Leonid Bershidsky

Putin Prepares to Declare Himself a Conqueror

In the early hours of June 12, celebrated in Vladimir Putin’s country as Russia Day, a curious piece appeared on the website of the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia. Signed ostensibly by Putin’s First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko, it promised the residents of the occupied territories of Ukraine that these regions would be absorbed into Russia.

It also contained this provocative passage:

“All of Russia will be working to rebuild a Donbass ruined by fascists. Yes, this will cost several trillion rubles. But that money will be allocated from the Russian budget — even at the price of a temporary drop in the nation’s living standards.”

Ukrainian media pounced, reporting the article as a genuine policy statement. Izvestia promptly took the piece down, claiming that it had been hacked.

Replete with punctuation errors, the Kiriyenko piece was likely fake. Yet in many respects, it does reflect designs for Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions that the Kremlin has already set in motion. These will only fail if Ukraine manages to claw back its territory, pushing the Russian invaders out of the country. Initially unwilling to admit he was starting a war of invasion, Putin appears to lean toward declaring victory by openly claiming the land he’s managed to win — but to be able to do that, he needs some kind of medium- and long-term vision. Kiriyenko appears to be setting himself up as the man with the plan.

More than three months into the so-called “special military operation,” the Kremlin has made no official announcement about how it sees the future of the territories it has grabbed. All it has done is recognize the independence of the two pre-existing pro-Russian statelets — the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” — within the borders of the eponymous Ukrainian regions. Yet Russia has also seized cities and towns in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv regions, to which the “People’s Republics” had never laid claim.

Officials of the collaborationist administrations set up in the conquered territories have often spoken of upcoming referendums on joining Russia. Yet none of these projects has been officially endorsed by the Kremlin. A community in the Zaporizhzhia Region — or, more likely, a group of pro-Russian activists there — “voted” to join the Donetsk People’s Republic in April, apparently fearing a scenario under which the “republics” become parts of Russia after the war and the rest of the conquered territories are stuck in the kind of grey zone that the “republics” inhabited after 2014.

Not even the “republics’” induction into Russia is an official certainty, though the Russian figures who have spoken of it stand much higher in the Putin-led hierarchy than the local collaborationists. They include top functionaries in the ruling United Russia party and the tame Russian parliament. They diverge, however, on when “referendums” on joining Russia can be held — as early as July, or perhaps only in a year’s time. Russia’s hold on its recent conquests is too unstable. In the Luhansk region, most of the territory already has been seized, but about two-thirds of the Donetsk region remains in Ukrainian hands. And even the parts of Ukraine that are under Russian control today are sometimes militarily contested and vulnerable to Ukrainian shelling or insurrectionist attacks. In an address this week, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy assured Ukrainians that Ukraine would return to every town that isn’t currently flying the Ukrainian flag.

To the collaborationists in the occupied territories, this sounds like a death threat. They need a firm promise from Moscow that Russia won’t pull back and thus deliver them to the Ukrainian authorities. And for them to aid the Russian military without reservations, the promise must include the ultimate protection of a Russian border moved far enough southwest to give them cover. Only one man is capable of making such a promise, though, and he hasn’t done so yet — unless one counts Putin’s recent hint that he saw his mission as akin to Czar Peter I’s in the Great Northern War of 1700-1721:
Now, Peter I led the Northern War for 21 years. It may seem that he fought Sweden to take something away from it… But he wasn’t taking it away, he was taking it back… It looks as though it falls unto our lot, too, to take back what’s ours and to add to our strength.

It’s the clearest statement of the dictator’s intent so far. But actually moving the borders is a momentous decision that he’s only made once before, in the case of Crimea. The fake popular votes that the “people’s republics” held back in 2014 were only on broad autonomy within Ukraine: They weren’t told, or allowed, to vie for the status of Russian regions, though their leadership would have jumped at the chance. Similarly, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian regions Russia also recognizes as independent, have never been invited to join Russia as its integral parts.

It’s easy to see why Crimea — strategically important as the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — has remained the exception. Admitting that territorial expansion is Russia’s goal pretty much rules out business as usual with the West, and primarily with Europe. Setting such a goal officially would be tantamount to a promise never to stop until the Kremlin’s appetites are satisfied. These appetites theoretically stretch to any territory that could be seen as part of “historic Russia,” a vague notion that might encompass much of eastern and northern Europe. Acknowledging them would amount to a declaration of permanent, open-ended war, an aspiring conqueror’s coming-out that would place Putin a tiny step away from donning an emperor’s crown.

