Why betting on Putin’s departure is a losing game
To avoid years of warfare in Ukraine, the West needs to deal with Russia as it is now, not as it should be
All eyes are on the end of the Putin era, it seems.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi issued a decree in September declaring negotiations with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to be “impossible”. This could imply a Ukrainian strategy of no negotiations at all (which is unlikely) or an expectation that the end of the ‘Putin era’ is in sight.
Likewise, many among the Russian intellectual elite and Western political community are hedging their bets that change is coming, and that a new leadership in Russia would be a more pliant partner.
Such hopes are misplaced.
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Three reasons why a post-Putin leadership will not be easy
First, there is no sign that Putin – whatever his rumoured health problems might be – is about to die. In his recent public appearances, the Russian president has not made the impression of a man defeated. On the contrary, he looks energised and determined.
The war has given Putin an opportunity to express his long-held and pent-up frustrations with the West, which he had to suppress at times of diplomacy. Now the gloves are off.
Leaving the messy business of Ukraine to a successor is not how Putin understands a leader’s role
Putin believes that time is on Russia’s side in a long war of attrition against Ukraine. The notion that he might step down, under the weight of guilt and shame for the damage he has done to Russia, is misguided.
Putin is on a mission, and it must be accomplished. Leaving the messy business of Ukraine to a successor is not how he understands a leader’s role. Having assumed the burden, he is the one who must end it.
Second, even if Putin does leave power, a stage-managed successor chosen by him is unlikely to be a progressive. The task of the new leader (or leaders) would be to modernise Russia – without necessarily reforming it politically along liberal Western lines.
Russia’s painful experience of reforms in the 1990s, coupled with acute knowledge of the West’s own problems, make this prospect unappealing. Most citizens are ready to believe that the Western model of development is not suitable for Russia. Far more attractive seems to be the Chinese model of tight political control, coupled with economic liberalism and a welfare state.
The fact that many liberal and anti-war members of Russian society have left the country makes such a plan easier to implement. With leading Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny in prison, there is so far no evidence of a serious challenger to Putin from the opposition.
Big business would have a say, but not on matters that challenge the political order. Moreover, significant business figures have been sanctioned, and are correspondingly cut off from the West. Although financial and economic strategy is one of the few areas where different opinions are welcome in Russia, the state controls 71% of the economy – almost twice the 38% share it held in 2006.
Third, if the stakes for ending the war in Ukraine are set so high as to be interpreted as national humiliation in Russia, a patriotic backlash might well occur.
If the Kremlin loses political control and is unable to orchestrate a bureaucratic succession, that could open a space for right-wing forces to influence the country’s politics.
The likes of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, can claim to represent the ‘real Russia’ better than the cosmopolitan elites of Moscow and St Petersburg, who have one foot in the West.
Prigozhin is too notorious a figure to aspire to become president himself, but he can play a role of a kingmaker – his anti-elitist sentiment and an image of warrior masculinity find traction in Russia’s depressive towns, low-skilled working class and prison populations.
In a scenario of increased power for Prigozhin and Russia’s ‘party of war’, the version of the war in Ukraine that we have seen so far – a distant conflict playing out on Russian TV screens while the lives of many ordinary people continue regardless – would be over.
Each Russian citizen would have to contribute on the battlefield or in the workplace and abandon their personal plans, hopes and dreams. If Russia’s patriotic political forces can offer a convincing example of living by the values they preach (perhaps by sending their own children into the heat of battle, which nobody among the current leadership has shown a willingness to do), then war would become the norm.
At this point, it might be useful to recall the lessons of history: the social consequences in Germany following the end of the First World War, a civil war and a bitter peace, out of which grew the Freikorps, fascism and the Nazi terror.
And then there’s Crimea
Finally, no Russian president, however keen they are to mend relations with the West, would be willing to part with Crimea. (This is one area where Elon Musk, who suggested that Russia should retain Crimea, may have a point.)
Based on my own conversations with many Russians (including members of the opposition), people’s intense emotional attachment to Crimea means that only an existential threat to the very survival of the country would outweigh its potential loss. The offer of access to global financial markets is not enough.
Not only the leadership but also many members of Russian society are prepared to bear huge costs for the sake of retaining Crimea. The Ukrainian position – that it must control Crimea – does not leave a Russian leadership with any other option but to continue the war.
Waiting for a ‘Russia after Putin’ is like waiting for Godot. A leadership change is not imminent, nor does it open any chances for peace. Instead, we face the prospect of a long-term Syria 2.0 scenario, one that would drain both Ukraine and Russia, and in which there will be no winners.
Politically, the war is already lost for Russia, regardless of developments on the battlefield. Putin is responsible for starting it; it would be consoling if he were forced to face the consequences of his actions. Yet, so far, we have little reason to believe that will happen. There is no easy escape from the tragedy.
To enable sober forward thinking, it is essential to part with the illusion that a ‘Russia without Putin’ is around the corner and will fundamentally be better. If we are not prepared to deal with Russia as it is – as opposed to what it should be – with Putin being part of the package, we should envisage years of warfare in Ukraine.
And we should start thinking about the effects of a long war upon Europe, on our own societies and how they will respond.
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