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War against Ukraine has left Russia isolated and struggling — with more tumult ahead

Police officers detain demonstrators in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 21, following calls to protest against the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin. Putin called on Russian military reservists, saying his promise to use all military means in Ukraine was "no bluff," and hinting that Moscow was prepared to use nuclear weapons.
Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images
Police officers detain demonstrators in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 21, following calls to protest against the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin. Putin called on Russian military reservists, saying his promise to use all military means in Ukraine was "no bluff," and hinting that Moscow was prepared to use nuclear weapons.

MOSCOW — It's been 10 months since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was deploying tens of thousands of Russian troops on a mission to "denazify" and "demilitarize" Ukraine – its smaller independent neighbor and former satellite of both the Russian and Soviet empires.

At the time, Putin insisted his forces were embarking on a "special military operation" — a term suggesting a limited campaign that would be over in a matter of weeks.

The reality has been far different.

The invasion has grown into the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, forcing millions of Ukrainians from their homes, decimating the Ukrainian economy and killing thousands of civilians.

A man pushes his bike through debris and destroyed Russian military vehicles in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 6. The Ukrainian government accused Russian forces of committing a "deliberate massacre" as they occupied and eventually retreated from Bucha, northwest of Kyiv. Hundreds of bodies were found in the days after Ukrainian forces regained control of the town.
/ Chris McGrath/Getty Images
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Chris McGrath/Getty Images
A man pushes his bike through debris and destroyed Russian military vehicles in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 6. The Ukrainian government accused Russian forces of committing a "deliberate massacre" as they occupied and eventually retreated from Bucha, northwest of Kyiv. Hundreds of bodies were found in the days after Ukrainian forces regained control of the town.

Yet the war has also fundamentally upended Russian life — rupturing a post-Soviet period in which the country pursued, if not always democratic reforms, then at least financial integration and dialogue with the West.

As the war grinds on into 2023, here are key trends that suggest Russia is in for more turbulent times ahead.

More repression

Never a liberal democracy, Putin's Russia now increasingly resembles an autocratic police state.

Draconian laws passed since February have outlawed criticism of the military or leadership. Nearly 20,000 people have been detained for demonstrating against the war — 45% of them women — according to a leading independent monitoring group.

Riot police detain demonstrators during a protest against mobilization in Moscow on Sept. 21, 2022, following Russian President Vladimir Putin's order of a partial mobilization of reservists in Russia.
/ AP
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AP
Riot police detain demonstrators during a protest against mobilization in Moscow on Sept. 21, 2022, following Russian President Vladimir Putin's order of a partial mobilization of reservists in Russia.

Lengthy prison sentences have been meted out to high profile opposition voices on charges of "discrediting" the Russian army by questioning its conduct or strategy.

The repressions extend elsewhere: organizations and individuals are added weekly to a growing list of "foreign agents" and "non-desirable" organizations intended to damage their reputation among the Russian public.

Even Russia's most revered human rights group, 2022's Nobel Prize co-recipient Memorial, was forced to stop its activities over alleged violations of the foreign agents law.

The state has also vastly expanded Russia's already restrictive anti-LGBT laws, arguing the war in Ukraine reflects a wider attack on "traditional values."

For now, repressions remain targeted. Some of the new laws are still unenforced. But few doubt the measures are intended to crush wider dissent — should the moment arise.

Propaganda reigns

The crackdown on dissent has also decimated Russia's independent media.

Leading independent media outlets and a handful of vibrant, online investigative startups were forced to shut down or relocate abroad when confronted with new "fake news" laws that criminalized contradicting the official government line.

Restrictions extend to internet users as well. American social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook were banned in March. Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin's internet regulator, has blocked more than 100,000 websites since the start of the conflict.

Many have relaunched outside Russia, at times clashing with their host countries over editorial policies.

Technical workarounds such as VPNs and Telegram still offer access to Russians seeking independent sources of information. But state media propaganda now blankets the airwaves favored by older Russians, with angry TV talk shows spreading conspiracies.

As the war has ground on, there are few, if any, platforms that provide for discussion of the true costs of the conflict in lives or treasure.

Younger Russians in exodus

Russians queue to leave their country to avoid a military mobilization, at the Kazbegi border crossing in Stepantsminda, Georgia, on Sept. 28. The number of Russian citizens entering Georgia increased after Vladimir Putin's partial mobilization order.
/ Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Russians queue to leave their country to avoid a military mobilization, at the Kazbegi border crossing in Stepantsminda, Georgia, on Sept. 28. The number of Russian citizens entering Georgia increased after Vladimir Putin's partial mobilization order.

Putin's invasion has prompted hundreds of thousands of Russians to flee their country in protest over the war or fear of being drafted into the fight.

Thousands of perceived government opponents — many of them political activists, civil society workers and journalists — left in the war's early days amid concerns of persecution.

Others — notably, IT specialists and artists — quickly joined the exodus as the conflict's drag on business and careers became clear.

Yet Putin's order to mobilize 300,000 additional troops in September prompted the largest outflow: Hundreds of thousands of Russian men fled to border states including Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Georgia in an attempt to avoid the draft.

Putin argued it was good riddance, part of a "self-cleansing" of Russian society from traitors and spies. Russian officials have suggested stripping those who left the country of their passports. Yet there are questions whether Russia can thrive without many of its best and brightest.

A government initiative to lure back computer specialists has produced mixed results.

