To Think of a Post-Putin Future

This article intends to further the central argument presented in “Potemkin’s Armies: Russia’s Final Defeat in Ukraine”, published on October 6th. Stemming from successive Russian failures both on tactical and logistical levels, as well as a hostile international situation, the conclusion was that Russia had set in stone its military defeat in Ukraine and that this country had no means to fulfill any of its objectives, be it the total subjugation of Ukraine, regime change or even a partial annexation of the southern regions. One month later, it’s safe to say those statements still hold true. However, one must recognize that imagining possible scenarios on Russia’s future will always start from a given degree of speculation. Thus, it isn’t the goal to make concrete predictions, but to contribute to an ever more urgent debate. What one can already see, though, is that not only Russia’s armed forces, but also Russia’s standing on the global stage and its own state apparatus that are on a process of disintegration. This process is visible enough that officers like retired American general Ben Hodges alerted in September to “prepare for the disappearance of Russia”. This brings a series of questions: how damaging has been the invasion of Ukraine? What has kept the regime standing so far and is that currently in question? Is it really easier to imagine Russia’s end than a democratic Russia?

First, let’s state the obvious: winter is coming. The future of Russia’s economy, both medium and long term, will be measured through a myriad of factors, namely the performance of the energy sector, the pivoting of infrastructures from Europe towards Asia, access to high tech and the impact of sanctions imposed by the US, the EU, and the United Kingdom, among others. About half of the federal budget comes from crude oil, oil products and natural gas sales revenue. Data from this year shows that, of the 63% of total exports, 26% and 12% respectively correspond to crude and gas sales. These two show similarities both in problems they’ll face and in possible solutions. One must look at the weight of Western sanctions. The most recent ones, imposed by Washington in response to the “annexation” of southern Ukrainian land, affect almost 300 Russian MPs and 14 individuals tied to the defense sector, as well as organizations that support the war effort. The European Commission, in turn, proposes to expand limits imposed to imports and sales of high-tech goods. The West’s plan is, by the start of next year, to replace its imports of Russian oil, gas, and coal. Despite being the world’s third largest producer of crude oil, Moscow is forced to sell for lower and lower prices, thanks to a lack of buyers. In response, China and India progressively increased their imports since February. The Financial Times presumes that large state-run companies like Rosneft and Lukoil will survive the exodus of international partners, but future problems will stem from needing to develop more complex reservoirs and finding new markets for their product. On one hand, this lack of buyers could lead to a disinterest by Chinese companies in investing in newer projects in Russia. On the other, a pivot to Asia will require expanding Russian capabilities for seaborne oil exports, plus subsequent costs.

The same can be seen in the production of natural gas. This is of particular importance due to its potential as an energy weapon. For years, the Kremlin closing the tap was a viable prediction, considering the well-known European dependence on it. The most recent chapter of this drama centers around the alleged sabotage of Nord Stream 1 and 2. While not having a large impact on global markets, due to both pipelines being shut down, this episode is a warning to the possibility of a Russian escalation through attacks on civil infrastructures, as well as submarine communications cables or the cyberspace. Let us raise the question, then: what if Vladimir Putin has already played his trump card? It might already be too late for him. From day one of the invasion, the percentage of Russian gas imports to Europe fell from 46% to just 9%. Even after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the astroturfing of separatist movements in the Donbas, Russia was still viewed as a trustworthy trading partner by Brussels, but in February that trust disappeared without any hopes of coming back soon. Therefore, Europe was forced to turn to countries like the United States, Algeria, Norway, Qatar, and Azerbaijan to (finally) diversify its gas imports. European governments have made, at the same time, a concerted effort to alleviate the tax load regarding electricity costs and dwelling heating. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld highlights for the Financial Times that the sectors more dependent on natural gas – metals, chemical products, paper, etc. – add at least 3% to Europe’s total gross value and less than 1% to the continent’s workforce. As such, the hit on the European economy will be a lot less serious than initially expected. In August, the European bloc achieved its November goal of filling 80% of their natural gas reserves – and that percentage has increased 14,3% since then. Natural gas prices fell 65% since August and predictions point towards an unusually warm winter. Despite medium to long term fears persisting, Europe has demonstrated that not only is it capable of resisting Russia’s blackmail, but it is already on its way to fully replace Russian natural gas. In July, Norwegian consulting company Rystad Energy emphasized that international sanctions could result in an 85 billion dollar loss in 2022, regarding oil and gas sales taxes. Russia’s gas pipeline network is almost entirely centered around supplying Europe. Data from 2021 reveals that Russia sold 33 billion cubic meters of gas to Asian countries, two thirds of which being liquified (LNG). This is slightly over a fifth of the European market, rounding from 160 to 200 billion. Like oil, a redirection of Russian gas towards Asia is plausible, but that would require a massive investment in new infrastructures like LNG terminals. To quote Daniel DePetris for Time, even if Moscow managed to go around the heavy international sanctions and obtain much needed foreign capital and know- how, it would take approximately a decade to fill the void left behind by gas exports to Europe.

