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Scenarios for the Russian Federation

The unforeseen consequence of the decisions made by Russia’s power wielding elites could be the emergence of something entirely new.

December 21, 2022 - Dmytro Zolotukhin Oleg Magaletskyi Sviatoslav Hnizdovskyi Valerii Pekar - Analysis

Violent dispersal of demonstrators at an anti-war gathering in St. Petersburg Photo: Aleksey Dushutin / Shutterstock

It is becoming increasingly clear that the key to ending the war in Ukraine should be sought where it was initiated – in the Kremlin. Even when the last Russian soldier leaves Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders, (which obviously include Crimea and the Donbass territories occupied by Russia in 2014), Ukrainian and European security may not be ensured. Military defeat will not dispel the Russian regime’s aggressive essence, whether it is headed by Putin or a successor (“Putin 2.0”), as long as it has hawkish military and secret service leaders, a nuclear arsenal, a military industry, and aggressively toxic propaganda. The empire will most likely regroup its forces in order to strike again, as happened between the first (1994-1996) and second (1999-2009) Chechen wars. Putin’s demise, presuming it happens, would only provide a small respite while power is consolidated in the Kremlin.

This potential future insecurity is forcing many to assess the ways events could develop in Russia. In this article we try to outline this scenario space. In doing so, we consider analyses ranging from the GOSH Strategies Centre’s one from the beginning of 2015 to Herman Pirchner’s “Post Putin: Succession, Stability, and Russia’s Future”. Since these works were published, the situation in Russia and the world has changed radically. What does the scenario space look like now?

We will be interested primarily not in the life and death of Putin, but in any changes to the character of the Russian regime. In this analysis, we will include all scenarios, even very unlikely ones, in order to show the bounds of the entire scenario space. In doing so, we will provide an understanding of where European, American and Ukrainian interests lie, and of which scenario is most conducive to European and global security and order. The following scenarios are the result of the ongoing study of Russian past and current social, economic and political development, and close monitoring of Russian media and the narratives of various actors.

  1. Scenarios of consolidation of power

The first group of scenarios includes various options for preserving the imperial regime.

1.1. Transfer of power within the top elites and the conclusion of a peace agreement.

After the withdrawal of Russian troops Putin or his successor signs a peace agreement with Ukraine. This means the complete withdrawal of troops, as Ukrainian society and political leaders currently won’t agree to a partial withdrawal, which would leave millions of Ukrainian citizens to suffer under the rule of war criminals. However, even a complete withdrawal of troops, as already noted, does not suit Ukraine, because it would simply provide a respite before the next phase of the invasion – a respite that the Russian leadership is very intent on.

The transfer of power and the conclusion of a peace agreement are needed by the Russian elites in order to at least partially lift sanctions against Russia and restore its strength. There are options here:

1.1.1. A successful managed transfer of power after the death or removal of Putin. The “Palace Coup” scenario is a typical Russian way of transferring power, and path dependence is quite strong in Russian history. The absence of any mechanisms of legal succession, now that Russia has nothing similar to the Soviet-era communist Politburo — a collegial body that could decide these issues, will make this process difficult. The warlord clans (Russian political scientists used to call them “towers of the Kremlin”) will struggle to agree among themselves. Competing power structures will promote their preferred candidates, but there are no tools for aligning interests, so a power confrontation is inevitable. Private armies will thus play a key role, so this scenario will likely devolve into scenario 2.1.

1.1.2. A successful managed transfer of power with the consent (perhaps even the initiative) of Putin himself – operation “Successor”, similar to the previous installation of “Medvedev” as placeholder president (2008-2012). All the levers of power remain with Putin (perhaps a little reminiscent of the early Nazarbaev-Tokaev relations), and the West and Ukraine are shown an attractive new character from Putin’s entourage – the “dove of peace”. The scenario of a real departure from power, as Boris Yeltsin did in 1999, is now impossible for Putin: it is unlikely that any successor will be able to guarantee his safety and the preservation of his wealth, because things have gone too far.

1.1.3. Putin himself signs the peace agreement. It is questionable whether Putin would retain power and even his life after such a move. Either way, this scenario turns into one of the previous two.

1.2. Transfer of power to “new faces”.

The purpose of introducing “new faces” varies, depending on who wins the struggle between the top elites – the “hawks” or the “doves”. New faces can only be engaged by the real power holders, namely the warlord clans within the current regime.

1.2.1. Operation “Hawks”: army and secret service generals bring to power representatives of extreme militarist radicals in order to give a new impetus to the continuation of the war. It is not clear to what extent other elites (industrial, regional, etc.) will support this course of action, so this scenario may be follow the path of the anti-Gorbachev coup in August of 1991 and quickly lead to either the collapse of the system (see the devolution scenario 2.2) or to the Stalinisation scenario (1.3.1).

