“The Best Russia Policy Is to Support a Ukrainian Victory”

Confer­ence report

Lessons Learned?
Western Policy versus Russia

More than 120 experts from a dozen countries attended the fifth edition of our confer­ence “Russia and the West” on 20 April in Berlin. The partic­i­pants, including prominent Russian oppo­si­tion figures in exile, discussed future policy towards Moscow and post-Putin scenarios.

Learning from mistakes can be a difficult exercise. This is also the case with Western policy towards Russia and the conclu­sions we draw with regard to Ukraine: Past mistakes still loom large but they must not be repeated, was a main takeaway of this year’s confer­ence “Russia and the West” – the second held under the shadow of Russia’s war of aggression.

At the opening, LibMod Director Ralf Fücks dedicated the confer­ence to Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was a partic­i­pant in 2022 and was arrested in Moscow weeks later. On 17 April — three days before the confer­ence — he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his criticism of the war.

“Unre­strained external violence and dicta­tor­ship are two sides of the same coin,” said and added: “Only a defeat of the Putin regime (in Ukraine) opens the chance for a different Russia that shakes off its imperial curse and finally finds its way out of author­i­tarian rule to democracy.”

Putin hopes that he cares more about Ukraine than the West

Because of this, any talk about Russia’s future needs to focus on the war in Ukraine. Accord­ingly, the first panel discussed what needs to be done so that Ukraine can win. The short answer: much more than has been done so far.

Russia is still far from its military goals, but it is waiting for Western fatigue while preparing for a long war, was the unanimous opinion. As one panelist put it: “Putin hopes that he cares more about Ukraine than the West” (we do not attribute quotes because the confer­ence was held under Chatham House Rules).

Another singled out the ongoing fight for Bakhmut, where Russia has been making minimal gains while suffering massive losses for months. The embattled east Ukrainian city shows that a bad war is better for the Kremlin than a bad peace, which would force it to admit mistakes.

Because of this, it is so important to give long-term and system­atic military support to Ukraine. A strong signal for this would be to train Ukrainian pilots on Western fighter planes.

However, the West also has strategic deficits. Despite regular promises to support Kyiv “whatever it takes”, there is no common vision for Ukraine’s war aims. There is wide­spread suspicion that many are afraid of a Russian defeat. Yet it is clear that any ambiguity of the West will be utilized by the Kremlin.

Expect cracks in the elites rather than the economy

How firmly is Putin in power after 14 months of war? What are his regime’s “breaking points”? This was the subject of panel 2.

Econom­i­cally, Russia is in a better position than many predicted a year ago: The country lives not only from the sale of oil and gas, but also from a whole range of other raw materials such as palladium, nickel and potash (a vital ingre­dient for fertil­izers). The Russian economy is also rela­tively immune to sanctions because it is primitive by inter­na­tional standards: apart from arms and nuclear tech­nology, the country manu­fac­tures few note­worthy export goods.

Never­the­less, the sanctions are working, but slowly. Their effect was compared to an ageing car: Each year it performs worse.

Partic­i­pants suggested looking for breaking points in the elites instead. Putin lost his aura of untouch­a­bility after the defeats in Kharkiv and Kherson, and If there is another signif­i­cant military loss, the situation could turn: “Many in the Russian elite believe that the war is a burden that the country cannot carry for long,” said one expert who studied the topic in depth. With mobil­i­sa­tion and the use of prisoners as “Wagner” merce­naries, Putin has committed himself to a war of attrition and is betting that time is on Russia’s side. But the mood among Russian elites outside the inner circle of power is gloomier than ever before, and there is concern that Putin is driving the country against the wall, said the expert, citing confi­den­tial conversations.

If, when and how this will turn into oppo­si­tion to the Kremlin’s policies depends crucially on the outcome of the Ukraine adventure. So here, too, it is in the hands of the West and its will­ing­ness to support Ukraine enough.

Post-Putin scenarios range from thaw to civil war

What are the prospects for a post-Putin Russia? What can the West do at all to influence the situation? Scenarios of change range from cautiously opti­mistic (a new govern­ment makes conces­sions towards pluralism and rapproche­ment with the West) to pessimistic, e.g. a country awash with weapons and trau­ma­tised men while the crim­i­nal­ized state remains.

One scenario was that demo­c­ratic elections could take place no sooner than two years after the end of the regime. Until then, however, the new rulers would have to come to terms with hard-line nation­al­ists, who are armed and against any peaceful solution in Ukraine. In the worst case, this could mean civil war.

The optimists, on the other hand, point to Siberia, where in 2020 people in the Khabarovsk region came out in mass protests against the Moscow-ordered removal of their governor. They claim that there are “dozens of Khabarovsks” out there and that the fixation on elites and a palace revo­lu­tion is misleading. They favour scenarios, where change is not driven by liberal milieus in Moscow and St Peters­burg, but by those striving for self-govern­ment in the Russian provinces.

However, how exactly Putin will leave power remains unclear. A major risk is that the Russian state has become extremely person­al­ized under Putin and has weak insti­tu­tions. There are no estab­lished proce­dures for a power handover. “His person is the problem — if we take out this bolt, the whole country can go up in flames,” one partic­i­pant said. At the same time, the possi­bility of Russia falling apart was seen as rather remote. The vast majority of Russian regions do not strive for secession or statehood, but for more autonomy vis-à-vis Moscow.

So far, the state remains firmly in control thanks to propa­ganda, repres­sion and financial incen­tives. Economic discon­tent seems to pose no threat to the Kremlin in the medium term and the West could be dealing with Putin for the fore­see­able future. This prospect fuelled calls for reforming the sanctions. The argument goes that their current design drives the elites to rally around Putin. Most recently, prominent friends of the president could snatch up Western companies cheaply, after their owners decided to leave the Russian market. The sanction reformers call for offering an exit option to those members of the elites willing to turn away from Putin.

Opinions also differ on the West’s ability to influence Kremlin poli­cy­making. While some argued that decades of failed democracy promotion in Russia showed that the West massively over­es­ti­mated its potential, others say that the West under­es­ti­mated its strength: They argue that the weak Western response to the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, to the Syrian war and domestic repres­sion signalled the Kremlin that it could largely act with impunity.

But there was a strong consensus that the best Russia policy right now is to work towards a military victory of Ukraine, because Putin probably won’t survive a crushing defeat for long. And only his departure from power opens the chance for positive change in the country and for sustain­able peace in Europe: Russia must “learn to lose in order to abandon its colonial ambitions and hegemonic thinking”, several voices at the confer­ence said. The West faces the task of supporting the Russian oppo­si­tion and to promote demo­c­ratic change in the country as much as it can.


Confer­ence impressions


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