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Will Russia Ever Be Free?


Eager though we all are to learn how the Ukraine war ends for Ukraine, there is another great unanswered question about the invasion: How will the war end for Russia?

Will it revert to a quasi-Soviet totalitarian past, this time with a simulacrum of capitalism and an ideology of religious nationalism instead of communism? When Vladimir Putin‘s death or downfall comes, will that bring a new liberal “thaw”? Or will the country slide into violent strife between warlords like the late Yevgeny Prigozhin—leading, perhaps, to an even more belligerent fascist dictatorship? Or will the Russian Federation disintegrate as the Soviet Union did 32 years ago, with some of its constituent entities breaking off into independent states? And would that reduce Russia to a shrunken, humbled, impoverished, and increasingly irrelevant country?

Russia still commands a vast nuclear arsenal, and there is no realistic scenario where that’s going to change soon. Russia’s sheer size, its cultural influence, its place at the intersection of Europe and Asia, and its vast network of international connections give it, like it or not, a pivotal role in global politics and development. Whether Russia moves in a liberal or anti-liberal direction, whether it embraces markets or militarism, tolerance or tyranny, will influence social trends in many other countries.

For the past decade or so, under Putin’s authoritarian rule, Russia has been a superspreader of global anti-liberalism. Now the war in Ukraine has dramatically reduced Moscow’s influence by severely damaging its image, its international standing, and (thanks to Western sanctions) its economic reach.

But what next? Is the idea of a free, prosperous, peaceful Russia a serious possibility or a pipe dream?

What if Russia Wins?

Russia, of course, might win the war. Here’s a possible scenario after a Russian victory.

By the start of 2024, the Ukrainian offensive (or counteroffensive) fails or at least is perceived as a failure, and the West pressures Ukraine to make territorial concessions in exchange for continued aid. The peace accords allow Russia to keep Crimea and at least some of the territories annexed last year, including the land bridge to Crimea and perhaps Mariupol, which Putin appears to view as an especially valuable prize. It’s enough of a victory for Putin to position himself as a winner, especially if some or all of the economic sanctions on Russia are lifted (perhaps in exchange for limited reparations to Ukraine, which Kremlin propaganda could spin as generous fraternal aid).

It is certainly possible that, as Ukraine fears, Putin and the war hawks in his entourage would view such a peace deal as a breather for a new military buildup and a new effort to bring all of Ukraine under Russian control by installing a Moscow-friendly regime in Kyiv. Some Russian propagandists talk about Ukraine as a stepping stone toward rebuilding a Russian/Soviet empire, and even some Russian military men have echoed such themes; an interview from July shows Andrey Mordvichev (who commanded Russian Army divisions at the battle for Mariupol and was recently promoted to the rank of colonel-general) talking about the alleged need to attack Eastern Europe.

But given the current state of Russian armed forces and the population’s lack of appetite for war (when the Russian government tried partial mobilization in 2022, the result was a mass exodus of men), such fantasies are likely to remain fantasies. Ukraine is only likely to agree to such concessions on the condition of NATO membership, which would essentially preclude another Russian invasion, perhaps with face-saving assurances to Russia that no NATO bases will be placed in Ukraine.

In this scenario, Russia’s current neo-totalitarian cocoon will only harden. Political prisoners will remain in prison (unless, perhaps, they are traded for some valuable Russian prisoners of war), and there will be new prosecutions for sharing “fake”—i.e., accurate—information about the war or about Russian war crimes. Access to truthful reporting on these topics will remain severely restricted; the Kremlin will almost certainly further tighten restrictions on the internet.

Since the myth of the righteous war will be the foundation of the regime’s survival, authoritarian, anti-Western, and anti-liberal propaganda will likely intensify. A cohort of Russian children will be raised on history textbooks (already introduced at the start of this school year) that portray Russia as both the indomitable bastion of all virtues and the eternal victim of nefarious Western intrigue, that discuss the mass-murdering tyrant Josef Stalin in positive terms, that treat Soviet-era dissidents and defectors as selfish and disloyal, and that glorify the “special operation” in Ukraine as part of Russia’s historical mission to vanquish Nazism.

How long would such a hardline regime survive? At least as long as Putin does—and that could be a while.

