Putin has sparked a bloody war and largely isolated his Russia internationally. But was 2022 an annus horribilis through and through for the Kremlin boss – or can he, on closer inspection, post some successes? A balance sheet for Vladimir Putin.
In retrospect, 2022 will be seen as the turning point in Vladimir Putin’s reign, the moment when he risked everything and lost a lot. In the more than twenty years of his rule before that, he continuously expanded Russia’s operational position in international relations. He was helped by the fact that he was tactically skilful, his opponents were sufficiently trusting and averse to action, and in this way Russia achieved great political and economic effects with the few resources available to the country.
He consolidated his rule in several wars and made the military not only a force that ensures order at home, but that can also be used as a foreign policy tool. At the same time, he promoted energy relations with other states, especially in western Europe, which he regarded as desirable addressees, and thus formed relations of one-sided dependency.
At the same time, he created an international force of disinformation that was supposed to influence elections in democratic countries, but also the direction of public opinion in general – and did. The military, energy and disinformation were the key skills of Russia, which otherwise could not keep up with the world powers USA and China either demographically or economically. But that was Putin’s ideology, Russia as a special civilization destined to be a world power, at the heart of what he would have liked to read as Putinism but has been characterized everywhere as a neo-imperialist outrage.
Because in Putin’s world there is the Russian world, which geographically extends beyond Russia. Early on, he represented a folkish ideology that made him the protector of the Russians in all countries of the world. This was especially true in the immediate geographic area – the near abroad – because after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians, more precisely: people whom Putin defined as Russians, lived there in large numbers.
Putin could have known that they now identified more strongly with the countries in which they lived and made no attempt to help Russia with their own lives in 2022, because this finding has been made several times. But he ignored facts that disturbed his historical-political narrative. Therefore, before February 24, 2022, he was able to pretend that Ukraine would fall, people would cheer for him and the war would be over in a few days.
Prof. Dr. Thomas Jäger has held the Chair for International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne since 1999. His research focuses on international relations and American and German foreign policy.
But he did not want to take the risk of war if he succeeded in achieving his goals, because the European states voluntarily surrendered to their fate in the face of the danger of war. Therefore, Russian diplomacy put three demands on the table:
First, Ukraine should be left to Russia, framed with calls for denazification and demilitarization.
Second, all foreign troops should withdraw from the former Warsaw Pact member states, that is, from Poland to Romania. Along the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian borders, the states should only rely on their own military – and thus be exposed to military pressure from Moscow.
Third, American nuclear weapons should be withdrawn from Europe, which would have decoupled nuclear deterrence between the US and European NATO countries. Sooner or later the American soldiers would have withdrawn completely. Russia would have used its three core capabilities – military pressure, energy dependency and disinformation – to politically dominate Europe. Only then would it have sufficient population and economic power to be able to throw these into the scales of international conflicts as a determining world power.
The states addressed did not respond to this. Expecting a speedy victory, Putin decided to go to war. It was to be carried out so quickly that the Ukrainian government would have to flee head over heels, the quarreling EU states could not find a common response and the USA was in doubt as to whether it was worth getting involved with the security policy free riders in Europe.
And, in retrospect, there was even a chance of that had not the Ukrainian armed forces made every effort to thwart a decapitation strike by distributing their material and immediately taking action against the Russian troops marching on Kyiv. In the days following February 24, the fate of the EU hung by a thread, for the EU would have been torn apart if Ukraine had been quickly occupied.
In this case, the Baltic states and Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic would have called for deterrence and Western Europe would probably have answered that the new realities had to be accepted. They could no longer be changed without the risk of war with Russia. The EU would have collapsed. In this respect, Ukraine has saved the EU from failure.
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In 2022, Putin suffered three major defeats in the war: being expelled from Kyiv, fleeing Kharkiv, withdrawing from Kherson. He only had “successes” in the destruction of cities, civilian infrastructure and attacks on civilians.
Over 700 medical facilities were destroyed in the first 300 days of the war. With the support of China, Russia was able to record a splendid success, but at the same time lost decisive control over the Central Asian states, which accepted security guarantees from Beijing. Russia has no real ally, and even Belarus is making every effort not to be drawn into the war. Iran, Syria and North Korea are the international partners.
On the other hand, Putin succeeded in largely dominating the domestic political situation. An effective opposition did not develop either among the elites or among the population. Support for the war dwindled rapidly as a result of mobilization, and hundreds of thousands left the country to evade military service. But the civil society structures that would have made it possible to organize the protest have been systematically smashed for years.
The elites were unable to organize resistance to the war, which severely limited their wealth and freedom of movement. The number of deaths rose strikingly; some aspired to go abroad. Even the recent announcement of expropriating unpatriotic empires stood as a warning. Who would also want to publicly admit to being “traitors and scum” (Putin) by not being willing to give everything for the fatherland? Internal repression went hand in hand with the war.
Economic development still hides the fact that Russia’s most important capabilities have been drastically depleted. The army has lost combat effectiveness for years to come and will have to be built up again at great expense. But there is a lack of income for this, because gas and oil exports are falling, prices will fall again in the medium term and the country remains largely excluded from all other industrial production.
Even armaments exports are likely to fall, as they have not proven to be overly competitive. Eventually, dependence on a few key markets – China, India – will result in prices being dictated to Russia. Just as Russia managed to make Germany dependent on its energy, it will also be dependent on these markets in the future.
Putin has destroyed a strategically extremely advantageous position of Russia with an overly optimistic decision. In the foreseeable future, Russia will not be able to exert a decisive influence on its environment again, apart from semi-annexed Belarus.
Obama was wrong when he called Russia a regional power in 2014, because its influence stretched far beyond that. In retrospect, however, Putin will be credited with the achievement of really shaping Russia into a regional power. The fact that he is still able to remain at the head of the state is thanks to his targeted development of the Russian system of rule.