How Russia became “the other country” in a year of conflict

Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have greatly affected the country’s economy. What further isolates Vladimir Putin on the international stage?

On February 24, 2022, a year after the invasion of Ukraine began, Russia, by the voice of its president, still appears victorious. Despite losses on the ground, it is intensifying its efforts and A new attack can be launched soon. Vladimir Putin was also sworn in on Tuesday, February 21. During his State of the Nation address, cont step by step, carefully and methodically” The Russians are calling it a “special operation” in Ukraine.

The rhetoric, pompous and bellicose, however masks the reality: Twelve months after the start of the Lightning invasion, the conflict has had a negative impact on the Russian economy. At the same time, propaganda and censorship have intensified in the country, and the last vestiges of freedom are shrinking.

Slowed down by economic sanctions

During his speech on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin said “Ensuring Economic Stability” His country’s despite a series of sanctions imposed by the West since February 24, 2022 “Russia’s Economic Collapse” According to comments made by Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire in March 2022, they are not bringing the country to its knees. But its gross domestic product is projected to contract by 2.1% in 2022, according to the Russian Statistics Agency. Rosestad*. “I amRussia was able to find ways to finance itselfJulien Verguil, economist at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (INALCO), tells Francinbo. I amRising energy prices have helped it continue to extract significant oil and gas rents from the rest of the world”.

However, inflation has risen to 12% in January 2023. According to the Russian Central Bank*, and rose to 17.8% in April 2022. “The sanctions created a shock of distrust in the Russian currency, which caused inflation to peak in the first weeks after February 24”Julian Verguil explains.

“Of course, the government has supported certain sections of the population to limit the effects of inflation. But it bites into the purchasing power of the weak.”

Julien Verguile, Economist at INALCO

At franceinfo

EU-imposed export cuts in goods and technologies also weigh on Russians. “Cars have nearly doubled in price, and people can no longer find spare parts to fix them”reports Vera Grandseva, expert in Russia and teacher at Sciences Po Paris. Sales of new cars also fell in 2022 (-59% in a year), according to An association of European businesses that brings together manufacturers in the sector.

Because in addition to the economic sanctions taken by the states, more than 1,000 companies have temporarily stopped their operations in Russia since February 2022. A figure from Yale University*. Thousands of jobs have been eliminated even though the official unemployment rate in November 2022 (3.4%) is historically low. “It should not be interpreted in Russia as it is in Europe. The working population is shrinking, which will keep the economy at full employment, even if the economic situation destroys jobs.”Details Julien Vercueil. In other words, this figure is a sham: the country is facing a demographic crisis, with the number of people active in the labor market falling for decades.

The population is “in a bubble”, far from conflict

Despite the economic crisis and stalemate in the conflict, the Russian people continue to officially support the invasion of Ukraine. According to a study conducted by an independent Russian company Levada*, published on February 2, 75% of Russians were in favor of “special action”. Many player deaths, as well War crimes condemned by kyiv and NGOs, did not change public opinion. Logically, from“Very verbal and aggressive campaigning” Also A “Almost Total Censorship” Executed by authority, Note Russian sociologist Lev Gautkov with FranceInfo.

Some independent media were banned in the months after the conflict began. It is impossible to even talk about it now “War” In public, on pain of imprisonment. It’s simple, “From March 2022, Russia has become another countryfranceinfo Vera Grantseva explains. It has become a totalitarian state where any expression of freedom leads to imprisonment.

This tightening of state censorship had the effect of stifling any public will to protest. There were actually some demonstrations at the announcement of the conflict, but they were sporadic and quickly stopped. As of March 2022, more than 19,000 people, according to the NGO OVD information*, were arrested for opposing the war. The number may seem low, but According to the expert, “it is huge considering the risks involved” explains that“About 15% of the population is strongly against the war”.

However, most Russians keep war at a distance. “Even if they look at it fatalistically”, the researcher adds. Blame it on years of restrictive policy that ended up mobilizing citizens, explains Francinho Carol Grimaud, Russian geopolitical teacher : “Russians believe that their voice is useless (…) Russia has a civil society that is not fully formed.” Caught up in propaganda and misinformation, the majority of Russians live in a bubble far from the conflict.

“Russians are trying to choose a psychologically comfortable position and live normally, without informing too much about what is happening in Ukraine, without talking about politics.”

Vera Grantseva, Russia expert

At franceinfo

Some upheaval, such as the public discontent of soldiers’ mothers or the flight of several thousand Russians abroad, might have suggested a reversal of the situation against the Russian president. “Soldiers’ mothers are asking for better equipment, better conditions, we are not against war”, Anna Colleen Lebedev, political science lecturer in Paris Nanterre, explained this in the program “L’Evènement” on France 2 on February 16.

Could the effects of sanctions push Russians into the streets? Not really, according to Vera Grantseva: “The population was very poor before the war, and outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, it hasn’t changed much.” In a nuanced conclusion with Franceinfo, Mathieu Poulec, a researcher at think tank Chatham House, justifies the deal. “Russians are prevented from taking an interest in politics” Alternatively “A great living environment It doesn’t work anymore because people don’t live better.”.

Radical conservative policy

Faced with this breach of the social contract, Vladimir Putin used a familiar strategy. “He describes the war generally as a conflict against the West”, explains Vera Grandseva. The defense of conservative values, regular attacks by the Kremlin leader against homosexuals and trans people, are outrageously associated with pedophilia.

In October 2022, the country’s parliament decided Tighten the law against “LGBT propaganda” that has been in place since 2013. A way to mobilize the Russian people around a social project against the West. If this strategy is not new, it has accelerated since the beginning of the invasion. Conclusion: If, “In the 1990s, Russians wanted to live like the West, today it is not”, Tatiana Jean, director of IFRI’s Russia Center (French Institute of International Relations), summed it up on Tuesday. “C in the Air” 5 in France.

This hardening of discourse has been accompanied by behind-the-scenes changes. “Before, for the elite, there was a little more freedom of expression around Putin, especially when it was important to be loyal. Now it’s unthinkable not to be in favor of war.Vera Grantseva in brief. And if anyone questions Putin’s policy, he becomes a traitor.. Favorable situation “The Most Serious Counselors” in the entourage of the head of state and has implications for the country’s foreign policy.

A country isolated on the international stage

The rift between Moscow, the Europeans and the US, which began widening with its invasion of Crimea in 2014, has deepened over the past year. On February 21, the Russian parliament went so far as to vote to terminate the New Start Treaty, the last bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty linking Moscow to Washington.

Cut off from the West, the Kremlin has turned its sights to the East. It could always count on its Chinese ally, which refrained from directly condemning the war “They share the same critical view of the Western and liberal world”, recalls Mathieu Boulègue. This proximity is explained above all by mutual economic interests.

“Russia needs China to save its economy, and China is taking advantage of this to buy parts of the Russian economy at low prices.”

Mathieu Poulec is a research associate at the Chatham House think tank

At franceinfo

Iran, Belarus, Kazakhstan … the Kremlin retains many allies against the West. But as always, “Vladimir Putin continues his isolationist logic, Mathieu Poulec insists. National Interest First, International Interest Later”. As Alexander III said, “Russia has only two allies: its army and its navy”.

For now, the Moscow military is holding back. Until when? Norway estimates at the end of January that on the ground, 180,000 Russian soldiers have died or been wounded since the war began. “European democracies will tire of war because it is expensive, because Putin ironically thinks that he cannot win by military means”points to Vera Grandseva. Evidence of repeated support for Ukraine from the EU and the US seems to prove him wrong.

* Links followed by an asterisk are in Russian or English.

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