Rein­venting Russia: How the West Should Prepare for the Post-Putin Period

A burnt out russian tank in Kherson. Photo: IMAGO

The war in Ukraine is putting the future of Russia more and more in our hands. A decisive victory of Ukraine makes an end to the Putin regime more likely. The West needs to prepare for this moment because it may offer a short oppor­tu­nity to encourage the country to embark on a more demo­c­ratic and law-abinding path, writes Maria Domanska.

This paper is part of the project Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s own.

Read this paper in RUSSIAN! – Lesen Sie dieses Paper auf DEUTSCH! – Download the PDF!

ABSTRACT

Russia will pose an exis­ten­tial threat to the West as long as it remains author­i­tarian. Its blatant viola­tions of inter­na­tional law are a direct conse­quence of the lack of rule of law in the country. Its full-scale aggres­sion against Ukraine, war crimes and nuclear blackmail have turned it into a rogue state. It is, therefore in the West’s exis­ten­tial interest to see the current model of govern­ment in Russia perma­nently dismantled.

Portrait von Maria Domańska

Maria Domańska PhD is a senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, Poland.

Putin’s departure from the pres­i­dency will open up a short-term window of oppor­tu­nity for political change. Contrary to wide­spread fears, the end of Russia’s auto­cratic ’stability’ may be less of a threat and more of a chance for sustain­able peace in Europe. For this moment, the West must be well-armed. Before the new lead­er­ship consol­i­dates its power, our priority should be to widen the window of oppor­tu­nity and prevent it from closing again for decades.

I. War as an extension of domestic-political goals

There is much to suggest that Russia’s lead­er­ship decided to invade Ukraine and launch a proxy war against NATO primarily for domestic political reasons. The invasion was intended as ‘forward defence’ against liberal democracy, which Russian state propa­ganda hints at as ‘Nazism’. The Kremlin saw the political empow­er­ment of Ukrainian society as a poten­tially conta­gious example to the Russians. A final warning for the Kremlin probably came in late 2021, when polls revealed unfavourable trends in public mood vis-à-vis the regime.[i] It became clear that a further erosion of Putin’s legit­i­macy would only be a matter of time. War was supposed to stoke ‘patriotic’ hysteria about external and internal enemies, as well as the ‘besieged fortress’ syndrome, and make Russians firmly unite around the dictator. Inter­na­tional isolation was consid­ered an accept­able price and an oppor­tu­nity to cement the dicta­tor­ship through unprece­dented domestic repression.

Ukraine must now obtain all necessary military assis­tance to defeat the aggressor and promptly restore its terri­to­rial integrity. It must also receive adequate war repa­ra­tions and see Russian war criminals tried by inter­na­tional tribunals, no matter how long it will take. Russia’s impunity would have disas­trous conse­quences for global security and the political-economic order for decades to come. The risk of nuclear arms prolif­er­a­tion will rise. China will learn lessons from this conflict and Moscow’s victory will encourage Beijing to pursue its revan­chist ambitions.

However, Russia’s de-facto war against NATO will not end with Ukraine’s victory on the battle­field. Even a military defeat, if not followed by a deep economic crisis and anti-regime political devel­op­ments inside Russia, would merely lead to a temporary setback in Moscow’s aggres­sive actions. Given the revan­chist nature of Putinism, peaceful coex­is­tence with Russia will be impos­sible. Only permanent (and costly) military deter­rence would prevent Russia’s mili­tarism from spilling beyond the country’s borders again. Contrary to what Berlin or Paris may think, seeking ‘compro­mise’ with Moscow will bear no fruit. The only ‘security guarantee’ Putin would accept is the unrav­el­ling of NATO and the EU as centres of demo­c­ratic values and global political clout.

Even if Russia will never get on the Western bandwagon in terms of its interests and goals, aggres­sion and war crimes must disappear from its foreign policy arsenal. 