With this in mind, are sanctions working? In very simple terms, short-term no, but medium to long- term yes. It’s possible to construct an argument against their effectiveness, based on the ruble’s high exchange rate. Joseph Borrell, head of European diplomacy, fires back stating that this only reflects the imbalance between oil and gas exports and the post-sanction import collapse. When it comes to high technology, Borrell points out that Moscow largely depends on Western products and replacing these will be much harder than import substitutions on the primary sector, affecting not only the aforementioned oil industry, but Russian aeronautics production. Russian economist Oleg Vyugin presents a less alarming picture, since sanctions are only 30 to 40% effective in affecting Russia’s economy. However, energy exports and technological development take center stage once again, as well as future medium to long-term damage caused by potential restrictions. Cited by Philip Inman for the Guardian, analysts like Mikhail Mamonov and Yakov Feygin present a dark scenario. Mamonov uses as an example the 6% decline predicted by the IMF for Russia’s economy in 2022. Basing himself on his 2014 macroeconomic model, he estimates that that fall will instead be 10%, while private consumption will decrease 10 to 15% and investment 17%. Feygin, in turn, sheds light over food price increases and the first signs of essential goods shortages. As the grip tightens, a report by Scope Ratings claims that in 2023 Russia’s GDP will fall 8%, according to 2021 data. The agency estimates that the Russian economy will only see pre-invasion levels on the next decade.

The betrayal of demography and geography adds to the defeat in the energy war. Russia’s rebirth could have been the keystone of Vladimir Putin’s regime, but not even the most ardent believers in Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Men of History” theory can deny that some fates are inalterable, no matter how strong Man’s will. Or, at the least, are very hard to alter. One of these consists in the demographic crisis affecting Russia since the 90s. Since then, Russia’s population, that at its peak reached 149 million, crashed until 2008, now hitting 143 million. A new growth period followed, helped by the illegal annexation of Crimea, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought the decline back. The tendency remained since then, with UN projections estimating that, in the next 50 years, the Russian Federation will contain 50 million people less. What is behind this demographic catastrophe? First, according to Nicolas Eberstadt and official statistic services (Goskomstat), the accentuated break in new births coupled with the elevated increase of mortality. Between 1992 and 2012, the difference between deaths and births in Russia was about 14 million. Or, for every two new births, almost three new deaths were recorded, revealing what is called a negative natural increase. Eberstadt puts in perspective how calamitous these numbers are by pointing out that just one more country in the later 20th century experienced a larger negative natural increase – Maoist China during the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward’s ideological fervor, that victimized approximately 30 million Chinese.

Alexei Raksha, a Russian independent demographer, uses the latest censuses to divulge that in the first five months of this year, Russia’s population had less 430 thousand people. While he downplays war casualties and emigration, that was accentuated by mobilization, three big motives are presented: ever- shrinking birth rates, a disinterest on the government’s behalf in continuing natalist policies and, naturally, Russians’ fears regarding the economy and the war. The tendencies described in the censuses could clarify Russia’s demographic future: compared to other countries, a large part of these deaths are men of working and, more importantly, fighting age. This is primarily due to the grave opioid crisis, the stigma associated with mental health and the subsequent high suicide rates and, above all, the chronic and toxic relationship of the Russian people with alcohol. At the same time, as repeatedly mentioned in previous articles, ethnic Russians are in the minority in the only regions experiencing positive natural growth rates. What this means is that, unless immigration dramatically increases overnight, Russia will keep shrinking and its ethnic minorities will play a growingly larger role in shaping its future, whether the Kremlin or the Moscow and Saint Petersburg elites want it or not.

