Vladimir Putin wants his countrymen to think that Russia is surrounded by enemies and needs to make ready “to fight an epic war for survival.”:
Nearly every evening, Russian state-controlled television leads news broadcasts with video of Russian planes in action over Syria, interspersed with images of NATO tanks and troops menacing Russia’s borders. On 60 Minut, Russia’s top-rated political talk show, analyst Nikita Isayev recently spoke of Russia’s “great victory” in Syria heralding the country’s return to “superpower status.” And in late November, Putin put Russian business on alert: “The ability of our economy to increase military production and services at a given time is one of the most important aspects of military security,” he told a meeting of top military brass in Sochi. “All strategic and simply large-scale enterprise should be ready.”
Like much Russian propaganda, the Kremlin’s claim that the country is at war is based on a kernel of truth. But it’s a very small kernel. In Syria, a single squadron of around 36 Russian combat aircraft serviced by 4,751 personnel based mostly at the Khmeimim airfield has been in action since September 2015. And in eastern Ukraine, Russian regular soldiers in unmarked uniforms have been spotted patrolling alongside rebel irregulars — most recently in the middle of November, when several hundred anonymous troops known as “little green men” showed up in the rebel city of Luhansk to prevent a bloody power struggle between separatist leaders who broke away from Kiev in the summer of 2014.
With Russia’s actual military engagements so small, why is Putin building up the idea that his country is on the verge of a cataclysmic conflict that will require full-scale mobilization of all Russia’s resources? The most obvious reason is the oldest ruse in the politicians’ book — unite a country behind an imagined external enemy to distract from domestic problems. As Russia’s economy reels under the impact of Western sanctions imposed after Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, creating a myth of perpetual war has become a mainstay of the regime’s survival. “Putin doesn’t have the money to offer a lot to the population — household incomes have been contracting for four years in a row,” says Pavel Felgenhauer, a columnist at the independent Moscow daily Novaya Gazeta. “He will be running his re-election campaign [in 2018] on a national security basis, presenting Russia as a country under siege, under attack.”
But there’s another, more worrying reason for the Kremlin’s belligerent rhetoric — it is convinced war is imminent. As long ago as 2013, even before the conflict in Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry’s annual strategic plan, titled “The Defense of Russia,” predicted a serious global or regional conflict involving Russia before 2023. “Senior Russians talk about not if but when there is going to be a major war,” says Andrew Monaghan, of Pembroke College, Oxford, and the NATO Defense College in Rome. “They are already on a war footing and have been on it for a long time.”
Putin’s call for industry to be ready to switch to war production is a return to a decades-old Soviet defense theory that every factory in the motherland should be immediately ready to turn out tanks, bullets and planes. “The Soviet economy and its social system were built on preparation for total war,” says Felgenhauer. “The system made the Soviet economy totally uncompetitive…. If Putin is serious about actually implementing this mobilization, it will bankrupt Russia as it bankrupted the USSR. The idea that you can transform a factory that makes cigarettes into manufacturing bullets is absurd in the modern world.”
There’s a lot more to ponder — so read the whole article.