The only way to avoid severe turbu­lence in Europe in the future is to address the very source of the security threats. In Russia’s current political system, a narrow group can make decisions crucial to inter­na­tional security beyond any control by the broader elite and society. Thus, we will need not only a change of political lead­er­ship in Russia but also a sustain­able disman­tling of author­i­tarian rule. The long-term goal of the West should be that decision-making processes in the Kremlin are brought into compli­ance with the inter­na­tional law and subjected to scrutiny by domestic actors (interest groups in the ruling elite and the public). Even if Russia will never get on the Western bandwagon in terms of its interests and goals, aggres­sion and war crimes must disappear from its foreign policy arsenal.

So far, the West has never actually tried to change Russia and it founded its policies on three false assump­tions. The first was that we could influence an author­i­tarian system through economic coop­er­a­tion. In fact, Western money has only helped the regime suppress those few sprouts of demo­c­ratic insti­tu­tions that emerged in the Gorbachev-Yeltsin period. Second, there still prevails a belief that demo­c­ratic culture of dialogue can peace­fully redesign Russia’s political and strategic culture, which is based on violence and the logic of a zero-sum game. Third, human rights in Russia were not consid­ered a vital issue for European stability: Western deci­sion­makers gravely under­es­ti­mated the domestic-foreign policy nexus. The West continues its self-restraint towards Russia because ‘inter­fer­ence in Russia’s domestic affairs’ remains a taboo for many Western experts and politi­cians. However, this approach will only make our democ­ra­cies more vulner­able vis-à-vis author­i­tarian regimes in Europe and beyond.

Russians must expe­ri­ence an unequiv­ocal failure of Putinism as a neo-imperial project 

As long as Putin remains in power, Russia’s voluntary surrender in Ukraine or political liber­al­i­sa­tion is out of the question. However, it is possible to prepare the ground in advance for Russia’s future trans­for­ma­tion. First and foremost, Russians must expe­ri­ence an unequiv­ocal failure of Putinism as a neo-imperial project. Only a prompt and complete military defeat can convince the Russian political estab­lish­ment that war is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, either as a foreign policy tool or a means of building domestic-political legit­i­macy. Also, the economic-financial base of the regime must be consis­tently weakened by tougher sanctions to prevent the govern­ment from replen­ishing its military potential. Currently, the sanctions regime remains highly incon­sis­tent, both in terms of range and in terms of enforcement.

Secondly, we need Ukraine’s recon­struc­tion as soon as possible. The country must become a robust and stable democracy and a market economy within the EU and NATO. The NATO umbrella over Ukraine will guarantee that EU recon­struc­tion funds will not burn up in another aggres­sion. EU member­ship will provide effective instru­ments to control expen­di­tures and prevent possible large-scale corruption.

Last but not least, compre­hen­sive support for Russian civil society and free media in exile should become an element of a broader, long-term strategy vis-à-vis Moscow. It should be one of the paths to attain a political change in Russia for Europe’s stability. Although political émigrés will not bring about the regime’s collapse on their own, they can, on their return home, provide an invalu­able ideo­log­ical and organ­i­sa­tional base for reforms.

II. A post-Putin window of opportunity

Putin’s departure will not auto­mat­i­cally lead to signif­i­cant changes in the political system. So far, Russian author­i­tar­i­anism has easily repro­duced itself owing to its deep foun­da­tions: the patri­mo­nial notion of the state as being the personal property of the leader and the logic of patron-client relations as the main factor organ­ising the sphere of socio-political inter­ac­tions.[ii] Moreover, as compar­a­tive studies have shown, tran­si­tion from person­alist rule (like that in Russia) is less likely to result in a democracy than tran­si­tion from other forms of author­i­tar­i­anism.[iii]

With Putin’s exit, however, a window of oppor­tu­nity will briefly open. The trauma of war and its negative economic and social conse­quences can create fertile ground for political-economic reform. The new lead­er­ship will be weaker than the current one and therefore more vulner­able to external and internal pressures. Their pursuit of a better inter­na­tional image, external legit­i­macy, and a broad base of support at home may lead to two qual­i­ta­tive shifts. First, Russia may temporarily abandon its aggres­sive foreign policy in return for sanctions relief. Second, we will likely see a liber­al­i­sa­tion of the neo-total­i­tarian domestic policy. The latter is now based on a person­ality cult, mass indoc­tri­na­tion, wartime censor­ship, and the state’s intrusion into citizens’ private lives.

