Zelenskyy, Putin, Gorbachev, Kyiv
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left), Russia President Vladimir Putin (middle), Mikhail Gorbachev, who served as the last leader of the Soviet Union (right). Shelling of Kyiv, Ukraine on June 26, 2022. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Yuriy Somov / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0), State Emergency Service of Ukraine / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0), President of Ukraine, and President of Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0).

Public interest in the Russia-Ukraine war ebbs and flows. While the war slogs on, the advantage seems to shift back and forth, as new weapons and new troop deployments reshape the battlefield. Just when international attention seems to lag, a new threat arises, like the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor — and the world holds its collective breath.

To bring us up to the minute, we’re joined on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast by Sam Ramani who teaches in the department of political science at Oxford University, and is a member of the Royal United Services Institute in London. He has spent much time in Russia and Ukraine, has studied Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Syria, and is the author of two upcoming books about Russia. 

Ramani explains in vivid detail the fundamental strategic mistakes Russia made from the start of its invasion, and how Ukraine is cleverly capitalizing on those mistakes. He points out that right now — before winter forces a slowdown in military operations — is a time of maximum peril.

Yet Ramani believes the war could go on for many years, perhaps decades, before the combatants step back from the extreme positions they have recently taken.

Ramani also talks about the recent death of former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and how it’s being perceived inside Russia — particularly in light of the growing relationship between Russia and Iran, a major focus of Gorbachev’s foreign policy in his day. 

Ramani notes that, even more than in most wars, battlefield dispatches from the two combatants are profoundly at odds, and how both sides are actively deploying weapons of mass disinformation.

We also touch on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ongoing popularity, and the possibility of illiberal post-war actions in Ukraine.

Finally, Ramani talks about conditions in Russia: how the Russian economy and Vladimir Putin’s leadership have been far more resilient than Western analysts expected. The economy, he says, is not going to crash any time soon, and Putin has only gotten stronger at home as the war has progressed.  

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. There seems to an ebb and flow to our interest in Russia and the Ukraine. While the war slogs on, the advantage seems to shift as new weapons find their way to the battlefield. And while some days it barely reaches the level of global interest, other days the world holds its breath, yet the issues are no less monumental. The future of Russia, China, and Russia’s relationship, the future of NATO, the health and well-being of Europe going into the winter, whether or not Ukraine even has a future, and the nature of war in the 21st century. A lot is at stake.

Now six months after the war has started, I’m joined once again by our guest Sam Ramani. If you follow Sam’s Twitter feed, and you absolutely should, you would know how closely he follows the war in almost granular detail. Sam received his Ph.D. in international relations from Oxford. He’s a tutor in the department of political science at Oxford and a member of the Royal United Service Institute in London. He spent much time in Russia and the Ukraine and has studied Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Syria.

He’s the author of two books soon to be released. One, Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender? and his second, Putin’s War on Ukraine: Russia’s Campaign for Global Counter-Revolution. He contributes regularly to Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, the BBC World Service, and Al Jazeera. And it is my pleasure to welcome Sam Ramani back here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Sam, thanks so much for joining us.

Sam Ramani: Thanks Jeff, it’s really great to be here.

Jeff: It is a delight to have you back here. Before we talk about the Ukraine and Russia, I want to talk about a subset of that really, which has just evolved, and that is how Russia is dealing with and responding to the death of Gorbachev. Talk a little bit about that. I know you’ve tweeted a bit about it in the past day.

Sam: Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy in Russia is obviously extremely divisive, and extremely polarizing. He’s certainly less popular in Russia than he is in much of the international community, maybe only Lithuania, Georgia, and Azerbaijan because of his involvement in civilian massacres there, has he maybe less popular. There was an opinion poll that was taken back in 2017 that showed Gorbachev’s approval rating in Russia being just 15 percent. That’s exactly the same level of support that in the  midst of the Syrian war the Russians had for the European Union or the United States.

So that just tells you that he’s quite an unpopular figure in Russia, more loved abroad than at home. The reactions though from Russian politicians from different ends of the political spectrum have been quite interesting. It’s unsurprising to see Russian liberals rally behind Gorbachev and support his legacy of ending the Cold War, and his consistence of work for democracy. After all, he wanted Vladimir Putin to resign and Alexei Navalny to be out of jail, but amongst the hard-line nationalists that surround Vladimir Putin, the reactions have been a lot more strident.

