Imagining a post-Putin world is not as hard as many would think and would be better for everyone, including Russia and China
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By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, LinkedIn, Facebook) February 28, 2023; because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023, but I still need your help, please keep sharing my work and consider also donating! Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request.
SILVER SPRING—Much has happened in this momentous yet cataclysmic past year, and almost a year ago, shortly after Putin launched his escalatory invasion, I wrote the following and absolutely still stand by it today:
After well over a year of isolation induced by the COVD-19 pandemic, it seems Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has become so detached from reality with his wild Ukraine gamble that he may finally have adventured too far, stumbling into a trap entirely of his own making. Surprising as it is, this time it is distinctly possible his aggression, ultimately, will not provide him with any way to save face: no “offramp,” as the media seems to love to refer to a possible endgame that leaves him comfortable and not in a weak and unstable position at best (for him) or ousted at worst (obviously, the latter would be ideal for us)…
…I’m optimistic like never before that Putin’s end is coming and coming soon even as that optimism is surrounded by the dread of an increasingly bloody and lawless conflict. I truly think this is the last gasp for a very long time of the Great Power conflicts on European soil, of the major wars that have been constant on the continent since the ancient Greco-Persian wars through today, with the two main exceptions being the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana; this war in Ukraine will either be the end of the Pax Americana in Europe or the one great interruption of it for some time to come.
I have expanded on this feeling, that Putin has absolutely violated the implicit social contract he made with his people—give up their democracy in exchange for strength, stability, and respect from the world—that this this war really has doomed him, that Russians know who has been in charge for years and who created the system that produced this disastrous performance on the battlefields of Ukraine and will eventually appropriately blame Putin, that even the military may revolt against him, and that revolution is going to come because Putin will destroy the Russian military and economy if he is not stopped since he will not give up his losing war effort that cannot succeed, that Putin has finally bitten off more than he can chew and will choke on his hubris. And from the Russo-Japanese War to World War I to Afghanistan, Russian defeats in war tend bring about serious consequences domestically for Russia of the revolutionary type. So in the first days after the one-year-anniversary of Putin’s escalatory invasion, it is fitting to contemplate a world without Putin and how much better it will be.
There are three key reasons to suppose this idea…
1.) Russia under Putin is by far the most powerful bad actor in the world, constantly working to undermine the U.S.-led rules-based international world order in place since the end of World War II
It is no exaggeration to say that Russia under Putin is easily now and by far not only the chief antagonist of the United States and the West, but is also the largest impediment to global cooperation and world stability. And this has been the case for a solid decade-and-a-half.
Apart from the obvious example of Ukraine, Russia has also for some time been supporting some of the worst factions and adding to instability in a series of regional and local interventions. Militarily, most notably with its occupation of Transnistria in Moldova and its intervention to support dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria but also the “private” military contractor Wagner Group (really an extension of the Russian military and the Kremlin’s will) also in Syria and throughout Africa, especially (including Libya, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Mali, and Sudan, though Wagner is also intervening in less-militarily-explicit ways in other African countries). Politically, Russia has interfered to support the very worst of the far-fight throughout Europe, the U.S., and Canada, whether movements, individual figures, or political parties, movements that often not just brush up against fascism but veer headlong into it. In the same places, Russia is also fostering far-left movements (the kind that try to tear down the part of the left that can actually do something). It is even pumping up secessionists movements, from Catalonia and Scotland to Texas and California. I have discussed much of this in detail—citing many, many sources—before. And, of course, there are Russia’s cyberwarfare campaigns—including disinformation and what I termed in 2016 the (First) Russo-American Cyberwar—related to all of these, which I have also discussed at length and before most others would, as far back as July 2016; even now, Russian propaganda accounts are buying up blue checkmark status on Twitter from Elon Musk, just another example of how Musk clearly doesn’t give a damn about actually policing actual misinformation
As I argued long ago, it is time to get even tougher with Russia, which has for a decade-and-a-half clearly been a bad-faith and faithless actor on the world stage, that fighting back isn’t escalation but merely long-overdue defense against such rampant aggression, that countries voluntarily joining alliances with the West is not aggression but Russia actually invading countries to dismember them and annex their territory is.
