Whither Russia? A defeat in Ukraine is a chance for renewal

Putin-Poster opposite the Russian Embassy in Riga; IMAGO

It is time to think about a Russia after Putin. If defeated in Ukraine, condi­tions in the country will also change. Whether for the better or the worse is an open question. Without a departure from the imperial delusion, Russia will remain in the eternal vicious circle of war politics and author­i­tarian rule.

This year, Memorial, Russia’s oldest and most important human rights orga­ni­za­tion, finally received the long overdue Nobel Peace Prize. The satis­fac­tion is mixed with bitter­ness. The award comes at a time when Russia has turned into a sinister war dicta­tor­ship at the speed of light. Memorial has been dissolved by court order, its buildings confis­cated, its accounts frozen. What a collapse from the hopeful beginning of 1987, in the period of glasnost and pere­stroika. The Soviet Union still existed, but it was opening up to come to terms with the past and think about the future. Memorial built a bridge between the old Soviet dissi­dents and a new gener­a­tion of histo­rians and human rights activists. The first chairman was the legendary Andrei Sakharov.

Portrait von Ralf Fücks

Ralf Fücks is managing director of the Center for Liberal Modernity.

I first came into contact with Memorial in 1997 through the Heinrich Böll-Foun­da­tion, which I headed at the time. This turned into 25 years of cordial coop­er­a­tion. We talked our heads off and made plans. There was one common expec­ta­tion above all: democracy in Russia is possible, the path to a common Europe is open. The contrast with today could hardly be greater.

Putin’s “managed democracy” was a ruse

Disil­lu­sion­ment did not come overnight. By 2005 at the latest, the beginning of Putin’s second term, Russia’s liberal spirits were once again on the defensive. Putin’s “managed democracy” was only a cover for author­i­tarian restora­tion. Members of the security services occupied key positions in the state and the economy, and the return to a state-controlled economy was in full swing. A key event was the arrest of Mikhail Khodor­kovsky and the break-up of his Yukos corpo­ra­tion in 2003. Anyone who was too inde­pen­dent was elim­i­nated or forced to kowtow.

Since then, it has been one blow after the other: power was central­ized, the party system and parlia­ment were brought into line, as were the media and the judiciary. The remaining freedoms in civil society, in culture and univer­si­ties were curbed with measures like the “foreign agents” laws, internet censor­ship, the perse­cu­tion of the oppo­si­tion, the treatment of criticism of the regime as a criminal offence and the abuse of the “Great Patriotic War” as a key source of legit­i­macy for the Putin regime.

The growing internal repres­sion was followed by a turn to external aggres­sion. The inter­ven­tion in Georgia of 2008 was a warning signal that the West did not want to hear. This was followed by the first Ukraine war in 2014, the annex­a­tion of Crimea, the military inter­ven­tion in Syria, in many ways a prelim­i­nary exercise for the second Ukraine war. Only now does this open the eyes of those who did not want to see the direction in which Russia was devel­oping under Putin. Well-founded studies describe the “Putin system” as a combi­na­tion of a mafia-style klep­toc­racy, whose elite enriches itself without limits, and a secret service regime that perceives the disin­te­gra­tion of the Soviet Union as a moment of the worst humil­i­a­tion. The goal is the empire’s restoration.

The unin­hib­ited violence of Russian warfare, the hate propa­ganda in the state media and the ruthless suppres­sion of all internal oppo­si­tion raises unpleasant questions. What kind of Russia are we dealing with today and in the fore­see­able future? Where does the fright­ening lack of empathy with Ukraine come from, although eleven to twelve million Russian families have family ties with their suppos­edly “brotherly country”? Was it only unfor­tu­nate circum­stances that caused the country to turn back towards author­i­tar­i­anism and imperial power politics after the collapse of the USSR? Or does a struc­tural legacy stand in the way of all attempts at democratization?

The answer to these questions is polit­i­cally relevant. In recent weeks, the scenario of a Russian defeat in Ukraine has become a possi­bility — provided the West is not intim­i­dated by Putin’s threat­ening nuclear gestures. Most experts agree that Putin would not survive long after a humil­i­ating with­drawal of Russian troops. But what then?

Hardly anyone dares to make predic­tions about a possible power change in Moscow. The internal balance of power is even less trans­parent to outsiders than it was in the final phase of the Soviet Union. The only thing that is clear is that Putin still has absolute power. How a change could take place and who could succeed the president remains speculative.

