Who Knows What Putin Will Do Next?

Plus: A controversy about class

Putin, in front of a red background

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What will determine your vote––or your decision to refrain from voting––in the 2022 midterm elections? What issue is most important to you? Which candidate or ballot measure do you want to see win or lose? No need to answer all of those questions, just pick something on this general topic that moves you. And briefly tell us a bit about yourself and your voting history, too. If you’re not American, what do you want U.S. voters to do?

Send responses to conor@theatlantic.com.

Conversations of Note

The fog of war is upon us.

As reporters document major Ukrainian advances against Russian troops, I am heartened that some of the territory subjugated by a brutal invading force has been liberated. Although early accounts suggest a stunning victory that will be studied for decades, I remain warily cognizant that none of us knows what will happen next in the conflict.

In The New York Times, the Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski observes that a faction of hawks in Russia believe that Vladimir Putin has been conducting the war on the cheap, and that it “can only be won if Mr. Putin mobilizes the nation onto a war footing and declares a draft.” But mobilizing more soldiers “could shatter the passivity with which much of the Russian public has treated the war.” If it’s true that “escalating a war whose domestic support may turn out to be superficial could stir domestic unrest, while continuing retreats on the battlefield could spur a backlash from hawks,” who knows what Putin will do, or even whether or not he will stay in power?

In Foreign Policy, Alexey Kovalev argues that “a new Russian protest movement is coalescing, but it’s neither pro-democracy nor anti-war. Instead, it’s the most extreme of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supporters, who have grown increasingly furious at the unfolding military disaster for Russia in the six-month-long war in Ukraine. They want Putin to escalate the war, use more devastating weapons, and hit Ukrainian civilians even more mercilessly.”

My colleague Anne Applebaum argues that the United States must prepare for the possibility of Ukrainian victory because of the massive geopolitical challenges sure to accompany it. “When Russian elites finally realize that Putin’s imperial project was not just a failure for Putin personally but also a moral, political, and economic disaster for the entire country, themselves included, then his claim to be the legitimate ruler of Russia melts away,” she writes.

Thus, per her reasoning:

When I write that Americans and Europeans need to prepare for a Ukrainian victory, this is what I mean: We must expect that a Ukrainian victory, and certainly a victory in Ukraine’s understanding of the term, also brings about the end of Putin’s regime.

To be clear: This is not a prediction; it’s a warning. Many things about the current Russian political system are strange, and one of the strangest is the total absence of a mechanism for succession. Not only do we have no idea who would or could replace Putin; we have no idea who would or could choose that person. In the Soviet Union there was a Politburo, a group of people that could theoretically make such a decision, and very occasionally did. By contrast, there is no transition mechanism in Russia. There is no dauphin. Putin has refused even to allow Russians to contemplate an alternative to his seedy and corrupt brand of kleptocratic power. Nevertheless, I repeat: It is inconceivable that he can continue to rule if the centerpiece of his claim to legitimacy—his promise to put the Soviet Union back together again—proves not just impossible but laughable.

The possibility of a succession crisis in a nuclear power––and the added possibility that a figure more hawkish than Putin could prevail in such a crisis––is the stuff of nightmares. Now imagine instead that Ukraine wins the war, absent any significant escalation from Moscow. Even that will pose seemingly unsolvable challenges, Noah Millman argues:

We can always hope that battlefield defeat will awaken Russia to the folly of the course it has set on, and that neighborly relations with Ukraine become plausible in the wake of a Ukrainian victory, if not immediately then after a few years and a leader or two has passed from the scene. But hope is not a strategy … Ukraine today is succeeding on the strength of its own people, but with American and other allied arms and intelligence and with Russia substantially cut off by sanctions from key trading partners that it needs to resupply its own armed forces. Are we willing to sustain that posture indefinitely?

Can we, even if we want to?

Russia isn’t quite as formidable as it wished the world to believe, but it’s nowhere near as pathetic as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and after twelve years of containment and sanctions that failed to achieve regime change in that country we got fed up and decided to make the situation worse by invading. If it makes sense for the United States to support Ukraine against Russia in its current war, then ipso facto the United States must strive to achieve a better end-game than the one I describe above, and achieve it on the assumption that Russia’s conception of its national interests will not change in any material way. A Ukrainian battlefield victory, if it comes, will be a victory for a stubbornly independent people against an aggressive invader; it’s impossible for any lover of freedom not to cheer for such an outcome. Achieving peace in the wake of victory, though, is at least as important, and at least as challenging. Perhaps peaceful coexistence is impossible unless Russia changes fundamentally. But if you don’t believe Russia will change fundamentally, then that means peaceful coexistence is impossible, full stop.

