Geopolitics is not chess, but the analogy works. Vladimir Putin has been playing this game with his closest neighbours (Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan) for many years, but recently it seems, the West has finally engaged (much to the Russian President’s delight). In Minsk this morning, Putin made some moves, and the West (via Ukraine) answered with some others, but the game is far from over. The peace will inevitably be short-lived because neither side has put the other into check-mate.
Putin’s concept of “checkmate” is clear:
1) Reconstitution of Russia in the borders of the former USSR (or at least dominance of the “Russian world” in the region) 2) Hegemony over a divided Europe (or at least ensuring energy dependence) 3) A deal with the US (and possibly China) that splits the world into spheres of influence.
Note that none of the above even mention Ukraine! Putin has made it eminently clear (at Valdai, and elsewhere) that he does not even recognize Ukraine to be a country – he sees it as a pawn in a great game in which his opponent is the United States (and the EU as its proxy). Until recently, western leaders wanted to believe that this was all mere bravado. It isn’t: Russia is serious.
While US policy-makers and EU leaders debate whether to arm Ukraine, and more broadly, how to deal with a Russian President whose actions have violated every principle upon which the post-Cold War international order has been based, Putin wages war. His war is military (locally he’s had gains), economic (here he’s losing), informational (advantage – Putin), religious/cultural (local gains), diplomatic (global losses). And in all of these dimensions, he’s playing a long-term game: Minsk-1, Minsk-2, Minsk-3… Or maybe next time he’ll choose another city, but without a doubt, his game will continue, and Ukrainians (and others on his front line) will suffer because of it.
As we saw last night in Minsk, the immediate priority of both western leaders and Ukraine’s authorities is to stop Russia’s aggression in the Donbas. Stopping aggression is an admirable short term goal, but it cannot be the end goal. As long as it is, we have a reactive military strategy that, as we have seen in 2014, is not very effective. First Putin annexed Crimea, then he moved mercenaries into the Donbas, now he’s threatening the Baltics, and thumbing his nose at Britain with “Bear” bombers over the English Channel. Meanwhile several divisions of the Russian army remain on high alert just a few miles from the Ukrainian border, Russian warships repeatedly harass freighters in the Baltic Sea, and Russian air incursions into NATO-patrolled airspace have become regular occurrences.
Although US and EU policy-makers loathe even mentioning a return to the Cold War, it is now clear that the previous vision of EU-Russia relations which implicitly aimed at Russia’s gradual incorporation into the international liberal-capitalist system is dead. In the short term, the Kremlin’s aggression needs to be stopped. But what then? Peaceful coexistence may be possible, but if the West is to engage Russia successfully (i.e. to delay or avoid conflict), it must have a concept of what it seeks. Proverbially, to play chess, both sides must understand what constitutes checkmate. The West currently has no such concept.
The first step in moving from a reactive to an active policy is to find purpose. In other words, one needs a vision of the future in order to map a proactive strategy of how to get there. What kind of a relationship with Russia does the West want after Putin’s aggression is stopped? Will there be a Russia to have a relationship with? What constitutes “victory” in this conflict?
The second step in creating a proactive policy is to map the scenarios which could affect the achievement of the stated goal. In other words, what intervening variables could affect the flow of events? What moves must one plan to achieve checkmate?
Although we will be challenged by those who believe western leaders seek global hegemony for its own sake, we assume more rationally, that the end-goal of the West is to achieve peace: i.e. a world where economics and trade sets the agenda for interstate relations rather than political or military dominance. With respect to Russia, how can such a state of affairs be achieved?
Many months ago, during a NATO-sponsored visit by several European and US academics to Kyiv, one of the authors of this essay dared propose “regime change” in Russia as a potential goal for the West. At the time this was clearly a radical idea that was not well received. Today it is clear: a Russia that is led by an authoritarian leader who bases his power on the most destructive kind of nationalism, cannot peacefully coexist with a democratic Ukraine, and will remain a permanent existential threat to the rest of Europe. In other words, it is in the West’s interests to change Russia, but given its authoritarian nature, changing the country means changing the leadership. As distasteful as this may sound, “checkmate” by the West can only be achieved when Russia is not ruled by Putin. But his demise will be costly – both to Russia and to the world.
