In this piece, Eamon Driscoll considers the possible outlooks for postwar Russia, drawing on historical lessons from the country’s past. Eamon argues that Moscow’s conduct of the war will likely have a greater impact on Russia’s future than the outcome of the war, and that despite Western support to Kyiv and cracks showing in the Russian army, the outcome is far from certain.
History rhymes, and 20th century history may offer us insights into the effect that the invasion of Ukraine will have on Russia. The final outcome of the war may have less bearing on Russia’s future as the way the war is conducted, the effect of economic sanctions and isolation on the economy, and the length to which Putin will push his country to accomplish his ever-more distant ambitions. In this article, we shall explore several possible scenarios based on historical precedents.
Russia, a European power, felt it could impose its will in Asia. The Japanese, however, were newly industrialised, eager to form their own empire, and fighting a lot closer to home. The Russians were overconfident, had long supply lines, and ultimately suffered a humiliating defeat.
In the present situation, Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s personal vendetta against Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov led, on June 23rd, 2023, to what is sometimes called a mutiny, sometimes called a coup. It is unlikely that Prigozhin actually wanted to sit in the Kremlin and rule in Russia’s brief Warlord Era, but the most significant details are in why it happened, and how it stopped. The reasons for Prigozhin’s actions appear similar to the same issues that plagued Russia in 1905. An overconfident military, sure of victory against an ostensibly weaker foe, trouble maintaining supply lines (in this case, due to long-range Western artillery and missiles), plus the feud between Wagner and the Ministry of Defence, which escalated drastically when Prigozhin claimed that the MoD has fired on his Wagnerites. In speeches published online through Telegram, he sounded very much like an opposition politician, saying that Ukraine posed no threat to Russia and had no plans to join NATO, that this was misinformation designed to gain public support for the “special military operation.”
It was not Vladimir Putin who held off the advance of PMC Wagner, but Belarus’ president (often seen as a satrap of Putin) Aleksander Lukashenko, whose role in the conflict thus far had been restricted to cheerleader. Putin fled Moscow and hid in his placid palace along Lake Valdai, perhaps gathering his prised possessions and booking a flight to the Central African Republic. Ultimately, Lukashenko’s intervention saved Putin, and normalcy was restored. Except that it’s clear that Putin has gambled everything on Ukraine; there was nothing but the FSB between Wagner and the Kremlin, and any oligarch with a private army can try to enforce his will on a man with nuclear weapons.
Continuing this theme of battlefield frustrations fomenting unrest at home, following the disappointing performance of the Russian army in World War I, revolutionaries forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate the throne. This was a year of two revolutions,: the first in February and a second (more famous) one in October by the Julian calendar, as the provisional government led by Kerensky was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin. But that was not the end; Russia entered a four-year period of civil war as the new Soviet government had to consolidate its hold on the land it claimed to rule.
Why is such an outcome likely? The failure of leadership is transparent for anyone to see. Prigozhin’s march was the greatest threat to Putin’s 20 years of rule, and many Russians continue to have sympathy for the effort to change the MoD’s leadership. Meanwhile, significantly more Russian soldiers have now died in a year and a half in Ukraine than died in a decade in Afghanistan. That war is considered one of the factors (among many) that brought down the Soviet Union, and this war is combined with the near-total sanctioning of the Russian economy. European energy, once dependent on Russia, has radically pivoted to other sources, and is unlikely to return to Moscow’s client lists. Taken alongside the massive loss of young men, Russia will be recovering from this conflict for generations, and may never fully regain its position in the world. In this environment, change is inevitable, and a complete realignment of the Russian world is going to happen; the only question is what form it will take.
Why is such an outcome not likely? For a revolution to take place, a lot needs to happen, but the core conditions are rather simple. Namely, both the military and the people need to join together against the government and with the same goal. In Russia’s case, Muskovites in the streets might draw the attention of the global media, but genuine pressure on the Kremlin will come from the people who carry guns, and have (until now) benefited from close proximity to Putin. They may not have the same vision of a post-Putin Russia than the people on the streets. Plus, with Prigozhin exiled to Belarus, there is no clear central figure with the material, public support, and bravery to go up against Putin. Even at his peak, Prigozhin lacked support from the elites to represent a true political challenge to Putin. For a real challenger to emerge, someone far more credible and broadly acceptable to the elites and power-broker classes would need to emerge.
Verdict: As such, this outcome seems unlikely. The goals of the Westernised citizens of Moscow and St Petersburg don’t align with either the regions or the establishment around the Kremlin. It will require a paradigm shift in the minds of the generals, who thus far have proven that independent thought is hard to come by in Russian structures of armed power.
