On Tuesday 10 October 2023, Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill, President of the International Council for Central and East European Studies and longtime expert in Soviet and Russian politics at the University of Sydney, addressed the Institute on Russia’s internal affairs in the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, with a focus on Russia’s economy, society, and politics. Professor Gill assesses that the conflict has had, if anything, a positive impact on Russia’s economy and a generally neutral effect on Russian society, and has been ineffective in weakening Vladimir Putin’s political power.
Professor Gill’s research indicated that, while many prominent analysts predicted a major economic crisis in Russia, it did not eventuate. Although the Russian economy shrank by 2% in 2022, it is predicted to grow by around 1% in 2023. (Ukraine’s economy has suffered much more severely, shrinking by at least 20%.) Russia has experienced relatively few production shortages, with the exception of the technology sector, which may be the result of numerous Western firms exiting Russia. Imports from the rest of the world have increased: Professor Gill cites the rising number of Chinese-made cars in Moscow. Russia’s economy has performed well due to oil and gas revenues providing a continuing stream of income, combined with an increase in domestic production and import substitution and the government’s allocation of funds into the war effort, including pensions and salaries for veterans.
Despite this, Russia’s economy is facing several problems. Oil and gas revenues have been halved in 2023, compared to 2022, and its reserves will run out at some point. Its sovereign wealth fund has been affected by western sanctions and the cost of the war. Inflation has been increasing which may have major economic consequences.
Professor Gill then moved on to the impact of the war on Russian society. He assessed that the war has had little effect on the lives of people in the big cities. There is little sense of crisis among the Russian people, who have been going about their lives as usual. There is resentment of the war among non-ethnic Russian communities, though this has not translated into widespread discontent. Popular support among the Russian people is largely due to the view that it is a war against the United States and NATO expansion. While people want to see an end to the war, most Russians want to see Russia victorious. There has also been a major crackdown on opposition, with the government imprisoning critics of Putin’s regime, closing down the activities of several human rights-based organisations, and heightening pressure on public space through Russia’s Foreign Agent Law, which marks those who receive money from overseas (including NGOs like Amnesty International) as “foreign agents.” Professor Gill noted that Russia currently has a transparency rating of 28/100, compared to Australia’s 77/100, which translates to low transparency and high corruption on Russia’s part. (He added that similar figures apply to Ukraine.)
Finally, Professor Gill discussed how the war has impacted Russian politics. He argued that it is wishful thinking to believe that Putin’s political power would be weakened as the result of the war: he continues to have around 70% popular support. Due to the structure of the Russian oligarchies, any Putin overthrow would not be instigated by the Russian people, but rather by the elites who control major industries and companies across Russia. Elites would overthrow Putin for three main reasons:
- Some had not wanted the war to occur in the first place.
- Some believe that the war effort is not strong enough.
- Some have had their economic interests harmed as the result of Western sanctions.
The general rule in Russian politics is that Putin’s political power sits above that of the elites. Most elites heavily depend on Putin, due to his role as a mediator of Russia’s various elite factions. For example, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the private military company Wagner Group, who was once in Putin’s close circle, had grown increasingly critical of Russia’s defence minister and other elites. While many in the Australian press claim that Prigozhin attempted a coup against Putin, it was all an act to force Putin’s hand and get him on his side before the defence minister and others could. Following this, Putin made his position on the matter clear within ten hours. The fate of the Wagner coup was not a sign of Putin’s weakness, but rather of his strength.
Professor Gill concluded with a brief analysis of the current situation in the Russia-Ukraine war. The Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russia appears to be labouring, and there have been no major breakthroughs. Professor Gill predicted that the war will not go anywhere fast before winter sets in. It can be won neither quickly nor on Ukrainian terms. He points to two major shortcomings in the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Firstly, there is a lack of equipment that cannot be rectified quickly, due to other geopolitical commitments by the West limiting the supply of aid, such as supporting Israel in the renewed Israel-Palestine conflict. Secondly, there is a severe manpower problem. Put brutally, Ukraine is running out of soldiers. Russia has far more soldiers than Ukraine (3 million Russians vs 500,000 Ukrainians), and has a greater capacity to mobilise its military. Ukraine is having trouble recruiting young men, many of whom fled the country as the war loomed. Professor Gill concludes that the only way Ukraine is going to come out of this war with Russia is through negotiation. Perhaps Ukraine will need to swap land for peace. Professor Gill predicts that, sooner or later, Ukrainian leaders will have to come to this conclusion.
Responding to a comment from the audience that advocating for negotiation equates to advocating for the genocide of Ukranians, Professor Gill stressed that he did not advocate anything; he was offering his assessments based on researching the facts. He took two normative positions on the Russia-Ukraine war: Russia should not have invaded Ukraine; and NATO should not have provoked Russia into invading Ukraine. NATO cannot publicly accept that they provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or else they would have to take responsibility for it.
Asked why NATO is perceived as such a threat by Russia, Professor Gill argued that Russia believes that NATO is often involved with regime changes, in cases such as Libya, Serbia, and post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe. To Putin, there is a sense that people in Russia and Ukraine have a shared history or interest. Professor Gill believes that Putin misjudged everything by invading Ukraine, which will only increase the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO.
Responding to a question concerning the potential justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Professor Gill emphasised that there is no justification for invading another country. But Crimea has historically been Russian territory and has a substantially Russian population. It is home to the Russian Black Sea fleet and, with Crimea no longer Russian and potentially in NATO hands, Russia had perceived a strategic imperative to re-take Crimea.
Asked about the view advanced by eminent US strategic analyst John Mearsheimer that Australia’s strategic interests would lie in alignment with Russia, Professor Gill responded that a realist analysis could lead to this conclusion; an alliance with China might also meet realist calculations in navigating an increasingly mulitipolar world. But he predicted that culture will prevail over such realism: as with AUKUS, Australia has identified with the NATO bandwagon, contributing to its hard-line stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He saw a parallel in Australia’s support of Israel.
Summary by Daniel Yang
AIIA NSW intern
Daniel Yang and Professor Graeme Gill