Scenarios for Russia’s future
The following scenarios were developed by the “HOSh” Strategy Group – an informal think tank that was organized during Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, and has actively shaped civil society discourse in Ukraine during the past year.
The scenarios are based on several assumptions:
1) A return to the pre-2014 status quo relations between Russia and Ukraine (i.e. two “brotherly peoples” living side-by-side in peace) is now impossible 2) Western sanctions on the Putin regime will eventually lead to economic collapse in Russia 3) Regime collapse in Russia will have a contagion effect on the region (and the world) that few are prepared for 4) The current Russian regime can only delay inevitable collapse if it wages war.
The final assumption requires some explanation. Putin has been able to baffle western leaders during recent months because both his actions and words have been largely irrational. His country’s economy has been punished by sanctions and dropping oil prices, and he personally has been ostracised and humiliated publicly. Nevertheless, his regime persists in generating Russian nationalist propaganda, and the country’s state-controlled media continues to promulgate Putin’s personality cult.
In such circumstances, no peace options exist that would allow Putin to save himself. If he agrees to return conquered Ukrainian lands (including Crimea), or even to “freeze” the conflict (as seems to be the intent of the Minsk deal), he risks tarnishing his “strong-man” image in Russia, and therefore losing the basis of his power. Indeed several commentators in Russia have already accused Putin of capitulating in Minsk. After-all, according to the deal signed this morning, Donetsk and Luhansk will eventually return to Ukrainian rule, and the border between them and Russia will eventually be secured.
On the other hand, Putin had little choice in Minsk. As long as the Donbas is drenched in blood (and some would say, as long as Crimea remains illegally annexed) the western sanctions regime will remain in force. Under such circumstances the Russian economy will eventually collapse.
But given the choice between endangering his personality cult at home, and risking continued sanctions and ostracism abroad, we have no doubt that in the medium- and long-term, it is in Putin’s interests to keep Russia in a permanent state of war.
The war in Europe scenario
Escalation of war in Ukraine (or even its maintenance at early 2015 intensity levels) will be bloody with many Ukrainians and Russians dying, but we have little doubt that it will resume sooner rather than later, and may yet spread to other countries in the regions (most obviously via hybrid war in the Baltic states where Putin may well choose to test the resolve of NATO). However, even if limited to the Donbas, the cost of war will eventually lead to economic collapse both in Ukraine and in Russia. As such collapse approaches (i.e. when sanctions begin to bite the Russian regime hard) escalating violence beyond the immediate theatre of operation will become increasingly likely, and open nuclear threats to large European countries (Germany, France, Britain, Poland) are to be expected.
The redirected war scenario
Although they have been well supplied, Putin’s mercenaries in the Donbas have not been particularly effective since renewing their offensive in January 2015. The city of Debaltsevo remains in Ukrainian hands despite being practically surrounded by Russian mercenaries; Ukrainian troops were forced to retreat from Donetsk airport, but only after 242 days of siege; after the disastrous mishap on January 24 when civilians were shelled from Russian controlled areas, the advance on Mariupol was put on hold, and significant territory has recently been won back by Ukrainian forces. These are not the military victories one would expect from a great power like Russia. If Putin finds himself in a zugzwang in Ukraine caused by the ineffectiveness of his forces, he may choose to open an alternative theatre of war in order to maintain the myth of Russian military invincibility. His obvious target (already hinted at publicly) would be Kazakhstan – a country with a lengthy unprotected border, a significant population of ethnic Russians, a weak army, and a 74-year-old autocratic leader who has no heir. Switching focus away from Ukraine to Kazakhstan would likely satisfy the EU in the short term. However, any shift of external military objective (i.e. to a weaker opponent) is likely to be accompanied by increased repressions internally. In an age of Internet communications, recreating a Gulag system and actions aimed at encouraging pogroms against intellectuals and minorities will be impossible to hide, and so it is unlikely that even in this scenario Russia would be unable to return to its previous status as a valued member of the international community. Most importantly, it is unlikely that economic sanctions would be lifted completely, and so eventual economic collapse would remain unavoidable.