1.2.2. Operation “Liberals”: army and secret service generals bring representatives of pseudo-liberal dissidents to power with the aim of reconciling with the West as soon as possible and lifting sanctions. The “hawks” dream of a quick restoration of the country’s military industrial capacity and then a return to military operations, while the “doves” dream of the return of Russia to the club of decent states. But the “hawks” have the real power.

It should be added here that the “Russian liberal opposition” does not have any own programme for their country. It is not realistic to believe that real democrats will come to power following the death of Putin or as a result of free democratic elections organised by Putinists. The democrats have few options, as free elections have been a rarity in Russia. Obstacles include ensuring equal access to the media, the protection of canvassers in the entire space from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, and most importantly, an honest counting of votes in all remote corners of the country. Civil society has been supressed, meaning there are no NGOs capable of monitoring elections, while the courts and judges that would oversee any disputes have been stacked by Putin.

Even if honest and transparent elections were held, victory would go to those politicians who supported and fuelled the imperial aspirations and resentment inherent in the bulk of the population poisoned by more than a decade of xenophobic propaganda. If free elections suddenly took place in post-Putin Russia (for example, under the control of pink unicorns), then a party with a revanchist program would surely win. However, we agreed not to discount even very unrealistic scenarios such as a real reboot inspired by the “doves”.

1.2.3. The “Gorbachev” scenario – an attempt at a soft reboot by reducing the regime’s control over the populace leads to a rapid disintegration of the system (devolution scenario 2.2). When the security forces and propagandists lose real power, there is nothing holding the system together anymore.

1.2.4. The Frederik de Klerk” scenario see a section of the top elites that wants a real reboot of the system (real democratisation and deimperialisation) coming to power. In this unlikely scenario, conflict with the imperialist and militaristic warlords is inevitable, and this scenario moves into the “Time of Troubles” (see below).

One way or another, it takes time to consolidate power (according to Russian precedents, from 4 to 10 years). The new rulers need to win the unanimous support of all the Russian institutions which are sources of power (through their legal or power potential). These institutions are manifold and their interests often conflict. The transfer of power risks leading to turmoil (the scenario 2.1 “Kremlin Towers”) rather than stabilisation.

1.3. Adaptation and consolidation of the imperial system without a transfer of power.

This group of scenarios is related to the consolidation of the current system of power. At least two options are possible here.

1.3.1. Stalinisation: the transfer of the entire system to a war footing and the continuation of the war, after a short peace, with the use of all forces and means available, including nuclear weapons (and other weapons of mass destruction) and mass repression inside the country. This scenario is possible if the West considers it necessary to preserve the unity of Russia at any cost. Stalinisation could also result from a failed anti-Putin coup or the ascension to power of Putinist successors from the “hawks” camp.

1.3.2. Iranisation: formal appeasement (possibly after a military defeat) and the system closes ranks on the basis of fundamentalist ideology, reinforced by repression. This scenario is described well in modern Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin’s novel “Day of the Oprichnik” which applies the imperial model of 16th Century Ivan the Terrible to the realities of the 21th Century. Those who know modern Russia as well as the history of the Iranian Islamic revolution will not consider this as an impossible fiction, and it is important to note that the Russian political system and economy could successfully exist within such a model for decades. The Russian people are ready to tolerate poverty for the sake of goals imposed by propaganda. Meanwhile, it will never be possible to completely block the flow of money into the military’s budget, that is, the regime can finance war almost endlessly.

A consolidation of power in Russia combined with the threat of a military defeat would bring us closer to a scenario featuring the use of nuclear weapons. Many experts consider it unlikely, but few would argue that it is completely impossible. It is necessary to emphasise that a nuclear strike is possible only in the presence of consolidated power, as a weak leader cannot give such an order.

There are thus many options for preserving the imperial system, and none of them are beneficial to Ukraine, nor to Europe or the US. The preservation of an imperialist Russia means continued war, whether or not it includes a respite of shorter or longer length, which Russia would only use to restore the capacity of its military industry and army, and for pumping people with resentment and the desire for revenge. Clearly, any scenario which features the consolidation of an authoritarian regime strengthens the entire authoritarian axis led by China, whose interests conflict with those of the free world.

  1. Scenarios of turmoil

The preservation of the empire is not guaranteed, however. As explained in detail in earlier published analysis, the forces holding the empire together are not limitless, and the centrifugal forces are increasing. We shall not repeat here all of these arguments.

