Putin prepares Russia for ‘forever war’ with west as Ukraine invasion stalls
One evening in late December, as Muscovites strolled along their city’s brightly lit streets in anticipation of the end-of-year celebrations, a group of old friends gathered for dinner at the flat of a senior state official.
Some of the guests present, which included members of Russia’s cultural and political elite, toasted a new year in which they expressed hope for peace and a return to normality.
As the night went on, a man who needed little introduction stood up for a toast, holding his glass.
“I am guessing you are expecting me to say something,” said Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s longtime spokesperson, according to one of the two people who separately recounted the evening to the Guardian under conditions of anonymity.
“Things will get much harder. This will take a very, very long time,” Peskov continued.
His toast darkened the mood of the evening among the guests, many of whom have said in private that they oppose the war in Ukraine. “It was uncomfortable to hear his speech. It was clear that he was warning that the war will stay with us and we should prepare for the long haul,” one guest said.
More than a year into an invasion that, according to Russian planning, was supposed to take weeks, Vladimir Putin’s government is putting society on a war footing with the west and digging in for a multi-year conflict.
Speaking at length to workers at an aviation factory in the Buryatia region recently, Putin once again cast the war as an existential battle for Russia’s survival.
“For us, this is not a geopolitical task, but a task of the survival of Russian statehood, creating conditions for the future development of the country and our children,” the president said.
It followed a pattern of recent speeches, said the political analyst Maxim Trudolyubov, in which the Russian leader has increasingly shifted towards discussing what observers have called a “forever war” with the west.
“Putin has practically stopped talking about any concrete aims of the war. He proposes no vision of what a future victory might look like either. The war has no clearcut beginning nor a foreseeable end,” Trudolyubov said.
During Putin’s closely watched “state of the nation” speech last month, the Russian leader repeated some of the many grievances he holds against the west, stressing that Moscow was fighting for national survival and would ultimately win.
The thinly veiled message to the people, Trudolyubov said, was that the war in Ukraine would not be ending anytime soon and that Russians must learn to live with it.
Western officials have described listening to Putin’s combative speech in February with dismay, seeing it as the Russian leader doubling down on his war and leaving little room for retreat.
One western diplomat in Moscow described Putin’s message in the speech as preparing the Russian public for “war that never ends”.
The diplomat also said it was not clear that Putin could accept a defeat in the conflict because it did not seem that Putin “understands how to lose”.
The person said Putin did not appear to be reconsidering the conflict despite the heavy losses and setbacks of the last year. The diplomat noted that the Russian president was a former KGB operative and said they are trained to always continue to pursue their objectives, rather than reassessing the goals in the first place.
Others have noted that the Russian leader, who, according to western intelligence, is personally making operational and tactical decisions in Ukraine, has stopped discussing the situation on the front in Ukraine in his public comments.
According to a study of the president’s speeches by the Russian news outlet Verstka, Putin last mentioned the fighting in Ukraine on 15 January, saying that the dynamics of his army were “positive”.
These omissions reflect the Kremlin’s uneasy acceptance that it is unable to change the course of the war on the battlefield, argued Vladimir Gelman, a Russian politics professor at the University of Helsinki.
“It is easier not to talk about the war efforts when your army is making no progress,” Gelman added. “But scaling back is not an option for Putin; that would mean admitting defeat.”
Russia’s leadership initially expected the conflict would last just a matter of weeks before they declared victory, according to plans captured by western intelligence at the beginning of the war.
Over the winter, western military analysts and Ukrainian officials repeatedly warned that Russia, after drafting 300,000 men last autumn, would mount a major new attack.
But Moscow’s offensive across a 160-mile arc in eastern Ukraine, which started in February, has brought the country minimal gains at staggering costs. Western officials have estimated that there have been up to 200,000 killed or injured on the Russian side.
“Russia simply does not have the offensive capabilities for a major offensive,” said US military expert Rob Lee.