Equally important in any Russia analysis is its geographic position. Rivers and rivers of ink have flown over Moscow’s urgent necessity of warm water ports, these voices being the loudest after the seizure of Crimea, but this is only part of a bigger whole. Tim Marshall lays it out in his New Statesman article’s title: Russia is a prisoner of geography. Despite being the world’s largest country in territorial extension, covering an area of over 17 100 000 square kilometers, its northernmost ports and sea routes are hostages of the Artic cold, leaving only the growingly hostile Black and Baltic seas. Russia’s imperial retreat saw the Eastern Bloc nations voluntarily join the same military alliance explicitly created to contain it. Marshall mentions two considerably important regions to both NATO and Russian strategic thought. These are the Suwalki corridor, a strip of land tying Poland to Lithuania, situated between Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, and the “Smolensk gates”. The latter is the area between the Dniepr and Dvina rivers, that throughout History served as a starting point for any invading army charging from Central Europe, be it French, Polish, or German.

Flipping the map of Russia 90 degrees to the right, Peter Zeihan demonstrates how the Eurasian steppe forms “populated Russia”, or the part of Russia in which climate conditions make human life possible, thus excluding the tundra and taiga that form large part of Siberia’s territory. The steppe also includes Ukraine and Belarus. A lack of natural defenses, save the Urals, makes Russia extremely vulnerable to a Western invasion. Its East and southward expansion through Eurasia was thus a way to secure possible access points and, in this way, a means to fight the fears of the imperial core that originated from its own geographical obsession. At the same time, the expansion fed Western fears throughout the last three centuries, from Halford Mackinder’s geopolitical Heartland Theory – whoever controls the heartland (Eastern Europe and/or Eurasia) controls the world – to the Cold War and today. While this geographic paranoia dominates the thought process of Russia’s rulers, this country will remain hostile towards its Western neighbors and vulnerable to a hypothetical NATO invasion that, judging from its performance in Ukraine, has no chance of winning through conventional means.

Speaking of the Kremlin’s geopolitical worldview, it’s important to define the concept of “Russian world” (Russkiy Mir), Wilfried Jilge describes it as an “Empire of Diaspora”, or a form of linguistic and cultural essentialism that transcends internationally defined borders and grants the Russian Federation, as the heir of the Tsarist and Soviet empires, a role of protector of Russian populations living in its near exterior. Any attack to these, real or not, would legitimize an action on the part of Russia, by arms if needed. This concept was behind the occupation of Crimea in 2014 and reached its logical conclusion in February of this year. The damage caused by the war in Ukraine on Russia’s soft power is gigantic: Europe seems to have given up considering Russia as part of its own world, Ukraine united in a collective struggle for its own survival and the former Soviet republics of Asia have begun to question their role in the “post-Soviet space”. While historically lumped together in the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, the latter have started to turn to Europe, Turkey, or China.

It’s almost unnecessary to explain that when a revanchist imperial power invades one of their neighbors with the stated intent of extinguishing its autonomy, people and culture, its other former colonies will cease to look at it as a guarantor of their own security. Looking over 19th century Russian history, Oleksandr Polanichev writes that the Tsarist colonial project in Southern Caucasus, namely Georgia, was very similar to how European contemporary powers viewed their own colonial empires: an “exotic” region that would flood the metropolis with raw materials in exchange of manufactured goods and, mostly, “civilization”. Concerning this region, the most recent flashpoint has been the Nagorno-Karabakh exclave, pitting in simple terms Armenia and Russia on one side and, on the other, Azerbaijan and Turkey. After the 2020 Azeri offensive, peace was reached by an agreement that symbolized not only Western disinterest in supporting the Armenian defenders, but also a renewed Russian military presence in the region. The exclave is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but since 1991 it has been under the control over the self-proclaimed Armenian republic of Artsakh. This means that it is not recognized by Russia as part of Armenia. Consequently, the renewal of hostilities in September did not lead to an intervention by CSTO, the military alliance led by Moscow, and which includes Armenia. The security vacuum left behind by Russian impotence led Yerevan to begin studying its options, considering further ties to Iran or the United States, while the West still refrains itself from expanding its influence over this country. In the meantime, Russia’s mobilization decree led to suspicions, in previous months, that it would also affect citizens of the separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, since most of the people of these lands, internationally, recognized as Georgian, possess Russian citizenship.

