Now into the second month of the barbarous attack on the people of Ukraine, her infrastructure and cultural heritage, Russia herself is beginning to count the cost of Vladimir Putin’s war. While official casualties on the Russian side remain at 1,351 (25 March figures, Russian Ministry of Defence), it is clear that the actual numbers are significantly higher.
Russian propaganda and statistical manipulation
Russian governments have a long history of manipulating statistics for political purposes, be they election results, covid fatalities or military losses. Sadly, it will be some time before the true scale of casualties filters through to the population at large. The Ukrainians claim Russian losses of more than 17,300 between 24 February and 30 March, while Nato is estimating anything between 8,000 and 15,000 dead.
Relatively few bodies have so far been repatriated, despite the efforts of the Ukrainian authorities to inform relatives by ringing numbers on the mobile phones of the dead and by using facial recognition technology to match the bodies stored in cold-storage meat lorries with profiles on social media platforms. According to the Ukrainian side, the Russians are reluctant to retrieve their dead, particularly those partially incinerated in tanks.
Running out of generals
Local newspapers in Russia have occasionally covered the funerals of individual Russian soldiers, but this seems no longer to be considered newsworthy, possibly out of a fear of prosecution for publishing false information about the activities of Russian forces in the ‘special operation’ and incurring up to 15 years imprisonment.
By contrast, the deaths and funerals of some of the generals killed in action have been reported. Putin’s war has seen the demise of an embarrassingly high number of senior officers: six of the 20 generals sent to Ukraine and the deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet as well as a senior commander from the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic. Several of these senior officers were highly experienced veterans of earlier Russian campaigns in Syria, Chechnya and the annexation of Crimea. Something is clearly wrong with the Russian war machine.
Public figures stepping down
If Russians are still not fully aware of the extent of their military losses, they are better informed of the disappearance of people from various areas of public life. Of these, the most famous is Marina Ovsyannikova, the well-known popular news journalist on Vremya, the main news programme on TV Channel One, who staged an anti-war protest behind the newsreader on 14 March in the manner of Steve Bray, the anti-Brexit activist. For this, Ovsyannikova was lucky to be fined a mere 30,000 roubles, but now has no job: she and her family share an uncertain future.
Veteran NTV reporter Vadim Glusker has also resigned, as has Mariya Baronova, the one-time activist for the punk rock group Pussy Riot who, perhaps surprisingly, was latterly employed by the government TV station, RT.
Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s climate envoy, has thrown in the towel and quietly left the country, having made clear his opposition to the war on social media. The senior economist, one-time deputy prime minister and Kremlin chief of staff under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, was named the world’s best finance minister by the UK magazine Euromoney in 1997. That Putin has lost the backing of a figure of such international standing shows just how far the dictator has moved away from the economic and social liberalism of the 1990s which then offered Russia and the world so much hope.
Russian artists speak out against the war
In the world of arts, Olga Smirnova has quit the Bolshoi to join the Dutch National Ballet, having denounced the war, while Boris Grebenshchikov, a founding father of Russian rock and lead singer of Aquarium has been banned from the airways for calling the invasion “madness” on Instagram. The Russian Media Group has also blacklisted the popular Ukrainian singer Ivan Dorn for his anti-war views as well as the Russian rapper Oxxxymiron who is now organising charity concerts abroad to raise money for Ukrainian refugees.
Andrey Makarevich, the creator of Russia’s oldest still-performing rock group, Mashina Vremeni, has met a similar fate for his support for True Russia, a charity founded in March 2022 by internationally acclaimed crime writer Boris Akunin, dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sergey Guriev, a former chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. According to its website, the charity “stands for the immediate end to the war in Ukraine and supports public, cultural and scientific initiatives of the Russian-speaking community around the world to help Ukrainian refugees”.
Some former Putin loyalists seem now to be backtracking. Opera star Anna Netrebko released a statement via her lawyer on 30 March in which the soprano said:
“I expressly condemn the war on Ukraine and my thoughts are with the victims of this war and their families. My position is clear. I am not a member of any political party nor am I allied with any leader of Russia. I acknowledge and regret that past actions or statements of mine could have been misinterpreted.”
Impact of war on ordinary Russians
While internationally renowned figures generally get off lightly for criticising Putin and his policies, at least 15,000 ordinary members of the public who have dared to stage individual or collective protests against the war have been beaten by police, arrested, fined or imprisoned. Students and academics who have signed anti-war petitions have been excluded from their institutions or dismissed, while school teachers, failing to give the pro-Kremlin propaganda lesson ‘explaining the special operation’ as the Kremlin sees it, now find themselves out of work.
But it is in the shopping malls and entertainment centres that Russians see most the consequences of the war. Inflation is currently running at 15.66 percent. Sanctions have resulted in higher food prices, shortages of medicines, contraceptives and many products from global brands that for long have been regarded as standard fare by most of the population.
McDonald’s opened its first Russian branch some 32 years ago. It heralded the start of western-style consumerism in Russia and the normalisation of standards and expectations in all branches of consumer goods and entertainment. Over the past month, company after company has left Russia, reducing consumer choice or eliminating it altogether.
Russians can no longer have what the world takes for granted
Though Russian industry will be able to replace some of this with alternatives in time, it will be clear to all that, just as it was in the days before Gorbachev’s perestroika, Russians cannot have what the rest of the world simply takes for granted. This can only result in considerable resentment throughout society, especially from younger generations, whose experience of a consumer society has been continuously improving since the 1980s.
Those under 40 have only sketchy memories or absolutely no recall of shortages or ubiquitous poor-quality goods. Deprived of seeing Russian teams compete in international sport and without Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (all of which the State has labelled ‘extremist’), and facing injury and death for a dubious crusade against fellow Slavs, it is surely the young who will first take to the streets en masse in revolt against Putin’s neo-Stalinist regime.
Russia cannot win this war
Already there are intelligence reports of low morale, mutinous acts and sabotage among the ranks of Russian forces in Ukraine, according to GCHQ chief, Sir Jeremy Fleming in a speech on 30 March in Canberra.
With almost the entire world now backing Ukraine, Russia cannot win this war. It is only a matter of time before the regime’s barbarity and lies cause enough of the civilian population to come to their senses and echo the defiance of Roman Hrybov, the Ukrainian soldier and border guard on Snake Island who, early in the war, courageously told the Russian warship “to go fuck itself”.