Three stories Russians tell themselves about the war in Ukraine — and why they point to a long conflict.
Ukraine’s recent military offensives have upended many people’s expectations of how Russia’s invasion will end. Western supporters have been pleasantly surprised by Ukraine’s successes east of Kharkiv.
That is nothing, however, compared to the complete surprise of Russian observers. As Ukraine recaptured more territory in two weeks than Russia had gained in six months, Russian television was littered with analysts attempting to cope in real time with the cognitive dissonance of failure.
Russian shock at the country’s reversals on the battlefield is unsurprising. Russian experts have inculcated a fair number of myths about the war and the broader state of the world in the seven months since the start of war. As Columbia political scientist Jack Snyder noted in his book Myths of Empire, self-serving nationalist stories that make territorial conquest sound easy are common in regimes that mix elements of autocracy and democracy.
This holds with particular force for Russia. A combination of sanctions, visa restrictions, and voluntary cutoffs have severed most exchanges between Russia and the West. High-level contact has been minimal. According to the Yale School of Management, around 1,000 multinational corporations have pulled back or shut down their Russia operations. Similarly, almost all academic partnerships have been severed by Western universities. Within Russia, domestic political opposition to the war has been ruthlessly suppressed. In some ways, the new iron curtain is as impenetrable as during the Cold War.
As the co-director of the Fletcher School’s Russia and Eurasia program at Tufts University, I and my colleagues have maintained some unofficial dialogue with our Russian academic peers. These half-dozen or so meetings over the past six months have been both virtual and in-person at neutral sites. They have included Russian scholars with close ties to the Putin administration. There has been a frank and full exchange of views with the aim of seeking mutual understanding.
What we heard from our Russian counterparts was sobering: a mix of grievance, defiance, denial, acceptance, foreboding, and hope about the future.
The Russian scholars we spoke with — more than a dozen in all — were far from homogeneous in their assessments about the current state of affairs. There was acknowledgment of some difficulties that Russia would face in the coming years. There were a few points on which they agreed — but whether those claims hold up under scrutiny is very much subject to debate.
Some of those questionable claims were distracting rather than significant. For example, there was a surprisingly strong embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “cancel culture” claims about the West, extrapolating from occasional overreaches during the first month of the war and making it sound like Western civilization wants to censor all Russian art and culture.
Still, as the war has progressed, our Russian contacts have told themselves a number of stories that all point toward a downplaying of the risks of invading Ukraine and a rosier vision of Russia’s present and future strategic situation.
Some of these narratives possess a grain of truth; others are more detached from reality. But it is worth deconstructing three of these stories that Russians tell themselves to understand how Russia’s elite is thinking about the future of world politics.
The West is weak and worthless
The most prevalent story our Russian counterparts have echoed is that Western democracies lack the fortitude to engage in sustained support for Ukraine. As one Russian scholar put it to me, “We are waiting for high interest rates to create domestic political problems.”
The central tenet of Russia’s current strategy is that Moscow can wait out the West, where they are convinced internal discord and fatigue will inevitably kick in. Russian elites have said that Putin thinks the West is weak, that they will grow weary of war, and that Western public opinion will flip.
This matches multiple statements by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. In June, Peskov bragged that EU residents were “feeling the impact of these sanctions more than we are” and earlier, said that “the cost of these sanctions for European citizens will increase every day.” Over the summer Russian analyst Sergey Karaganov told the New York Times that “modern Western elites … are failing and losing the trust of their populations.”
To be fair, such sentiments are also heard in the West. It sometimes seems as though there’s a new headline each day suggesting rising discord within NATO or growing dissatisfaction within the United States about the situation in Ukraine.
In April, for example, Politico reported, “The growing concern is that Putin has something the Western alliance lacks: time. … U.S. officials fear support for the war at home could wane over time, especially if fuel prices remain high as the nation barrels into the midterm elections.”
Five months later — as Ukraine was racking up significant territorial gains — Politico ran a similarly themed story with the lead, “As the war in Ukraine grinds on toward its 200th day, President Joe Biden faces fresh challenges in his vow to defy Moscow’s war machine for as long as it takes.”
