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2022 was a very bad year for Russia and its president

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

For more than a decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has held court in an annual press conference near the end of the year but not this year. The Kremlin canceled those plans in what many saw as Putin trying to avoid inconvenient questions about the war in Ukraine and what many observers think has shaped up to be a bad year for the Russian leader, his country and its economy. Joining us from Moscow is NPR's Charles Maynes. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

MCCAMMON: So let's start with this idea that along with the mere fact of the devastation caused by Russia's war against Ukraine, it's just been a bad year politically and strategically for Vladimir Putin. Why?

MAYNES: Well, just think where things started. You know, in the first days after Putin announced he was sending Russian troops into Ukraine, he was supremely confident. Here's a speech on February 25 in which he called on the Ukrainian army to flip sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Take power into your own hands," Putin told them. Don't sacrifice the lives of your families and friends to defend what he called drug addicts and Nazis in Kyiv who had taken the country hostage. You know, and on the one hand, Putin continues to project a sense of confidence in his military. Everything is going according to plan has really become his go-to response to any questions about Ukraine. And yet these initial assurances of an overwhelming victory are clearly now a harder sell. All you have to do is look at the calendar.

MCCAMMON: Right. So we're 10 months in, and Ukraine's army not only did not surrender, they've reclaimed much of the territory that was seized by Russia. So what does the military picture look like from where you sit in Moscow?

MAYNES: Well, not great. Russian forces obviously failed to take the capital, Kyiv, also Ukraine's second city, Kharkiv. They've suffered symbolic losses, like the sinking of the Moskva flagship cruiser in April in the Black Sea. Russia was also forced to withdraw on Ukraine's north and south, including parts of these four Ukrainian territories Russia illegally annexed following sham referendums. The Kremlin has always explained away all of these setbacks. The Moskva, they say, sank due to a fire on board, not a missile strike, as most believe. These troop withdrawals, they say, are tactical or temporary. And, of course, Russia's also reverted to this winter barrage of missile strikes on critical infrastructure to try and freeze Ukraine into submission, although it hasn't worked. So bottom line, it's been 10 months of fighting, and militarily, Russia doesn't have a lot to show for it.

MCCAMMON: In retaliation for Russia's invasion, the West has launched wave after wave of sanctions on Russia, of course. What's been the impact on the Russian economy?

MAYNES: Well, you know, sanctions against an economy the size of Russia's were really unprecedented. No one really knew how it would affect Russia or the rest of the global economy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So this is actually tape at a Moscow bank as people, including me, tried to get money out after the local currency, the ruble, tanked in March. President Biden at the time famously said sanctions had reduced the ruble to rubble. But you know what? The ruble came back, admittedly through price controls. And Russia seemed to weather the sanctions storm better than many expected, mostly thanks to its oil and gas exports. And Putin took a victory lap.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "The economic blitzkrieg against Russia has failed," said Putin in this speech in June as he claimed sanctions had done more harm to those who issued them in the West than to Russia. Now, just a quick fact check - it's true Europe in particular has struggled with high energy prices as Russia has turned off the tap on most gas exports to the EU. But, you know, as we sit here in December, Russia's economy ultimately shrunk by 2 1/2% this year, far from the collapse many were predicting but also not exactly something to celebrate.

MCCAMMON: But I think the question is, for how long? I mean, can the Russian economy continue to weather this for the long term?

MAYNES: Well, that's just it. You know, the fundamental problems from sanctions keep intensifying. Western penalties on Russian oil and gas are starting to take hold. The ruble is again sliding. Meanwhile, Russian companies can't get imported Western parts, and that's put a stranglehold on key industries, says Natalia Zubarevich, a leading specialist on Russia's regional economy.

NATALIA ZUBAREVICH: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Russia is a country heavily tied to globalization," she notes. "And the more complex the manufacturing in question, the more heavily it relies on imported parts." So Zubarevich warns, soon, whole sectors of the economy could go dark for the simplest of reasons - Russia simply can't produce the finished product.

MCCAMMON: And much of the country's labor force has left. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country since the start of the war. How has that affected things there?

MAYNES: Well, there've been several waves of Russians, young men in particular, leaving the country; first in February with the outbreak of the conflict and then again in September, when Putin called up an additional 300,000 troops in a public mobilization drive. And with that exodus, Russia really lost a generation of young and talented people. It's no accident that some countries that have absorbed these people - places like Armenia, Georgia - they're seeing their economies grow, even as there's occasionally uneasy attitudes towards the Russian presence.

MCCAMMON: Charles, how popular is the war with ordinary Russians? I mean, do we have a good sense of that?

MAYNES: Well, there's a lot of debate here on that front. Government polls show some 70- or 80% of the population support Putin's moves. But skeptics question the legitimacy of those numbers; you know, people like Alexey Minyaylo. He's an opposition politician who says these opinion polls are weaponized to create what he calls illusions of majorities.

ALEXEY MINYAYLO: They see polls. They say, oh, that's 80% for the war. All right. So then the question, do you believe Putin's propaganda?

MCCAMMON: But if the Russian people, by and large, were really against this war, wouldn't they let it be known? I mean, Russian soldiers are also dying. Many Russian families have close ties to Ukrainians.

MAYNES: Yeah, it's true, although I don't think we can discount the role of fear. You know, draconian laws passed after February have ultimately banned any public discussion of the leadership or the military. We've seen nearly 20,000 arrests of Russians who protested the government's actions, with some facing years in prison. Also the media - you know, nearly every independent Russian media outlet closed or fled abroad after the government criminalized reporting on the war. So state propaganda and the conspiracies they push really dominate the mediascape now.

MCCAMMON: So, Charles, you've painted this very grim picture here of a leader and, in many ways, a country that's angry and struggling. So what happens next? Where do things go from here?

MAYNES: You know, well, oddly enough, both the Kremlin and its critics agree that 2023 is shaping up to be a defining year. President Putin talks about a realignment of the world order as Russia's now engaged in this existential battle with the West. And Putin's critics, for very different reasons, agree. They say Putin has so badly miscalculated in Ukraine that we're witnessing the beginning of the end of the Putin era. But that's something people have said for years. And whatever happens, I think a lot of Russians know the state has tools in place to crush dissent. So conversations are moving to private spaces. You know, like in Soviet times, it's in the kitchen around the table where that fundamental question - where is Russia headed? - is now most hotly debated.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks so much, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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