We’ve seen castigations of Gorbachev as being responsible for the unipolar order, and for America hegemony. And the claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is trying to overturn Gorbachev’s legacy, even in his death they’re talking about that. He’s a person who is reviled by many, particularly among the hard-line nationalists to the point in which he’s being compared to Hitler in some media outlets, and he’s loved by liberals inside Russia.

Jeff: Will it be a polarizing event in any ongoing way in Russia? Will it have any impact in terms of the dialogue there and how it filters out to the rest of the world?

Sam: I think it will certainly have dialogue about rallying support for the Ukraine war so that 85 percent of people who are either indifferent to, or opposed to Gorbachev’s legacy and are nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and are nostalgic for the restoration of the old empire by force, those people are in play. And the Russians will sell the narrative that the war in Ukraine is overturning and eviscerating Gorbachev’s surrender. So that statement from Venidiktov who was a close friend of Gorbachev, who lamented the fact that Gorbachev in his death felt that Putin had simply destroyed his legacy.

The destruction of Gorbachev’s legacy in very definitive terms will be a bane to the liberals but a rallying cry to that group. So I think that Gorbachev’s death will energize the nationalist hard-liners and could create a sense of purpose for a war that increasingly for many Russians is seemingly purposeless.

Jeff: Another area where Gorbachev had a lot of influence in his day was in his relationship, and as it evolved to Russia’s relationship in the Middle East. Talk about the legacy there and whether or not it has any relevance today.

Sam: Gorbachev’s legacy in the third world was quite fascinating, it was actually a bit all over the map. In Africa, you would say that he actually oversaw the surrender of Soviet influence. He left the Soviet [unintelligible 00:05:08] of Ethiopia, he withdrew from the wars of Angola and Mozambique. He, inevitably because of the political reforms, the economic chaos, had to withdraw military tactical assistance and arms sales for many countries across the continent, especially on the horn and the south.

In the Middle East, the exact opposite happened. Gorbachev actually oversaw the foundations of the current Russian policy and current Russian influence in the Middle East. So, I think Russia’s policy in the Middle East today is a very flexible strategy. It’s really based on being friends with everyone, allies with none, enemies with none. No real foreign entanglements, but good relations, at least at a superficial level, with all states.

Before Gorbachev, the Soviet Union had fractured relationships with Egypt over the expulsion of Soviet advisers in the buildup to the 1973 war and its aftermath. A very caustic, nonexistent relationship with Israel because of his talk of a Zionist nuclear imperialism, and was also viewed with deep suspicion in both Iran — the Iranians viewed it as even a way to affect the United States at points after the revolution, and the reactionary anti-communist gulf markets.

Under Gorbachev’s tenure, he normalized relations with Egypt under Mubarak in 1990 and paved the way for discussions in the Arab-Israeli peace talks. He facilitated the immigration of Soviet Jews which eventually led to Russia and Israel establishing a future partnership. He normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates in Oman which gave him a foothold in the Persian Gulf and facilitated their globalization of the Saudi and the current energy relationship that we see today.

He largely withdrew Soviet support for South Yemen, which is a revolutionary government in the Arabian peninsula, that’s why the gulf began to view Russia, even American allies in the Gulf viewed Russia, as now a partner rather than an adversary. And finally, perhaps even most profoundly was his relationship with Iran and the relationship that he was able to strike up with Ayatollah Khomeini which in his final months was so striking that Khomeini sent a letter to Gorbachev. And that was the only foreign leader that he did that to. And that led to the Gorbachev Russian journey summit and set the stage now for the cooperation that we see in Syria and so many other issues today.

Gorbachev was a transformational figure not only in broadening Russia so we have partners in the Middle East, and expanding them to new frontiers, but also making the Middle East not just an area of superpower contestation, or an area of America hegemony, but into a truly multipolar environment where you now have the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans vying for it. Gorbachev’s aspiration was to create a multipolar order and to democratize international relations. He may have failed globally but he succeeded in the Middle East.

Jeff: And that really brings us to the Russia-Ukraine war today and Russia’s sale of oil to Iran, and really the state of Russia today in this war.