No doubt, Western politics have been roiled by instability. In the seven months since Putin invaded Ukraine, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson left office, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi resigned, French President Emmanuel Macron’s party lost its parliamentary majority, and President Joe Biden’s party looks poised for midterm losses. Even if Russia was surprised by NATO’s initial display of solidarity with Ukraine, is Putin so wrong to expect the collapse of Western support?
But there has been one force that has helped keep Western resolve from fraying: Russia itself. The country’s vicious prosecution of the war has been the most reliable factor in preventing any wavering. Reported war crimes in Izyum, Bucha, Mariupol, and the Donbas offer a constant reminder to outside observers of Russian bellicosity. Indiscriminate missile attacks on Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Odesa also provide periodic lessons about the crude nature of Russian methods and ambitions.
This problem will persist for Putin — indeed, his domestic strategy necessitates it. In order to maintain public support for the war, Putin has little choice but to amp up Russian rhetoric and actions in ways guaranteed to inflame the West. This leads to a bevy of quotes that make the Russians look positively genocidal.
Deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev’s Telegram account is littered with inflammatory comments about redrawing Europe’s borders, including one warning that “Ukraine may lose what’s left of its state sovereignty and disappear from the world map.” In one interview, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that it was possible that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could be a Nazi even if he was Jewish. In June, Vladimir Putin compared himself to Peter the Great, explaining that “it is also our lot to return [what is Russia’s].”
Such statements ricochet around the Western world — and dim Russian hopes for a Western public demanding accommodation with Moscow. Recent polling continues to show rock-solid support in the West for countering Russia in Ukraine. In a September poll, 70 percent of Germans approved of supporting Ukraine even if it means higher energy prices. In an August poll, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 72 percent of Americans support providing additional arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government; 58 percent also agreed that, “the United States should support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
This Russian narrative underestimates the autonomy that elected leaders have in managing national security. The strength of the French presidency ensures that Emmanuel Macron, who just won reelection to another five-year term, will maintain continuity in French foreign policy regardless of parliamentary control. Elizabeth Truss, Boris Johnson’s successor in 10 Downing Street, appears committed to sustaining British support for Ukraine.
As for the United States, even a Republican wave in November would almost certainly have no effect on US support for Ukraine. The Biden administration will be running foreign policy until at least January 2025. For all the Russian talk about outlasting the West, it is far from clear whether Russia can fight a three-year war. By 2025, global commodity markets will likely have adjusted to the sanctions on Russia, and Europe should be independent of Russian energy and Russian economic leverage; even our Russian counterparts acknowledged that the energy link between Russia and Europe would be completely severed. Meanwhile, Russia’s civilian economy will face continued strangulation from sanctions.
Things can change, of course — a harsh winter, some battlefield reversals, and more tumult within their governments could rattle Western resolve. But as of now, it’s the Russian belief in the weak West that’s proven unfounded.
China will be Russia’s lifeline
When pushed on questions about economic competitiveness and technological change, the Russians we spoke with always had a rhetorical out: even if Western sanctions take their bite, China will be Russia’s “black knight.”
The Russians are convinced that China will compensate for any short-term hits caused by the sanctions. Moscow’s strategic partnership with Beijing will allow for a thriving trade in technology and natural resources. One Russian scholar stated that until now, Russia had been the brake on bilateral technical cooperation — no longer.
According to this narrative, even if the next decade is a difficult one, by 2032 the United States will be powerless to stop the Sino-Russian axis. As one Russian scholar explained to me, “you have been declining for a long time.”
There are some valid reasons for Russian elites to believe this. China is a technological powerhouse (although its prowess in cutting-edge technologies might be a bit exaggerated). And just before the invasion, Russia and China agreed to a joint statement asserting that “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” Little wonder that Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first foreign visit since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic included meeting with Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last week.
