During Russia’s blood-stained spring of 1919, about ten months after the Cheka executed the tsarist Romanov family in a grubby basement, Vladimir Lenin assembled fifteen Bolsheviks and ordered them to sanitize the mess. They did such a poor job of sweeping up the dirt that Lenin the following year persuaded 425,000 volunteers to participate in what the Kremlin soon after enshrined as the subbotnik, the annual Saturday spring cleaning of Russia.
Vladimir Putin is keen on autocratic traditions and enthusiastic about keeping his Kremlin spic and span. But with so much crap piled up inside his fortress after invading Ukraine, arresting critics and assassinating political foes, the one day of traditional spring cleaning from the beginning of Putin’s reign is no longer enough.
Spring 2023 is here and it’s time to look at what Putin has to clean up. He’s ignited a dumpster fire kindled with more than 200,000 deceased Russian soldiers, whose death march on Ukraine doubled the size of his border with NATO, torched his profitable global energy markets, and recycled him as a Chinese subordinate.
He’s produced the country’s largest budget hole since the 1990s and achieved the highest number of sanctions ever leveled against a country. And if the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague has its way, Putin is destined to be convicted of crimes against humanity, leaving Russia leaderless and with the annexed Crimea becoming a Ukrainian vacation destination once again.
Putin can always cut and run to one of his many gilded hideaways of reinforced concrete, but there’s no future in hunkering down alongside his hierophants, all of them echoing his flimflam about Russia’s grandeur, moral superiority and schemes to lure deposed Fox News host Tucker Carlson into anchoring a talk show on Russia-1. Spring 2023 is a pivotal political moment for Putin, particularly if his moral compass is plotting an anywhere near tolerable economic future for his country. Putin, however, has never taken directions. Many who have offered him advice are either dead, under arrest or being slowly poisoned in far-flung penal colonies.
Tyrants, of course, seldom want pretexts. The Russian imperium Putin is hellbent on forging in Ukraine is a forgery. The task certainly requires cash, but fear is his currency, which is why Putin would gleefully saturation-bomb Ukraine with bathroom fixtures when he runs out of money.
Putin’s only need is cannon fodder and it comes cheap. A new law designed to prevent anyone called up for duty in Ukraine from leaving the country is geared up to fill the body gap before the expected Ukrainian spring counteroffensive. Yet the days when Putin could count on Western bankers and businessmen to underwrite his schemes by dealing him winning hands from a stacked deck are over. Just last month, for instance, four Zurich bankers who led the Swiss outpost of Gazprombank were convicted of failing to conduct due diligence on accounts in the name of Putin’s alleged financial frontman Sergei Roldugin, who’s also the godfather of Putin’s eldest daughter.
“Russian stories never have happy endings,” says Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and chief architect of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which spurred global legislation that now allows the U.S. and its allies to slap sanctions on Russian oligarchs, assets and businesses.
Putin appears set on making the whole Russian state biodegradable—in a hurry. Still, it’s not easy to go fully green when sanctions have obliged him to tap into Russia’s finite 300-year-supply of dirty coal and gobble up some 46,000 annual tons of unhealthy animal fat to replenish depleted stocks of wholesome vegetable oil for agricultural and domestic users. Perhaps more worrisome is Putin’s escalating inability to pass gas. According to the Kremlin-controlled newspaper Izvestia, Western embargos this year are set to block 50 percent more natural gas pipeline exports than in 2022.
A Russian military intelligence analyst I’ve known for years insists it would be foolhardy to discount the morbidly whimsical minutiae of what Putin has discarded to sustain his war against Ukraine. “The Kremlin seriously studies the long-term impact of what we might find ridiculous,” he says. “Putin’s decreasing reservoirs of rendered pig fat underscore the size, scope and cascade effect of his battlefield reality. He’s lost more than 9,000 pieces of military equipment, 50 percent of his tanks are gone, and he’s facing severe shortages of munitions and components to keep warplanes in the air and submarines at sea.”
And Putin knows it, too. He’s previously admitted that “obvious mistakes were made in the planning and organization of work on import substitution.”
As for Putin’s televised mouthpieces continuing to ballyhoo that import substitutions are covering the shortfalls, “that’s garbage,” the intelligence official adds. “The Russian military’s dependency on foreign components over the past ten years has increased to record levels.”
In some ways, Putin has had some help cleansing his population of malcontents and potential opponents. The number of Russians fleeing the motherland is also at an all-time high, with an estimated 700,000 people having left the country over the past 18 months. More are sure to follow.
Putin has gone even further; legislation has been brought before the Duma to reintroduce Stalin-era “enemy of the people” laws, which were devised to execute everyone not fully committed to the regime and the war in Ukraine. Sources in Moscow say that Putin’s ultranationalist allies convinced him to take this radical next step.
In Stalin’s day, one of his Socialist Homeland is in Danger! decrees read: “Enemy agents, speculators, thugs, hooligans, counter-revolutionary agitators and spies are to be shot at the crime scene.”
Whether the murders will be monetized remains to be seen. Stalin’s secret police paid informers $24 (around $500 in today’s money) for each person they denounced as enemies of the state, according to Soviet archives declassified in the 1990s. As Stalin’s ammunition was in short supply, as a similar shortage is now forcing Putin’s soldiers to fight Ukrainians with shovels, the executioners ordered their victims to form into head-to-head pairs, killing two for the price of one bullet.
Still, Putin and his platoons of sabboniki know Russia will dry and shrivel without a literal spring clean of the garbage and other environmental contaminants. “Waste collection is a complex process,” says Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s Special Representative on Environmental Protection, who is in charge of leading the current clean up. His latest wheeze has a familiar, threatening air; there will be “punishments for those unwilling to meet our environmental standards.”