Sam: So, definitely with regards to Russia and Iran, if you want to look at their relationship in the context of the current war, obviously the Iranian narratives are generally very sympathetic with the Russians, certainly with regards to supporting their version to NATO expansion. And Iran has also been really the only country aside from Belarus that’s actually done more than talk the talk to help Russia. They’re now supplying hundreds of Shahed drones that will be important in neutralizing the new Turkish drones that are currently being used in Ukraine.

These drones have been tried and tested and used in Yemen. They wreaked havoc on [unintelligible 00:08:31] substituent batteries in Saudi Arabia near oil fields. So this is a significant relationship. And engaging with a non-Russian power like Iran, much like India, much like China, much like Brazil or South Africa which have all stayed neutral in this conflict is really part of Russia’s broader foreign policy goal. Which is to close the door on the West and move towards a post-Western foreign policy based on support for non-Western international institutions, based on divestment from the US dollar, and based on interconnectivity in the trade sphere.

That will lead to the collapse of the unipolar order and the true replacement with a polycentric order with many spheres of power.

Jeff: But certainly at the center of that strategy is what happens in the Ukraine. And there seems to be this almost see-sawing going on there right now, in that for a while, it seemed like the Russians were making significant progress. Now the tide seems to have turned again. Where do things stand now?

Sam: So, it appeared as if at least over the past month-and-a-half or two months, that we were looking at what appeared to be a stalemate. So, after Luhansk fell, so after the fall of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, and that was the first real blast in Donbas that they wanted to take over, the front seemed to largely stabilize. In fact, as the Ukrainians always say, it’s not really a stalemate, it’s not static. There’s a lot of things that were happening, but there just wasn’t really any changes in the balance of power. So that’s the important distinction to make. It was a very active stalemate. It was a very hot stalemate if you will. With regards to the battlefront, just to give a brief overview, the Russians tried to make an assault on Donetsk immediately after their annexation of Luhansk; Putin said that the Russian troops were probably going to have to rest and regroup for a bit, but they ended up not really doing that. They tried to launch attacks through Sloviansk and through Bakhmut, two different routes inside the oblast.

But so far, they haven’t been able to achieve much success, in part because they had to divert military resources in a large quantity towards southern Ukraine, where the occupied territories that they have on the Black Sea coast now need to be guarded with additional personnel and Russia’s already having a manpower shortage and the problem got worse. The other thing that changed and the other thing that was interesting was the dynamic in terms of Ukraine moving from a strategy of largely self-defense and the destruction of Russian military infrastructure towards now an all-out counter-offensive to recapture territory that’s been occupied by Russia.

And the first starting point is going to be the situation in Kherson. The Ukrainians have allegedly broken past the Russian enemy lines over the past 24 hours, they liberated four villages supposedly on the first day, they’re keeping their strategy very close to their chest, so they’re urging the media and they’re urging government officials not to leak anything. But it appears as if the Ukrainians are leveraging native class weaponry, Russia’s manpower deficiencies, and the fact that Russia only really started moving supplies and personnel in August, even though they knew this defensive was coming in April and May.

Again, another strategic mishap. They only started reinforcing their lines there very recently and the Ukrainians seem to be capitalizing. So now we see a huge open front in the south. We’ve seen the cooling of the front in Donbas and we’ve seen also Crimea come into play with the attacks from the Black Sea fleet and allegedly over half of Russia’s fighter jets of the Saki Air Base. Combine that with a nuclear brinkmanship crisis in Zaporizhzhia which would threaten to spread radiation across much of Europe or even into Russia itself. So, what looks like a very stable set of battle lines over the past two months in a stalemate, as you can see, is a very active theater and so much is happening.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about how you, in particular, and other sources as well, stay on top of what’s transpiring there on a day-to-day basis, because it is an extremely dynamic situation, as you say.

Sam: So, it’s one of those conflicts where the accounts from the two parties cannot be further apart. The Russians talk repeatedly about en mass destructions of Ukrainian military equipment to the point in which they only have 210 jets in Ukrainian Air Force before the war and they’ve talked about destroying 274. They’ve talked about destroying more [unintelligible] systems than Ukraine has even purchased from the United States.