The “Time of Troubles”, a short period of absence of strong central power in the beginning of 17th century, is considered by official Russian history as its most tragic episode (although Russian history features plenty of much more traumatic periods). The threat of a new “Time of Troubles” is one of the main methods by which Putin’s propaganda makes the case for the ultimate necessity of authoritarian rule. The negative Russian memory of the 1990s (when President Yeltsin was seen as sometimes demonstrating weakness) is based on the same fear. The reality is a little more nuanced — a weakening of the central power which we see now could lead to any of the following group of scenarios.

2.1. The most likely scenario of turmoil is the “Kremlin Towers”: the inability of the top elites to agree on a new leader and political direction due to disputes that Putin or his successor is unable to resolve. This leads to a power struggle that could last for years and involve significant levels of violence. Whether the opposing forces unite into two or three blocs or create a confrontation between numerous centres of power, the consequences will be the same.

This outcome could also be the result of failed attempts at instituting a new political system — for example, the failure of the “Frederik de Klerk” scenario leads here. In this scenario, reforms made with the best intentions lead to a temporary deterioration in political control. Meanwhile, expectations rise, as a result of which the stability and controllability of the system can plummet. Likewise, a large-scale Russian military defeat, which cannot be explained to the population and which demonstrates the leader’s weakness and undermines his legitimacy, would lead to confusion. Crimea, as a result of the propaganda efforts of the previous years, is such a sacred place, the loss of which would signify the complete failure of the leader.

Regardless of the manner of the transfer of power from Putin to the new leadership, the post-Putin government will face a huge community of revanchists who will enjoy massive public support, even if the responsibility for the loss of territories falls on their predecessor. This is the key to a full-scale civil war inside Russia. A Ukrainian victory in any format will create within Russian society the potential for resentment and revanchism, which will generate political forces that will make it impossible to stabilise the Russian political situation after the transfer of power. Therefore, the scenario of unrest is most likely in the event of a military victory of Ukraine.

2.2. In another scenario the central power remains united but grows weaker day by day. In this case the turmoil and devolution unfold as a “Parade of Sovereignties” of ethnic republics and (supposedly) economically self-sufficient regions (like the Ural region and Siberia), alongside the rise of Russian imperial chauvinism and an eventual war of all against all. This scenario was described in detail by Janusz Bugajski from the Jamestown Foundation and is extremely likely.

The decisive factor here is the policy of the West and the countries neighbouring the Russian Federation. The restoration of order in regions that break away from the Federation could be achieved by the implementation of the principles of self-determination, peaceful conflict resolution, denuclearisation and human rights protection (see details below in section 3). This could be bolstered by the strong support of states which share these principles (support which was so lacking in 1918-1920, except for Poland, Finland and the Baltic states).

2.3. A scenario featuring the restoration of strong state power on a reduced territory after a civil war (the “Bolsheviks” scenario) is also possible, but less likely than complete or partial collapse.

Could it be that the armed force that prevails in Russia’s bloody chaos will be democratic? In theory, democrats inspired by the ideals of democracy, freedom and brotherhood could take up arms and go against the Putinists, Nazis, chauvinists and various radicals and local thugs and barons. But in the process of this struggle, they are likely to lose their democratic values, and even more so in the process of preserving and consolidating power over a huge empire. Democrats can successfully reclaim only a relatively small space for the creation of a democratic Russian state, thereby fitting into the reconstruction scenarios described below.

2.4. The “1917” scenario stands out: a rebellion of army units, especially those recruited in ethnic republics, which leads to the paralysis of the authorities and bureaucratic chaos. This scenario could also devolve into the “Bolsheviks” one, but much later, as there is no force in Russia today prepared for a forceful seizure of power on the ruins of the empire. The huge Russian army returning after military defeat, accustomed to war crimes and embittered by the breaking of financial promises, will lead to catastrophic consequences.

The turmoil scenarios lead to collapse and humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Weapons of mass destruction fall into the hands of unknown persons, and the number of refugees could reach the tens of millions. The fear of this scenario today forces the West to think about the consolidation of Russian imperial power. In the same way, scenarios of turmoil are categorically unacceptable for Ukraine. It is also worth noting that an uncontrolled collapse would lead to the transformation of the entire post-Russian space into a Chinese satellite (it is interesting to note that the aforementioned Herman Pirchner considers Chinese encroachments on the Far East almost inevitable, but China’s ambitions may extend much further).

  1. Scenarios of decolonisation and reconstruction

The only scenarios which prevent the consolidation of imperial power (which would mean further war) and avoid chaos and civil war are scenarios of controlled reconstruction of the imperial space. We have already argued why this is the only group of scenarios that guarantees peace in Europe, satisfies the interests of Ukraine and other European countries and ensures global security.