Given the above options, it seems likely that the Russian aggression in Ukraine will continue as long as Putin rules the Kremlin (with possible brief cease fire interludes between fighting aimed at delaying sanctions intensification). Peace is simply not in the Russian President’s interest. Having allowed the crisis to degenerate to its current state, the West’s (and Ukraine’s) desire to avoid war now rests solely on the hope that sanctions may eventually lead to the collapse of the Putin regime, and to a change of power in Russia.
Regime change scenarios
How will Putin’s regime collapse and with what consequences? How could events play out? The following scenarios can be judged as more/less likely, but each deserves to be acknowledged – after-all, a year ago, few would have predicted that the world would be on the brink of war. Presumably, if we understand the possible scenarios, achieving “checkmate” (i.e. a world of trade rather than a world of imperial conquest and power politics) will be easier. We present them here together with a subjective (viewed from Kyiv) assessment of their likelihood:
The economic revolt scenario
From a western perspective, sanctions-induced economic decline logically should lead to political upheaval. However, students of Russian history know that in Russia, impoverishment very rarely leads to public discontent. The majority of Russians (the urban working class, and particularly rural residents) can survive in poverty for a very long time. These people become accustomed to decreasing living standards, and are not willing to “destroy the foundations of society” (whatever these may be: church, state, party, czar, etc.) for the sake of prosperity. In the few historical cases when such a revolt has occurred, the “masses” have followed an ascendant alternative leader (e.g. Pugachev, Antonov, Lenin). No such charismatic leader capable of countering Putin is visible in Russia, nor can he/she appear while the state controls all media, and suppresses alternative political discourse. We exclude this scenario as impossible.
The middle class revolution scenario
Putin has made no secret of his fear of a Maidan-style revolt developing in Russia. Such a middle-class revolution requires independent media and developed (or at least nascent) civil society institutions, as well as opportunities for public discussions of a country’s development trajectory. Russia has none of these. As witnessed during the Navalny protests in January 2015, the Russian middle class is weak and atomized, meaning that anything similar to Ukraine’s Maidan (a mass protest organized in Kyiv and other cities by middle class professionals and students against a corrupt pro-Russian government in Nov 2013 – Feb 2014) is impossible in Russia. As long as Russia’s economy remains resource dependent, with massive numbers of high human capital émigrés leaving the country to seek a better life elsewhere, there is no point in considering this scenario.
The oligarchs revolt scenario.
Alas, this scenario is highly improbable as well. Unlike the oligarchs of the 1990’s, today’s leaders of Russia’s large corporations are largely dependent on Putin. The “Semibankirschina”, a group of the most powerful independent oligarchs that supported president Yeltsin while he was in office, is long gone. For an oligarchic revolution to be possible, big business must enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the state while maintaining its relative autonomy. In such a state, oligarchs own media outlets that could potentially be used to rally the masses to oppose the regime, and they control factions in parliament that can potentially develop into alternative nodes of power. During the past 15 years, Putin has successfully purged those oligarchs who once supported Yeltsin from power, and his inner circle of economic managers is fully submissive. Such people do not lead revolts. They support the boss as long as possible, and then quietly run away trying to save themselves once support becomes impossible.
During recent months Putin has tightened his inner circle within the Kremlin. We see no potentially disloyal individual within that circle who could effect a “Palace coup”, and as the above scenario analysis suggests, the probability of revolution (i.e. Moscow-centred mass protests aimed at changing the government) is also very low. We therefore conclude that Putin’s regime will not collapse in Moscow. Its vulnerabilities are to be sought in the regions of Russia.