So, on the Russian side, you have this desperate disinformation, which is really aimed at showing that this war has been something other than an unmitigated disappointment and failure. And on the Ukrainian side, you also see a lot of uncertainty and opacity but actual data. Very little information on casualty numbers, for example, SMS has fluctuated from 50 soldiers a day dying, to maybe 100 to 200 in the Donbas front.

So we know that there’s a lot of people losing their lives, but not really that much of an accurate gauge on the intensity of the conflict. And Ukrainian estimates of the Russian military personnel that have been killed, which run over 42,000 and Russian equipment losses run significantly below, if not as drastically as the Russian estimates, what NATO or what the CIA, or what other agencies have. So we have a situation where the Russians are doing this egregiously and the Ukrainians are somewhat doing it promoting two diametrically opposed narratives, and the truth is somewhere in between.

So that becomes an issue more with local officials, with people sometimes on or off the record inside Ukraine, inside Russia, and to monitor expert community analysis as well as some of the reports that have been coming through from the Institute of Study of War and from the Ukrainian Administrative Defense, which have provided a lot of detail into how this is unfolding.

Jeff: You mentioned Russia’s manpower crisis. How are they dealing with that? There have been a lot of misleading pieces of information about what Russia’s doing to recruit more manpower to the front.

Sam: So, Russia has certainly had the problem that the Americans had in Iraq. They tried to occupy a country with too a small a force. The border forces they brought in was around 150,000 troops. That’s not enough to subjugate the Ukrainian army with the general mobilization. So, the Russians have had problems from the start with manpower, and when they decided to fight, in the early stages, the conflict on multiple axes of advance — so, an attack on Kyiv, an attack on northern Ukraine in Chernihiv, attacks from the Donbas region, an attempted aborted amphibious landing in Odesa — all of those different fronts opening at the same time, their manpower and resources got spread very thin and their soldiers were extremely vulnerable, heavy casualties.

The slow movement of convoys, poor supply chains, inadequate food, inadequate cold weather here, many basic incompetences within the Russian military and the constant fluctuations. The hiring and firing of generals and changes in the command structure led to a lot of losses in that volunteer force, almost certainly more than the entire Soviet war in Afghanistan.

We’re looking at maybe 15,000 soldiers dead after 80,000 soldiers wounded, dead or defected. So that’s a massive loss of manpower, and how can Russia replenish that? Russia has got several routes. One of them is a general mobilization, it’s the draft. And Russia turned down that option after testing it out in the media before May the 9th, before the Second World War celebration, in part because the urban areas in Moscow and St. Petersburg are not really affected by this war. It’s really the poorest regions. It’s really dispersed parts of the country like Dagestan or Siberia where the soldiers are coming from.

And they were concerned that if they started recruiting people on mass in the cities, you would start seeing urban unrest, you would start seeing more backlash and the war’s popularity would decline and suddenly repression alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the Russian system stable. So, the draft was ruled out on grounds of it being extremely unpopular. So, they’ve had to move towards unconventional sources of recruitment. They have to go into prisons, for example, and try to see if they can give convict amnesty. They have to offer people in the poorest regions of the country up to $5,000 a month.

But they don’t offer amnesty because the authorities who are hiring soldiers do not have any legal sovereignty, have no connection to the court system, and they promise money and they don’t pay, it makes it even harder and harder for the Russians to get volunteers and additional staff. And reports of casualties and disorganization on the front lines means that even when there’s a lot of patriotic mobilizations and Z banners and active recruiters and individuals like Yevgeny Prigozhin coming and asking people to come, in prisons only 25 percent of the people want to join, even with the possibility of amnesty.

In the poor regions, we’re looking at tank battalions where they need 180 or 200 people, they’re getting 30 people. They’ve got a big problem in terms of recruitment. And obviously, that means they’re going to start moving reservists into the front lines. They’re going to start to merge different military units like the eastern and central military districts and the southern districts could be fighting together now.

But that creates a problem because you’re bringing in units and brigades that have never fought together before and have no cohesion, no understanding with each other at a time when the Ukrainians are a cohesive force that is launching a clear counter-offensive in the south and a clear defensive operation in the east. So, whereas Ukraine is organized, Russia is totally chaotic. And foreign fighters are not coming either, they can’t even get Syrians and Libyans, and they’ve been trying wherever they can to bring people in and that isn’t working.

