SCENARIOS FOR RUSSIA
GOSH strategies centre, Kyiv
Lately the whole world has been closely watching events unfolding in Russia. War with Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, the whole civilized world’s economic blockade against Russia and a number of factors in its internal politics together create unprecedented challenges for Russia. Therefore the whole world wants to understand how the crisis situation in Russia may develop. Unfortunately, Russian analytical and strategic centres are confused and do not offer any high-quality scenario analysis. Moreover, Russian philosophical thought has not yet realized the format of Russia’s future or the paths of transformation. The job of filling this vacuum falls on Ukrainian analytical centres, though it is not surprising: Russian military and informational aggression forces them to thoroughly consider, how exactly Russia will cease being a threat to Ukraine. Putting it differently, what the first stage of changes – that will force it to focus on its internal problems and stop pressuring Ukraine – will be like for Russia. Therefore, this text describes the scenarios as they are seen from Kyiv.
Due to Russian invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and intense information war the situation cannot return to the status quo of 2013, defined by ideas of “brother nations, close economic ties and kindred cultures”, and let everyone just pretend nothing happened. Therefore, Russia’s attitude to Ukraine can change only as a result of changes in Russia itself.
What events are possible?
Economic revolt of the masses. History of Russia shows that urban and rural proletariat – the majority of Russia’s population – can easily survive below the poverty line for a long time. These people quickly get used to decreasing living standards and are not willing to “destroy the foundations of society” for the sake of prosperity. Impoverishment does not lead to public discontent. Moreover, proles from occupied regions – with their post-Soviet identity similar to that of the majority of Russian proles – have shown that rich and prosperous Europe is too alien and off-putting for them. We exclude this scenario as impossible.
Economic revolution of the middle class. Anything similar to Ukrainian Maidan (a wide protest of middle class and youth against corrupt pro-Russian government in November 2013 – February 2014) is impossible in Russia. Russian middle class is weak and spineless, physically and informationally atomized. A middle-class revolution requires independent media and developed civil society institutions as well as a long public discussion of country’s fate. Russia – as opposed to Ukraine – has none of these. Besides, bourgeois revolution needs support of the masses, but in this case all of Russia but central Moscow may become an enormous Vendée for hapless bourgeois revolutionaries. Finally, as it was proven in 1920s, existence of middle class is not compulsory for Russian economy and state, so in case of danger government may destroy it completely (and is fully capable of that). There is no point to consider this scenario.
Oligarchic revolution. Alas, this scenario is impossible as well. Modern Russian oligarchs are politically weak and dependent. “Semibankirschina”, a group of the most powerful independent oligarchs, that supported president Yeltsin, while he was in office, is long gone. There is nothing reminiscent to Ukraine’s oligarchic balance of Kuchma years. For an oligarchic revolution to be possible big business has to be economically independent, own some media outlets and factions in parliament and be valued and accepted as separate player by the West. A tradition of having multiple seats of power – not typical for Putin’s Russia – is desirable as well. To put it bluntly, Putin has successfully purged oligarchs, who supported Yeltsin, from power. And his inner circle of oligarchs fully submits to him. Can we even call them oligarchs? They rather are the managers of shared assets.
Economic collapse and breakup. Unity of Russia hinges not only on zombification of the masses, but on the unity of regional elites as well. This unity needs constant financial inflows from the centre. Kremlin is buying regional elites’ loyalty with oil and gas revenues. When these inflows dry up, regional barons will have to decide whether it is worth to stand by the now poor regime. And then we may well witness a parade of sovereignties – both ethnical and ones with hurriedly invented new identities (Siberian and Far-Eastern, for instance) for regions, where it is impossible to use ethnic composition as a basis. Facts say that many regional elites are willing to betray federal centre any time. We consider this scenario possible. (By the way, some of regional elites will certainly be willing to get western support.)