When it comes to Central Asia, the changing of the guard is clearer, as regional governments turn away from Russia’s sphere in favor of Beijing. CSTO troops have helped Kazym-Jomart Tokayev’s Kazakh regime in violently crushing January’s protests, resulting in over 200 deaths. However, one must note that around 16% of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnically Russian, living mostly on the northernmost border with Russia. It wouldn’t take much, then, to fit the same arguments that justify the aggression on Ukraine to this reality. Astana’s refusal both in legitimizing Russia’s wars, as well as aiding its long-time ally in the ongoing conflict becomes logical. The international isolation that Russia finds itself in, argues Temur Umarov, adds an extra value to Kazakhstan’s economic dependence to the former, just like it could serve as a pretext for Tokayev to walk towards eliminating it – a national objective since this country’s independence in 1991. Halfway through September, renewed border fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan once again questioned Russia’s sole as regional security enforcer. Moscow keeps a significative military presence in the region, but its failure to maintain peace between supposed allies offers China an opportunity to assume this role. Xi Jinping has been presenting himself as a defender of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan’s territorial integrity, while sponsoring a railway project worth 4 billion dollars. A project that will funnel Chinese exports through Europe bypassing Russia. For now, it is still early to rule Russia’s involuntary stepping back as the main security guarantor of its former colonies as definitive. Paraphrasing Marianne Larouelle on Foreign Affairs, if this country’s diminished role on the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit reveals something, is that the arrival of potential substitutes, such as Turkey or China, paints an uncertain future for the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Which leaves us with Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarus. For almost three decades, the Belarusian dictator has ruled his country based on the economical and military power of its neighbor to the East. Like Tokayev did this year, Lukashenko resorted to Putin in 2020 to survive the massive protests that sprung up after his victory in the presidential elections, denounced as fraudulent both by the West and the opposition’s candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Since February, Belarus has served as a giant military base for the Russian war effort, allowing both troops and missiles to be stationed inside its borders. The biggest fear at the moment is of a potential Belarusian entry into the war, opening a new front to the North, but both analysts and Lukashenko himself recognize that this army’s weakness and inexperience would in no way contribute to halt Russia’s march towards defeat. Lastly, due to the colonial and imperialist nature of this war, the Belarusians do not share the same motivation as the Russians for an active participation in it. Adding this to the already precarious internal situation of the regime, such a scenario would almost certainly be the final nail in its coffin.

Returning to the initial paragraph, Hodges bases his argument in three premises: the humiliation of Russia’s armed forces, the economic damages of the war and the sparse, declining nature of Russia’s population. The first one is clear, as the human and logistical losses in the field are followed by Ukraine’s offensive towards Kherson and potentially new incursions on the Donbas, as well as drone strikes to Sevastopol’s naval base. Parallelly, October 15th saw the murder of lieutenant-colonel Andrey Lapin and others by three Tajik mercenaries, in a training camp near Belgorod. The motives behind the massacre center around insults allegedly made in a meeting, by Lapin, towards Allah, which offended the present soldiers. Said meeting had been assembled after Muslim fighters refused to fight in a war that “isn’t theirs”. The total number of deaths varies from 11, according to state sources, to 22 or 30, according to independent sources. This is one of innumerous cases of internal pushback to the mobilization decree, that resulted in protests in urban centers in all of Russia and almost 2400 prisons (data from September). This means the following: the informal pact between Putin and the Russian people – in which the latter refrained itself from actively participating in politics and gave carte blanche to the former’s whims, in exchange for relative stability, international prestige and the feeling that the crisis of the 90s had been overcome – has been broken. Russia’s military interventions so far, namely in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, had been spectacles to be consumed by a population thirsty for imperial restoration. With mobilization, the war came home. As said by philosopher Vlad Vexler on a YouTube video, politically speaking, Putin needs the Russians glued to the couch, but militarily he needs them in Ukraine.

