Despite the vacation season, August often proves to be an intense and pivotal month for Russian news. Last August, we witnessed the beginning of the Ukrainian armed forces' counteroffensive, signalling a potential shift in Kyiv's war strategy from resistance to liberation. In the earlier months of April and May 2022, Russia seemed to hold an unquestionable military advantage. However, the turning point in August paved the way for the rapid escalation of Western arms supplies to Ukraine.
In recent days, experts have noted that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has entered a new phase, and in the coming month, it will likely test whether Ukrainian forces can exploit vulnerabilities in Russian defences within the occupied territories. Conversely, if no significant progress is achieved in the next month and a half, it may lead to the freezing of the conflict amid the upcoming US elections.
Perhaps the most significant issue, with regards to its impact on the social situation in Russia, is the question of a new wave of mobilisation. Those who were conscripted in September-October last year have been at war for almost a year now. Apart from the significant losses suffered by the troops during this time, internal discontent among the families of those conscripted has become increasingly evident within Russia, as reported by the Conflict Intelligence Team.
In recent weeks, the Duma has hastily passed new laws aimed at expanding conscription and tightening measures to prevent evasion by citizens. These restrictions will apply to both draftees and those subject to mobilisation. The Kremlin is evidently preparing for a new wave of mobilisation. However, the timing of such a move is influenced by the domestic political agenda, as Vladimir Putin is planning to hold his own elections in March. However, if the Ukrainian offensive sees relative success, the decision to implement a new wave of mobilisation will, in our view, become almost inevitable.
In their article titled 'Between De- and Hyper-Politicisation: The evolution of Russian authoritarianism', Natalia Savelieva and Kirill Rogov offer insights into the three main phases that the Putin regime has undergone over the past two decades, as they summarise the just-concluded political season. During the 2000s, the regime followed a soft authoritarian approach, which involved depoliticising the population, promoting economic growth, and implementing selective restrictions on political freedoms. In the 2010s, the regime faced a gradual politicisation of society, which it countered with a conservative political shift. When this proved insufficient, external aggression provided an opportunity for deeper mobilisation and a relatively radical transformation of both the regime and society.
The path from depoliticisation to hyper-politicisation is not unique to authoritarian regimes, and in Russia, this process is still ongoing. The current state of the regime is characterised by the authors as hybrid hyper-politicisation. Despite actively indoctrinating the population and implementing a sharp rise in repression (which is typical of the logic of hyper-politicisation), the regime seeks to employ demobilisation tools and strategies. It relies on the support of not just the pro-war but also the loyalist faction (see our review, 'Militarists, the semi-war party, and the semi-peace party,' for further analysis on this matter).
The article's findings align with previous research on contemporary Russian propaganda ('Intensive Normalisation: Russian propaganda is aimed not at mobilising citizens, but at forcing ritual loyalty'). IIt reveals that the primary strategy of Russian propaganda aimed at the domestic audience is to normalise war and integrate it into everyday life. Rather than portraying the war as an extraordinary event, it is presented as part of various state-sponsored media narratives tailored to different audiences. Although the airtime dedicated to the war on Russian television has been consistently reduced, military narratives are extensively represented in unrelated information streams, allowing them to reach individuals who may not actively follow the news.. The modern authoritarian regime does not seek to achieve the traditional mobilisation effect.Instead, it appeals to diverse segments of the population, creating a 'coalition of allies' by developing a spectrum of narratives for different groups. 'Ritual supporters' become an ideal category for such a regime, while overly zealous supporters of the war may be considered enemies of the regime, as demonstrated by the recent arrest of Girkin-Strelkov.
