Letter From the Editors

Does Vladimir Putin think of himself as a wartime leader? Well, in a manner of speaking. “As you know, an unprecedented, aggressive war of sanctions has been launched against Russia,” Vladimir Putin told his Strategic Development and National Projects council in a virtual meeting. But never fear, he continued: “The central government, the Central Bank and all the regional authorities worked together in a coordinated manner and managed to stabilize the situation.”

So there you have it. Russia was at war in 2022 – one declared by the West and waged with sanctions. But Putin’s government has been preparing for such a war since 2014 (for some reason) and managed to lead the country through the storm.

On a tangential note, the Russian president also touched on “matters of ensuring security and restoring peaceful life in the DPR/LPR, and Zaporozhye and Kherson Provinces,” to which Andrei Kolesnikov of Kommersant – a publication not recognized as a foreign agent in Russia – commented “or whatever is left of them, unless there is a large-scale offensive sometime soon.” Putin did not mention combat operations in the area, but rather improvements to public services and new construction subsidies.

What stood out most is that this virtual meeting was replacing presidential year-end staples – the Direct Line and the Message to the Federal Assembly. At a time when Zelensky is giving daily addresses to the Ukrainian people on top of regular front-line visits, virtual speeches to foreign legislatures and international organizations, press conferences in the Kiev Metro and even a recent David Letterman special, Putin cannot be bothered to show up for the same public appearances he has made for 20-odd years.

Naturally, this has led to some speculation. To analyst Dmitry Oreshkin this suggests “that serious destructive problems have arisen in this 20-year-old model of stability. Either Putin is in bad shape and cannot be shown, or Putin is being pushed somewhere to the side, and this fact undermines the legitimacy of the ritual chain of command.”

Ukrainian Lt. Gen. Igor Romanenko is more interested in how Putin’s weakened state (geopolitically, if not physically) will affect his military strategy going into 2023. He is quick to point out in his interview with Republic.ru – a publication definitely recognized as a foreign agent in Russia – that a large-scale Russian offensive is taking place in the Donetsk Basin, around Bakhmut. Once Russia trains up new forces, Ukrainian Commander in Chief Zaluzhny anticipates that it will try to open a second front – a fresh attempt to take either Kiev or the Black Sea coast, two objectives that were thwarted in 2022. “However,” Romanenko says, “the decision has not yet been made. Putin himself does not know yet whether he will make it.”

Where will this all end? Romanenko states that Ukraine’s conditions for an armistice are the restoration of all territories occupied by Russia in 2022, with a promise to return the Crimea and DPR/LPR within five years. As for a peace treaty, however, “The war could end when the Putin regime or something similar [to it] is gone.*** As long as Putin has any leverage, the war will not end for us.”

That could be a tall order, according to Oreshkin. He imagines US officials discussing Putin’s future in this way: “Well, are we going to keep him? I think we’ll keep him, because he does control [Russia]. And if he is dumped, who knows who will take his place – God forbid, some Kadyrov or Prigozhin. Perhaps we will castrate him politically but let him live.” Thus, the West may push for a compromise to avoid civil war or even less responsible leadership in a nuclear state.

Let’s hope that this time next year, Russia will not have any need of a wartime leader, and Putin – or whoever – will be at a press conference bragging about his economic prowess from a country at peace.