After a year of war in Ukraine, Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin wants to show toughness on several fronts at the same time. On the battlefield, the 70-year-old's goal is not only to conquer Ukraine, which was attacked on February 24, 2022. He also wants to push back the entire "collective West" headed by the USA, which is attacking Russia's soldiers with weapons and sanctions on the economy of the resource superpower.
Putin has long seen himself in a major war against an "anti-Russia" in the West - which he, as the leader of the nuclear power, wants to win at any price. "Of course, it can be a long process," Putin said at a meeting with war veterans in December. And a year before the presidential election, Moscow's power elite is preparing for the fact that Putin, who has been in power for more than 23 years, will stand again next year. Preparations for the March 2024 election are already underway. But Putin's many defeats in Ukraine, a year after the start of the war and a good year before the election, have also opened up a front in domestic politics.
The "lightning war" to conquer Ukraine has failed. Relations with the West that have been built up over decades, for example with regard to Europe's gas supply, have been destroyed. Putin, who always boasted that he got the country back on its feet after the chaotic 1990s, has to watch as his life's work collapses and social misery spreads again.
Despite defeats in the war, Putin sees many successes
Nevertheless, the president speaks of successes in the war - such as the fact that Russia has now gained complete control over the Sea of Azov. Tsar Peter the Great, with whom the head of the Kremlin likes to compare himself, was still fighting for access to the sea in the 18th century. In addition, Russia likes to point out that it opened up the water supply to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which was annexed in 2014 and long blocked by Ukraine.
Above all, however, Putin praises the conquest of "new territories" in eastern and southern Ukraine as "a significant result for Russia". He wants to continue the war at least until Moscow completely controls the illegally annexed regions of Cherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Luhansk. This can take years - if it succeeds at all.
On the other hand, experts see a large number of mistakes by the ex-intelligence chief, who is considered a layman in military matters. Overly hesitant warfare has also been criticized time and again by ultra-nationalist forces, military bloggers and the "Sledgehammer War Party" around businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner private army. Critics say that the corrupt Russian army has been exposed as a "paper tiger". But the Russian military is learning.
Expert sees "war on human capital"
For a long time, Putin shied away from ordering the unpopular partial mobilization to strengthen the troops - and then did it anyway. Hundreds of thousands of reservists fled abroad. The action, which was overshadowed by a multitude of mishaps, carried the war into many families. There were protests. But despite thousands of deaths in the war, according to surveys, Putin still enjoys a high level of public confidence that he is doing the right thing. As he recently said, he sees the war as an opportunity to modernize the army. Even now, however, military spending is at the expense of the development of society.
In view of the mass exodus of young people who see no prospects under Putin, Russian expert Andrei Kolesnikov speaks of a "second, quiet war by Russia against its human capital." Many would flee a "militarization of life" in Russia, he writes in an analysis for the Carnegie think tank. "Today, disassembling and assembling a Kalashnikov assault rifle is a more important skill for the state." Instead of people who think in a modern way, the country is now producing obedient people who take orders.
A year before the presidential election, Putin is increasingly aiming to turn his invasion of Ukraine into a war against the "collective West." Defying the West is an old campaign hit for the Kremlin chief. In Russia, there is a widespread opinion that the West's aim is to break up the largest country in the world in terms of area, with its oil, gas and other raw materials, so that the resources can then be exploited to the maximum.
Kremlin propaganda runs around the clock
If you watch state television in Moscow, you get 24-hour Kremlin propaganda: Russia is fighting Western striving for supremacy. The fact that Russia invaded Ukraine - and not the West Russia - is becoming less and less important. Germany, the US and others who supply arms see themselves denounced as warring parties. People should believe that Russia's very existence is threatened. Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who lives in London, warns that Putin's war against Ukraine could turn into one of the Russian people against the West.
The 59-year-old sees the danger of Russia breaking up in the conflict with the West - like the Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War. "The borders between individual objects of the Russian Federation could quickly get hot if the country collapses. And that's extremely dangerous because of the nuclear weapons," says the once-richest Russian, who spent years in a prison camp for criticizing Putin. "We have to find a balance between chaos and a variant with a normal future."
Expert: Putin becomes "hostage" of his security apparatus
However, revolutionary changes in Russia and open remorse and reparations after the end of the war in Ukraine are essential, Khodorkovsky emphasizes. He advocates in the West - as he did most recently as a guest at the Munich Security Conference - to keep in touch with Russia and the Russians. "But you can't count on a good new tsar, but on a change in the power structures in the country in favor of a parliamentary and federal system," he said. However, there is no sign of turning away from a centralized state with the Kremlin as the center of power.
From the point of view of the Russian political scientist Abbas Galljamov, the Kremlin chief has embarked on the path of a "dictator" who is at the mercy of his secret services and other security structures for better or for worse. Putin has forgotten the "golden rule" of authoritarian rule to distribute power, says his former speechwriter. "Even the dumbest general will then understand that he himself is the pillar of power," says Galliamov. For a long time, Putin controlled the military and police himself, and now he is their "hostage". Putin can only remain in power through "brutal violence".