Discussing Russia’s Future

During an online discus­sion, Polish expert Maria Domanska and Russian oppo­si­tion leader Vladimir Milov presented their policy papers about future scenarios for Russia. Here is what they had to say.

This discus­sion is part of the project Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry.

A PDF with both papers can be found here

By unleashing a war of aggres­sion against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has tied his political fate to its outcome. There are many indi­ca­tions that Russia may be heading for tumul­tuous times. Different scenarios for a post-Putin Russia are being currently discussed. They range from demo­c­ratic change to further radi­cal­iza­tion of the regime and even the disin­te­gra­tion of Russia.

To contribute to the ongoing debate, the Center of Liberal Modernity (LibMod) has commis­sioned two policy papers on the topic. They were written by Maria Domanska, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, and Vladimir Milov, one of Russia’s best-known oppo­si­tion figures, who now lives in Vilnius.

On February 15, we presented them within our Inter­na­tional Expert Network during an online discus­sion with both authors and LibMod Managing Director Ralf Fücks. LibMod’s Russia Programme Director Maria Sannikova-Franck moderated the discussion.

Fücks argued that the lack of clarity about Russia’s future leads to strategic ambiva­lences of Western policy toward the war in Ukraine. So far, he said, fears of a possible collapse of the Putin regime following a military defeat in Ukraine seem to dominate. To many, Putin still appears as the “lesser evil” compared to a chaotic state collapse or a takeover by “even worse” forces. But this view fails to recognize that Putin is already the worst case: a regime that can only exist through ever harsher internal repres­sion and aggres­sive external policies. A return to peaceful coex­is­tence with this regime is a dangerous illusion. The West must face up to the question of a future for Russia after Putin.

Both papers’ authors unan­i­mously argued that Russia is not doomed to remain an imperial dicta­tor­ship forever. However, they differed in their expec­ta­tions of how quickly a demo­c­ratic turn­around will be possible in the country.

Vladimir Milov pointed out, that rapid political U‑turns have occurred frequently in Russian history and that the current Russian elite is oppor­tunistic rather than bound by ideology. He said that Russian aggres­sion is a result of Putin’s “abso­lutism” and that there is no bottom-up popular demand for an aggres­sive impe­ri­al­istic policies. For this reason, the elite will have strong incen­tives to change the political course once Putin has gone. Milov added that the Russian people want sane politics, free and fair elections, and the rule of law. Many also demand normal­iza­tion of relations with the West. According to Milov, the protests that erupted from time to time in various Russian regions in the last years prove that Russians have not lost their basic demo­c­ratic instincts.

Putin’s imperial revan­chism has severely poisoned Russian society 

However, Maria Domanska argued that strong resis­tance from the bene­fi­cia­ries of the current regime will run counter to any liber­al­iza­tion. Putin’s imperial revan­chism has severely poisoned Russian society, she said. Moreover, the patri­mo­nial notion of the state as being the personal property of the leader and the logic of patron-client relations rooted in Russian political culture are the pillars of Russian author­i­tar­i­anism. A lot of what we have now in Russia is a direct or indirect result of a lack of proper confronta­tion with Stalinism and its crimes.  At the same time, Domanska high­lighted the prag­ma­tism of Russians and their strong demand for self-gover­nance as a positive sign for the long and bumpy reform process.

Both Domanska and Milov believe that the successor regime will likely be weaker than Putin’s and might temporarily abandon its most aggres­sive foreign and domestic policies. But Russia will need constant internal and external pressure in order to leave its author­i­tarian path.

The West needs to work out a new Russia strategy 

Domanska under­lined that Russia’s aggres­sion against Ukraine refuted many assump­tions that have defined Western policy toward Russia for many years. The West needs to work out a new Russia strategy.

Key elements of this strategy were suggested by the speakers:

  • As long as the current regime is in power, Western policy should be based on contain­ment and deterrence.
  • The key condition for any new beginning is a defin­i­tive Russian defeat in Ukraine.
  • The West should not fear change in Russia but promote it and prepare the ground for a future trans­for­ma­tion. Therefore it should give full support to the Russian demo­c­ratic oppo­si­tion as a possible factor of change.
  • Vis‑a vis a successor regime in Moscow, the West should pursue a consis­tent policy of “carrot and stick”: offering coop­er­a­tion and lifting sanctions only in exchange for a renun­ci­a­tion of external violence and internal demo­c­ratic reforms. 


The discus­sion was held in the framework of the project Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry. 

The papers discussed can be accessed here.

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