What might that look like? To cite but one example, see this from Spiegel International:

Even as Putin turns off the gas tap to Europe, Russia continues to supply Belgrade with particularly cheap energy—and with weapons. In return, Russia wants loyalty, a demand that is tearing Serbia apart. “No one will be able to destroy our relations with Serbia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said recently after his planned trip to Belgrade was canceled at short notice because Serbia’s neighbors denied access to their airspace. It sounded like a threat. Russia, after all, has made no secret of its desire to contain American influence in the Western Balkans.

The article goes on to quote Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama: “Russia would be thrilled if anything moves toward conflict in the Balkans. A good 80 percent of Russian Orthodox Serbs think positively about the way Putin is showing the West his balls in Ukraine right now, if I may put it that way.”

Some News Is Good News

If some of that depresses you as much as it depresses me, now’s a good time to turn to my colleague Derek Thompson’s newsletter, Work in Progress, where he offers a compelling argument that the world is actually improving in striking ways. Citing a new report from the Gates Foundation that tracks progress on various global challenges, he writes:

Since 1990, poverty and hunger have declined dramatically while life spans have increased on every continent … The share of global smokers has declined by about 20 percent; children are roughly 30 percent less likely to be malnourished or stunted; rates of tuberculosis have similarly declined by about one-third; maternal deaths per live births have declined by 40 percent; the prevalence of neglected tropical diseases such as dengue and leprosy has declined by roughly 70 percent; and the share of the global population with access to toilets and safe plumbing has increased by 100 percent.

… Decades ago, public-health experts projected that about 5 million people would die of AIDS in 2020. In 2003, President George W. Bush announced a new policy, nicknamed PEPFAR, to combat the HIV epidemic around the world. At the same time, other countries and global-health organizations distributed millions of antiretroviral drugs throughout Africa, where cases were rising fastest. As a result, the number of global AIDS deaths has declined every year since 2005 to roughly 500,000 in 2020, according to the Goalkeepers Report. That means nine in 10 projected deaths were prevented thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of governments and public-health advocates …  

Another bright spot in global health is the decline of deaths in children under the age of 5. In 1990, more than 8 percent of children died before their fifth birthday. But that figure fell to 3.6 percent in 2021 … The number of famine victims in the 2010s was lower than in any decade on record … Today’s rate of famine deaths is about 99 percent lower than that of the late 1800s, despite the world’s population being roughly five times larger.

If humanity can avoid killing one another, even better times lie ahead.

Monarch Butterflies

At the Black Jacobin, Ralph Leonard opines on reactions to the Queen of England’s death, offering a critique of monarchy and the response of many people in Britain to monarchy––what he calls an “orgy of maudlin sentimentality and zealous adoration” that “has been nauseating and unbearable.”

He writes:

This has always been one of the more bizarre practices of our culture. Only when the subject of monarchy and royalty is mentioned, do the British abandon every remnant of our supposedly typical stoicism, modesty, humour and reserve. We find it hilarious when North Korea invents fantastical tales of supernatural miracles around the life of their ‘Dear Leader’. Yet, the sight of clouds supposedly resembling the late Queen and rainbows being spotted over Buckingham Palace are widely reported as if it was a sign from the divine himself … We react with repulsion and mockery at other countries—usually dictators—where the hysterical veneration of mediocre individuals is part of official culture. Yet, we don’t recognise how unhealthy, how morbid the unwholesome cult of The Windsors is, in, for instance, the ubiquity of images of the late Queen wherever we may go, maintaining the precedence of the monarchy being the nation’s favourite fetish.

Even in countries with constitutional monarchies such as Norway, Holland and Spain, you do not see this level of collective psychosis colonise a culture. Alas, you can’t tell someone they’re not in love when they are. You can’t argue with someone’s faith and the intensity of feeling it arouses.

