The last vestiges of democracy in Russia are burning in the fields of the Donbas. Young men are being sent to the slaughter, their post-war tanks proving no match for modern Western kit or the motivation of Ukrainian soldiers defending their homes. Putin knows his only hope of victory – and of prolonging his tenure as the last great Tsar – is the total militarisation of Russia. This is an outcome that suits him well.
Moscow’s descent into a military dictatorship is now happening alarmingly fast. Putin’s United Russia party is promoting veterans of his war in Ukraine as candidates in regional elections, with the party’s secretary general ordered to give them his “full support”. The Kremlin’s rhetoric frequently invokes the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany, either directly or through the insinuation that Russia once again stands against fascism and Nazism.
This militarisation of his dictatorship is a sure sign that the ice is cracking around his citadel. The dalliance with democracy after the end of the Cold War has not sat well with the ex-KGB autocrat, who craves power and control. Putin knows that Stalin and his close allies ruled with an iron fist, and that the removal of dissenters and those with democratic leanings kept them in power. It is this model that he is now turning to.
Nobody I know with a hint of an intelligence background believes Putin travelled to the frontline this week; he rarely leaves the inner sanctum of the Kremlin. He can now only control Russia with his trusted military lieutenants meting out reverence to the ‘Supreme Leader”, and whispers suggest that illness or sudden treachery may see him leave the political picture far faster than he would like. In this state, paranoia and a desire for ever greater control are unsurprising.
The jailing of opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza this week is tragic but unsurprising. It removes a key dissenter for the rest of Putin’s days on this planet, and fits in with the pattern of attacks on the slightest signs of dissent, including the poisonings of Alexei Navalny and Sergei Skripal. It takes a great deal of personal bravery to express anything other than total obedience when dissenters seem to find themselves poisoned, jailed, or tumbling from balconies.
But even as the Russian autocrat attempts to tighten his grip on power, the end is visible. As dictators have found across history, militarisation of the state tends to end badly. The only way Putin can win in Ukraine is by prolonging it, until the less staunch Western countries begin to waver in their resolve. And the only way he can do this is by throwing Russian men at the Ukrainian gunlines until they run out of ammunition.
This grotesque mockery of strategy is his last roll of the dice. It has proved successful, in a way, in Bakhmut, but has also taken a dreadful toll. The only way it can continue is if Russia is run as a military state. No dissension, no dispute. There are credible reports that the Kremlin has identified some four million souls across Russia who it believes will not be missed. The intellectually disabled, the homeless, the addicts, those in remote communities; give them a day’s training and throw them into the maelstrom. These sources also suggest their life expectancy is only 7 days on the frontline.
Only in a military state could you get away with these horrendous casualty rates. But these are not the children of the Moscow elite; they are the normal people who do not matter to the Kremlin. Putin’s effort to put veterans as “politicians” across the vast swathes of Russia could well be intended to silence any critics of this self-inflicted genocide.
The British and American governments suggest Russia has suffered over 220,000 dead and wounded thus far. I cannot believe that these families can be silenced forever. The bravery and resolve of Navalny and Kara-Murza will give hope to the rank and file, who in true communist fashion do not partake of the riches awarded to Putin’s cronies. This truth must surely out eventually, and when it does, history will repeat itself. There have been a very great many military dictators; their end is seldom pleasant.
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