Meanwhile, some countries that have absorbed the Russian exodus predict their economies will grow, even as the swelling presence of Russians remains a sensitive issue to former Soviet republics in particular.

Piling sanctions and increasing pressure

The West imposed unparalleled sanctions on Russia's economy, which is the world's 11th largest.

In the initial days of the invasion, Russia's ruble currency cratered and its banking and trading markets looked shaky. Hundreds of global corporate brands, such as McDonald's and ExxonMobil, reduced, suspended or closed their Russian operations entirely.

Yet Russia's economy has proven more resilient than many expected, buoyed largely by oil and gas exports.

Helped by Russian price controls, the ruble regained value. McDonald's and several other brands ultimately relaunched under new names and Russian ownership. By year's end, the government reported the economy had declined by 2.5%, far less than most economists predicted.

Restaurant staff serves customers at a branch of a new Russian fast-food chain, Vkusno i Tochka, in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 22. Branches of the restaurant opened in McDonald's locations across Russia.
/ Maksim Konstantinov /SOPA Image/Reuters
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Maksim Konstantinov /SOPA Image/Reuters
Restaurant staff serves customers at a branch of a new Russian fast-food chain, Vkusno i Tochka, in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 22. Branches of the restaurant opened in McDonald's locations across Russia.

Yet there are reasons to believe it's merely pain delayed.

A reliance on imported Western parts — many now sanctioned — means key Russian industries risk going idle when back-ordered supplies winnow.

The West continues to try and crimp Russian energy profits, by capping the amount countries will pay for Russian oil and limiting seaborne oil imports. There are signs the efforts are already cutting into profits.

Ultimately, President Putin is betting that when it comes to sanctions, Europe will blink first — pulling back on its support to Ukraine as Europeans grow angry over soaring energy costs at home. He announced a five-month ban on oil exports to countries that abide by the price cap, a move likely to make the pain more acute in Europe.

Either way, it's a race to the bottom.

The economic damage has already put an end to Putin's two-decades strong reputation for providing "stability" — once a key basis for his support among Russians who remember the chaotic years that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Russia's once-feared military is struggling

Russian citizens are sent to their units following a military mobilization in Moscow on Sept. 29.
/ Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Russian citizens are sent to their units following a military mobilization in Moscow on Sept. 29.

When it comes to Russia's military campaign, there's no outward change in the government's tone. Russia's Defense Ministry provides daily briefings recounting endless successes on the ground. Putin, too, repeatedly assures that everything is "going according to plan."

Yet the sheer length of the war — with no immediate Russian victory in sight — suggests Russia vastly underestimated Ukrainians' willingness to resist.

Russian troops have proven unable to conquer Ukraine's capital Kyiv or the second city of Kharkiv. Kherson, the sole major city seized by Russia, was abandoned amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive in November. Russian forces have shelled the city repeatedly since retreating.

Russia's illegal annexation of four territories of Ukraine following unrecognized referendums in September has only underscored Moscow's problems: it hasn't been able to establish full control over the lands it now claims as its own.

A mobilization drive intended to reinforce the Russian line was dogged by widespread complaints of poorly trained and ill-equipped recruits.

The true number of Russian losses – officially at just under 6,000 men – remains a highly taboo subject at home. Western estimates place those figures much higher.

A series of explosions, including along a key bridge connecting Russia to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, have put into question Russia's ability to defend its own strategic infrastructure.

Open criticism of military leadership spilled onto state television and social media — forcing the Kremlin to change command and tactics.

Russia has since unleashed a wave of air strikes on civilian infrastructure in an attempt to freeze Ukraine into submission during the winter months. The bombing campaign has made life in Ukraine miserable, but there are few signs of Ukrainians backing down.

Indeed, Russia's invasion has — thus far — backfired in its primary aims: NATO looks set to expand towards Russia's borders, with the addition of long-neutral states Finland and Sweden.

Ukraine is now more militarized and consolidated around its desire for a European future than ever before.

Members of Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion train new recruits outside of Kyiv, Ukraine on Dec. 3.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Members of Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion train new recruits outside of Kyiv, Ukraine on Dec. 3.

An increasing isolation

As a result of its actions in Ukraine, Russia has few global allies, save its longtime client state in neighboring Belarus.

Relations with the West have dipped to Cold War levels. Countries at the United Nations overwhelmingly condemned the invasion.

But the Kremlin argues that, too, is a case of Western bias and bullying.

Putin has openly courted allies in the global South, exploiting lingering colonial grievances, conservative values and access to resources.

He has touted new economic partnerships in India and China as proof that a historic shift in the global power balance is under way.

But Putin's vision looks far from assured.

Longtime allies in Central Asia have criticized Russia's actions out of concern for their own sovereignty, an affront that would have been unthinkable in Soviet times. India and China have eagerly purchased discounted Russian oil, but have stopped short of full-throated support for Russia's military campaign.

As 2022 draws to a close, Putin has canceled a series of high-profile events.

A state of the nation address, originally scheduled for April, was repeatedly delayed and won't happen until next year. Putin's annual "direct line" — a media event in which Putin fields questions from ordinary Russians — was canceled outright.

An annual December "big press conference" – a semi-staged affair that allows the Russian leader to handle fawning questions from mostly pro-Kremlin media – was similarly tabled until 2023.

The Kremlin has given no reason for the delays. Many suspect it might be that, after 10 months of war and no sign of victory in sight, the Russian leader has finally run out of good news to share.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Charles Maynes
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