These protests had been particularly intense in Dagestan. This autonomous republic, situated in Northern Caucasus, has seen over a hundred detained in the last few weeks. Besides the demographic importance of these regions, the ethno-cultural multiplicity of Dagestan and its population’s poverty, exacerbated by the Kremlin’s policies, might lead to a true powder keg as the opposition to Putin transforms into an existential question. Thus, paraphrasing Paul Goble in the Eurasia Daily Mirror, these protestors could symbolize the beginning of a much larger uprising in the Northern Caucasus, as Russia’s repressive apparatus concentrates more and more of its resources in Ukraine. In contrast, Chechnya presents way fewer losses than Dagestan. This region is governed since 2007 by Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin’s closest allies. While internationally recognized as an integral part of the Russian Federation, Kamil Galeev describes it as “a personal kingdom of Kadyrov in personal vassalage to Putin”. Galeev adopts Carl Schmitt’s definition of colony – a country’s territory from the perspective of the international law, but a foreign territory from the perspective of the domestic law – and recognizes that Putin is himself the lifeline that maintain Kadyrov’s position as absolute viceroy, but suspects that him and the Kadyrovtsy will form the regime’s last line of defense in case of collapse. In other words, they are an informal praetorian guard.

Kadyrov’s criticism to Russia’s military performance, as well as his endorsement of the use of tactical nuclear weapons, may reveal his desperation, or signs of a secret internal conflict between the Chechen leader and the other members of the elite, namely Yevgeny Prigozhin and Sergei Shoigu. As stated by political scientist Dimitry Oreshkin, Russia’s model of government fits Putin like a glove, it is designed to circle around a providential leader, so anyone of his eventual replacers will need immediate results to gain legitimacy. The defeat in Ukraine doesn’t allow that to happen, so any decapitation operation is, currently, too risky. Keeping his subordinates in a constant struggle amongst themselves keeps them from uniting against Putin, that is a strategy commonly adopted by any autocrat, but in wartime a series of defeats fires up the search for scapegoats. As anguish grows amongst the elites, more unstable the card castle becomes, and as figures like Prigozhin and Kadyrov become more and more vocal against the nomenklatura, the weaker Russia’s state apparatus becomes. As Tatiana Stanovaya writes, Putin’s obsession with Ukraine may not be shared by the rest of the elite, and the latter may already be picturing scenarios in which defeat may be easier to digest.

Prigozhin or Kadyrov are more extreme options, possibly the worst alternatives. Political analyst Abbas Galyamov suggests Dimitry Patrushev, minister of Agriculture and son of Nikolai, secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council and former FSB leader, Sergei Kiriyenko, former prime-minister, former president of Rosatom and First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia, Sergey Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow, or current prime-minister Mikhail Mishustin. As members of the ruling elite, these men are presented as possible mediators of a hypothetical peace between the regime’s core and the West. Some in the West may even dream of reform headed by activist Alexei Navalny, arrested since 2021. This is an illusion. The list of questionable political positions taken by Navalny over the years makes any democrat worth their salt apprehensive. On the other hand, Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s experience demonstrated than a “benevolent tsar” isn’t enough to ensure a safe transition towards democracy. At best, it’d be a placebo against the bigger problem. What is that bigger problem, then? The Kremlin’s ideology of imperial dominance. Paranoia, insecurity, the thirst for expansion, the glorification of the vozhd and the crushing of the individual. These form the legacy of the twin-headed eagle and the red star. While there’s a vozhd, there’s an empire to maintain or recover. While there’s an empire to recover, there will be war.