The three basic scenarios are:

  • Putin is replaced by a figure from the current inner circle of power who promises conti­nuity and stability.
  • The military and political “humil­i­a­tion” in Ukraine leads to a chau­vinist radi­cal­iza­tion of the regime. This would mean even harsher repres­sion inter­nally, tough confronta­tion with the West and increased aggres­sive­ness externally.
  • After an unstable tran­si­tion, new elections are held. The call for a new beginning brings a united oppo­si­tion into govern­ment. As of today, Alexei Navalny would be their most attrac­tive candidate.

Even this best-case scenario would by no means guarantee a rapid tran­si­tion to a demo­c­ratic consti­tu­tional state. The demo­c­ratic oppo­si­tion in Russia is too atomized, state insti­tu­tions are too rotten, the potential for violence is too great, and cynicism, indif­fer­ence and author­i­tarian attitudes are too wide­spread in Russian society. Any new govern­ment will face the chal­lenges of an economic model completely geared to the export of fossil fuels and endemic corrup­tion. Market-based reforms have been discred­ited since the 1990s social crash. Russia is facing econom­i­cally difficult years ahead.

How much support would a new attempt at democracy have among the popu­la­tion? The current infor­ma­tion reaching us from Russia is contra­dic­tory. Inde­pen­dent observers estimate that about 15 to 20 percent oppose the war against Ukraine, even if rela­tively few openly oppose it. This roughly corre­sponds to the size of the liberal-demo­c­ratic milieu that polls have iden­ti­fied. It is concen­trated above all in the big cities.

Opposed to it is a milieu at least as large that fully supports the war or even pushes for its inten­si­fi­ca­tion. This section of society clings to Great Russian impe­ri­alist and stri­dently anti-liberal ideas. In between, there seems to be a broad spectrum of people who legit­imize the war or are indif­ferent. The majority of Russian society is depoliti­cized, passive and focused on somehow managing its own life.

Russia’s farewell to empire

Since the arbitrary forced recruit­ment of conscripted men, there are growing signs of disil­lu­sion­ment. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neigh­bouring countries to avoid conscrip­tion. This is not a sign of demo­c­ratic sentiment but shows that the jingoism in state media is not catching on in large sections of society.

Russia is at a historic cross­roads. What is at stake is nothing more and nothing less than a farewell to empire, a second phase of de-coloni­sa­tion after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Why should Russia not be expected to accept what Germany, the Habsburg Empire, France and Britain had to put up with — in the end to their good fortune? The Kremlin must give up its claim to power over the post-Soviet space. Only then can Russia become a good neighbour. To what extent the process of de-coloni­sa­tion will also encompass the country’s inner periphery – like the North Caucasus — is an open question.

The alter­na­tive would be a slide into even shriller great power chau­vinism, accom­pa­nied by aggres­sive paranoia: all against us, us against all, espe­cially the West. The invasion of Ukraine is along these lines. As long as Russia clings to the imperial delusion, there will be no stable peace in Europe — and no chance for internal democratization.

Russia’s defeat on Ukraine is a necessary but not suffi­cient condition for renewal. It also requires a painful confronta­tion with its own history of violence, both inter­nally and exter­nally, the devel­op­ment of a civic conscious­ness of rights and duties, respect for the law, and profound reforms of the prison system and the army as hotbeds of violence. This process will take time, and it can only be influ­enced from the outside to a limited extent.

What we can do is, first of all, provide decisive political, military and financial support to Ukraine in defending its inde­pen­dence and liber­ating its territory. Secondly, Russia’s demo­c­ratic forces need our soli­darity in building exile struc­tures. This includes supporting Russian media in Europe, which form a demo­c­ratic counter-public to Putin’s propa­ganda apparatus.

The EU should promote media projects that also reach the Russian-speaking popu­la­tion in neigh­bouring countries. Third, as long as Russia continues its author­i­tarian and neo-imperial course, we cannot avoid a deter­mined policy of contain­ment and deter­rence. This requires the strength­ening of common European defence within the framework of NATO — including Ukraine.

At present, the prospects for a political-moral renewal of Russia seem rather bleak. However, it is in the nature of auto­cratic systems that change is abrupt rather than linear. Military defeats have always been the mother of reforms and revo­lu­tions in Russia.

The German original of this text appeared as an Op-Ed in the weekly Der Spiegel on 12 October.



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