Meanwhile, within the logic of such a regime, repression plays a crucial role but does not escalate to a 'mass' scale, as shown in our review 'Scope and Duration: Analysis of repression in Russia reveals that although the overall magnitude of these actions has not significantly increased, their severity has heightened over time'. Towards the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, the number of new criminal cases related to the persecution of anti-war positions steadily increased. However, in recent months, this trend has seemingly slowed down, as indicated by monitoring data from OVD-Info. At the same time, the severity of repression has significantly increased in the first half of 2023, reflected not only in the number of verdicts but also in the higher proportion of sentences resulting in real prison terms. Additionally, there has been a sharp rise in the length of those prison terms. IIn 2023, the courts have been imposing significantly harsher prison terms in cases related to anti-war views, with the average sentence exceeding five years. In contrast, during the initial months of anti-war repression in 2022, the average prison term was just two years. Meanwhile, the number of cases of administrative prosecution for anti-war views has decreased and stabilised at around 300 cases per month. Although the scale of repression has not increased, there has been a shift towards greater brutality, aiming to compensate for the stabilisation in the number of cases by creating a deterrence effect. Notably, expression of anti-war views on social media constitutes the most frequent grounds for both criminal and administrative prosecution, accounting for about 40% of cases.
The ability of the Putin regime to engage in hybrid hyper-politicisation during a state of war is closely tied to its economic capabilities. Until very recently, opinion polls demonstrated record-breaking optimism among economic agents, while sociological surveys showed an improvement in perceptions of social well-being. Economic statistics also displayed overwhelming optimism, with the economy rebounding broadly after last year's downturn.
Nevertheless, as the economy shifted from decline to recovery, it quickly entered a phase of overheating, as detailed in our review titled 'Demand Overheating: Central Bank plans to cool the economy with a rate hike to prevent inflation from accelerating ahead of elections'. The rapid acceleration of the economy is attributed to last year's record income, combined with extensive fiscal stimulus in the second quarter and robust growth in consumer demand. However, the restructuring of the economy is yet to be implemented. Production growth is facing constraints due to limitations from the labour market, production capacity, and technologies. Consequently, the response to internal demand growth may be insufficient. A significant challenge in the near future may be 'risks of disrupted cross-border supply chains, including technological ones, due to secondary sanctions,' as noted by experts from the Central Bank. The Western coalition is seeking to limit imports to Russia through southern corridors (Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan).
The Central bank insists that the overheating of demand poses a risk of inflation exceeding its target and the tightening of monetary policy needs to be implemented before inflation accelerates. The Kremlin views an inflation surge in the pre-election period as a critical risk, thus the Central Bank will continue to adopt a conservative approach. Raising interest rates should cool down demand and will inevitably affect the pace of economic recovery, without affecting the military sector. The devaluation of the ruble will have significant implications for both consumers and producers, making imports less accessible. At the same time, devaluation will improve budgetary indicators. Nevertheless, genuine economic challenges may arise if export revenues continue to decrease.
Although the risks of anti-war and anti-authoritarian protests may currently appear low for the regime, the recent Wagner PMC mutiny has raised concerns about the fundamental stability of the regime. The mutiny demonstrated several crucial factors that are important for understanding potential scenarios in Russian political dynamics. First, it revealed serious internal conflicts within the Putin 'power vertical,' which are unlikely to be entirely contained. If the Ukrainian counteroffensive is even partially successful we can expect these conflicts to escalate sharply.
Second, the Wagner rebellion resulted from fundamental shifts in the Russian media landscape. Telegram emerged not only as Russians’ main source of information about the Prigozhin mutiny but was, in a sense, also the space where the mutiny took place. It was in this space that a media segment with an alternative pro-war agenda was formed, spearheaded by so-called 'war correspondents.' However, this effect reflects more fundamental shifts — the continuing decline in the influence of television in the Russian information space. Ultimately, this stimulates the rise in importance of the information environment that accumulates alternative ideological agendas. Currently, among these agendas, alternative-patriotic ones dominate over anti-war perspectives.
Thus, at the moment, the overall situation appears to be somewhat favourable for the Kremlin:
The front has not collapsed with the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which seems to be stalling.
Repression has effectively suppressed anti-war protests, while propaganda relies on cultivating 'ritual loyalty' to the war.
The economy is on the path to recovery, and the impact of sanctions seems to have been limited.
However, this picture of stability faces several challenges:
The main effort of the Ukrainian counteroffensive is yet to fully unfold.
The need for a new wave of mobilisation creates risks of a new social shock.
The Prigozhin mutiny has exposed high tensions within the elites and vulnerabilities in maintaining control over them.
The economic situation is likely to deteriorate in the autumn, and the cumulative effect of sanctions may be intensified by new restrictions.