Due to the heavy burden of author­i­tarian path-depen­dence, a democ­ra­ti­sa­tion of Russia is unre­al­istic in the fore­see­able future. However, the intro­duc­tion of pluralism into the political system would be rela­tively easy to achieve at an early stage. Before the new lead­er­ship consol­i­dates power, the West’s priority should be to widen the window of oppor­tu­nity for reform and keep it from shutting again for decades. We can expect strong resis­tance from groups directly respon­sible for war crimes and political repres­sion; which is why without constant pressure from below and outside reforms may be prevented for a long time. The West must learn lessons from its mistakes vis-à-vis Russia committed in the 1990s.

Our toolkit needs to be based on trans­parent bench­marks and contain a carefully designed mix of carrots and sticks. Its details should be discussed in advance and take into account the interests and needs of Russian society at large. EU and NATO members should only recognise a new govern­ment once it abolishes censor­ship and other polit­i­cally-motivated repres­sive laws, releases all political prisoners, allows inde­pen­dent media to operate freely and organises free elections under inter­na­tional obser­va­tion. We should impose another package of sanctions if the new lead­er­ship continues to violate human rights. The cost of new restric­tions for the West will be negli­gible because, by that time, we will have ended our depen­dence on Russian raw materials. Conversely, the successful imple­men­ta­tion of reforms should, among other things, lead to a gradual liber­al­i­sa­tion of the trade regime with Russia. In the longer term, the West should engage in building an insti­tu­tional framework to safeguard the continued trans­for­ma­tion and guarantee political freedoms to the oppo­si­tion and civil society.

A western strategy needs to be based not so much on investing in a single political figure (a ‘new Yeltsin’) but on dialogue with political forces across the board – except for those involved in war crimes and political repres­sion. The West must also develop intense contacts with the broader public, which may create a buffer against possible future political tensions.

However, before changes can occur in the oper­a­tional sphere of Western policies, we need to revo­lu­tionise our way of thinking about Russia. It is often based on fears and false beliefs promoted by Kremlin-sponsored propa­ganda. They make us self-restrain in terms of military assis­tance for Ukraine and discus­sions on the role of the West in Russia’s future political transformation.

III.   The fetish of Russia’s stability: an intel­li­gent weapon against the West

Many Western experts and politi­cians express a fatal­istic belief that the demise of Russian author­i­tar­i­anism would lead to the state’s collapse and a serious desta­bil­i­sa­tion of Eurasia. However, a broad spectrum of options lies between dicta­tor­ship and dangerous chaos. To discard them a priori is to play Putin’s game that has effec­tively worked for years. It is based on the dogma that Putin’s Russia is the only possible Russia; since it is impos­sible (or extremely risky) to change it, there is no choice but to strike ‘pragmatic’ deals with the aggres­sive regime. We have been paying the price of this manip­u­la­tion since 24 February 2022. The advocates of ‘stability above all’ seem to forget that Russia had never been as ‘stable’ as it was just before the war when the author­i­ties had ulti­mately destroyed all political oppo­si­tion. ‘Perfect stability’ (which is in fact arti­fi­cial – see below) was necessary for launching armed aggres­sion against Ukraine.

Within the broad spectrum of political scenarios, a genuine feder­a­tion with a robust local self-govern­ment system is the most desirable and realistic. Non-violent mech­a­nisms for artic­u­lating and resolving conflicts can only emerge in a decen­tralised political system. Decen­tral­i­sa­tion of political power and financial resources would thus make a future Russia more predictable, stable, and law-abiding. In Russia, ‘democracy’ as a system of values, insti­tu­tions and proce­dures may not resonate much among the public. However, soci­ol­o­gists, econ­o­mists, and civic activists have for years reported on the growing demand for self-gover­nance of local popu­la­tions, and for legal account­ability of state officials, including in the provinces.

