Moscow glows triumphant as front freezes and Western aid for Ukraine stalls

MOSCOW — Moscow is in a buoyant holiday spirit — with little, if any, outward sign that it is a wartime capital with Russian casualties in Ukraine estimated at more than 300,000 dead or wounded and increasing every day.

Hundreds of Muscovites recently queued for hours in the winter cold for tickets to “The Nutcracker.” A techno party this past weekend was headlined by DJs from Spain and Eastern Europe. Even a series of Ukrainian drone strikes on the city in recent months barely made a dent.

Cocooned by a large city budget — and relatively untouched by the waves of military conscription that hit Russia’s regions — most residents can shut their eyes to the vicious conflict grinding on 500 miles to the west.

Inside the Kremlin, the mood seems even better — or at least that’s the official message.

With Western aid for Ukraine stalling in Washington and Brussels amid Kyiv’s failed counteroffensive, and the front lines largely at a stalemate with Russia occupying some 30 percent of Ukraine’s territory, President Vladimir Putin is ending 2023 on a triumphant note.

“I am certain that victory will be ours,” Putin declared Thursday during his first annual news conference since the February 2022 invasion.

During the news conference, which was combined with his call-in show for citizens, Putin joked with journalists and constituents, boasted that the Russian economy had “bounced back” from Western sanctions, and claimed that “our armed forces are improving their position almost along the entire line of contact.”

It was a far different tone than the strained, highly choreographed public appearances that Putin made as his troops experienced repeated battlefield setbacks in 2022, and with none of the fury that he displayed in a televised address in June after Wagner mercenary forces staged a brief mutiny.

Putin in recent weeks even resumed international travel, which the Kremlin had curbed even before the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants accusing him of war crimes. Putin visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, generating fawning coverage by the Russian media.

“Close friends: how attempts to isolate Russia fell apart,” read the cover of Kommersant Money, a weekly insert in the leading financial broadsheet.

“For two years you have been feeding your voters in the West the myth of Vladimir Putin’s isolation, so that later the whole world can see how the sky over Abu Dhabi is painted with the colors of the Russian tricolor,” wrote David Narmaniya, a columnist with the RIA Novosti news site. “The myth that was fed to them for two years died in two days.”

While some Russian constituents used the call-in show to press Putin about rising inflation, especially the high cost of eggs, the economy has proved extremely resilient. The ruble has remained strong, thanks to central bank intervention, and Russian companies have moved in to capitalize on the departure of international brands.

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“We are even seeing a huge increase in our young clientele since they can’t go to Zara or H&M anymore,” said one shopkeeper at LinoRusso, a Russian clothing brand that still imports its fabrics from Italy. Some Russians who fled the socioeconomic turbulence of the invasion have since returned, finding life abroad too difficult.

Putin, who is finishing his 24th year as Russia’s leader, is cruising toward reelection in a March vote that will be little more than a renewed coronation. That has left his supporters crowing over Russia’s achievements.

“I’d say that we did the impossible, but this is what makes Russia so unique: We operate well and even better under the external pressure,” said Maria Butina, who served U.S. prison time for operating as an unregistered foreign agent. She is now a member of Russia’s parliament, and hosts a talk show four times a week on a main state channel. “Our long history has taught us to do so,” Butina said.

Echoing Putin, Butina said that the war will not end until Russia achieves its aims — to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine. “I believe Putin is the strong, charismatic leader Russia needs, especially now,” she said.

Maryana Naumova, a Russian propagandist and war correspondent, said in an interview that Western efforts to isolate Russia had “not had a strong impact.” Rather, she said, Russia’s economic development since the invasion has helped the country, as has the buttressing of so-called “traditional values,” which critics say has come at the expense of women and LGBTQ people.

Naumova expressed confidence the world would move on. “One day, I would like to ride down by the beach in California,” she said. “My guess is that in a few years things will get back to normal. We just need to wait this out.”

On Wednesday evening, Natalya, 53, and her elderly aunt — also Natalya — stepped out into the icy night from the Bolshoi Theatre, wrapped tightly in fur coats and hats.

Falling snow was illuminated by impressive New Year light displays strung up across the city. The two had just watched a sold-out performance of “The Great Friendship,” a Soviet opera that premiered in 1947 in what is now Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, which Russia has contested since 2014.

“Oh, it was fabulous and so patriotic, it stirred up a lot of positive emotions in me,” the older Natalya said, gesturing to a playbill featuring a crimson flag with a hammer and sickle.

The women said they were unconcerned by the war. “The entire war is to Russia’s benefit,” the younger Natalya said. “The situation in the world is to Russia’s benefit.” She added, “Russia will become stronger because now they have started to restore production, and the economy — there is development because the old ties no longer exist.”

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Moscow’s upbeat mood, however, may not be reflected in the heartland. Inflation, at 7.5 percent, has sent consumer prices soaring. The national budget remains precarious and reliant on oil prices, which have slumped. A new report by the U.S. Treasury Department found that one-third of Russia’s spending is on the war. A shrinking workforce, after hundreds of thousands fled conscription, has also hurt the economy.

Telegram channels dedicated to mobilized soldiers are filled with complaints about conditions on the front, while pro-war bloggers have documented overwhelmed front-line hospitals. “The Russian army and Vladimir Putin personally have shown that they don’t give a damn about their own losses,” Michael Nacke, a Russian journalist based in Latvia, said on his radio show last week. “They will send as much cannon fodder as they need.”

There is also an undercurrent of malaise that is less visible. Russian authorities have undertaken a brutal repression campaign. OVD-Info, a watchdog group, has documented nearly 20,000 arrests for antiwar protests.

At a rave in the capital on Saturday, young Russians said Moscow’s party scene was notably smaller since the waves of emigration. Threats of police raids have also increased.

“Because of certain laws, you have to be very careful now,” said Gerasim, 36, who spoke on the condition that he only be identified by his first name. “It feels like they are tightening the screws and you can’t be yourself. It’s pretty Orwellian; it’s bad.”

His girlfriend, Jean, said she was anxious about the future and no longer reads the news. “I feel the pressure, and it’s getting stronger,” she said.

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The Bolshoi, too, has been affected. A few weeks ago, its longtime general director, Vladimir Urin, resigned and was replaced by Putin loyalist Valery Gergiev. In September, Urin admitted that there was censorship of performances and that directors critical of the war were removed from the repertoire.

Audience members interviewed after Wednesday’s show did not know the backstory of “The Great Friendship” — that Stalin saw it, hated it and set off fresh purges of Soviet culture.

Some analysts suggested Moscow’s optimism was also a bit of theater.

“Putin’s strength lies in the fact that he does not rely on aggressive support,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based political analyst, “but rather on passive conformism, the total indifference of the main part of the population and its rejection of responsibility.”

Nacke had a bleaker view: “Not only the Russian army but also Russian society is turning into an absolutely cannibalistic society, devoid of not just moral orientations, but also human ones.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed from Riga, Latvia.

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