Anti-imperialist war of national liberation. Scenarios of breakup via economic collapse are further complicated by the aspect of nationalities. There are a lot of national entities of different size, economic power and political influence inside Russian Federation (it is a federation only on paper, since all key features of federal power structure do not exist). While North Caucasus is long ready to break off and stays with Russia only because of tribute Moscow pays, some of the other rich republics do not show their intentions openly. If the centre becomes extremely weak (and foreign intelligence agencies and Islamist propagandists do their work properly) strong centrifugal tendencies may appear, as it has already happened during Yeltsin years. Tatarstan is the most obvious candidate, but the weaker the centre becomes, the more surprises there will be. We consider these possible surprises to be subscenarios of “Economic collapse and breakup” scenario.
Big war in Europe. In an attempt to maintain its position Kremlin may resort to escalation of war in Ukraine. This is a rather bloody scenario with many Ukrainians and Russians dying (so many that various cataclysms are possible in Russia, including a palace revolution). We will cover possible scenarios of these events below. The same will happen if Kremlin – having lost its sense of reality for good – tries to blackmail Baltic countries with “green men” and nuclear threat.
Big war in Asia. There are some other possible theatres of war as well. Attacking a weaker partner in another theatre is in a sense a way out of Ukrainian zugzwang (a strategic position, when any possible move will worsen the situation). This concerns primarily Kazakhstan and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan. Both countries are quite vulnerable. Kazakhstan has a lengthy unprotected border, significant population of ethnic Russians, weak army, a 74-year-old hard-handed leader, who has no sons, and weak civil society. Azerbaijan is stronger and united around a respected leader, but has numerous vulnerabilities: conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, a source of terroristic tension in Dagestan, Kurds and other ethnic minorities. If Russia leaves Ukraine for, for instance, Kazakh riches, the West will be satisfied, will lift the sanctions and will not stand up for Nazarbayev’s regime (especially if Russia promises not to change the business environment for western companies). So preserving the existing Kremlin regime vie a change of focus is quite possible. We would like to note as well that Taliban is preparing an invasion of Tajikistan, creating an additional threat to Russian interests in the south. At the same time Chinese invasion is certainly not happening. China knows how to wait and can do that, since sooner or later all the riches will fall into its hands. As an old Chinese proverb says, “if you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by”.
Switching to internal war. As far as changing the theatre of war is concerned, there is another way to save Kremlin regime: to put an end to war in Ukraine and begin a war against internal “fifth column” (according to an old Russian tradition, that is Jews and creative intelligentsia that for this purpose is put on the same footing as Jews). This means a revival of the Black Hundreds, pogroms and Gulag-inspired repressions. Russian history proves that this scenario is possible. We would like to note that there are some early signals of both possible adoption of state anti-Semitism and potential invasion of Kazakhstan.
Infrastructure collapse from without. Russian infrastructure has numerous vulnerabilities. SWIFT, foreign software used by dangerous and core infrastructure companies (from nuclear power plants and railways to metallurgic complexes and mobile network operators), imported parts for everything, and a lot of other weak links. Of course, in normal circumstances the West will not embark on sanctions this harsh, as they fraught with chaos in a large nuclear-armed country. But this option exists as a last resort. Depending on the controllability of infrastructure collapse this scenario will either lead to Putin’s head on a plate (we consider this option below) or something similar to economic collapse described above.
Infrastructure collapse from within. In the last few years before the dissolution of USSR a lot of major accidents happened besides Chernobyl. Why do numerous technological catastrophes occur before system’s collapse? Sociologists explain that quality of human capital decreases and it is unable to maintain complex systems. Physicists say that an attempt to increase entropy in the world backfires on the one, who initiated it. Mystics see these hazards as signs of approaching collapse, the writing on the wall during Belshazzar’s Feast. In any case a couple of major accidents with drastic consequences may completely upset social system’s balance. We add this scenario to the previous one.