3.1. The most reasonable scenario would be the controlled dismantling of the empire by the current management elites (the “1991” scenario, due to its similarity with the dismantling of the Soviet Union). This scenario sees territorial and other disputes being settled peacefully (with the help of tools introduced in advance), and the West and the East have time to understand the situation and determine support. This makes it possible to achieve the denuclearisation of the newly independent states, minimise migration crises and terrorist threats, find understanding with the new leaders and reduce the threat from China by including at least part of the regions in the orbit of the democratic world. An important role in the controlled reconstruction of the post-imperial space will be played by countries neighbouring the current Russian Federation which have an interest in peace and order on their borders, in spreading their influence and in helping related nations (Turkey, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, etc.).

3.2. A variant of this scenario is the “Bialowieża Forest” (another reminder of 1991 — the place where leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union). This scenario would feature an attempt to reassemble the federation on the basis of real federalism (which would correspond to the aspirations of a large part of the Russian elite) or at least to create a confederal mechanism for its civilised dismantling. The success of such attempts is unlikely due to the very different level of socio-political development of the regions and a lack of leadership, although the West would be happy with such a scenario. Most likely, this scenario would turn into the “1991” one described above.

3.3. There is an intermediate scenario of cutting off “rebellious” and dangerous regions for the sake of preserving the rest as part of a single state (the “Singapore” scenario, after Malaysia’s 1965 expulsion of the city-state). Granting freedom and the right to independence to the republics of the North Caucasus and the Volga region could significantly reduce the acuteness of the question of the Federation’s relationship with its ethnic minorities without particularly harming the basic sectors of the economy. It is unlikely, however, that the Russian elites would be ready for such an unorthodox step.

  1. Impossible scenarios

We believe that hunger riots are impossible in Russia. The reasons are best explained by two Russian proverbs. One says “if you have never lived well, you shouldn’t even start thinking of it”. The bulk of the population outside the two major cities has always had an extremely low standard of living, and thus is used to it. Another proverb has it that a TV set always beats a refrigerator, meaning that state propaganda is always more powerful than the experienced realities of everyday life. Ordinary Russians are ready to tolerate poverty for the sake of state ambitions, and the impact of sanctions on the life of the average poor family is minimal.

Likewise mass civil protests or a middle-class revolution are not possible in Russia. The society is atomised, free media and NGOs have been smashed, and protest is not considered as an option by the absolute majority of the population.

Conclusions

Scenarios featuring the consolidation of power and the preservation of an aggressive imperial regime in Russia (whether or not they include a temporary respite in the war in Ukraine) are unacceptable for Ukraine and for Europe. Uncontrolled disintegration, turmoil, chaos or civil war in Russia are equally unacceptable for Ukraine and Europe, because they threaten the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons and a large-scale refugee crisis, at the least. Thus, the only scenarios which are beneficial for Ukraine and Europe are those which feature controlled processes of decolonisation and reconstruction, as these would allow the minimisation of risks.

What to do in order to approach positive scenarios and turn away negative ones?

A series of steps is required to increase the chance of positive change in Russia. First, support should be given to the independence movements of the captured nations of the Russian Empire, diplomatic relations should be built with the newly independent states in advance. The first step has already been taken by the Ukrainian Parliament by its call to the international community to support the right to self-determination of the peoples of the Russian Federation.

Secondly, it is necessary to explain the possible future scenarios in Russia to Western societies, to the political leaders of the free world, to journalists and to intellectuals. This is particularly important in those countries which border Russia and would bear the brunt, together with Ukraine, of the negative scenarios, as well as in international organisations. We have to explain that the risks of the continuation of the war and the risks of uncontrolled chaos in Russia are unacceptable, and thus the only option is the controlled reconstruction of a post-imperial space based on the basic principles and documents of the UN.

Thirdly, there needs to be an insistence on the key principles of reconstruction: denuclearisation of the entire post-imperial space, peaceful resolution of territorial and other disputes, protection of the rights and freedoms of all citizens regardless of nationality or ethnicity, but simultaneously the punishment of all war criminals, again regardless of nationality or ethnicity. These principles are already included in the Declaration on the Decolonisation of Russia, but it is necessary to flesh them out, including by thinking of practical mechanisms for overcoming challenges.

Finally, support must be withdrawn from the Russian “liberal” opposition, which denies the right of peoples to self-determination, as the empowering of this group will lead only to either the scenario of consolidation of the “hawks” or the scenario of chaos. Real Russian liberals should focus on the viability of a future decolonised Russian state, and not on trying to forcefully piece together the imperial patchwork quilt which is falling apart.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

Dmytro Zolotukhin is executive director at the Institute of Post-Information Society.

Sviatoslav Hnizdovskyi is CEO at Open Minds Institute.

Oleg Magaletskyi is an independent researcher of Russian regions and regionalism.


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