Staunton, Mar. 4 – The key to understanding Putin’s war in Ukraine lies in the demography of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Pastukhov says. It is “Russia’s last peasant war,” the last in which approximately a quarter of the population still lives in villages and rural areas and a conflict in which the Kremlin leader is playing rural Russia against the major cities.
Crudely speaking, the London-based Russian analyst says, the Russian population is divided almost exactly in half between those who live in cities with more than 100,000 residents and those who places with fewer than 100,000 residents (echofm.online/opinions/poslednyaya-krestyanskaya-vojna-rossii).
These two categories in turn are each subdivided, with about half of those living in cities of more than 100,000 living in megalopolises with more than a million and just under half of those living in places with fewer than 100,000 living in villages and rural areas, Pastukhov continues.
The burdens of the current war are very unevenly distributed between these two groups, he argues, with those in the rural areas who are the biggest supporters of the war paying the highest price and those in the big cities who are opposed or neutral toward the war paying the least.
“In a sense,” he argues, what is going on is thus “not only a war between Russia and Ukraine but also a war between ‘small Russia’ and ‘big Russia,’” the latest form of the conflict between small Europeanized elites and large patriarchal peasant society that underlay Russia life up through the 19th century.
According to Pastukhov, “the Bolshevik revolution and ‘the sovietization’ of Russia smoothed this confrontation and hid it from the surface of public life” but “ recent events have shown that this fundamental stratification of Russia has not completely disappeared” and continues to shape the calculations of Russia’s current ruler.
“Putin’s regime is the revenge of ‘small Russia’ against ‘big Russia’ for perestroika” and all the succeeding changes, he says. The Kremlin’s war is “a way in which ‘little Russia’ can declare its existence.” That is why the Kremlin carries out the mobilization of the population with such care, concerned to take those it can count on by a combination of sticks and carrots.
Such a policy is “cynical but it is one that has long shown itself to be effective,” Pastukhov says. “The Kremlin is well aware that there is no ‘patriotic war’ in prospect and cannot be. It needs to address and solve another problem: ensuring active support from ‘small Russia’ while maintaining the neutrality of ‘big Russia.’”
Up to now, the Kremlin has tried to keep the burdens of the war on the urban population as small as possible in order to “create the illusion in such places that this war is ‘not about them.’” And this has kept the pot from boiling in the megalopolises even though it is bubbling in the villages.
Such a balancing act will work only as long as there are enough resources from ‘small Russia,’ but when resources there begin to run short, the Kremlin will have to turn to the megalopolises. It is preparing to do so by taking repressive measures there. But whether it will be able to survive the big cities’ coming to a boil remains very much an open question.
According to Pastukhov, Putin has perhaps 18 months left before that issue becomes critical.