Economic mobilization and soft fascist dictatorship. Is it possible for Russia’s “corporate state” a la Mussolini to mobilize economy using the financial resources it has left? Russia’s history has a few examples of successful authoritarian economic mobilizations, from Peter the Great to Stalin. Russian business and intelligentsia from time to time get signals that this scenario is possible. But history shows that these signals are no more than a way to let off some steam and create false expectations. Economic mobilization utilizes people’s loyalty to the state, their fear of punishment, and power of professional caste of government officials. Russia has none of these: corruption has eroded the foundation of Russian state, intelligence agencies have transformed from servants of the state into hotbeds of corruption, and people do not trust the government. As past Russian megaprojects have shown, all the resources will be stolen and it will be impossible to achieve the desired result.
Military coup (junta). Since Russia has a huge number of “siloviks”, we have to consider a possibility of a military coup. According to methodology suggested by Edward Luttwak, a prominent expert on military coups, this scenario is impossible for Russia. Firstly, Russian army officers are not an exclusive caste with strong corporate spirit, are not unconditionally respected and trusted by the population, and are squeezed by poverty and repressive command methods. Secondly, army is well counterbalanced with intelligence agencies and is full of their agents. There are no conditions for an appearance of “Decembrists of 21st century” (Decembrists were behind an attempted military coup in 1825, the most famous in Russian history).
Nazi coup. If army is not an uncontrollable force, what is? The answer is easily seen from Ukraine: this entire rabble that is attacking Ukrainian border together with the Russian army. Mercenaries, Cossacks, North Caucasian passionaries, reenactors, special forces officers left out in the cold, etc. with numerous Russian criminals, who have their own traditional subculture and represented a “state within a state” in USSR, playing a prominent role. Provided they have a leader and an ideology they are capable to give the government a hard time if not capture the power in Russia. The leader, as we understand, will appear. And torn remains of National Socialism that are so popular among Russian proles will do as an ideology. Certainly, at the moment it is impossible to make a formidable power out of this all. But Nazis started from the same basis in Germany and ended up fully controlling the state. Public grudge because of geopolitical defeats of 20th century, passionarity, abundance of uncontrolled weapons and people, who have already learnt how to kill, a dozen ancient slogans, mosaic–like ethnic composition and severe economic decline, discontent over government’s impotency – these ingredients make up a dangerous concoction. Do not forget: the time is speeding up, so dragon’s teeth that a couple of centuries ago needed years to grow can now grow in a few months. But for this scenario to be possible the authority has to become very weak, for instance, as a result of a palace revolution. Therefore, we will consider this scenario a part of “Black hole” scenario that is described last.
New Horde (invasion of Russia). What happens to the country when its level of social energy critically decreases? It falls prey to invaders, this happened hundreds of times in human history. With its actions Russia declared that it is not a subject to the law of territorial integrity. But, fortunately for it, at the moment no one encroaches on its territory. China, as we have already said, knows how to wait for riches to fall into its hands and can do that. Even if there is someone willing to conquer the collapsing Russia, western and eastern developed countries will object: they do not want a minor player to get its hands on Russian resources and become too powerful. But they will not be able to object, if the aggressor comes from within the country. Relatively small army of North Caucasian passionaries under the guidance of experienced leaders is capable to quickly conquer a huge country. We need to remember that North Caucasus economically and mentally still lives in 13th century. Nothing has changed for it since Genghis Khan, except for the weapons. History has shown that ethnically alien groups of invaders (Turkic, for example) quickly incorporate into the core (Mongolian army consisted mostly of non-Mongols). Russian masses will submit, while local siloviks will happily become tithe collectors.