We are rivals with China but not enemies, but Russia under is clearly our enemy and acts like it.
2.) Russia under Putin now is incredibly isolated, and there is little reason to think other major powers would follow Russia’s example after Putin is finished; most notably, China will likely be more cooperative and less oppositional
While countries like the U.S. and Ukraine have many friends that actually admire them on immensely deep levels, Russia does not even understand these concepts: Russia has a few alliances of interest and convenience, but that is really it: Russia has no real friends—and only has itself to blame for that.
But let’s take a look at the nations supposedly close to Russia, just to drive down how pathetically isolated it is internationally.
Putin’s big “ally” in this war has been Belarus, formerly a part of the Soviet Union and led by its quite unpopular and buffoonish dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who was weakened by massive domestic protests in 2020-2021 after he stole an election to stay in power and has now let Russia use Belarusian territory to base troops and launch attacks against Ukraine (he has notably declined to deploy his military alongside Russia’s in Ukraine, as that could very well be the end of his deeply unpopular regime). Polling tells us Belarusians are against Russia’s invasion and that Russia’s war of aggression is very unpopular; indeed, there are Belarusians fighting for Ukraine against Russia, Belarusians in Belarus sabotaging logistical systems used by the Russians, and, just a few days ago, it was apparently Belarusian partisans that critically damaged an expensive Russian military aircraft on an airbase outside of the Belarusian capital of Minsk (an A-50U Mainstay—one of seven in Russian service and modern upgrades of the A-50, with only nine of those A-50s “in service” for a total of “sixteen” of these types of aircraft “operational” for Russia—likely fewer with Russian maintenance woes—planes with advanced detection equipment that are essential to monitoring enemy aircraft in the battlespace and in preventing surprise air attacks, essentially the counterparts to the U.S. E-3 Sentry AWACS).
And as far as “friends” and allies, for Russia, Belarus is as good as it gets.
What about China? Shortly before Putin’s February 24 invasion, China declared “friendship…has no limits” with Russia but has very much set limits on this friendship, refusing so far to support Russia’s military with lethal military aid or vote with Russia in key United Nations votes on the Ukraine war. At most, China has helped Russia with some economic and technical support and on the one-year-anniversary of the invasion offered a piece of paper with a twelve-point “peace” plan paying lip service to some Russian talking points but offered no concrete military aid to Russia in its war effort (I’m sure Putin was hoping for much more than a piece of paper; so much for “friendship…[with] no limits”).
What about Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic and the government of which Russia helped by deploying troops to quell a massive series of protests just the month before Putin launched his escalatory invasion? How has Kazakhstan responded after this help from Russia? By breaking from Russia and Russia’s positions on Ukraine and the war, sending aid to Ukrainian civilians, giving sanctuary and shelter to over 100,000 Russians fleeing conscription/mobilization into Putin’s war and/or persecution, and also not voting with Russia at the United Nations. Other former Soviet republics long-deferential to Russia even after the fall of Soviet Union are now beginning to finally distance themselves from or to assert themselves publicly against Putin or are seeking patronage from elsewhere, including America.
What about Iran? Iran has provided drones that have been used against Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure (yet are ineffective against Ukrainian military targets and Russia may be even running out of those drones) while Iran has thus far declined Russian requests for more powerful missile systems and has also declined to vote with Russia at the United Nations.