The disintegration scenario
The unity of the massive territory of the Russian Federation (as with the USSR before it) hinges on the proliferation of centralized and controlled media messages, and on the loyalty of local elites. This loyalty requires constant financial flows from the centre – distribution of revenues from the sale of oil and natural gas. When these inflows dry up, regional leaders may begin to question the expediency of their loyalty to the now poor central authorities, and we may well witness a parade of sovereignties – based either on historical ethnic identities, or on hurriedly invented new ones in multi-ethnic regions (e.g. “Siberian” or “Far-Eastern”). The regional disintegration scenario seems reasonably likely, although it is the most disturbing to western leaders given the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons that such a scenario involves if the process is not managed (or at least closely observed). Incidentally, at least some of Russia’s regional elites would not be averse to receiving direct western support. Put differently, their loyalty can be bought.
The ethnic splintering scenario
The catalyst for regional elites’ questioning their loyalty to the centre may be economic, but for disintegration to gain political traction, an alternative collective identity to the “Great Russian” must gain preponderance in a particular territorially defined populace. The Russian Federation is composed of multiple ethno-national entities of different size, economic power and political influence. Open separatism in the North Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan) is not new, but several other rich republics (e.g. Tatarstan) may well choose independentist development paths if the tribute payments from Moscow dry up. This process may well be fuelled by Islamists interested in fostering strong centrifugal tendencies, and gaining new territorial footholds in a collapsing Russia.
We consider the ethnic splintering scenario to be a subset of the disintegration scenario – both require active management by the West, so as to avoid being caught off-guard (like in 1991). The uncontrolled territorial break-up of Russia into multiple countries – some Muslim, some corrupt, but each with a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons – would be a windfall for ISIS, and a disaster for the civilized world. Unfortunately, we believe this to be a very likely scenario for the future of Russia – one that will inevitably spawn multiple regional wars.
Infrastructure collapse scenario
Ethnic and regional diversity is not the only Achilles’ heel of Russia. Its infrastructure has numerous vulnerabilities: foreign software is used by nuclear power plants, railways, metallurgical complexes, and mobile network operators. Of course, under normal circumstances the West would not use such vulnerabilities against Russia, but this option exists as a last resort, and it is notable that the prospect of disconnection from the SWIFT interbank network has caused major distress in Russia. Infrastructure collapse (accompanied by “coincidental” industrial accidents) could conceivably lead to a domestically precipitated revolt against Putin – particularly in the heavily industrialized Ural and western Siberian regions. However, given the relative weakness of Russia’s oligarchs (discussed above), we believe that the likelihood of financial system collapse resulting in regime change in Moscow is low. A more likely scenario involves repressions in rebellious regions, and a change of media/military/political focus from external war to an internal enemy.
It is notable that any evidence (real or manufactured) that would indicate western responsibility for precipitation of infrastructure collapse in Russia would likely provoke a military response from Putin on a core western economic target. A nuclear strike on a major metropolitan centre cannot be ruled out if Putin feels genuinely threatened.
Economic mobilization scenario
So far we have assumed that the sanctions regime imposed on the Kremlin by North American and EU governments will eventually result in an increase in economic hardship and therefore in social tension in Russia. Is it possible for a Russian corporatist state to prove the West wrong? Could Russia, using its very limited internal financial and human capital, repeat the successful authoritarian economic mobilization in the style of Peter the Great and/or Stalin? Certainly, the Kremlin would like Russian business and intelligentsia circles to believe that this scenario is possible. However, history shows that a Stalinist mobilization requires not only high levels of popular loyalty to the national leader (and/or fear of punishment), but also a trained professional caste of government officials capable of fulfilling directives. Russia is a corrupt kleptocracy. Its intelligence agencies have transformed from instruments of the state into tools of enrichment for their officers. The Russian people may idolize their President, but they do not trust their government. As past Russian megaprojects have shown (e.g. Skolkovo, Sochi Olympics, etc.), state management of the economy in Russia means theft and embezzlement on a grand scale, and ultimately, failure to achieve the desired result.