So, Russia’s got a serious manpower problem and it’s really unclear how they’re going to be able to overcome that. The only bright spot is that they’re going to get a steady stream of mercenaries, which is why the Wagner Group has got now maybe as much as 5,000 personnel and it’s come out of the shadows and has become public. But some of those forces range from experienced GRU operatives and veterans to cannon fodder from the prison. So, their effectiveness and their discipline is extremely varied.

Jeff: How impactful is the onset of winter on what’s going to happen next?

Sam: So, the onset of winter will bring a number of different challenges to the war. Obviously, there was a lot of discussions earlier in the war about terrain, rain, and soil in the spring, delaying and working against Russia. So, some of the spring weather conditions were working against Russia when they were trying to transition from what they called phase one and phase two of the special military operation.

So, moving away from focusing on Kyiv and focusing on the Donbas, I think the winter could present some more challenges for Ukraine. The reasons why I think there could be a problem for Ukraine is that there will be extreme electricity shortages across the country. You already see Melitopol, which is an occupied city where the Russians have taken over, basically run out of gas, run out of fuel, and that is indicative of a broader problem in Southern Ukraine, where there’s going to be maybe large-scale evacuations.

If the Russians capitalize on this further by disrupting the flow of gas to Europe that goes through Ukraine or bombing gas stations or attacking, let’s hope not, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant or other smaller nuclear plants in Mohyliv or elsewhere, you’ll have a situation where Ukraine has an energy and electricity crisis, not something that’s a new challenge that they’re going to have to face and they’re going to have to deal with.

But given the fact that Russia also has had problems with supply lines it’s by no means guaranteed that Russia is going to be able to re-route their power from Zaporizhzhia to the occupied territories that it may end up affecting and hurting the Russians almost as much as the Ukrainians. And the final variable for the winter is obviously what happens in Europe.

Is there going to be populous groundswells of unrest when energy prices soar, about arming Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia? Will the gas embargo on Russia, which already is showing signs of serious weakness — we’re seeing Hungary purchase more gas from Gazprom instead of less — ultimately completely fall by the wayside. And Russia has high gas prices and a steady supply of gas going to Europe. Or will Russia try to cut off supplies and try to make sure that sanctions on other energy get resources like coal or oil get lifted or diluted.

There’s many things that could happen. And it’s unpredictable in terms of the level of European support for Ukraine, how Ukraine will deal with their energy crisis, and how Russia will be able to get along, all their logistical mayhem, and deal with what is expected to be a harsh and difficult winter.

Jeff: Does European support for Ukraine seem to be waning at this point?

Sam: Well, there’s a concerted effort from the leadership in most European countries against the notion of Ukraine fatigue. The biggest enemy in Ukraine is Ukraine fatigue. I believe Boris Johnson was the person who made that crystal clear in actual rhetoric. But so far I’m optimistic about the fact that there is not necessarily an erosion of support for you Ukraine. We’re seeing the European Union move towards a centralized military training format. We just discussed in Prague yesterday. And that’s something that’s been deliberated on even before the war, since the fall.

So now finally we’re seeing the initiatives that we’re seeing happen in Britain. We’re seeing the initiatives that Lithuania and the Baltic states have done, helping Ukrainians with territorial defense. Germany and Netherlands are trying to help Ukraine to mine their ports and mine to The Blacks Sea. Those initiatives have been loosely— there have been a couple of countries, random coalitions. They’ve been NATO-driven. Now we see European training force, and that’s something that would be a significant contributor to European unity and resolve towards Ukraine.

We’re also seeing consistent supplies of arms from European countries to the Ukrainians; ther were admittedly some dips that were noticed over the summer and that were called out in a report on Politico. And Germany obviously is now having an artillery shortage and they’re struggling to get their tank exchange shortage. So, it looks as if they’re not going to be giving much in terms of serious tanks before 2023. France is not moving enough.

The point is you have a lot of countries that are not pulling their weight. And there’s a lot of disparities in some European countries, like Poland and Czech Republic, the Baltic states, and Britain, which are doing a tremendous amount and others are doing a lot less. But I don’t think there’s going to be an en masse loss of support for the Ukrainian military. What I’m concerned about is the slow-down or the arresting of the movement towards additional sanctions on Russia, especially in terms of gas, that gives Russia one, a time to really get around swift and find alternative payment mechanisms.