Palace revolution. This scenario is the most characteristic for Russia, as it has been used a lot in 17th-20th centuries. In Russian history there have never existed independent subjects (for example, powerful urban bourgeoisie or aristocrats) capable of organizing a revolution. Most often revolutions are organized by a small group of people, who already are close to the throne and are guided by their self-preservation instinct. In our case these are the army and intelligence agencies (as we have already said, oligarchs are weak and dependent). In USSR party apparatus was the third power and that let the other two join forces against it (this way Beria was removed from power after Stalin’s death). Judging by the circumstances existing in Russia, this bulldog fight will be violent. The resulting new leader will be acceptable for the West: not aggressive externally and capable of controlling internal forces and nuclear weapons. (We would like to note that none of the members of Putin’s inner circle are fit for this role). It may be an independent strong individual or some kind of a regent with real forces (the army and intelligence agencies) fighting behind his back and oligarchs potentially emerging as the third power or supporting one of the sides. It is not really important whether this scenario will lead to Putin being killed or sent to The Hague. The first option is more desirable for putshists’ safety, as he may start talking. Anyhow Russia will surrender occupied Ukrainian territory, sanctions will be lifted, now cheap Russian assets will attract investments, and a group of western advisors (German, for example, not to upset the population with “abhorrent Americans”) will come to Kremlin.
Black hole. Everything will be okay, if the new leadership is able to hold on to the power after a palace revolution. But it is possible that the system is already too out of balance. And then the new leadership will resemble Russian Provisional Government of 1917. This can also happen as a result of excessive western pressure aimed at removing all powerful and dangerous members of the old regime from the top (though such pressure will create a vacuum of power, as it did in Iraq). And then all the scenarios described above may unfold simultaneously, since a system with a strong power vertical cannot stand emptiness (a system with horizontal network structures or at least a balance of power is a lot more resilient). This vacuum will be filled by all parties interested: emboldened oligarchs, regional elites, Islamists, the army, street Nazis, criminals, Donbas mercenaries, North Caucasian passionaries, etc. This boiling cauldron of civil war will cause Russia either to collapse into an anthropological desert, to break up into lots of pieces or to give birth to a new monster the likes of Soviet Union or ISIS.
We have covered all major scenarios for Russia. We would like to remind the readers that the objective of our analysis is not to puzzle out Russia’s long-term fate, but to figure out how Russia will cease being a threat to Ukraine. In other words, what has to happen in order for Russia’s leadership and Russian armed passionaries’ to focus on internal matters and forget about Ukraine?
So we consider these major scenarios impossible or highly unlikely:
(We do not mention degenerate scenarios that slide into other ones).
These scenarios are quite feasible:
The last three scenarios may happen simultaneously adding up to a “Black hole” scenario.
We think that positive scenarios are possible only on at least the second stage of events and therefore are concealed behind a horizon of negative events. Western hopes of restoring status quo of 2013 have no ground.
In conclusion we would like to discuss what Ukraine is supposed to do. This topic deserves a separate study, but we emphasize that there are no scenarios of strong and aggressive Russia being peaceful neighbour to Ukraine. Even a scenario of Russian invasion of Kazakhstan “instead of Ukraine” does not mean that Kremlin, resentful lower social classes, and Russian military whose comrades have died in Ukraine will forget about Ukraine. At the same time a weak and collapsing Russia is no less of a threat to Ukraine: it will be a bottomless source of refugees and militants. The only positive scenario is a successful pro-Western palace revolution in the spirit of a metaphorical “chained bear with his claws and fangs torn out” Putin mentioned recently. But how stable will this scenario be? It may happen successfully (Serbia) or not (Iraq). Iraqi outcome is more likely, since there are no new powers prepared to take the responsibility for the country. Besides, current Russian foreign policy fully reflects the aspirations of Russian people, so even alternatives like Navalny and Khodorkovsky are forced to adopt their voters’ expectations when commenting the outlook for Russia-Ukraine relations.
Therefore, in the vast majority of feasible scenarios Russia will be a permanent threat to Ukraine. That means we need to:
To sum it up, we need to become strong, independent and prosperous. Of course, it is a job for the government and for all the people as well. Myths about brother nations, close economic ties and kindred cultures must be destroyed: they are becoming deadly.
GOSH strategies centre, Kyiv