War has come to Russia

A week of somewhat mixed messages from the Kremlin. One day, Vladimir Putin opened Europe’s largest Ferris wheel and presided over celebrations of Moscow’s 875th anniversary throughout the city, full of calm and good humor and mentioning the war only in passing. A few days later, he appeared on national television telling the world he was not bluffing about the use of nuclear weapons and announcing a partial mobilization. Putin has never fought a contested election in his life, so he’s never been big on the common touch. But in his last speech, he looked as pale and dead as Nosferatu.

Russians know better than anyone that the more something is officially denied, the more likely it is to happen. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appeared after Putin to explain that the appeal would only apply to 300,000 military reservists with combat experience. In practice the povestki – summonses to recruiting centers – rained down seemingly at random. An entire class of young, recently graduated Moscow architects were called up on the grounds that they had undergone mandatory military training as part of their degree course. The 55-year-old father of a classmate of one of my neighbors received papers when he never served. He went to the recruiting office to explain the mistake. Two hours later, he was on a bus for training camp.

In Russia, every crisis is also a business opportunity. One day after Putin’s call for action, reports a business friend, a network of consultants specializing in bronirovanie – literally, to “armor” something – had arisen. Because loosely defined “specialists” are exempt from the project, managers scramble to provide employees with paperwork proving they are indispensable. Average cost: £120 per person, most of which goes to office projects issuing the exemptions. A widely accepted fee for crossing the border without drafts has also emerged: £300, cash at border guards.

Pranksters posing as non-commissioned officers call the Kremlin spokesman’s son, Dmitry Peskov, ordering him to report for a medical. ‘Obviously not!’ Nikolay Peskov, 32, responded. “You have to understand that it’s not right for me to be here. I have to solve this on another level. Key word: “Obviously”. The idea that the children of the Russian elite would serve their country is, for them, an obvious absurdity.

Signs of the times: ‘Will trade a Toyota Corolla for a one-way ticket to Istanbul,’ the parents of a desperate potential recruit write on social media. At Moscow bus stops, the advertising void left by the withdrawal of 1,200 foreign companies was filled with patriotic posters. Some include Soviet-style caricatures of a malevolent, top-hatted Uncle Sam holding Pippi Longstocking puppets and a Moomintroll dressed in the colors of the Swedish and Finnish flag. “Do not become puppets in the hands of strangers! is the caption. It takes me a moment to realize that the retro style poster is not meant to be ironic.

On a recent visit to Kyiv, I found war omnipresent, from the number of young men in uniform – even in trendy cafes – to the regular sirens of air raids. But for most Muscovites, the war was virtually invisible before Putin’s mobilization announcement. Or at least its consequences were only a slight irritation: no Apple Pay or Zoom, no software updates or international banking, McDonald’s and Starbucks replaced by similar local clones. But the bars, restaurants and theaters were packed. Supermarkets in Moscow were stocked with all sorts of foodstuffs, including many products from sanctioned Europe. After this week’s mobilization, however, the war suddenly went from a distant, ignorable annoyance to something that was, for tens of millions of Russians with military-age male relatives, very close and personal.

The news reports three apparent explosions which ruptured Gazprom’s Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, causing areas of bubbling turbulence for several miles as the 300 million cubic meters of gas in each pipeline – at £2 a cubic meter – bubbled unnecessarily to the surface. Swedish and Danish officials have been cautious about assigning blame. My knowledge of Moscow, less. “Putin blows everything up before it comes crashing down,” claimed an energy trader friend – once a passionate patriot, now a frightened refractory. In saner times, Nord Stream pipelines were a way for the Kremlin to assert its power over Europe. Putin’s cut of supplies via Nord Stream 1 in July to pressure the Europeans to drop support for Kyiv was the diplomatic equivalent of strapping on a suicide vest. But to its surprise and disappointment, Europe quickly turned to alternatives to liquefied gas. Was blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines the modern equivalent of Cortez burning his boats on the beach?

Moscow taxi drivers rarely agree. They will fight if Russia is attacked, but not “to take someone else’s house”. A week ago, Putin could have declared victory, proposed a peace plan and divided supporters of Ukraine. But with the mobilization that sparked protests in hitherto staunch places like Dagestan, he made regime change a real possibility. I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago that alternatives to Putin are unlikely to be better. As the poet and critic Dmitry Bykov says, Putin is not Hitler, it is Kaiser Wilhelm II. After the military defeat in Ukraine comes a new version of Versailles, Weimar and then the real disaster. “I’m not afraid of a corrupt Russia,” says Bykov. “I’m afraid of a really fascist Russia.

The Ferris wheel Putin opened broke down after two days, leaving its passengers stranded, trapped high and helpless in the thrill machine they had so confidently boarded.

Owen Matthews’ latest book, Overreach, a story of the origins of the Russian-Ukrainian war, is out next month.