And, two, gives Russia even more hard currency than it otherwise would have had without this war to import weapons from abroad, invest in its military infrastructure, and prosecuting this war for longer than we might expect in terms of rebuilding their ammunition and some of their military supplies.

Jeff: There seems to be some conflicting reporting in terms of really what the economic state of Russia is at this point. There was a report that came out of Yale School of Management a week or so ago, which you may have seen, talking about a pretty sorry state of affairs in terms of the Russian economy. And yet there were conflicting reports that, as you indicate, Russia may be benefiting in some ways. Talk about that.

Sam: So, the Russian economy— the Western predictions of the Russian economy, I would say, have been almost as inaccurate as Russia’s predictions about how they would militarily achieve success in the war. So, Goldman Sachs, for example, right after the war started, and others echoed this, said that the Russian economy would decline by 35 percent as a result of this war. So that would be a crash that was worse than the ruble crisis in 1998. That would be a crash that would be unprecedented in contemporary Russian history, or for that matter, the history of any G20 industrialized country.

So, that would be a major blow to the Russian economy. And that was as inaccurate as saying that the Russians were going to take over Ukraine in three days because that didn’t happen. The Russian economy is now looking at a contraction, the shallower that we saw during the COVID pandemic. Only half the scale of what we saw during the 2008 financial crisis, maybe only a 4 percent decline in GDP. We’re seeing services in manufacturing industry already begin a v-shaped recovery and make gains month on month.

So, there are a lot of unexpected blind spots, perhaps driven by the fact that people’s lifestyles did not really change in the middle class in terms of consumer spending as much as we assumed. And high energy prices have allowed the Russians to not pursue a very long-term contract-sharing monetary policy agenda. They raised interest rates very, very quickly, but then they also have cut them. And the ruble, with a 25 percent increase in purchasing power, is in the strongest performing currency in the world, so they’ve been able to make their imports cheap.

So, the high oil and gas prices that played into their hands, and also we miscalculated how much the Russian consumer was going to be shocked or be completely undermined by these sanctions. That being said, the long-term future of the Russian economy is bleak. I think the damage is not going to be a massive crash, but rather attritional damage. Just like the Russian military is getting worn down, the Russian economy is going to get worn down bit by bit. We’re seeing this in the automotive sector, 61 percent decline in car purchases. We’re seeing this in semiconductors, computers, information technology.

The Russians themselves acknowledge that they don’t have markets yet just to replace the West. And loss of markets like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in addition to Europe and the United States, is a major blow. And it also remains unclear whether large-scale investments will be coming from China and India. Will they just be investing in oil and energy at a discount or will they be investing in development? There’s a difference between not sanctioning Russia and not punishing Russia, and actually investing in Russia’s future and seeing Russia as a country that they want to invest in.

And so far, most of Russia’s so-called partners in the [unintelligible] non-West have not done much to really think about the long-term development of the Russian economy. So, I think the standard of living in the middle class in Russia and Russia’s economic development in terms of its potential will be severely impaired for years, if not decades, to come by this war, but there won’t be a massive financial Armageddon or economic collapse that some people were predicting.

Jeff: And in the Ukraine, how is the support for the war holding? And something like Zelenskyy’s popularity, which was so high at the beginning of the war, how is that holding up?

Sam: It’s important to keep in mind that Zelenskyy was not a popular president before the war began. His approval ratings had fallen quite precipitously. He was seen as not doing enough in terms of corruption reforms. He did try to show he was able to engage with Russia, but then there were some questions about some of his appointments, including Andriy Yermak and their policies towards Russia. So, there were a lot of sources of division and discontent inside Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko, who he defeated in 2019 by a landslide, by an almost three-to-one margin, was suddenly becoming a viable contender and was seen as somebody who could really challenge for power again.

The war completely transformed that. Zelenskyy’s wartime approval rating shot up to 90 percent, and they’ve remained there ever since. Close to 95 percent or more of Ukrainians believe that Ukraine will win this war. The majorities of even ethnic Russians in Ukraine want Ukraine to win this war. So, there’s just this support of Ukrainian sovereignty and opposition to the Russian invader and Zelenskyy’s wartime leadership have made him almost unassailably strong. There really aren’t any political rivals who could challenge him at this time.