We therefore conclude that whether due to natural causes (induced by corruption and mismanagement), or having been externally induced by sanctions and falling oil prices, the Russian economy is collapsing. Although we believe the scenario of revolution is highly unlikely, regime change via coup d’etat could be a possibility. Russia’s worsening economy may make Putin vulnerable to overthrow – particularly if unrest in the regions begins to threaten the Moscow’s hegemony. But who would dare perpetrate such a coup?
Military coup (junta) scenario
Since Russia has a huge number of “siloviki” one must consider the possibility of a military coup. However, unlike in Pakistan or several Arab countries, army officers in Russia are not an exclusive caste with a strong corporate spirit, and do not command respect or trust in the population. They are particularly disdained in the capital and in other major cities. Furthermore, in Kremlin power circles, the army is counterbalanced by the intelligence agencies; its mid-rank officer corps is filled with FSB agents. If anyone has the capacity to unseat Putin, it would have to be the FSB – an agency that he himself once headed, and whose senior officers have shown themselves (for the moment) to be unquestioningly loyal to the Russian President. Furthermore, it is one thing to unseat the President, and quite another to gain popular legitimacy. Neither the FSB, nor the military (perhaps with the exception of Defence Minister Shoygu who is completely loyal to Putin) are led by public figures who, in our opinion, could potentially gain legitimacy in the wake of a coup.
Fascist coup scenario
If the army is not a viable force that can counter the power of Putin’s inner circle, or of Russia’s FSB, what is? One such group is easily identifiable from the perspective of Ukraine: the mob that is currently destroying the Donbas! Mercenaries, Cossacks, North Caucasian fanatics, convicted criminals, disenchanted former special forces officers, etc. These people now have access to large amounts of weaponry, and many are highly disappointed with the Kremlin’s policies towards ethnic minorities (e.g. central Asian workers in Moscow), Georgia, Ukraine, etc. However, their political viability is limited because no alternative leader to Putin has yet emerged, who would be capable of uniting multiple gangs (individuals like Girkin, who could potentially play this role have been successfully neutralized by the Russian regime thus far). Putin has successfully suffused Russia with nationalist fervour, so mobilizing discontented youth and potential “brown shirt” equivalents will not be difficult for any eventual neo-fascist Russian leader. However, we believe this scenario to be possible only after the demise of Putin – not as its catalyst. A neo-fascist coup can only occur as a reaction to a weak central authority, and that does not seem to be likely as long as the current Russian President is in power.
New Horde (Muslim takeover of Russia)
When the power and charisma of authoritarian rulers decline, their countries inevitably become targets for invaders. For the moment, Russia has no neighbours who have expressed claims to its territory, but the logic of “protecting co-ethnics” cannot be ruled out for China (although this scenario is unlikely). Nonetheless, the logic of territorial expansion could be applied very effectively by a Chechen-Ingush force from the North Caucasus. Recently, the pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov provided a visible demonstration of this power during the “cry for Muhamed” post Charlie massacre demonstrations in Grozny. Although Chechens are not Russians, vast expanses of the territory of the current Russian Federation were once ruled by Turkic and Mongol peoples to whom Slavs submitted, and for whom they acted as tax collectors. Such a vision is certainly not viable for all of Russia, but it could well become a possibility for its most eastern European portion (including for Moscow). We believe the scenario of the rapid rise of an alternative leader, capable of uniting disgruntled Muslims (not necessarily Islamists) from the North Caucasus, taking advantage of the economic collapse of the central state, presenting a real threat to the Putin regime in Moscow is a very real possibility, and represents a quite likely scenario for the coming 12-18 months.