Amid the dying embers of the USSR, hard-line military officials attempted a coup to reverse the tide of glasnost and perestroika that General Secretary Gorbachev had begun. This was a last-gasp effort to preserve their way of life and their power over Russia.
Why is such an outcome likely? In the aftermath of the June mutiny, such an outcome feels more than possible. It might not be a hardliner coup, but Putin’s circle knows that their fortunes live and die with this war, and jumping ship now might let them keep some dignity and assets intact. If the struggles continue, then the appeal to abandon Putin grows, as he will no longer be the glue that binds together the Russian oligarchy. Ultimately the inner circle may realise that they are more powerful than they had thought.
Why is such an outcome not likely? If anyone is likely to make the first blow in the inner circle, it is Putin himself. Too many accidents have taken place with Russian elites falling out of windows, and if there is even a hint of a palace coup then Putin can be counted on to act quickly. While he is famously indecisive in a crisis, self-preservation seems to have long been a potent force driving Putin. This cultivates an atmosphere of paranoia and fear. It is conceivably possible that every single member of Putin’s inner circle wants him out, but being impossible to know who else is trustworthy and motivated, no one dares act.
Verdict: Russian civil society does not have the same power that it enjoys in the West, and so the most significant threat to Putin is likely to come from the military and his own circle. Should Putin fail to deliver on promises and keep them comfortable and well-paid, simmering dissent at the highest levels will boil over. Despite this, it is important to recognise that Moscow’s security apparatus is designed around a web of mutual surveillance, created precisely to make plotting against the President enormously risky.
Despite their growing advantages in precision fires and highly-survivable Western armour, Ukraine still faces a numerically superior and heavily-entrenched foe. In short, this is the scenario in which Ukraine’s core allies in Washington, London, Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere shift their focus and draw down on providing financial and military assistance. Depending on the outcome of the ongoing counteroffensive, this could come sooner rather than later if the Russian defences hold. A breakthrough with significant gain of territory by Ukraine would reinvigorate support, but so far the counteroffensive has been slower than many had (perhaps naively) anticipated.
Why is such an outcome likely? The invasion has somewhat faded from the public consciousness, as it was always going to do. Media jumps from crisis to crisis to report on what’s new, and while regular reports from the front do continue to be broadcast and published, the novelty has worn off. The war is old news, and until something happens to re-prioritise it in the collective mind of the people, there are questions about expenditure. In the US (which provides the lion’s share of Ukrainian military support), conservatives are increasingly asking why billions of dollars are flowing to Kyiv instead of being spent domestically. Furthermore, the rate at which ammunition is being used outpaces manufacturing, and will continue to do so even as Western factories ramp up production. Ukraine is running the risk of finding itself with all the moral support in the world but no bullets to put in guns, while Russia, on its wartime footing, uses quantity of manpower and stubborn entrenchment to win on the battlefield again, despite the disparity in quality.
Why is such an outcome not likely? While individual people and opposition parties have the luxury to criticise, governments bear the responsibility. President Biden’s speech in Warsaw indicates that the attention of the US government, and by extension NATO, continues to be on Ukraine. In Europe, while there have been incidents of far-right and far-left political support for Russia, and accompanying calls for an end to support for Ukraine, overall public support for Kyiv has been surprisingly resilient. The blunted impact of the 2022-23 winter energy crisis, and the strong footing ahead of this coming winter, has reduced the worst fears of the war’s financial impacts on Western populations. For Ukraine to continue to exist in its pre-2014 borders, this support must continue. Russia continues to rely on material support from Iran and North Korea, while PR China is likely waiting to see how things unfold before committing.
Verdict: There was a brief scare around the US midterm elections, but Republican majority leader Kevin McCarthy confirmed that supporting Ukraine is a goal. However, there are other goals, and as people see money leaving the country when there are still so many domestic concerns, there may be a limit to this support. With the 2024 Presidential elections looming, and US isolationism likely to once again rear its head, that limit may be tested sooner rather than later. All politics is local, and for most Americans, Ukraine is not local. Similar thoughts may also set in in other NATO countries, excluding those of Eastern Europe, for whom this conflict is decidedly local.
