WAR IN UKRAINEWho Are Russia’s War Hawks, and Do They Matter?

By Stephen Sestanovich

Published 13 October 2022

The evolving views of hard-liners within Russia’s paramilitary, media, and national security establishments offer important clues as to the direction Putin will take the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s failing war against Ukraine has, in the view of many observers, strengthened hard-line critics of President Vladimir Putin. These so-called war hawks are said to favor sharp military escalation and might even aim to bring Putin down if he does differently. But who are these people, do they limit Putin’s choices, and could they really threaten his power?

These hard-liners fall into three rough groupings:

·  First are critics of the ongoing campaign in Ukraine, some of whom command their own paramilitary units—in particular, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord; Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs the mercenary Wagner Group; and Igor Girkin, a leader of separatist commandos in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

·  Second are media personalities who fulminate nightly on state television talk shows and whose rhetoric has grown steadily more bellicose with each Russian military setback. They include Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, Russia’s premier propaganda outlet. Also among them are bloodthirsty bloggers and military “journalists” on social media, especially Telegram, the popular (and still relatively uncontrolled) Russian messaging app.

·  A final group is the least visible: presumed (but hard-to-identify) malcontents within the institutions of the national security establishment. Last week’s appointment of a new commander for the Ukraine campaign, General Sergei Surovikin, has been read by many observers as a concession to hard-liners. (Surovikin oversaw Russian air operations in Syria’s civil war and did prison time for commanding soldiers that killed pro-democracy demonstrators in 1991.) Former President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Putin’s Security Council, has added hawkish rhetoric of his own, calling most recently for the full elimination of Ukraine’s “Nazi” regime.

But it is important to keep in mind two cautions about the influence of the so-called Moscow hawks:

The first is that there is no real evidence that, in advocating various forms of escalation against Ukraine, they are fundamentally at odds with Putin’s own preferences. Like any number of wartime political leaders, Putin has hoped at each stage of the fighting to achieve his goals on the cheap—hence his support early in the war for quick strikes against Kyiv and other major cities, followed by a strategy of wearing down Ukrainian forces without mass mobilization and conscription. With those approaches played out, he had to try something different in recent weeks.

Second, it is not right to assume that any of these figures or factions has an independent power base that allows them to advance their own policy agendas or to challenge Putin frontally. All of them—from Kadyrov, Prigozhin, and Girkin to Medvedev and Simonyan—are major beneficiaries of the president’s past policies and patronage. At the moment, their belligerent talk could even help Putin by demonstrating that his actions reflect a consensus within the political class, not just a response to his own failed policies.

For now, hawkish critics are in basic agreement with Putin’s evident preferences: for a tougher approach that threatens more (perhaps all) of Ukraine with the pain and grief that only those close to the front lines have felt in the last several months. A more convulsive reckoning within the Russian political elite will come only when it becomes clear that a new round of escalation has failed to help Russian forces hold off Ukrainian advances.

If and when that realization takes hold, it will test the hawkishness of groups both outside the national security bureaucracy and within it. The two are in fact very likely to interact. If full-throated support for escalation continues among TV commentators and paramilitary tough guys, it will almost certainly indicate that such views exist within Putin’s circle of advisors as well. For their part, the president and his advisors will monitor the public response to the prospect of continuing (an increasingly dangerous) war. The more costly the course of action, the more Putin will want legitimizing buy-in from others.

The evolving views of Moscow hawks are worth watching for another reason: they could also provide early signs of interest in de-escalation. If any portion of Putin’s circle of advisors comes to favor cutting their losses and winding down the war, that preference too could be previewed and tested through the attitudes of media personalities and influencers, or even in the statements of people such as Prigozhin and Girkin. In facing defeat, Putin will need others to share the blame.

A failed war could ultimately lead to political upheaval in Russia and to new leadership. In the meantime, hard-liners calling for escalation might actually be helping Putin manage the challenges before him. 

Stephen Sestanovich is the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at CFR. This article is published courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).