The black hole scenario
Given that very little thought seems to be given in western intellectual circles as to the future of Russia, and given the tendency among EU and US leaders to prefer short sighted, reactive policies aimed solely at restraining Putin’s aggression, the most likely (and unfortunate) scenario that we envision for Russia is a gradual descent into chaos. We refer to this scenario at the “black hole” – a chaotic vacuum that is in a state of perpetual collapse inward and upon itself. Putin’s regime is likely to continue to wage war in Ukraine, and simultaneously to increase repression of dissent in Moscow and other major cities (e.g. St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Samara, Nizhniy Novgorod, Novosibirsk). Continued hybrid war abroad coupled with suppression of opposition forces at home will result in prolonged personal ostracism of Putin, and the maintenance if not intensification of sanctions on the Russian economy. The power of the Kremlin will gradually cave, and a collapsing economy likely will catalyse the rise of regional war barons – particularly from the North Caucasus – and possibly embolden new separatist movements in western Siberia and/or the Far East. Given the very low probability of a revolution in the centre, such centrifugal forces will begin to pull apart the Federation, and the situation is likely to devolve into civil war. Multiple sites of political vacuum will be filled by unexpected and unpredictable parties: emboldened local oligarchs, regional elites, Islamists, military or FSB commanders, street Nazis, criminals, former Donbas mercenaries, North Caucasian passionaries, etc. This boiling cauldron of civil war will cause Russia either to collapse into an anthropological desert, or to break up into multiple states. In either case, the possibilities for nuclear blackmail by local war lords, and/or the sale of parts of Russia’s aging nuclear arsenal to the highest bidder are both very real if not likely.
Our goal in this essay was to outline the various scenarios for Russia’s future development in the context of the rapidly deteriorating security situation on its western border. Our objective was not to present a crystal ball as to Russia’s long-term fate, but to figure out how Russia could cease to present a threat to Ukraine (since this is in our interests as Kyiv residents), and to clarify the possible unintended consequences of the West’s current reactive policy position with respect to Russia.
At this point we are not optimistic. We see the maintenance of a state of war in Ukraine as being in Putin’s interests, and we see the reactive policies of the West as eventually leading to a collapse not just of the Putin regime, but of the Russian Federation itself. If the intent of the sanctions imposed by the US and EU on the Kremlin is to provoke a revolution in Moscow (working class, middle class, or oligarchic), we believe this to be short-sighted, and reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of Russia’s political realities. Furthermore, we do not believe in Russia’s ability to mobilize internal resources to counter the sanctions regime. A military or “palace” coup in the Kremlin is also unlikely. The most probable outcome of sanctions will be a splintering of Russia along ethnic lines, accompanied by the appearance of regional warlords and/or strongmen. Unfortunately, this means gradual descent into civil war.
However, the above pessimism as to Russia’s future does not mean that we advocate the lifting of sanctions. After the inevitably short pause agreed to in Minsk, Putin has little choice but to continue to pursue violence in Ukraine (and elsewhere). His power base is dependent upon his image as a militant strong-man and nationalist, and therefore, lasting peace is unlikely as long as Putin remains in power in the Kremlin. Leaving aside the impossible and illegal option of assassination, short of actively engaging in Russia’s military adventurism, the West has no other options for restraint other than economic sanctions. However, these need to be applied in a controlled manner that fosters the short-term goal of restricting further Russian aggression, rather than abruptly catalysing the complete collapse of the country.
Finally, given the inevitability of continued militancy on the part of Putin in the short term, and despite the prospect of the Kremlin sowing the seeds of its own destruction in the medium term, the West must arm Ukraine now. Regardless of any agreements signed in Minsk or elsewhere, a return to peaceful relations between Ukraine and Russia, and between Russia and the West are now impossible. During the foreseeable future, Ukraine will represent a buffer and/or outpost (choose which status you prefer), and therefore is key to the defence of Europe from an aggressive Russia. Furthermore, given the prospect of eventual collapse of the Russian Federation (splintering into multiple states and/or descending into bloody civil war), Ukraine represents a barrier state between a peaceful and relatively stable Europe, and a potentially dangerous Eurasian black hole. Defending its border represents an imperative of survival for the civilized world.
Valerii Pekar, serial entrepreneur since 1992, is an associate at Kyiv-Mohyla Business School. Valerii is a co-founder of HOSh Strategy Group and The New Country civic platform, both founded during Maidan (Ukrainian civil unrest 2013-2014).
Mychailo Wynnyckyj is a PhD, the University of Cambridge (UK). Mychailo Wynnyckyj is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, Director of the Doctoral School and National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”