Sounds like a pretty cozy relationship! As the war has progressed, however, some hard limits to that friendship have also been revealed. China has offered some rhetorical support at the United Nations. Beijing has also been happy to increase its purchases of Russian oil — at a steep discount, much as it did when Iran faced Western sanctions a decade ago.
But as Russian stores of artillery and other military equipment have run low, Chinese firms have been reluctant to run afoul of the US sanctions imposed after the invasion. To be sure, some Chinese firms have been hit with sanctions for trading with Russia, but those are the exception and not the rule.
“China is not providing material support,” one senior US official explained to Reuters over the summer. “We have not seen the PRC (People’s Republic of China) engage in systematic evasion or provide military equipment to Russia.”
Even its rhetorical support has limits, as Putin discovered last week at the Uzbekistan summit, where he acknowledged that China had expressed “concern” to him about Russia’s war — an unusually public admission of an ally’s wariness.
This is not surprising. From Beijing’s perspective, Russia’s invasion has generated unwanted attention on whether China would attempt something similar in Taiwan. Chinese officials have expressed frustration to me at the bind Russia has put them in. China has an obvious strategic interest in keeping Moscow as an ally, but Beijing’s economic relationship with the United States and European Union dwarfs that with Russia.
For all the talk of economic decoupling between China and the United States, Chinese exports to the West surged to record levels last year. China has no interest in sabotaging its great-power neighbor — but neither does it have any interest in disrupting its own position in the global economy. As Carnegie Endowment for International Peace vice president Evan Feigenbaum put it, “The fact is, China is mainly pro-China, not pro-anyone-else.”
And the more that Russia relies on China as a lifeline, the less it will be viewed as an independent great power. There has already been a raft of articles describing Russia as the “junior partner” in the Sino-Russian relationship, a claim that rankles any Russian old enough to remember when China was viewed as the subordinate state.
Russia desires global prestige as much as it does great-power status. Growing ever more dependent on China will not help in that regard. As my Fletcher colleague Chris Miller notes in his book We Shall Be Masters, Russia has periodically believed it could pivot to the East in response to difficulties in the West. This gambit has never turned out well.
China may well be Russia’s friend on paper — but our Russian colleagues’ confident projections of a rescue is unlikely to pan out.
The technology sanctions will not be too painful for Russia
One of the few areas where even Putin has acknowledged some immediate pain has been the sanctions on high-technology goods.
There was a general recognition that Russian citizens would not be able to procure top-of-the-line consumer goods anytime soon; several experts acknowledged that Russian consumer goods would revert back to 1990s-level technology. For example, there was much fanfare over the summer because Russia’s new sanction-proof Lada car came off the assembly line. It lacked air bags and an anti-lock braking system — but it’s a car! For our Russian scholars, however, such consumer technology would be “good enough” for Russian citizens.
That said, Russian experts were also convinced that the country could and would develop the internal capacity to stay competitive in important strategic sectors, like military hardware and transportation infrastructure. One academic even made the comparison to North Korea being able to develop nuclear weapons under complete embargo, which might be the first time anyone has ever cited the DPRK as a technological success story.
It would be safe to say that experts on technological innovation are more skeptical of Russia’s ability to stay competitive on, say, artificial intelligence while being ostracized from the global scientific community. Russia was already lagging on AI before the February invasion, and as one recent Center for Naval Analysis report concluded, “the restrictions on high-tech Western exports to Russia are likely already causing pain in the Russian AI sector.”
In other words, there is zero chance Russia will suddenly be able to outpace Western investments in this new technology. More generally, the flight of tens of thousands of Russian IT personnel since the start of the war will make it that much more difficult for Russia to keep pace.
And the pain goes beyond consumer goods. The simple fact is that the wall between civilian and military technology is more permeable now than during the Cold War. The same computer chips that enable smartphones to function will be needed for cutting-edge military hardware as well. Russia can find some workarounds, but only to a limited extent.
But the hard truth here is that the more Russia falls behind on the civilian side, the more its military capabilities will be degraded as well. It’s a lie that could well prove to be one of the costliest Russians tell themselves.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics and co-director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.