2023 Ending B: The Unknown Unknowns
This is the catch-all category for everything that doesn’t fall into any of the above scenarios. Given the broad range of possibilities, it is unsurprisingly broad. Putin has his back against the wall, but unlike the Tsars, he has nuclear weapons with which to hold Russia and the world hostage. And unlike in Afghanistan, the Russians are not trying to maintain their hold on a country against insurgency (although in occupied areas, insurgency has been an issue), but to conquer and annex whole parts of Ukraine while up against superior weaponry. Even their vaunted hyper-sonic weapons, among other “wonder weapons” such as the T-14 Armata tank, have failed to produce much of an impact. Despite the dangers of the four above scenarios, this is the one that is possibly the most dangerous; there are myriad ways this can play out and few of those ways are encouraging. As the war drags on, popular uprising could drive instability at home (even if, as discussed above, it is unlikely to outright drive regime change). China, now unquestionably the senior partner in the Sino-Russian alliance, may intervene should it feel that Moscow risks overstepping in its escalatory behaviour. A particularly common assessment is that Russia will become (or already has become) a Chinese tributary state.
Why is such an outcome likely? It is quite possible that the effects of Russia’s further isolation hurt the economy so badly that even the police turn against the regime. Russians aren’t North Koreans; they have had the pleasure of enjoying trade with the West, and losing that to become a pariah state won’t sit well with the masses, especially now that hundreds of thousands of young men have either died in Ukraine or fled Russia, the state is facing a population collapse that will cripple Russia both at home and abroad for a generation or more. Thus far, Kremlin media narratives have focused on mocking Western sanctions and insisting that life continues as normal in Russia. Braggadocios images of well-stocked supermarkets and luxury goods malls have been a common theme in state media reporting. As the war continues to weigh on the Russian population and economy, this narrative is unlikely to hold. Should instability grip Russia, China is unlikely to stand idly by. This is, in part, due to a desire to avoid an ungoverned nuclear state sharing its largest border, and in part, due to its reliance on Russia to act as a counterpart in China’s challenge to the US-led international order.
Why is such an outcome not likely? Like Occam’s razor applied to geopolitics, sometimes the simplest thing happens. The future lies somewhere between a total paradigm shift brought on by Putin listening to Imagine, and the total annihilation of humankind after a major exchange of nuclear weapons. We can safely say that it is probably not going to be one of those two, because if it’s the former then it would have already worked, and if it’s the latter then there won’t be anyone around to play the LP. China has long maintained a position of non-interference in the affairs of other nations (although there is room for debate as to what constitutes “another nation”), and would likely resent being dragged in to the war or stabilising efforts in Russia.
Verdict: This particular outcome is impossible to assess. The number of ways this plays out is not infinite, but it is not likely to be a mirror copy of modern Russian history. It will have similarities to one of the above scenarios, but whether that means it’s much more like an historical situation or only a little bit remains to be seen.
What is shared among the preceding scenarios is the presumption of Ukrainian victory, or to be precise, Ukraine holding on long enough that domestic opinion or the military turn against the Kremlin. But we live in a world with increasing capabilities in what Russians term “political technology”, which can be harnessed to ensure Putin’s seat in the Kremlin. For example, face-recognition software is being used at Russian border posts to identify people who may be attempting to flee or infiltrate the country. If incursions into Russia by anti-Putin forces based in Ukraine fail to make a mark, if the counteroffensive falls flat, if Putin is able maintain his influence abroad and not lose the alliance with China, then Russian victory in Ukraine is not out of the question.
Western weapons and ammunition have helped to keep Kyiv in the fight. But Russian military strength is based in numbers, now as in history, and the pace that ammunition is being used may outpace Western manufacturing capabilities. Despite recent decisions to increase production, they are still not on a wartime footing. On the other side, Russia may have the definite advantage in available manpower pools, but their materiel capacity is also greatly diminished (as evidenced by weapons imports from Iran and North Korea) opening the door to Chinese involvement. But as the conscripts and recruited criminals die in large numbers to more motivated Ukrainian troops, the war will drive frustrations against the Kremlin. And like all social upheavals, things will start slowly at first, then suddenly very quickly. But the question is one of timing, and while the authoritarian regime will dig in its heels, there are a lot of variables that are required for Ukraine to to maintain an edge using technological superiority in the face of numerical superiority.
It needs to be mentioned that even if Russia does win and does conquer Ukraine, it will have spent a tremendous amount of treasure and spilled a tremendous amount of blood in order to acquire a very large and extremely hostile chunk of territory which will require long-term deployment and increased isolation on the world stage.
Put simply, though both sides are undoubtedly showing the tremendous strain of war, both sides remain capable of victory or defeat. We are unlikely to see Ukrainian tanks in Red Square, but the importance of stopping Russia cannot be understated. This is the most important thing happening in the world right now. This war puts even the core principles of the United Nations in jeopardy. Fundamentally, this war will determine whether or not nuclear-armed powers can bully their way to conquest by issuing the warning: “Stop us if you dare.”
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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Illinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
Cover Image: Russian Ministry of Defence