Losing the War, Winning Freedom

It’s a broad consensus among Russian dissidents of all stripes—not counting hawks who “dissent” in the sense that they think Putin isn’t waging war ruthlessly enough—that undoing Russia’s dictatorship will be impossible unless Ukraine wins the war. As chess grandmaster and opposition activist Garry Kasparov said in February at the Munich Security Conference, “Liberation from Putin’s fascism runs through Ukraine.” A joint “Declaration of Russian Democratic Forces,” spearheaded by Kasparov and a fellow opposition leader, former businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, unequivocally called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from all territories recognized as Ukrainian under international law (which would include Crimea, annexed in 2014) as well as war crimes prosecutions and compensation for “the victims of aggression.”

Such an outcome would indeed be a resounding and humiliating defeat.

The idea is not that disgruntled Russians will vote out Putin and his United Russia party, which currently controls the Duma (Russia’s so-called parliament) and most local governments. In September, appearing on a YouTube channel created by former staffers of an independent radio station that had been shut down days after the start of the war, Khodorkovsky argued that peaceful transition at the ballot box is currently impossible in Russia: The entire system is designed to leave no chance of that happening. Khodorkovsky thinks the peaceful protest the Russian opposition has traditionally practiced is also futile: He is outspoken in insisting the opposition must be prepared to participate in violent action.

What Khodorkovsky has in mind is not a pro-freedom, anti-Putin uprising—the level of repression and surveillance in Russia today makes organizing dissent extremely difficult—but simply chaos, which, to paraphrase Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger, the opposition can use as a ladder. The most likely scenario is an “elite coup”: Some people within Russia’s political elites get sufficiently fed up with Putin to remove him from power one way or another. Many Russian pundits have sarcastically mentioned “the tobacco-box option,” a euphemism for regime change by assassination: In March 1801, Czar Paul I was attacked in his bedchamber by a group of high-level conspirators and knocked unconscious with a tobacco box before being strangled to death with a scarf. A less drastic way of removal would be to either officially place Putin under arrest or force him to announce a sudden retirement for health reasons.

It’s almost impossible to intelligently assess the probability of any of those outcomes. But massive discontent with the war and with Putin is rife among Russia’s business elites. This class once accepted a deal under which they got guarantees of stability in exchange for not seeking influence as independent players in Russian politics. That “stability” worked, for better or worse, given Western countries’ willingness to do business with resource-rich Russia. But the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 spectacularly blew up that stability.

While Russian markets haven’t tanked completely, thanks to continuing oil and gas purchases by non-Western partners, the rich and powerful have certainly taken a hit: Russian billionaires lost a combined $80 billion in the first week of the war. What’s more, much of Russia’s post-Soviet privileged class now finds itself cut off from access to its vast assets in the West. Bank accounts and investments have been frozen; luxury homes, villas, and yachts are out of reach.

Public expressions of discontent have been extremely rare, which is not surprising given how dangerous such expressions are in today’s Russia. But on two occasions in the past year, leaked recordings of cellphone conversations showed B-list Russian businessmen lamenting the war, describing Putin as a “retard” who keeps saying that “everyone is an enemy, but we’re going to win,” and predicting that the current regime would eventually turn Russia into a “scorched desert.”

Are there people with such views sufficiently high up in the Russian power structures—and with enough loyal armed men under their command—to carry out a coup, whether lethal or nonlethal? There is no way to be sure. For years, a great deal of talk has circulated about rival factions or “clans” within the regime, but all such information comes from supposed insiders or ex-insiders whose accounts cannot be confirmed. (It is alleged, for instance, that the June mutiny of Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group was coordinated with one such faction.) But a successful coup certainly cannot be ruled out. The Prigozhin mutiny clearly showed that the Russian populace will not take to the streets to support Putin despite his nominally high approval ratings. (There was no outpouring of popular support for Putin either during or after the 24-hour rebellion, and many people in Rostov-on-Don, the city where Prigozhin’s private army briefly made its headquarters, cheered for the mutinous mercenaries.)

The liberal opposition is extremely unlikely to seize power after Putin’s ouster. But there is a more likely (and more morally gray) liberalization scenario. If the architects of an anti-Putin coup are people who want to rebuild good relations with liberal democracies and start reintegrating Russia into global markets and communications, they will have to demonstrate that the new regime is committed to liberal reforms. This will require holding elections with legitimacy in the eyes of the world, giving pro-freedom, pro-democracy parties and candidates meaningful opportunities to get their share of political power. A post-Putin regime might also bring at least some liberal opposition figures into the government, or into a power-sharing coalition, making them the human face of the new Russia.

