What’s Next for Russia?

As the world watches Russia’s dreadful military performance in Ukraine and wonders whether Vladimir Putin can survive such a strategic disaster, three questions inevitably arise: Can Ukraine win? Can Russia survive or is it on the verge of a bona fide revolution that could result in a regime change and possible state collapse? And what might the consequences of instability in Russia be for its neighbors?

Given the vast imbalance of forces between Russia and Ukraine, Russia loses if it does not win, and Ukraine wins if it does not lose. In light of the Russian army’s pitiful performance thus far, it is safe to say that Russia is losing and Ukraine is winning. That Russia will turn the tide and force defeat upon Ukraine seems improbable—which means that a protracted struggle is likely. But time favors Ukraine.

Ukrainians have no illusions about the war, and they know they have to fight, because the alternative is annihilation as a state and nation.

In contrast, Russians believe the war is going well and that victory is inevitable. Once their economy collapses, disaffected and wounded soldiers begin returning home, and the number of body bags and funerals grows, the Russian population will experience anger at the leader responsible for the mess—Putin. Meanwhile, Ukraine will be able to take advantage of the disarray in Russia to pursue maximalist goals on the battlefield and in negotiations.

Under conditions such as these, a revolutionary uprising in Russia becomes thinkable. There are three possible scenarios, all based on the scholarship on revolutions.

According to the first, revolution is the product of willful activity by self-styled revolutionaries who coerce, cajole, or pay off the populace to follow them in storming the government. Revolutionary leaders and revolutionary ideologies play an important role in this explanation: Lenin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong are exemplars. All three were remarkable organizers; all three developed persuasive ideologies; and all three inspired their adherents to die for the cause. Unsurprisingly, revolutionaries favor this explanation, as it makes them indispensable and seems to guarantee their success.

Seen in this light, today’s Russia stands little chance of experiencing revolution. The opposition to Putin is in exile or in jail; no coherent oppositionist organization exists; and the individual oppositionists who are still at liberty have almost no way of spreading their message, inspiring the populace, and mobilizing it against the regime. The Putin state, which is manned by people who were trained in Leninism, believes that cracking down will prevent a ‘colored’ revolution from taking place. Alas, that conclusion is unwarranted.

A more destabilizing scenario focuses on the emotions and beliefs of the population. All people in all countries have certain notions of what is and what is not just and fair. These norms promote stability as long as governments and elites are viewed as sustaining them. If and when, for whatever reasons, people view their norms as being violated—it does not matter whether they are violated intentionally or not—they get angry, turn against the authorities, and frequently resort to violence. A variant of this approach focuses on “relative deprivation.” People often have rising aspirations and expectations, which are usually fostered by governments and their propaganda. All is well as long as their expectations are met. But if, for some reason, expectations come crashing down, the result is frustration and aggression—and potential revolution.

Although the vast majority of Russians currently support Putin and his war against Ukraine, their expectations of a grand and glorious victory could easily be dashed by a seemingly endless military quagmire and growing military deaths. And with Russia’s economy destined to go into freefall, inflation, unemployment, and growing immiseration could be viewed as violations of society’s unwritten social contract with the state.

Adulation can then easily change into hatred, as Russians come to feel betrayed and aggrieved and direct their ire at the man who promised to be their savior.

A third, equally pessimistic scenario focuses on structural, systemic, and institutional ‘contradictions’. Russian society is rent with tensions between the super-rich and poor, Russians and non-Russians, center and peripheries. The economy is far too dependent on energy resources and government priorities. Meanwhile, the Russian state is hyper-centralized, its bureaucracies are fragmented, and its leader is isolated and denied accurate information by his minions. All that is needed for these contradictions to become a full-blown conflagration is, to use Lenin’s term, a ‘spark’. Defeat in the Ukrainian war, a bloody battle with the police, the impact of massive sanctions on the price of some vital commodity, or Russia’s exclusion from some international venue could all play that role.

Ironically, when people feel aggrieved, frustrated, or angry and when structural contradictions explode, revolutionary leaders and followers armed with ideologies tend to arise. At that point, dictators face the worst of all possible worlds—a confluence of all three explanations.

All dictatorial regimes look powerful, stable, and immune to uprisings. But history teaches us that this kind of regime is most prone to instability—not because dark foreign forces create coups and colored revolutions, but because repressive regimes are brittle. Putin erroneously believes that Russia’s revolutionary potential has been quashed by his secret police. But that is because he believes, like all Leninists, that revolutions are made. In fact, they also come, without being willed into existence by anyone.

If massive instability erupts in Russia, its consequences will be felt throughout the entire former Soviet bloc.

The greatest danger for Russian interests lies in Belarus, which has been transformed into a vassal state since the mass demonstrations of the summer of 2020. Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who tried to be on good terms with Russia, his neighbors, and the West for the last two decades, is now trapped between two rocks and a hard place. His demise—along with that of the authoritarian system he created—is now conceivable.