In reality, Russia is incredibly isolated: in five key United Nations votes on the Russia-Ukraine war—including the latest one on February 23, 2023, demanding Russia withdraw from Ukraine, 141 countries voting for it, only seven including Russia against, and with thirty-two abstentions; also including a General Assembly vote on October 12 of 143-5 against Russia, a 10-1 Security Council vote against Russia on September 30, a March 2 General Assembly vote of 141-5 against Russia, and an 11-1 Security Council vote against Russia on February 25, 2022, right after Russia’s escalatory invasion—China has refused to vote with its supposed BFF; instead, it has chosen in each instance to abstain. Kazakhstan abstained in those three General Assembly votes and Iran and has behaved the same way with two of those General Assembly votes (including the latest February 23 vote) and did not vote in a third. That means no country of any significant power or clout has stood by Russia diplomatically: 141 to 7 most recently (Russia along with Belarus, Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali, and Nicaragua; that’s it) and similar results from the other General Assembly resolutions, plus Russia being the only veto on the two Security Council resolutions described, tell you a lot about what you need to know about Russia’s standing in the world after its Ukraine invasion.
With “friends” like this, Russia really doesn’t need enemies, but it has them in a Ukraine that is smashing Russian dreams of imperial conquest and a West that is happy to aid Ukraine not just diplomatically and economically but, unlike China with Russia, militarily in its fight for freedom and self-determination. And Even if the Biden Administration sometimes gives lip service to the general concept of eventual negotiations, it knows full well and has stated that Russia is not a party it can ask Ukraine to negotiate with because Russia does not act in good faith. So think about this, then: both U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are shunning the idea of talking to Putin or his Russian government, that doing so is pointless, that Putin is not worthy of direct engagement at this time.
Essentially alone in their war against a Ukraine with many steadfast and true allies and friends, 2022 for Putin and Russia was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year and, as I have been arguing, 2023 will only be worse.
China’s Conundrum on Russia and the West as It Ponders Its Path Forward
Considering this dramatic isolation, I am a big believer that, without a Putin running Russia to stand next to, or even hide behind, that China would take a different, more cooperative approach on the international stage. That is not to say that everything would be great between the U.S. and China and they would not have fierce disagreements still. Yet if Russia were to stop being a rogue nation, but a responsible, good-faith actor instead that is not knee-jerk opposing the West but seeks cooperation over confrontation, peace and trade over war, democracy over autocracy, human rights over oppression, China would not want to look like a lone spoiler, isolated as some sort of pariah among the major nations. With Russia at its side, it can avoid this, but with a Russia under a different, more sensible leader, it cannot.
Another thing to consider is that China and Russia do not have a shared culture and history, do not have any deep-seeded shared values. China’s tepid “support” for a full year of Russia’s escalatory invasion of Ukraine after proclaiming “friendship…[with] no limit” just before that invasion tells you how deep that relationship goes.
Indeed, apart from neo-Marxist-educated, Chomsky– and Gramsci-devoted disciples of anti-Westernism and their students, fans, and offspring—the crowd Christopher Hitchens described as the “masochistic…Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter”—not many people will really miss Putin’s Russia (and, as I have explained before, most of the people who do are, sorry-not-sorry, too stupid to know the difference between Putin’s Russia and the Soviet Union—the latter opposed fascists and the former is fascist). These people are so myopically trapped in Cold War-era thinking that they have not realized their ship has sailed, their train departed, their flight taken off; they fail to see how the world has adapted and changed, how the postcolonial-rebellion era is now over, how Putin’s Russia is not an anti-imperialist nation fighting against empire and colonialism but is, in fact, a neoimperialist and neocolonialist empire, the only major power to be doubling down on such a backwards, long-expired ideology.
People try to argue (rather unconvincingly) that the U.S. just another old-school empire, China has an economic empire, and while there are obviously various dimensions, I’d argue that influence and alliances and mutual agreements are not the same as empire: there’s no substitute for empire-empire: actually stealing land by military conquest with the intent of annexation and colonization. Say what you will about America’s Iraq War and War in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era, but neither Iraq nor Afghanistan were ever going to be the fifty-first or fifty-second state or a U.S. Territory.
