The war launched by Russia one year ago has been a tragedy for Ukraine and a disaster for Russia. It was a historical watershed moment, reversing the inertia of the social, economic, and political processes of many years prior. The 'fog of war' has spread far beyond the borders of the war zone, many of the war's consequences are unprecedented and unpredictable, and we continue to lack a great deal of data (for example, we do not possess even a rough idea of the scale of military casualties on both sides, or civilian casualties in Ukraine). The Russian invasion has triggered a social, ideological, and economic implosion that is sweeping the globe. In these circumstances, it appears especially important to broaden our understanding of what is actually happening, to make sense of the events that continue to astound us with their brutality, senselessness, and irreversibility. Here, Re: Russia outlines how we saw the main issues, and the key analytical perspectives we adopted, when attempting to make sense of the war.
One of the most perplexing aspects of what has occurred is that, despite a year of discussions, debates, and hundreds of efforts at analysis, we still do not have an answer to the most fundamental question: why was this war started? Many explanations seem to be more or less rational, but they are wholly inadequate in light of the monstrous cost of the conflict. Attempts to piece together this puzzle, to clarify the intellectual and ideological preconditions that enabled the war, have resulted in a series of studies that have investigated the Kremlin's authoritarian revanchism, the roots of which can be traced back to Soviet colonial chauvinism, anti-liberal populism, and conspiracy theories.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the causes of the war go far beyond simple rational calculations and conventional pragmatism. Instead of a clash of economic interests or ideological doctrines, the war appears to be a civilisational crisis and a rhetorical mirage which has suddenly emerged from the bowels of a demobilised and mercantile Russian society and its corrupt elites.
Several of our articles have addressed the war's ideological and non-ideological underpinnings, the rhetorical simulacra used in its justification, and the Russian regime's fascist turn.
The key factor which has determined the very possibility of this war remains the lack of opposition to it from Russian society and Russian elites, alongside relatively strong Russian public support for it. An examination of polling data reveals a distinct effect of military-authoritarian consolidation (rallying around the flag), which masks both the inertia of loyalty towards the authorities and the fear of expressing an anti-war stance. The sociology of repressive authoritarianism and the sociology of war are both understudied phenomena, and the past year has confirmed that this field is abnormal terrain with poorly understood processes. Dehumanised escapism, emotional exasperation (which has led to the severing of family ties), and paralysing fear, accompanied by a bizarre rise in economic optimism and feelings of security all necessitate new interpretive efforts. We have spent the year following the twists and turns and paradoxes of wartime public opinion.
The war became an instrument of a large-scale social and political 'counter-revolution' in Russia. It has manifested itself through new restrictive legislation that criminalises anti-war views and discourse; the exodus of between half a million and a million citizens, primarily from younger generations with high levels of social capital; the implementation of all-encompassing censorship in the public sphere and totalitarian practices of social exclusion of dissidents, including the mass prohibition of anti-war plays, concerts, films, and books; and mass dismissals in educational institutions. All of this, when combined with anti-Western hysteria and orchestrated campaigns of aggression and obscurantism, have resulted in a significant 'societal shift' in the medium term, putting Russian society on a new historical trajectory of de-industrialisation and de-modernisation.
At first glance, the relative strength of the Russian economy appears to be a complete mystery. However, the appearance of an impregnable economic fortress was in fact primarily related to an explosive rise in energy prices, as well as a record trade surplus. Other factors that have had an impact on Russia’s apparently positive economic performance have included rising defence spending, which has compensated for a sharp drop in output in the 'peaceful' sector of the economy, the authoritarian capabilities of the financial authorities, and the unique crisis-resistant culture of Russian entrepreneurs. The unprecedented volume of export earnings disrupted the typical course of an externally induced economic crisis. However, these earnings have not eliminated the factors that will lead to the accumulation of imbalances, which will undoubtedly become increasingly evident in the future.
The fact that sanctions have lacked a clear short-term effect has obscured their potential medium- and long-term consequences for Russian society, which will result in technologically regressive import substitutions, a narrowing of the export basket, and declines in productivity and population living standards. Excessive optimism regarding the potential impact of sanctions was also misplaced, as it overlooked any potential retaliatory actions taken by the Kremlin, a lack of global unity when it comes to sanctions policy, and the important role played by Russian commodity exports within the global economy.
The war has resulted in the breakdown of previously established order and perceptions. Not just in Russia, but worldwide. The world is newly divided and a confrontation between liberal and authoritarian camps is rapidly gaining specific features and structural forms. Within this context, Russia's invasion of Ukraine appears to be the country's ultimate historical choice in favour of the anti-Western world. Putin hopes that by sending Russia to war, he can portray it as the 'attacking fortress' at the centre of global authoritarianism, transforming it into a dependable ally and (junior and dependent) partner for China. In addition to these two axes, a new 'non-alignment' axis is forming, led by India and Brazil, similar to that witnessed during the previous cycle of global antagonism in the twentieth century. They are countries that have not joined the sanctions but are also reluctant to join the crusade against the West or to recognise China's leadership. Thirty years of rapid globalising processes are at risk of devolving into a period of even greater divergence and geopolitical and geoeconomic fragmentation. The world is preparing for multiple wars, abandoning the peace dividend and the priority of trade and development, which had until recently seemed to be an absolute priority for every successful government.
Over the last decade, the proliferation of third-generation-plus networks, social media, and new forms of mass media has given rise to a fundamentally new model of the Internet. These tools are now exploited and used not only by democratic countries, but also by authoritarian regimes. Russian propaganda is now unprecedented in its scope and intensity thanks to technological hijacking. Domestically, Russia's primary media tool is now punitive censorship, which includes the harsh criminalisation of any and all anti-war statements, total bans on opposition media, and restrictions on access to global social networks. In the rest of the world, the main tools it employs are targeted disinformation and ideological campaigns based on anti-globalisation conspiracy narratives, as well as the appearance of genuine public support for extreme left and extreme right views. However, these very same technologies and global trends have created conditions in Russia for the emergence of an alternative public sphere, one opposed to the regime, a phenomenon known as Runet 2.0.