The empow­er­ment of local and regional popu­la­tions, including ethnic minori­ties, may become an effective vaccine against the resur­gence of Russian imperial revan­chism. The cure for the imperial disease is to offer citizens a ’normal’ life and a sense of co-ownership of the state, owing to free elections and a broad public discus­sion on the shape of the new consti­tu­tion. So far, the West has utterly ignored Russia’s ethnic and cultural diversity, thus mani­festing a colo­nialist mindset (which until 2022 also prevailed vis-a-vis Ukraine, taking the form of the ‘Russia-first’ policy).

There is not much rationale behind the fear that possible insta­bility related to political changes, elite infighting or adverse economic impact of reforms would lead to the collapse of Russian statehood. None of the regions inhabited by ethnic minori­ties has a potential for secession. They face one or multiple barriers to successful sepa­ratist tenden­cies. First, regional govern­ments are neither legit­i­mate nor do they genuinely represent the interests of local popu­la­tions. Second, the model of ‘state capi­talism’ has led to heavy financial depen­dence of regional budgets on the federal one, while regional economies remain under­de­vel­oped. Third, most of these regions do not have borders with other countries. Last but not least, the non-Russian ethnic groups are often a minority in their ‘national republics’ or they lack a solid histor­ical, cultural and linguistic identity, the latter having been delib­er­ately suppressed by the federal centre. Although anti-Moscow senti­ments have long been percep­tible in the regions, they do not have much in common with sepa­ratist moods. Instead, they mostly reflect oppo­si­tion against the federal bureau­cracy with its excessive powers and greed for local resources. Also, negative memories of the Soviet collapse still work against radical scenarios.[iv] Para­dox­i­cally, the threat of the break-up of the state and the feeling that ‘Russia may be gone’ may even strengthen reformist tenden­cies to resolve federal-regional tensions.

Another wide­spread fear among the Western expert community and political estab­lish­ment is that ’someone worse than Putin’ may come to power in case of domestic political turmoil. However, it is difficult to imagine someone worse than a leader who has unleashed an aggres­sive war in the middle of Europe, turned Russia into a rogue state based on violence and lawless­ness, and resorts to nuclear blackmail to remain unpun­ished. After Putin is gone, compro­mise figures will likely come to power to calm the situation rather than further escalate. The usual bugbears: the belligerent leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, or the notorious sponsor of the Wagner merce­naries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, are more Putin’s tools than autonomous political players. Even though they may try to influence the power games with their private armies, they will be unable to gain support from the broader political-business estab­lish­ment. It is also unlikely that the powerful but deeply divided repres­sion apparatus (the siloviki) will unite and play an inde­pen­dent role in power games. However, a part of it can become a scale-tipping factor. In case of violent infighting between the political-business clans, the  primary concern for the West should be the safety of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. It needs to be put in reliable hands – which is not the case under Putin’s rule.

The expe­ri­ence of violence as the primary regulator of relations within the Russian state has become an essential element of collec­tive identity. 

Genuine risks for Russia’s neigh­bours do not lie in the country’s possible ‘desta­bil­i­sa­tion’. Instead, they stem directly from Putin’s pseudo-stability, based on repres­sion, mass indoc­tri­na­tion, and top-down crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of the state. The Kremlin has delib­er­ately ‘outsourced’ the state’s monopoly on violence into the hands of criminal groups and private armies (including the notorious Wagner Group). The banality of violence and degra­da­tion of the value of human life will remain a long-term social problem: the expe­ri­ence of violence as the primary regulator of relations within the Russian state has become an essential element of collec­tive identity. The mass influx of weapons and trau­ma­tised war veterans from Ukraine will exac­er­bate this challenge. Russians have also been poisoned by the Kremlin-sponsored propa­ganda dissem­i­nating genocidal hate speech. It has destroyed language as a tool for explaining reality, in order to make ‘zombified’ citizens question the very existence of truth. None of these malaises can be cured under ’stable’ author­i­tar­i­anism. As time passes and Russia closes off from the outside world, they will only fester.