According to Lee, less than 10% of the Russian army in Ukraine is capable of offensive operations, with the majority of its troops now conscripts with limited training.
“Their forces can slowly achieve a few grinding attritional victories but do not have the capacity to punch through Ukrainian defensive lines in a way that would change the course of the war.”
To boost the military’s long-term prospects, Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu has proposed increasing the armed forces from 1.15 million combat personnel to 1.5 million.
“We see that Russia’s military is preparing for a long war. Putin is banking that his country’s resources will trump Ukraine’s as the west gets tired of helping Kyiv,” Lee said.
Despite the setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine, the Kremlin has weathered any potential backlash against the war at home, crushing the remnants of Russia’s civil society and remaking the face of the country in the process.
“Many in the country have now fully accepted that this war will not go away and believe that they need to learn to live under the reality,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who has studied public attitudes towards the war since its beginning.
Kolesnikov said that the population’s ability and willingness to adapt to the new reality has turned out to be much stronger than many observers expected.
When Putin ordered a draft of 300,000 reservists in September, sociologists noticed a record uptick in fear and anxiety, with men concerned about going to fight and mothers and wives worried about their husbands, fathers and sons.
Yet within several months, the dread decreased, according to Kolesnikov.
“The propaganda campaign has been successful despite the initial hesitance of the people,” said a source close to the Kremlin’s media managers, referring to the early anti-war protests, which led to more than 15,000 arrests across the country in the first weeks after the invasion.
“The government has managed to rally people around the flag. The way the conflict was framed helped people to accept it,” the source added.
The full power of the state has been deployed to spread and enforce the message that the war is necessary for Russia’s very identity and survival.
National television has turned from airing light entertainment to broadcasting aggressive political talkshows.
Meanwhile, schools have been instructed to add basic military training and “patriotic” lessons that aim to justify the war in Ukraine. State rhetoric, including calls by Putin to get rid of “scum and traitors”, have led to a wave of denunciations by ordinary Russians of their colleagues and even friends.
“The country has gone mad,” said Aleksei, a former history teacher at an elite boarding school outside Moscow who recently quit after a disagreement with management over the new “patriotic” curriculum. “I had to stop talking to colleagues and friends. We are living in different realities,” he said.
But while hundreds of thousands of Russians have been silenced or fled the country, a vocal group of war supporters have embraced the country’s new direction.
They too have noted the growing costs of the conflict, but are calling for greater public buy-in while increasingly portraying the war as a global battle with Europe and the US.
At a Moscow launch event in mid-March for the “International Movement of Russophiles,” a group backed by Russia’s foreign ministry and heavily populated with fringe European activists and conspiracy theorists, the message was dire.
“We are not just seeing neo-Nazism, we are seeing direct nazism, which is covering more and more European countries,” said Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, during a speech.
Konstantin Malofeev, a conservative oligarch who was sanctioned by the US in 2014 for “threatening Ukraine and providing financial support to the Donetsk separatist region,” said: “We have not seen such hatred since after Russian soldiers ended the war with the victory in Berlin. We stopped that war and now we, the victors, are once again facing the fact that it has risen up from hell against us.”
Yet there were few direct allusions to the situation on the front in Ukraine, and on the sidelines of the conference, some spoke about Russia’s difficult progress and the costs of the war.
“Not everyone in this country yet understands what we’re going to have to pay to win this war,” said Alexander Dugin, a radical Russian philosopher and prominent supporter of the war. “People in our country have to pay for their love for Russia with their lives. It’s serious and we weren’t ready for this.”
Dugin’s daughter, Darya Dugina, was killed last year in a car bombing that may have targeted him. Putin has spoken several times about the attack on Dugina and her name was written on a briefing paper held by Putin during a recent security council meeting, video uploaded by the Kremlin showed.
“I don’t think people in this country fully understand what is happening after a year,” Dugin added.
“Of course there’s full support from the president but it hasn’t fully come into the hearts and souls of all our people … some people have woken up, some people have not. Despite the year of war, it is going very slowly.”