Day-to-day life would be affected: for example, by Russia being excluded from the SWIFT international payment system. This could cause dissatisfaction not only among the lower classes, but also among the more sophisticated— from a consumer point of view — middle class. It’s not difficult to predict problems for small- and medium-sized businesses.    

This could give rise to the rare situation of socio-economic dissatisfaction becoming political dissatisfaction, or even political protest. The example of widespread anger at the decision to increase the retirement age in 2018 is not really appropriate here, because back then, people were protesting about the state violating the Soviet, paternalist social contract, not about a worsening economic situation. This time, there could be leaderless and spontaneous socio-political protests.     

This would not be a protest movement among liberal circles, but among the part of the population the authorities have always considered their social base: people of a paternalistic mindset. It’s those people who voted for the Communist Party in the 2021 parliamentary elections, in the absence of other legal instruments for expressing displeasure. Having said this, the authorities would not sit back and allow mass anti-war demonstrations: any protest movement would quickly be designated “extremist” or “terrorist.” 

Combined with the ongoing fallout from the pandemic, it seems clear that any war would destroy the still-relevant Putinist model of the state as stable and successful. Instead of mobilizing public opinion ahead of the 2024 presidential election, it would have the opposite effect. And it’s extremely unlikely that a “NATO consensus” would replace the “Crimean consensus” of 2014, which saw Putin’s approval ratings soar. 

Regardless of how the average Russian feels about a possible war with Ukraine, if such a war should break out, it will be difficult to convince the West that it should not equate the political regime in Russia with ordinary Russians. And this would be the worst consequence of the political course pursued by the Russian state for the last two decades. 

This article was first published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.