Unfortunately, as posited by Nicolas Tenzer, this seems to have poisoned the minds of most Russians, to the point that they cannot connect the internal repression with massacres happening elsewhere. As long as they can slightly breathe, they’re comfortable with a chain on their necks. For Tenzer, any institutional reform from within is, at present, impossible. Said evolution will come from outside. First, it is imperative to secure Moscow’s total and complete defeat in Ukraine, which shall depend on Western uncompromisable aid to this country. Then, the West must ignore the naivetés that induced it in error during the 1990s, namely the legitimization of Russo-Soviet chauvinism and the pipe dream that trade would magically bring Russia into the camp of democracies. Lastly, a sort of socio-economic “tutelage” would follow, spearheaded by the European Union. This would translate into the “deputinization” of Russian society, the demilitarization of schools and society as a whole, the redefining of the social contract centered around the promotion of historical and scientific truth, planting the seeds of a strong civil society, etc. Above all else, as fanciful as this ideal may be, it must be interiorized by the Russian people. It cannot be imposed by Western powers or by any political clique. There must be a concerted effort on both sides, for this change will not happen overnight. Here stands the best possible scenario, what “should” happen.

Let us imagine, on the other hand, that Putin somehow gets an agreement that mitigates his losses and assures something that he could shape and sell as a victory. It is beyond obvious that any agreement would not achieve a lasting peace but would only serve as an excuse for the Russian leader to regroup and restrike if he finds the international conjuncture favorable once more. Aviezer Tucker describes this scenario as disastrous in two ways: Russia would spiral even further into totalitarianism, isolation and paranoia, while Ukraine would be forced into becoming another Israel, constantly fearful of renewed offensives and dependent on external support. The definitive closing of European markets would gradually push this Russia into China’s arms, as the need for imports and capital extraordinarily tips the scale in Beijing’s favor. It is hard to imagine that Moscow would accept this new subservient role willingly, which leads Dmitri Alperovitch and Sergey Radchenko to ponder if, in response, there wouldn’t be a new approximation towards the West on Russia’s behalf.

Both these scenarios, of course, imply that the West manifests its interest in maintaining a stable and united Russia. It should be noted, again, that that end rests primarily on the Russian people’s hands. This country is 70 times larger than Yugoslavia. Its ethnic minorities comprise a quarter of the total population. And, obviously, it possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Assuming a collapse of the Russian state, how to ensure nuclear weapons won’t fall in the wrong hands? Are we ready to consider a balkanization of Russia? In April, Juraj Mesík painted a concrete portrait of a possible collapse. This would happen in around 3- or 5- years’ time, occupied lands in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova would be returned, both Karelia and the Kurils would return to Finland and Japan respectively, the future of Kaliningrad would be in the hands of Europeans, and China could even claim the Amur River basin, known as Outer Manchuria. The hard part would be to think of the remaining territories. Describing Russia as “an empire vertically controlled and centralized in Moscow”, with its foundation in the ideology of imperial dominance, the security apparatus, and the energy revenues, Mesík views as quite likely that the gradual disintegration of these pillars will result in new states, Russian- speaking or not, as well as a long period of violence and generalized poverty. In turn, Russian historian Alexander Etkind writes “I am not at all calling for the Russian Federation’s collapse; I am simply predicting it”. Etkind explores the notion of reconquering Ukrainian lands as a fetishizing shared by the Russians and places this country’s power on oil and nuclear weapons. If Russia loses the war without resorting to the nuclear option and if the world learns to live without Russian oil, what power does Russia really have? A post-Russian Eurasia is still a vague idea, in which democracy would blossom in some states, while ethnic tensions and lack of resources of defined power structures could prop up autocracies and conflicts in others.

According to Alexander Motyl, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika sparked the match that would detonate the powder keg that was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Today, an erratic dictator obsessed with his own delusions of historical grandeur has condemned thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers to death, created a climate of nuclear tension that hasn’t been felt since the Cold War, is once again threatening global food security and, above all, will be the main culprit of the disaggregation of the Russian Federation. Even if support for Ukraine was minimal, even if sanctions were lifted today, writes Motyl, said disaggregation will come. Whether we want it or not, it will come. If we can’t stop it, we could at least brace ourselves.

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