Such a scenario might just mean a new crony-capitalist regime willing to use opposition leaders who are popular abroad, such as Khodorkovsky or the jailed Putin opponent Alexei Navalny, as a front for a corrupt political establishment. But any post-Putin government creates a window for meaningful change.

A Russian Spring—a fresh opportunity for political pluralism, the rule of law, civil society, and a market economy—may not seem very likely now. The liberal opposition is too small and fractured; Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia movement, for instance, has been feuding with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Support for liberal ideas after almost a quarter-century of Putinism is fairly low even among young people (though measuring public opinion in a fear-ridden authoritarian country is no easy task), and most of the population seems to be mired in a passivity that analysts have described as collective learned helplessness.

Still, it’s the most optimistic scenario, and it has at least a chance.

Private Armies and Scattered Principalities

A Russian coup could also lead to a far darker outcome: open armed conflict between rival political factions—some of it based on ideology, some on raw competition for power and wealth—and the emergence of multiple regional centers of power. This scenario looks especially plausible given the expansion of so-called private military companies (a misnomer, since they are typically entangled with the state) since the start of the Ukraine war.

These companies have existed in Russia for years; Gazprom, the majority state-owned oil and gas giant, has had several as a security service. During the war, these paramilitary units gained a new visibility when Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, its ranks padded with convicts recruited from penal colonies, played a pivotal role on the frontline and was elevated in official propaganda to the status of legendary heroes.

In summer 2023, as Prigozhin grew increasingly defiant, Putin took steps to bring the Wagner Group to heel by requiring all “volunteers,” i.e., mercenaries, serving in the “special operation” in Ukraine to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense. It was the Wagner Group’s refusal to comply that led to Prigozhin’s mutiny—a saga that ended with the Wagner Group being dismantled and with Prigozhin apparently blown up aboard his business jet.

But private military companies that do not answer to the Ministry of Defense can still legally function as long as they’re not fighting in Ukraine. A month after the Prigozhin mutiny, new legislation was passed allowing regional governors to start such quasi-armies. Putin may think that they’re a way to prevent or put down future rebellions, but they could easily have the opposite effect.

In other words, Russia has a lot of armed groups in the pay of corporate behemoths and government officials. It’s not hard to imagine how this could go if the Putin regime collapses and the government fractures.

A protracted civil war seems unlikely, since most of the Russian population is too cowed and passive to mobilize for one side or another. But conflicts between armed groups controlled by a new breed of warlords may well lead to actual warfare, with disgruntled veterans (some of them violent ex-convicts) contributing to the turmoil. Post-Putin Russia could be an impoverished wasteland with well-protected islands of affluence, virtually autonomous cities run like medieval principalities, and roving gangs and militias. Depending on how impoverished it becomes, conflicts over resources could become frequent and brutal.

All that could lead to another frequently mentioned scenario: the dissolution of the Russian Federation.

A Russian Breakup

The Russian Federation currently has 89 distinct areas known as “federal subjects,” 83 of them internationally recognized. (The other six are territories annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, portions of which Russia currently doesn’t control.) That includes 21 non-Slavic “autonomous republics” such as Chechnya, Dagestan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, and Tatarstan, and six non-Slavic “autonomous districts,” some with a population larger than some republics.

Some of these entities have previously tried to secede—most notably Chechnya (pacified through two brutal wars and a deal that allows its current president to rule it as a de facto principality) and Tatarstan (whose 1991 declaration of sovereignty was approved in a referendum but invalidated by Russia’s Constitutional Court).

A May report from the Association of Accredited Public Policy Advocates to the European Union indicates that separatist movements exist in 36 of the federation’s constituent entities, but they are mostly small and weak. Even in republics extensively used by the Kremlin as a source of cannon fodder for the war in Ukraine, such as Buryatia and Dagestan, there has been no clamor for liberation.

Obviously, that could change quickly if the Putin regime collapsed, the economy tanked, and the country descended into chaos. Even in regions with an ethnic Russian majority, a group of determined activists could generate a serious push for independence.

