4 min read

Referendumb and Referendumber: Shook Ones, Pt. III

The last 48 hours have proven to be another watershed in the Russo-Ukrainian war, one that simultaneously changed everything and nothing. I can't help but recall the degree to which my own theses about systemic fragility have been dismissed in the past by established commetators and analysts on the basis that the regime has proven it can durably "muddle through" any crisis. These dismissals in public and private have come in different guises, whether it be about the capacity of institutions to adapt politically, the power to mobilize or demobilize the public, or more bizarrely the hoards of cash the regime is supposedly sitting on (but are often claims on foreign assets or recycled into underperforming ruble-denominated domestic financial assets). In my analytic cosmology, this school of thought has treated the 'Ship of State' like the Ship of Theseus. Every move and countermove, protest and counterprotest, and application of 'manual control' amount to planks replacing previous ones holding the regime together. Each 'plank' is somehow a carbon copy of whatever came before in political terms. Continuity is taken as a given despite the whirlwind of changing personal, sectoral, and regional interests across the country shifting with each choice or choice deferred. The Kharkiv offensive and incapacity of the Russian state's response thus far has illuminated the degree to which this line of reasoning has been deeply mistaken.

Watching the announcement of a 'partial' mobilization, it struck me just how well it reflected the pathologies and neuroses of the regime. First of all, the official decree regarding mobilization makes no reference to any total number of individuals to be conscripted despite the 300,000 figure issued publicly and spin around it being 'partial.' At the same time, the Duma has passed a legal framework creating a permission structure for local and regional authorities and police to come up with ever more fanciful means of conscripting vulnerable, poor, or otherwise politically problematic individuals for the war effort. Second, the announcement was itself delayed after being leaked, which almost always means everyone was pissed, most of all the boss, and something had to be slapped together. Third, the slapdash nature of the announcement and measures taken to beef up the military themselves reflected a host of decisions that were deferred at an earlier date because of poor planning and Putin's combination of increasingly uncalculated risk-taking abroad and political cakeism.

The story of the regime from 1999 up until the decision to launch the 'special operation' is one of halfway crooks and shook ones. Halfway crooks, I claim, because of the persistent cultivation of legitimacy through the facade of democratic or otherwise 'normal' legal and political institutions captured by informal networks and practices as well as individuals. Criminality was controlled by the regime through a broad detente and cooperation with organized crime and then coopted as the well-connected enabled their own pilfering through the use of adminstrative resources. Shook, I contend, because of the remarkable incapacity of the political system whenever it comes time to making tough choices where no one ultimately wins. The sprawling industry fueled by political technologists taking the public's temperature and positioning to manage public opinion used to be plugged into an apparatus that was capable of saying no to the Kremlin, but was always wracked by insecurity. There is no longer any such feedback mechanism guiding policy reliably, all the more reason to believe that the initial speech delay reflected frantic attempts to pierce the bubble around Putin, Patrushev, and whoever else is sitting in on these meetings deciding what comes next. Guessing the who and what of it – the core of most Kremlinology – is mostly bullshit, but that's what we're left with at the moment.

Opportunity costs are immensely difficult to assess in political terms. Few analyses of Russia since the annexation of Crimea have taken them seriously enough, likely because the absence of a readily apparent political consequence and the difficulties of proving a negative. Instead, we've been indundated with years of bad takery – Russia had "diversified" its economy because of fiscal maneuvers and austerity, Russia "punches above its weight" despite the complete incapacity that wracks the system when the economy is faced with a real sanctions shock, and so on. There is nothing more blatantly about justifying one's budget at this juncture than attempting to reassure us that Russia will continue to remain a force in international relations far more potent than its underlying economic indicators suggest. Yet we still live in a world where the US dollar is king, bond markets and FX traders want to know you can generate economic growth, and the ineffective and costly maintenance of productive capacity in conditions of stagnation generally does not augur well for the durability of a nation's capacity to make war on rival states that can fight back instead of the conflicts we've grown accustomed to imagining from the Global War on Terror. Russia has spent eight years playing itself while the punditocracy called it a 'resurgence.' We are now seeing the bloody catastrophe that has engendered unfold.

I'm struggling to come up with anything to add to the discourse right now because of how unsettling the situation has become. My relatives may well end up conscripted soon enough or swalled up in the quickening current of things going bump in the night and flying off the rails across the country. I'm equally furious at the cold and vile comments of keyboard warriors mocking Russian men for trying to flee or save their lives, as if the draft in the United States didn't tear apart friends and families for years during the Vietnam War. Others have far more to say and I'll return to more economic analysis later this week. Tomorrow I'll write a bit about the proposed book project of mine that is about to be contracted. Now to stop looking at videos on Twitter of a country going mad and trying to deny it.