The Russians like to talk about somebody from within, like Valeri Zolotukhin potentially, from the armed forces, especially undercutting him. But that just seems to be Russia trying to sow and spread discord inside Ukraine. There’s no, also, for the first time, any kind of viable alternative to Zelenskyy’s pro-Western, pro-NATO course. NATO membership at one time used to be a divisive issue in Ukraine. And you see Ukrainian politics looks almost like a pendulum. So, you have a pro-Western [unintelligible], a slightly more pro-Russian, but balanced Kuchma, a very pro-Western Yushchenko, a quite pro-Russian Yanukovych.

Now the pro-Russian opposition are seen as traitors. The opposition block is led by Viktor Medvedchuk, he’s the main figure there; he’s a fugitive who Putin wanted to install in power if Zelenskyy was killed. So, there’s unity about [unintelligible] foreign policy direction. There’s a rally around the flag in front that’s benefiting Zelenskyy immensely, and there’s a lack of political rivals. So, I think that the resolve in Ukraine is going to be very high, much higher than the morale that we’re seeing dissipate in Russia. And Zelenskyy’s standing is going to be almost unimpeachable.

The question is, what does Zelenskyy do with that power? He seems to be making Ukraine into a big Israel, making it a democracy with some varied characteristics. And people are concerned that there may be a strain of a liberalism coming in Ukraine’s postwar future. But that’s a postwar issue. Zelenskyy so far has not seemed to be so associated with the [unintelligible] and corruption that marred Yanukovych and Kuchma’s presidencies. So, I am optimistic that even in a post-war scenario, he will remain popular, but Ukraine will also stay democratic and true to the stated ideals of [unintelligible 00:29:28] which often went astray in intervening years.

Jeff: What is your sense of what’s next in the Ukraine? How does this war begin to find some kind of an end?

Sam: It really depends on what happens in the battlefield. Both the Russians and the Ukrainians have staked out extreme maximalist positions from their respective standpoints. Ukraine’s position, which is entirely understandable, is that they want [unintelligible 00:29:51] borders back. They want Crimea back, they want all the occupied territories that Russia has taken over the past eight years and in the current war back into their fold. And they will stop at nothing less. That means actually finishing launching a ground assault on Crimea, which Russia used to be part of its own territory, possibly risking an unpredictable asymmetric Russian response, maybe even, let’s hope not, a nuclear response. So there’s a lot of risks, a lot of things here and it’s unclear the extent to which the West would back that. They may be willing to give long-range weaponry and arms for Ukraine to use but if it gets to the point at which the Ukrainians have won in Donbas in the south and are unambiguously trying to take back Crimea, you may see a bit more hesitancy and division within the NATO alliance that Russia will capitalize on.

The Russians, meanwhile, have continued to stake out their own maximalist games, which is basically, as the head of the dual Foreign Relations Committee put it over the weekend, the complete denazification of the country, the complete demilitarization of the country, and unconditional capitulation. So, it looks as if the Russians are not just settling for the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk, and keeping Crimea and some areas in the south, but they’re looking for something much bigger.

Officially, they may be still talking about going to Kyiv and overthrowing the regime which they deemed to be Nazi fascist, anti-Russian, anti-historical, all these phrases that they use. Unofficially, from talking to Russian experts, I think that their goal will still be to landlock Ukraine on the Black Sea and take over Donbas and keep the territories that they have in the south. Kharkiv is a possibility because there are a lot of ethnic Russians there and Russian speakers but not as much of a necessity as those goals. But that will take time and there’s no guarantee that with the Black Sea Fleet in the state it’s in and with Ukraine having the modern weaponry that it has, that Russia will achieve that.

So, unfortunately, we’re looking at a long war, we’re looking at something that could be drawn out for many years. Inside Russia, we’re seeing analogies in the press about the eight-year Iran-Iraq war as a precedent, or even the 21-year Great Northern War as a precedent. So, it looks as if resolve to fight is very high on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides, that doesn’t mean that the war will be at maximum intensity all the time if personnel and manpower and equipment is only so much. There might be temporary truces in some fronts, ceasefires, something resembling a frozen conflict, but then a frozen conflict that reheats and keeps reheating.

So, it could be a very intense period of war followed by a slowdown, followed by another acceleration, followed by a slowdown. I see that ebb and flow continuing for perhaps years.