The possibility of Russia’s dissolution has been extensively discussed, with vigorous disagreement on both the plausibility and the desirability of such a scenario. Some anti-Putin, pro-Ukraine pundits believe that the West’s reluctance to give Ukraine enough support for a decisive victory is due in large part to fears that the collapse of the Putin regime will lead to the collapse of the Russian Federation and the proliferation of dangerous rogue statelets in its place. Warlords with nukes are the ultimate nightmare.

Many Russian opposition figures, including Khodorkovsky, believe that Russia’s disintegration is extremely unlikely and would be a disaster if it happened. On the other hand, politicians, activists, and commentators from countries historically subjugated by the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union—be it Ukraine, Estonia, or Poland—often argue that Russia will remain an imperialistic menace unless it’s literally cut down to size, and that its peaceful dissolution via separatism is the best chance to do that. Writing in Politico last January, Janusz Bugajski of the Jamestown Foundation even suggested that Western democracies should encourage Russia’s disintegration by supporting local separatist movements.

A more dispassionate analysis of the federation’s possible breakup is offered by French scholar Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, in a March paper for the Montaigne Institute. Tetrais warns that the disintegration of the Russian Federation, which he believes is entirely possible, would not be a relatively orderly event like the breakup of the USSR into 15 constituent republics. He instead expects a prolonged and chaotic process, very possibly accompanied by bloodbaths. What’s more, the conflict would likely reverberate beyond Russia’s borders—Tetrais bluntly writes that “the lockdown of Russia in the pandemic-related sense of the word” would be a necessary response—and the end result could be Russia’s reunification under a new totalitarian regime.

The only good news, Tetrais argues, is that nuclear proliferation is unlikely, since Russia’s nuclear forces today are almost entirely located “in the heart of the Federation,” in areas under Moscow’s secure control. But “severe disruption” could reach even those regions.

There’s also the China factor. While Bugajski’s Politico piece speculated that Russia’s disintegration would weaken China because Beijing would lose a valuable ally, it is entirely possible to imagine a different outcome—one where China turns Russia’s battered remnants into a resource-rich de facto colony, or even annexes portions of Russian territory in the Far East. (In September, China ruffled some feathers in Moscow by publishing a “national map” that includes some disputed land which is currently Russian.) While the Chinese regime almost certainly doesn’t want Russia’s collapse, since it favors stability, it would also be in a position to take advantage of such a collapse if it happened.

Forecasting Through the Fog of War

With the outcome of the war still uncertain, predicting the fate of the Putin regime and of Russia is necessarily speculative. Many other scenarios besides the ones outlined above may come to pass, most of which we cannot even envision today. (Who could have predicted the Prigozhin mutiny in early 2023, when the official Russian media were hailing the Wagner Group men as a heroic force fighting at Bakhmut?)

But there is a very strong chance that in a few years the United States and other liberal democracies will find themselves in a replay of the 1990s, making difficult decisions about how to respond to sweeping, uncertain changes in Russia. We may have to decide how much to trust and help a new liberalization, whether to respond with humanitarian aid or “lockdown” to chaos and collapse, whether to lend our support to breakaway republics.

After the evil that Russia has visited on the world in 2022–2023, reviving ghosts of World War I and World War II in the heart of Europe, it is tempting for many—especially those victimized by Russian imperialism—to write off the entire country as hopelessly toxic and fit only for a cordon sanitaire. But the exiled journalist and staunch Kremlin critic Igor Yakovenko has warned emphatically against such an approach.

“The idea that you can build a mile-high fence and dig a moat filled with crocodiles…and the rest of the world can breathe a sigh of relief—this is a mistake,” Yakovenko said on his YouTube channel earlier this year. “Russia isn’t going to fall into a deep hole, it’s not going anywhere.” An authoritarian Russia will pose a threat even if temporarily weakened; a Mad Max–like Russia of chaos, desperation, and private armies will pose a different kind of threat; and the replacement of Russia with a dozen or two dozen smaller states could create an entirely new set of problems.

Optimism about Russia’s future, at this point, looks absurdly naive. But forever pessimism is not only bleak but ugly; it almost invariably involves borderline-racist notions of collective guilt and inherent national character. Better to adopt a cautious realism that adapts to developments within Russia and seeks to identify genuinely liberal forces. But nothing good is apt to come from Russia unless it is defeated in the Ukraine war and Putin’s regime falls.

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