IV. Russian society: fatal­istic, pragmatic but not ‘genet­i­cally authoritarian’

The Russian public’s suscep­ti­bility to imperial discourse is largely due to two factors. The first is the lack of pluralism in the media and the absolute dominance of state propa­ganda in the public sphere. The second is the fact that histor­ical propa­ganda, great power rhetoric and geopo­lit­ical revan­chism have served for decades as compen­sa­tion for the political disem­pow­er­ment of citizens, economic hardships and the lack of a vision for the future. However, this vicious circle can be broken through political liber­al­i­sa­tion, free elections and economic growth.

A major obstacle in devel­oping an appro­priate commu­ni­ca­tion strategy towards Russian society is the lack of reliable tools to measure public opinion. At times, the very idea of conducting opinion polls under Putin’s neo-total­i­tarian rule is ques­tioned. However, the available soci­o­log­ical data shows that Russian society is not a monolith. Shocking examples of pro-Kremlin jingoism are only one side of the coin. They easily find their way into the media, but are char­ac­ter­istic of a minority estimated at less than 20 percent of the popu­la­tion. Radical opponents of the Kremlin make up another 20 percent, while the rest are ‘hiber­nating’ and hope to wait out the difficult times. Moreover, Russians are polit­i­cally divided along gener­a­tional lines: the youth is much more anti-Putin, pro-Western and anti-war than the 50+ generation.

It seems that a large part of the Russian public simply has no firm opinion on the war and only agrees with what the govern­ment decides. 

Never­the­less, the level of declared public support or passive accep­tance of the Kremlin’s war remains high (about 70 per cent). The Russian military’s increasing combat losses and growing awareness that the ’special military operation’ is not going according to plan have not led to a signif­i­cant change of mood. A large part of society is distancing itself from the theme of war and even more from active anti-war protest. A prevailing sense of power­less­ness makes people ‘hibernate’ even more often than fear of repres­sion. At the same time, social transfers from the state budget are often the last hope for millions of families to stay afloat amid economic hardship. It reduces their readiness to express anti-state senti­ments even further.

It seems that a large part of the Russian public simply has no firm opinion on the war and only agrees with what the govern­ment decides. If the Kremlin presented a U‑turn tomorrow, they too would nod approv­ingly. At the end of 2022, the inde­pen­dent polling institute Russian Field found that well over half of respon­dents would support a new attack on Kyiv (58 per cent) or the signing of a peace agreement (70 per cent).

A large part of the popu­la­tion does not access infor­ma­tion from alter­na­tive sources, not neces­sarily because of increasing censor­ship, but simply to avoid cognitive disso­nance. For decades, those in power have sought to atomise society and destroy the hori­zontal ties between citizens. The lack of confronta­tion with Soviet total­i­tar­i­anism and, in recent years, the blatant glori­fi­ca­tion of the imperial idea have ulti­mately perpet­u­ated the role of the state as the binding force for the nation. Kremlin-sponsored nation­alist propa­ganda has instilled the messianic notion in the public that Russians are morally superior to other nations because they destroyed Nazism (an ‘absolute evil’) in 1945. Confronting the massive war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine would destroy collec­tive and indi­vidual self-esteem and raise the question of collec­tive political respon­si­bility. As state TV offers a much more comfort­able inter­pre­ta­tion of events than free media, it remains the main source of infor­ma­tion for two-thirds of Russians – even though only 50 per cent trust it and 60 per cent do not believe in the official data about Russia’s combat losses (according to the inde­pen­dent Levada Centre and Russian Field).

Moreover, the author­i­ties go to great lengths to make citizens believe that resis­tance is futile and that uncon­di­tional supporters of Putin form an over­whelming majority of the public. Anti-govern­ment oppo­si­tion is equated with the violation of social norms or ‘treason’. It is no coin­ci­dence that one of the frequently used propa­gan­dist cliches is the deni­gra­tion of ‘enemies of the nation’.

