This past week, Alexei Gorinov, a municipal deputy in an outlying district of Moscow, was sentenced to seven years in prison for denouncing Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine as a war. Words matter more than ever in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Calling the Special Military Operation a war is not just a semantical slight, it can also be construed as treasonous. One reason for the harshness of Gorinov’s sentence was because he refused to plead guilty. In other words, the Putin regime decided Gorinov deserved the maximum punishment possible for telling the truth. The strange Orwellian world that has become Putin’s Russia now punishes its citizens for disagreeing with their pseudo-dictator on proper wording. Gorinov committed an even graver offense by having the audacity to contradict the powers that be.
Putin and his propagandists have become the ultimate arbiters of truth in Russia. With the verdict against Gorinov they are signaling that the virtue of honesty is a criminal offense. This is yet another step in the downward spiral of 21st century Russia towards a full-blown dictatorship. The verdict on Gorinov’s use of less than desirable terminology is just as absurd as the term “Special Military Operation” being used as a label for the largest military conflict in Europe since the Second World War. What is being missed amid the crass absurdity of this false label is that Putin has a very good reason for enforcing use of that term. His regime’s continued rule over Russia partly depends upon the continued use of Special Military Operation as a militaristic misnomer.
Operational Failure – A War By Any Other Name
What should we call a conflict that has resulted in over 50,000 dead on the battlefield, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, half a trillion dollars in damage to infrastructure, and has drawn in some of the world’s most powerful militaries to supply one of the combatants? Surely the conflict between Ukraine and Russia meets the definition of a war. Yet the Putin regime does not call it that and demands that Russian citizens avoid using the term under penalty of criminal charges. The difference in semantics for the use of Special Military Operation versus war, is not one of nuance, but of degree. Putin first announced the invasion of Ukraine as a Special Military Operation on February 24th, the first day of the conflict. Soon, Putin’s word on this was turned into law. The Russian authorities would not brook any dissent. The main reason for using “Special Military Operation” while referring to the war in Ukraine was to limit the public’s perception of the scope and scale of the invasion.
At the outset, the invasion of Ukraine was seen by the Putin regime as a mere military excursion that would take no more than seventy-two hours. This would be all the time needed to overthrow Ukraine’s government and restore Russian control over the country. We all know how that turned out. After countless casualties, mismanaged military campaigns, and everchanging objectives, the Special Military Operation is a full-blown war. Any number of draconian restrictions on free speech will not change this fact. Nevertheless, Putin has good reason not to allow his fellow Russians to call the war in Ukraine just that. The reason Putin termed the invasion of Ukraine a Special Military Operation is rather simple, it makes the invasion sound like a little dust up in the neighborhood that can be dealt with in swift fashion. The war has turned out to be anything but that.
Majority Rule – Sacrifices & Semantics
If Putin now allowed a change in terminology so the conflict could be called a war, this would be a tacit admission that his Special Military Operation had failed. Declaring a war would be a quick, but not so easy way for Putin to bring the full power of Russia’s human resources to bear on the situation. A war would allow Putin to declare martial law and mobilize forces through conscription. At the same time, he would be admitting failure for his first iteration of the war, Putin would also be asking for a commitment from Russians that would cut across all stratums of society. A declaration of war would allow him to nationalize the economy to put it on a full-scale war footing.
Putin is hoping to avoid this because it would imply consent from the Russian people that they agreed with such a drastic course of action. Russians have been largely supportive of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine because it asks them to sacrifice very little. Those most affected are soldiers and their families, the majority of whom come from provincial cities or rural areas. Putting Moscow and St. Petersburg in the crosshairs of conflict would escalate war on the home front. Middle class families would be made to sacrifice by providing manpower for conscription and forfeiting many of the economic gains that were a hallmark of Putin’s first decade in power.
By calling the conflict a war, Putin would also be risking what is left of the nation’s economic vitality. Thousands of workers would be trading suits for fatigues or going from the private sector to work in a bureaucracy that would grow to support the military. While Russia could probably manage such a transformation of the economy at first, such an undertaking would run the risk of stoking domestic dissent. If there is one thing Putin fears more than a democratic Ukraine, it is unrest at home. He has spoken before about the profound impact he experienced by witnessing popular anger in Dresden during his time as a KGB agent. Watching the German people help bring down the Iron Curtain left a powerful impression on Putin, one that he fears could be repeated against his regime.
Future Direction – Acts of Desperation
Despite these misgivings, Putin may be forced into a declaration of war if the Russian military’s momentum in the Donbas stalls or the Ukrainians are able to launch a successful counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Declaring war would be an act of desperation, one born from failure. It would also be a huge risk. If the Russian forces could not defeat Ukraine in a Special Military Operation, imagine if they failed to do the same in a war. Such an outcome would lead to questioning of Putin’s ability to lead Russia competently. Thus, it is likely that the term Special Military Operation will continue to be used although everyone knows Russia is involved in an increasingly nasty war. A war that will decide the future direction of the country.
Click her for: The Future Is Now – Ukraine’s Coming Counteroffensive (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #130)