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