The monarchy, in our very secular society, more or less functions as a quasi-civic religion. A remnant of the sacred, of magic, of mystique, of tradition, of taboo, that many are desperate to cling onto in such a disenchanted world. It seems like a symbol of honest public service against the cynicism of mainstream politics. The flipside of this is a thin skin towards even the mildest criticism towards the monarchy and our society’s relationship with it, as demonstrated by the disgraceful arrest and jailing of a woman for simply holding a sign that read: Abolish The Monarchy!”, for breaking decorum in these sensitive of times.

Writing on the same subject at the Weekly Dish, the British-born Andrew Sullivan mounts a formidable defense of Queen Elizabeth:

You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy—but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery—two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger. The Crown satisfies those needs, which keeps other more malign alternatives at bay.

No one has expressed this better than C.S. Lewis:

“Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.

The Crown represents something from the ancient past, a logically indefensible but emotionally salient symbol of something called a nation, something that gives its members meaning and happiness. However shitty the economy, or awful the prime minister, or ugly the discourse, the monarch is able to represent the nation all the time. In a living, breathing, mortal person.”

The importance of this in a deeply polarized and ideological world, where fellow citizens have come to despise their opponents as enemies, is hard to measure. But it matters that divisive figures such as Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher were never required or expected to represent the entire nation. It matters that in times of profound acrimony, something unites. It matters that in a pandemic when the country was shut down, the Queen too followed the rules, even at her husband’s funeral, and was able to refer to a phrase—“we’ll meet again”—that instantly reconjured the days of the Blitz, when she and the royal family stayed in London even as Hitler’s bombs fell from the sky.

Every Brit has a memory like this. She was part of every family’s consciousness, woven into the stories of our lives, representing a continuity and stability over decades of massive change and dislocation. No American will ever experience that kind of comfort, that very human form of patriotism across the decades in one’s own life and then the centuries before.

A Controversy About Class

For a brazen example of a politician exploiting the language of social justice to stigmatize legitimate criticism, read this quote and try to guess what behavior the elected official is defending:

As all women know, our health and safety are often disregarded and we are left to navigate alone. As the mother of a young child whom I live for, I am going to protect myself by any reasonable means in order to ensure I am there to see her grow into the strong woman I am raising her to be. Anyone who wants to question how I protect myself just doesn’t understand the world Black women walk in.

That is New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell righteously defending her decision to … bill taxpayers $30,000 for her first-class airline tickets rather than fly coach like the staff that accompanied her. You might be wondering why the mayor of New Orleans needed to fly repeatedly to Europe on city business. The “sister city” agreements that ostensibly needed signing just happened to be in what I would argue are fantastic destinations for vacation travel.

“Her latest voyage to spark outrage was a $43,000 summer trip to France, where the mayor signed an agreement continuing an existing partnership with a small city on the Mediterranean Sea,” Nola.com reports. “The mayor’s airfare alone cost more than $18,000, including her upgraded seats.” If my city ever calls on me to do diplomatic outreach to Noto or Es Pujols or Le Lavandou or Split or Menaggio, I stand ready to serve, and I’ll settle for an exit row.

Provocation of the Week

Writing in Reason, Stephanie Slade surveys the widespread claims that something has gone wrong in America, notes that the problem is often labeled polarization—as if the two major political coalitions are growing further and further apart from each other—and offers a different theory:

What if there’s a sense in which left and right are actually converging, and the nature of that convergence is the real source of the perception that something isn’t right? … The future of the parties is now a matter of live debate. But in both cases, the elements that seem to have the most energy behind them have something important in common: a desire to move their side, and the country as a whole, in an illiberal direction.

On the left, a new crop of socialists hope to overthrow the liberal economic order, while the rise of intersectional identity politics has supplanted longstanding commitments to civil liberties. On the right, support for free markets and free trade are more and more often derided as relics of a bygone century, while quasi-theocratic ideas are gathering support.

What has not changed—what may even be getting worse—is the problem of affective polarization. Various studies have found that Americans today have significantly more negative feelings toward members of the other party than they did in decades past. But partisan animosity suits the authoritarian elements on the left and right just fine. Their goal is power, and they have little patience for procedural niceties that interfere with its exercise.

That brings today’s installment to a close––thanks for reading.

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