How desperate might Russia get?

This seems like a fine time for a “mood check” of Russian media, now that their army has fled northern Ukraine and faces an all-or-nothing showdown in the east with what looks to all the world to be a superior Ukrainian force.


If Russia begins to lose ground in the south and ends up being stymied in the Donbas — or, unthinkably, pushed out — where might this conflict go?

Meet Vladimir Solovyov. He’s a Russian propagandist so famous, and so vicious, that he ended up being sanctioned by multiple European countries for inciting the war in the days before Russia invaded Ukraine. His property in Italy was seized because of it. This is what he sounds like lately:

Impotence and ruthlessness is a dangerous combination in a fading power. The more embarrassed the Russians become by their failure to subdue Ukraine, the less certain it is to what measures they might resort to reassert their dominance. A nationalist regime with delusions of imperial grandeur in the throes of a global humiliation — at the hands of its “little brother,” no less — might talk itself into going further than we think in its desperation to hold on to a degree of stature.

This is how desperate Russia is to continue the fight rather than accept defeat:


They may call up retired troops too, just to have warm bodies to throw at the enemy in hopes of dragging out the conflict until the Ukrainians get tired and cry uncle.

But we’re a long ways from that point:

It’s not just humiliation on the battlefield. Russian professionals are fleeing the country by the thousands, not wanting to drown in an already sluggish economy now enfeebled by sanctions to the point of near-autarky. The long-term economic consequences for Russia are so grim that some speculate the Russian Federation could eventually crack up because of it, with further-flung parts of the country reorienting towards China and the economically dynamic Far East. Elements of Russian civil society have already begun to crack up, in fact, amid war fever and anxiety about the country’s failure to impose its will on Ukraine:


The episodes are not yet a mass phenomenon, but they illustrate the building paranoia and polarization in Russian society. Citizens are denouncing one another in an eerie echo of Stalin’s terror, spurred on by vicious official rhetoric from the state and enabled by far-reaching new laws that criminalize dissent…

In the western region of Kaliningrad, the authorities sent residents text messages urging them to provide phone numbers and email addresses of “provocateurs” in connection with the “special operation” in Ukraine, Russian newspapers reported; they can do so conveniently through a specialized account in the Telegram messaging app. A nationalist political party launched a website urging Russians to report “pests” in the elite.

“I am absolutely sure that a cleansing will begin,” Dmitri Kuznetsov, the member of Parliament behind the website, said in an interview, predicting that the process would accelerate after the “active phase” of the war ended. He then clarified: “We don’t want anyone to be shot, and we don’t even want people to go to prison.”

Putin started this war as a first step towards reconstituting Russia’s empire, expanding west and creating a sphere of influence free from NATO. It was his play for a legacy. There’s now a nonzero chance that the war will end with NATO expanding east, increasing its presence on Russia’s border, and with some of Russia’s constituent parts looking for an exit long-term. An authoritarian who fancies himself a modern Peter the Great can’t accept that legacy. He won’t.


And so Russian propaganda is turning darker. The word “genocide” has been used to describe the massacres in Bucha and Borodyanka but that term typically stands for eliminationism, killing en masse in the belief that a certain ethnic or national population isn’t fit to survive. That wasn’t Russia’s aim at the start of the war. Putin would have been content with toppling the Ukrainian government, installing a puppet, and purging the country of anyone who could make trouble by potentially leading an insurrection. The great mass of Ukrainians would be left alone and their “Russian” identity restored via de facto annexation. But as the war has turned sour for Russia and those ambitions have foundered, they Kremlin may be talking itself into viewing the conflict through a more eliminationist lens. The endless harping on “Nazism” in Ukraine and the fact that the solidarity of the Ukrainian people makes them complicit in that “Nazism” is now being used to justify an overt scorched-earth policy, total war against the population a la World War II.

Simply put, says one Russian journalist, the state’s propaganda is turning genocidal:

On March 26, as the Russians were being pushed back around Kyiv but still controlled Bucha, Ukraine, and its other northern suburbs, RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan said on another pro-Kremlin channel that to her “horror,” a “significant part of the Ukrainian nation was in the grip of the Nazi frenzy.” It was a marked departure from the earlier trope of a captive nation with a few Nazi apples at the top. Dmitry Medvedev, once Russia’s liberal president and now the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, rages about Ukraine on his Telegram channel, calling it a “completely fake” nation and “a copy of the Third Reich” that doesn’t deserve to exist.

Kremlin-owned and controlled media—the only media still permitted to work—broadcast these messages to millions upon millions of Russians. On Rossia-1’s flagship talk show, host Vladimir Solovyov said, “Vladimir Zelensky is Ukraine’s last president because there won’t be any Ukraine after that.” The audience cheered…

Judging by what survivors of Russia’s atrocities are now telling journalists, it’s safe to assume Russian forces have been exposed to some version of this rhetoric. Survivors report how Russian soldiers were hunting for nonexistent “Nazis” among the terrified locals they claimed to be liberating. Egged on by the language of annihilation and extermination, Russian soldiers, Rosgvardia troops, and mercenaries have become willing executioners of ordinary Ukrainians.


We haven’t yet reached the point of such degeneracy that the Russian government is willing to claim responsibility for atrocities like Bucha, opting instead to frame them as “false flag” operations by the Ukrainian military. But as the “Nazi” rhetoric turns white-hot, the idea that the Ukrainians deserve whatever they get may lead them there:

If a “significant part of the Ukrainian nation [is] in the grip of the Nazi frenzy” and that threat can’t be neutralized through conventional arms, how does this end? Is there any way Putin doesn’t go nuclear?

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