V. A new ‘smuta’? Possible but not predetermined

While Russia’s trans­for­ma­tion will be an arduous and non-linear process, several factors can mitigate the adverse effects of political-economic turbu­lence. Even though the bulk of the Russian economy is state-controlled, its large part still operates on market prin­ci­ples. Small and medium-sized busi­nesses have proven their resilience to shocks under predatory state capi­talism. There is a suffi­cient number of skilled bureau­crats at the federal and regional levels to implement reform blue­prints drawn up by leading experts long ago. In addition, Russia has essential intel­lec­tual resources abroad. The sooner the oppor­tu­nity for trans­for­ma­tion emerges, the greater the chance emigrants will return and the brain drain, which may have amounted to half a million people in 2022[v], will be partially reversed.

Another under­es­ti­mated yet invalu­able asset is Russian civil society, which can form the organ­i­sa­tional base for political trans­for­ma­tion. Putin’s rule has led to its suppres­sion in the country, but – as in the case of small and medium-sized busi­nesses – its previous long-standing vitality proved it would be able to quickly regen­erate under more favourable condi­tions. Moreover, those repre­sen­ta­tives of Russian civil society who have found them­selves in forced exile are currently re-organ­ising their work. Many continue their political-civic activ­i­ties, targeting Russian audiences at home and abroad. Most declare they plan to return to Russia once it is safe. They will bring home unique knowledge about best practices of Western grass­roots democracy, self-govern­ment, electoral systems, and effective state admin­is­tra­tion – and will be able to adapt them to Russian realities. However, demo­c­ratic politi­cians opposed to the Kremlin, including those in exile, often under­es­ti­mate the potential of civil society groups as their natural allies and support base.

Many Russians in exile focus on anti-war protests and organise help for Ukraine or Ukrainian refugees. Many activists and jour­nal­ists (of Russian and non-Russian ethnic origin) actively reshape the current discourse about Russia and its neigh­bours, decon­structing imperial, colonial and patri­ar­chal cliches. If any recon­cil­i­a­tion between Russia and Ukraine is ever possible, it will be co-authored by these people rather than anyone else. Another formi­dable task, which awaits them back home, is to lead their fellow citizens through a painful, profound trans­for­ma­tion of collec­tive mentality and identity along non-imperial lines.

Conclu­sion

What will a post-Putin Russia be like? Much depends on the West’s deter­mi­na­tion to influence it genuinely. One can compare this challenge only with the construc­tion of European security archi­tec­ture after World War II. In 1945, no one doubted that the world’s security required a re-invention of Germany. In 2023, we should not refrain from devel­oping a strategy to reinvent Russia. As in Germany, confronta­tion with the total­i­tarian and imperial past will take decades – but it will not start without an external impulse.

 


 

[i] After the September parlia­men­tary election, polls by the inde­pen­dent Levada Centre revealed that support for Putin’s regime was shrinking. For details: M. Domańska, Russia 2021: Consol­i­da­tion of a dicta­tor­ship, OSW Commen­tary, 8 December 2021, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2021–12-08/russia-2021-consolidation-a-dictatorship

[ii] M. Domańska, Putinism after Putin. The deep struc­tures of Russian author­i­tar­i­anism, OSW Studies, Warsaw 2019, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-studies/2019–10-25/putinism-after-putin

[iii] A. Kendall-Taylor, E. Frantz, How Autoc­ra­cies Fall, The Wash­ington Quarterly 37:1, 2014, pp. 35–47.

[iv] Демократия вместо распада. Александр Кынев – о России регионов, Radio Svoboda, 3 August 2022, https://www.svoboda.org/a/demokratiya-vmesto-raspada-aleksandr-kynev—o‑rossii-regionov/31968400.html

[v] Демограф Алексей Ракша — ЕАН: потери от мобилизации в стране пока меньше, чем от COVID, 12.12.2022, https://eanews.ru/news/demograf-aleksey-raksha-poteri-ot-mobilizatsii-v-strane-poka-menshe-chem-ot-covid_12-12–2022

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