Putin insists that Lukashenko send his troops into the war against Ukraine. Thus far, Lukashenko has resisted. The vast majority of Belarusians think of Ukrainians as their friends and see no reason for getting involved. If Lukashenko sends his troops into Ukraine, popular protests are very likely to break out. Belarusian rail workers have already engaged in acts of sabotage; Belarusian men are reportedly fleeing into Poland. And a Belarusian armed unit has been formed and is fighting on the side of the Ukrainian armed forces. Lukashenko was almost toppled two years ago, and he surely knows that, were mass demonstrations to recur, his regime would probably collapse. Could a Union State consisting of Russia and Belarus survive regime change in the latter?

No less worrisome for Lukashenko and Putin is the strong likelihood that his armed forces would be easily defeated by the Ukrainians. The Belarusians have no combat experience, their equipment is largely of Soviet vintage, and they have little reason to die for Putin’s mad schemes of empire. Would the soldiers throw down their arms? Would they desert? Would they join or incite popular protests? And, perhaps most important, what would Putin do with such an unreliable ally—especially as any successor to Lukashenko would face the same dilemmas?

Then there’s the continuing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. On March 25, Azerbaijani forces fired Turkish-made drones on the disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory, killing three Armenians. Diplomatic protests by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has some 2,000 peacekeepers in the region, immediately followed, and the violence appears to have ended, at least for now. But the tensions remain, and it is hard to avoid thinking that the timing of the Azerbaijani attack had something to do with Russia being distracted by its war with Ukraine. If so, it is likely that the Azerbaijanis are sharpening their knives for the moment that Russia takes a beating or turmoil breaks out in the Kremlin.

Thus far, Moldova and Georgia have said or done little about their territorial disputes with Russia, the former having lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia during its war with Russia in 2008, the latter having lost Transnistria in 1992. But Russia has already withdrawn 2,000 soldiers from its occupied Georgian territories, and Georgian nationalists may see this as providing them with a window of opportunity for re-annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moldova could also feel impelled to intervene if Moscow enlists the roughly 1,500 Russian troops stationed in Transnistria in its war with Ukraine.

The Kurile Islands, claimed by Japan and occupied by Russia, have also emerged as a hotspot. Russia on March 21 withdrew from talks regarding a peace treaty to formally end World War II, arguing that Japan’s support of anti-Russian sanctions made talks impossible. It has also engaged some 3,000 soldiers in military exercises on the disputed islands. Japan, meanwhile, continues to claim the Kuriles as its own, echoing the 8 March statement of its Foreign Minister that the islands “are territories to which the sovereignty of our country extends, they are also our ancestral territories.”

As if that were not enough trouble for Moscow, Polish General Waldemar Skrzypczak declared on March 25 that Kaliningrad province, currently part of the Russian Federation, has “been under Russian occupation since 1945.” Indeed, said the general, the province “is in my opinion part of Poland’s territory. We have the right to make claims on that terrain, which Russia occupies.” Poland is unlikely to make an attempt to seize Kaliningrad, but Skrzypczak’s remarks are a reminder to Russia that the territory is vulnerable—especially in light of the radical worsening in Polish-Russian relations since Moscow invaded Ukraine. Russia’s former President, Dmitri Medvedev, recently published an insulting tirade against Poland in which he charged it with “chronic pathological Russophobia.” 

It is noteworthy that these problems have all bubbled to the surface in late March, when it became increasingly clear to policymakers and analysts that Russia was not winning its war against Ukraine and that the Russian army, once touted as the second most powerful in the world, was actually incompetent and inefficient. These territorial disputes will only intensify and multiply—there are many dissatisfied non-Russians within the Russian Federation—as the war drags on and as the economy decays. In turn, these disputes will divert Russian troops and attention from Ukraine, thereby helping the Ukrainian war effort. The resulting spiral could easily enervate the Russian state and lead to a repetition of the “parade of sovereignties” of the 1990s, when non-Russian territories within Russia declared sovereignty and almost brought Russia to its knees. This time, they might even succeed.

Thanks to Putin’s megalomania, the West will then be confronted with turmoil and violence engulfing a good portion of Eurasia.

The European Union and NATO will be strengthened, as will the coalition of democracies and the US partnership with Europe. Ukraine will probably become a member of both, as might Belarus. China will end its quasi-alliance with Russia and may feel impelled to grab some territories in the Far East. Russia, meanwhile, will face a protracted time of troubles.

As authoritarianism will have suffered a major defeat, the world will become freer and more democratic. But it will also become more unstable—a transitional condition that could, with wise policy, result in the consolidation of liberal democracy.

Alexander J. Motyl

is a Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark. He is a specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory. He is the author of 10 books of nonfiction. He is also a novelist, poet and painter.

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