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What Happens in Russia If Putin Can’t Win in Ukraine?

What Happens in Russia If Putin Can’t Win in Ukraine?

Thursday, 24 March, 2022 - 05:45
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

The world has been transfixed by Ukraine’s fight for survival. As the war drags on, we’d better start considering what will become of Russia, as well.

President Vladimir Putin’s nation has now been subjected to an isolation more sudden and total than that experienced by any major power in recent history. What that leads to may not be pretty.

Since late February, Russia has been hit with punishing economic, trade and financial sanctions. It is careering toward a debt default, as a rapid technological decoupling is also underway. Foreign firms are fleeing the country, while Russian teams are excluded from international competitions in soccer and other sports. Even the International Cat Federation has barred Russian felines from its events.

Russia isn’t some tinpot tyranny like Cuba or North Korea; it is a major power whose population was, until recently, deeply connected to its larger global environment. Now, Russia is suffering a degree of international ostracism that typically happens only when a country is at war with the world.

What will this mean for Moscow if its conflict with Ukraine drags on for months or years to come? We can imagine a few scenarios, all of which would pose nasty challenges for Russia, and some of which could be quite concerning for America and its allies.

The rosiest is a “Moscow Spring,” in which the costs of conflict lead to regime change and a rebirth of the democracy Russia experienced fleetingly in the 1990s. Russian elites push Putin aside and make peace with Ukraine. Having experienced the consequences of aggression and autocracy, the more urban, liberal swaths of Russian society demand a broader political opening and the country’s reintegration into the world. Just as isolation helped convince South Africa to ditch apartheid in the late 1980s, foreign opprobrium forces dramatic change in Moscow’s foreign and domestic policies.

The odds of this scenario materializing are slim. Two decades of Putinism have left Russia with a weak, fragmented opposition. The president has surely tried to coup-proof his regime by co-opting the security and intelligence services and pitting them against one another. And even if Russia did experience a revolution, look out: The history of the 1990s cautions us that instability and even chaos could follow.

A second, more plausible scenario is “Wounded Giant.” Here, Putin uses his control of the security services to hang onto power and repress whatever popular discontent isolation produces. He exploits the black-market opportunities that sanctions inevitably create to compensate loyal cronies. Russia becomes more dependent on China as it seeks economic and technological alternatives to the West.

What changes is not so much Russian policies but Russian power: The cost of slogging ahead is continued attrition of the economy, retarded technological modernization and a long-term weakening of Moscow’s military potential. This scenario isn’t great for the Western and Pacific democracies, but it isn’t terrible, either: Against a more sluggish, stagnating Russia, the US could fare well enough in a protracted rivalry.

There is a third, darker scenario: “Tehran on the Volga.” Here, isolation and radicalization go hand in hand. Educated, upwardly mobile Russians leave the country, ridding the regime of its most outspoken liberal critics. Hard-liners embrace a “resistance economy” premised on self-sufficiency and avoiding the contaminating influence of the West. Aggressive internal purges, relentless propaganda and the fanning of militant nationalism produce a Russian variant of fascism. When Putin eventually falls, he is replaced by an equally repressive, ambitious and xenophobic leader.

Russia thus becomes a superpowered Iran with nuclear weapons — a country that is permanently estranged from the world and compensates for weakness with heightened belligerency. Far from retreating in its confrontation with the West, this Russia might dial up the intensity of that struggle — pursuing wide-ranging programs of sabotage in Europe or more aggressively training its cyberweapons on targets in the US and other democratic countries.

The eventual reality could diverge from any of these scenarios, of course. But the exercise illustrates two important points.

First, Washington needs to start thinking seriously about Russia’s long-term trajectory. In 1989, the administration of President George H.W. Bush quietly created a planning group to consider what might happen amid earthshaking changes in the Soviet Union. Regardless of what happens in this crisis, Russia is big and powerful enough that its trajectory will be vital to the overall health of the international order — which means that the US needs to be ready for whatever direction the country takes.

Second, be careful what you wish for. The US and its allies are rightly using devastating sanctions, along with tenacious Ukrainian resistance, to impose heavy costs on a Russian regime that has flagrantly violated the most basic norms of international behavior. Appeasement and military intervention are the only obvious, and abhorrent, alternatives to this policy. But we have only begun to consider what its long-term consequences might be.

Even in the best-case scenario, the US would confront enormous challenges helping a liberalizing Russia emerge from authoritarian rule. More plausibly, Washington could face a recalcitrant, perhaps even a further radicalized, Russia instead. The war in Ukraine will eventually end, but America’s problems with Russia may only be getting started.


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