Reposted from Russian Dissent, August 5, 2022.
“Stupidity or treason?” asked State Duma deputy Pavel Milyukov in 1916, when the imperial Russian army was in the midst of retreat under the onslaught of the Germans, surrendering city after city along the western borders. A little over a hundred years later, we hear exactly the same exclamations from domestic patriots, complaining that either some secret enemies or incompetent individuals - who have somehow risen to the highest echelons of power - are alone responsible for defeat in the war with Ukraine. Alas, patriotic commentators neither then nor now could understand that the main cause of failures is not the people sitting in certain offices, but the system itself, which is inevitably and naturally sinking into collapse.
Those who evaluate current events exclusively from a technical point of view cannot understand why decisions that seem obvious and even overdue have not been issued or implemented. But the reasons for this state of affairs are in fact quite easy to understand. Milyukov, in his speech, said that when his fellow patriotic deputies of the State Duma demanded the state take certain necessary measures, they were refused; “the government,” he said, “persists in claiming that organizing the country means organizing a revolution, and it deliberately prefers chaos and disorganization.” Now the situation is repeating itself. The current government will do nothing that is contrary to its social, economic and political interests; in other words, to the interests of those people and groups for whose sake the war is being waged. Absent these interests, the current military operation would never have been started, given that its futility from a technical point of view has been obvious from the very first days. The war was started on the basis of internal political alignments, which have since become hopelessly confused. But now it is not possible to simply sever the Gordian knot with one blow, as the knots of contradiction have been pulled ever tighter.
That hero of Novorossiya, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, is outraged that there has been no mobilization of Russian civil society. But how can a regime mobilize civilians if its very existence has depended entirely on the passivity and apathy of that population for years? The failure of the government to rouse society and the weakness of the anti-war movement have the exact same cause: the Russian people are little more than a mass of individuals living mostly private lives. Any successful attempt to push them out of this state of inertia would result in the collapse of the only kind of mass psychological foundation on which Putin's system can exist. Why, on the one hand, would the authorities put weapons into the hands of citizens if they not only have no reason to trust them, but also have many reasons to fear them? And on the other hand, how could such a feat even be accomplished after several decades of rule by the thieves’ oligarchy, which has overseen the ruin and collapse of all industry, to such an extent that even the current 200,000-strong army cannot be adequately armed? In addition, soldiers need to be fed, clothed, supplied with ammunition, and transported. But then it turns out (just like during the First World War) that wherever you look, there you find problems, imbalances, bottlenecks.
Sanctions make things even more difficult. Automotive factories are shutting down, freight car production has fallen by half. There is no available data on defense production, being classified, but judging by related industries, there are no grounds for optimism there either.
Why complain about the incompetence of officials and the military, when it is obvious that there is no one fit to replace the current personnel? The appearance of any successful military or administrative leader automatically represents a threat not only to the highest officials in his department, but also to Vladimir Putin personally. After all, this is another fundamental principle of the regime: “If not Putin, then who?” Senior officials have become irreplaceable, the result of a consciously directed strategy to artificially bring about a shortage of competent personnel. For there to be visible, bright, or at least recognizable figures that evoke positive emotions in any large number of people in this country simply cannot be allowed. The chief leader and his entourage must remain indispensable, otherwise they may be replaced. Therefore, any potential successor at any high level becomes a serious political problem and a threat to the stability of the regime. The point here is not even to play up the regime’s negative qualities, which liberal publicists have been doing for many years, but just to explain how the system makes any changes extremely difficult and undesirable in general.
In a certain sense, the state of affairs in modern Russia is even worse than it was in the Tsarist days, where the class structure was held up with corresponding institutions, within the framework of which it was still possible to make some decisions. In Putin’s Russian Federation, all institutions have been destroyed. This is no longer an autocratic monarchy, with its strict rules for succession to the throne, and procedures for the appointment and removal of senior officials. In the political sense, our current state can hardly even be called a dictatorship, because a working authoritarian regime needs functioning institutions no less than does a democracy. Many who complained about the rapid curtailment of the remnants of democratic freedoms in our country over the past three years have not noticed that a more or less ordered authoritarian regime has not been built during this time either. The state has fallen to a despotic government, in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a narrow clique, guided rather by their fears, desires, or moods than by any political or economic commitments. Even a large part of the oligarchy, not to mention the capitalist class as a whole, is excluded from decision-making. And it is quite clear that this state of affairs cannot be maintained for a long time. But even in the short term, this has already led to the collapse of governance.
Patriotic blogs are full of complaints that, having announced some or other actions, the army and the government did not fulfill their promises. Hence again the usual cries about “treason.” But where are these traitors, entrenched at all levels of power? No one can name them, simply because they do not exist.
Declared strategies are not realized, but not because they have been sabotaged, but because they are impossible to implement. And not for lack of trying. Let us recall, for example, the statements repeated by the military and politicians promising “attacks on decision-making centers.” And now Strelkov and his like-minded men ask menacingly: “Where are these strikes?” In fact, blows are constantly being struck, and have been from the very first day. There are simply no results: bands of saboteurs sent to kill top Ukrainian officials are caught and destroyed, missiles and planes attacking Kyiv are shot down - let’s not forget that back in Soviet times, the Ukrainian capital was (along with Moscow) one of several cities in the USSR to enjoy maximal protection from any possible threats, including a nuclear strike. And even if during the years of independence a lot of things fell apart and went wrong, then in the 8 years that have passed since the beginning of the open confrontation between the two states, the Ukrainian military and special services managed to put things in order, while their Russian colleagues simply continued to steal without shame.
Putin’s army is ready to hit warehouses, destroy roads and bridges, and burn oil storage facilities. It has been doing this since the very first days of the war. But it turns out that the “second army of the world” has a limited supply of missiles, which therefore should not be spent to hit just any target. With no well-organized intelligence or clear strategy, however, expensive missiles are nevertheless still launched at completely inappropriate targets. Thanks to a lack of coordination, officials not only lie about what is happening, but also constantly get confused in their lies, contradicting themselves. Not understanding of the tasks of the war, but yet receiving constant kicks from the central government, demanding evidence of activity, the military simply bombs residential areas. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs agrees to stop the shelling of Odessa in order to arrange the export of grain (in which Russia is interested no less than Ukraine) and to ease the pressure of sanctions, only for the military to begin shelling the port of Odessa with rockets. None of this is the result of sophisticated deceit, nor even pathological stupidity, but merely a sign that no one has been coordinating the work of the military and diplomatic services at the state level.
The reason for these and other failures is not betrayals or stupidity (not that top Russian officials have done anything particularly smart in recent years), but the decomposition of the system. Under the current regime, this is unstoppable, and fatal. To make matters worse, attempts to come up with something new only worsen the situation.
Under conditions of despotic-chaotic control, it cannot be otherwise. What is perceived by the patriotic layman as the indecision and inconsistency of power, in reality is only an inability to act in any other way. The system has become obsolete and is collapsing before our eyes. And in this respect, the comparison with 1916 really bears the highest degree of relevance.