The Kremlin has shown that it is willing to engage in opportunistic social spending to calm the public mood or ease the passage of political change, such as ahead of the nationwide vote on changing the constitution in 2020, and the 2021 parliamentary elections. The authorities are ready to make financial investments to preserve a minimum level of loyalty to the regime.

Since at least 2020, the Kremlin has focused on not only suppressing the non-system opposition, which it has never afforded representation, but also sidelining the in-system opposition. Relations with the in-system Communist Party are becoming more strained, and pressure on the party’s radical wing has been growing.

But an international escalation will make the Kremlin focus on the total political neutralization of the Communists. Control over elections will increase, and voting at all levels will become, once and for all, nothing more than plebiscite campaigns with preapproval from the Kremlin required for all candidates.

This will push Russian society into a deep political depression.   

A drive to increase Kremlin control will inevitably reach other areas of life as well. Current conversations about “traditional values” will grow into a full-fledged moral campaign impacting everything from employment and education to interaction with foreigners and social media.

A new spiral of international escalation would accelerate and entrench the repressive trends that have been in ascendancy in Russian public life in recent years. Any dissatisfaction will be crushed with redoubled strength, including when it emerges within the in-system opposition.

The Kremlin’s political managers could also face a reshuffle, which would likely result in an increased role for the siloviki in domestic politics.

As for society, there would likely be some sort of forced patriotic mobilization. Instead of a natural coming together, as in 2014, it would be characterized by coercion and displays of sham loyalty. The divergence between a fake system marching in lockstep and a mood of doom and gloom would quickly become a yawning chasm—with all the risks that entails.

This article was first published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.