Op-Ed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Digital Journal or its members.

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Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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