Jeff: And how does Putin survive that?

Sam: Vladimir Putin has been remarkably resilient just like the Russian economy. There were so many predictions that Vladimir Putin was going to be toppled as a result of this war. The Russian liberals and the Russian expatriate dissidents like the Mikhail Khodorkovskys of the political space believed that a large-scale war would be the biggest mistake that Putin could make from a political perspective. It would completely destroy his political capital inside Russia because it would remind people of the Soviet war in Afghanistan; the Russian military did not have the preparedness for it, and it would fail resoundingly.

So Russian foreign policy was always seemed to be quite pragmatic even amongst those groups, because they did limited interventions in Crimea, Georgia, that gave them tangible successes and a patriotic rally but they didn’t do the large-scale thing. Like trying to annex Belarus, trying to invade Kyiv. Or trying to basically put regular forces in Syria and try to take over the whole country at all costs. They were always restrained, they were always measured. His gambit of a large-scale war was unprecedented in contemporary Russian history. Unprecedented, really, since the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and probably in terms of intensity of conflict, more than any other war since World War II.

So Putin took a big risk, and maybe people thought that would be a risk that would fail. In fact, I think the war has actually strengthened his hold on power at least in the near term. The Russian public has rallied around the war and Vladimir Putin as a leader, his approval ratings have shot up from 68 to 80 percent. Of course, we have to take polling data with a grain of salt but it’s undeniable, even in the [unintelligible 00:34:03] Centre, that there has been a sizable patriotic rally. Liberal opposition has been depressed. There haven’t been major street protests happening in Russia since April, or even isolated displays of dissent of any scale of major cities since the early summer.

We seen now it’s no longer enough to be just silently acquiescent, you have to wear the Z, you have to show your support for the war and show that you’re a patriot and that you’re not a fifth column. That kind of inbred totalitarianism is rallying support for Putin, or at the very least, silencing determined opposition. The tops of the Russian independent media, print and social media have also limited outside information flows and allowed street propaganda to reign supreme. And given the fact that so many of the casualties are happening not in the urban centers but in dispersed poor regions of the country, knowledge about casualties and human costs are often not really known.

It’s not that likely that somebody who’s living in Dagestan is going to necessarily have a big network of people in Vladivostok. Russia’s size is helping prevent information flows too from occurring as well as it’s restricted information that’s technology-based. So, Putin has been able to suppress the level of dissent, own the information sphere, and get a patriotic rally out of this war, but also because his narratives have been time tested, they’re very popular. Overturning [unintelligible 00:35:23] We have popular revolutions that have been deemed as the bane of political instability.

The worst form of stability instability in the world is take to the streets and trying to launch an extra-legal coup that is associated with Nazism, associated with Western interference. And so a war to overturn the mighty end revolution and Zelenskyy, a president who was the spine of it indirectly, is very popular. War against NATO, this total hybrid war narrative coming from the West, is something that they’ve been hearing for the better part of twp decades. That NATO expansion is an imminent security threat to Russia and Russia needs to respond to protect its global influence.

Framing this war as a transformation of the world order, defeating American hegemony, and creating a new world order for Russia is respected and where the non-Western traditional values are emboldened, is very popular inside Russia. Also the narrative of protecting ethnic Russians with their so-called Donbas genocide, all the disinformation and lies around that. Those are lies that resonate.

So the causes of the war have been picked up very selectively. The Russian state is rallying the people around them, they’ve owned the information space, and they’ve also managed to turn what was a major risk and potential liability into an improbable success, at least from the standpoint of keeping Putin in power. And after Putin, the situation is so bleak too. Who will likely take over? If it’s Patrushev or somebody from the hardline, or if it’s somebody with a moderate face, maybe like Mishustin. I think we’re looking at more of the same and not a liberal coming over.

There’s more pressure coming from the hardline national strike, as we saw with the reactions to Dugin’s assassination attempt and Dugina’s death than there is from the liberals. So, change in Russian foreign policy and change in Russia is going to be more authoritarian, more anti-Western, more belligerent, not less.

Jeff: Sam Ramani, I thank you so much for spending so much time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Sam: Thank you very much. It was a great discussion.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


Author

  • Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for WhoWhatWhy.org