Apart from a certain strain of madness, such a coming-out requires the ability to conquer, hold and manage other countries’ territory. In those respects, modern Russia has little experience.

Crimea was seized without a fight from a weak, panicked Ukrainian leadership. Its management — at least initially — was left to local pro-Russian politicians and managers, with rather woeful results. Crimean officials put in charge of administering the federal program, which allocated 1.37 trillion rubles ($23.9 billion at the current exchange rate) between 2015 and 2025 to some 900 projects on the peninsula, have invariably ended up in jail. Now that Moscow’s generous aid — 10 billion rubles a year for the city of Sevastopol and 20 billion rubles for Crimea — is beginning to shrink, the Kremlin wants tighter control over how it is spent.

The statelets recognized by Russia and few others have been managed at arm’s length; they have received enough resources not to starve but generally have been told to fend for themselves economically, which they mostly have done with the help of smuggling and other non-transparent schemes. In the process, they have enriched some lower-level Russian officials sent by the Kremlin to supervise the locals. These freewheeling ways would hardly be possible had the statelets been part of Russia, where Putin’s “vertical of power” is designed to extract results from officials in exchange for finite personal enrichment opportunities.

The statelets as they existed before 2022 also were small and thus easy to hold militarily. If Putin ends up with 20% of Ukraine — a conservative estimate of his gains in the case of a Russian victory — he’ll have to control additional territory bigger than all but 15 of the 51 countries of Europe and the former Soviet Union. That requires a powerful police and military force and capable administrators.

In an only-in-Russia twist, the person who’s offering himself as point man for the effort is a protege and disciple of the Russian politician who spearheaded opposition to Russia’s depredations on Ukraine in 2014. Kiriyenko’s first high-level federal government job, in the administration of Boris Yeltsin, was arranged by none other than Boris Nemtsov, murdered by contract killers a year after the Crimea annexation. Unlike Nemtsov, who turned into a fiery opposition leader under Putin, Kiriyenko toed the line and received important appointments, at one point heading up Russia’s nuclear program. He is Putin’s domestic policy czar now. And in recent weeks, he also has been made responsible for the conquered parts of Ukraine. His trip to the region last month was highly publicized, and his protege Vitaly Khotsenko was recently appointed prime minister of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Kiriyenko’s ideas about running the conquered regions include the use of the government’s “substitute bench” that he has built over several years through a system of competitions and training programs for bureaucrats. Alumni of these programs are being offered ambitious projects in eastern and southern Ukraine as a chance to jump-start their careers and prevent the kind of rampant thievery by the local cadre that Crimea has seen. Putin has always had a weakness for bureaucrats able to run their domains on a system of key performance indicators. Kiriyenko is trying to show this is possible in the occupied territories.

Another Kiriyenko idea stems from Soviet times: patronage, or shefstvo, of Russsian regional chiefs over the war-ravaged towns of occupied Ukraine. In times of natural and man-made disasters, the Soviet Union’s big cities and republics often took charge of various aspects of the rebuilding effort, creating the impression of decentralized, compassionate aid campaigns. Now, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has committed to use Moscow’s budget for the rebuilding of Donetsk and Luhansk, eastern Ukraine’s biggest cities. St. Petersburg has been called on to restore Mariupol, where at least two-thirds of building have been damaged and where thousands of people are buried in the yards of high-rise apartment blocks. Other regions, including those with major infrastructural problems of their own, have been given smaller projects. For example, Penza, where garbage cannot be removed from some towns because of bad roads, has sent construction machinery to eastern Ukraine.

The Russian Construction Ministry is far from done with its damage assessments, and rebuilding budgets are essentially open-ended. While it’s still able to export energy resources, food and fertilizers — and few signs point toward a full embargo — Russia has the funds to restore much of the infrastructure it has destroyed in Ukraine and to lavish gifts on the remaining local population to buy its loyalty. In a regime like Putin’s, with the logistics in the hands of someone as efficient and ambitious as Kiriyenko, that effort may even look more effective than any measures by a democratic government in Ukraine trying to enlist Western aid during a looming global recession.

If it works, it will only whet Putin’s appetite for more.