The tsarist era is calling, Vlad, and it wants its ideology back. This chauvinistic ethnic Russian “Eurasianism” is moving Russia backwards in time, and the totality of its former vassals that have broken free are having none of it, with even the people of Belarus disgusted by it as they are of their own cartoonish dictator, Lukashenko. Few states of any stature are going to look at how Russia’s horrid war of revanchist imperialist and colonialist expansion goes and will want to imitate it, with Putin’s failing and sooner-rather-than-later to be failed war—itself the last gasp of such anachronistic justifications—to leave an even greater distaste for such thinking and behavior than before he embarked on his futile folly. Hopefully, this war will be the last hurrah of old-school imperial wars, this war the last imperial war, at least for several generations.
If anyone will truly miss Putin’s Russia, it will be China, but not out of any love; rather, it will simply be that Russia constantly made China look good. Sure, China can be pretty awful—just look at its genocidal treatment of its Muslim ethnic minority Uighurs—but people could always point to Russia and say “see, at least China isn’t that bad” when it came to international behavior beyond its borders. To quote a RAND report title: “Russia Is a Rogue, Not a Peer; China Is a Peer, Not a Rogue,” i.e., China has a considerable amount of economic power that Russia does not even approach (in 2021, China’s GDP was nearly ten times Russia’s and U.S. GDP was nearly thirteen times larger than Russia’s) and China does not seek to destroy the current international order, just to shape it more in its own image and offer competition with and an alternative to the U.S. even while generally operating within the system’s rule (the big exceptions being trade, intellectual property theft, and maritime borders). Conversely, as noted, Russia is relatively weak economically and cares little to nothing for the rules, even seeks to destroy that rules-based international system.
China loved having Putin as the lighting rod to absorb most of the West’s ire even while China moved as a force often opposing the West, making China the “good one” of the two major autocracies. China enjoyed a position where it could be both an ally to Russia but also present itself to the West as a more moderate country than Russia, as a country that could be a mediator and interlocutor between the West and Russia that was still happy to have Russia as another major pole in the multipolar world order aligned against the West, a with which China enjoyed a much better relationship than Russia with which China has far, far larger economic ties than it does with Russia.
It’s not even close, as the charts below show (The Observatory of Economic Complexity’s excellent visualizations are deeply revealing and they were kind enough to provide me with the latest data free of charge; 2019 and 2020 data is available without a subscription, but I have provided images of some of the 2022 data; in datasets, OEC counts both Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate trading partners and I am counting Taiwan as Western since it is de facto independent and a Western democracy, whereas Hong Kong is de facto and de jure part of China).
In 2022, Russia was just the sixteenth-largest partner (2.12% of the total) in China’s export market (compared to 16.1% for the U.S. at number-one); excluding Hong Kong (second-place) as part of China, the top three Chinese export recipients are firmly Western, as are six of the top ten and eight of the fourteen ahead of Russia; for comparison, in 2019 before the pandemic, Russia also ranked sixteenth but at a lower overall percentage: 1.87%; the U.S. was still first but at 16.4%. Russia was only the seventh-highest importer to China, with 4.14% total of Chinese imports; the U.S. was significantly higher, in third place at 6.54%, and the top five importers were firmly in the Western alliance and the sixth was actually China reimporting to itself; for comparison, in 2019, Russia was the eighth-largest importer to China (3.7%) to America’s third-ranked spot (6.56%).
Russia has not been releasing important elements of its economic data for most of 2022, hoping to hide the effect of sanctions, but the incomplete data we do have tells us that in 2022, China was by far Russia’s largest export destination and import source, with the value of Russian exports to China apparently sharply increasing from 2019. Back then, China was also by far Russia’s top export (14% of all Russian exports) and import (20.6% of all Russian imports) partner. For the U.S. in 2022, China is its third-largest export destination (7.39%) and its largest source of imports (16.7%); China was also similarly third for U.S. exports in 2019 (6.82%) and first that year in imports (18.1%). Despite some rising tensions, Chinese-American economic ties remain indisputably strong and profoundly stronger than Chinese-Russian economic ties.
Simply put, Russia needs China way more than China needs Russia, then.
Even in this context, China calculated that it still made sense to align itself in politically in general with Russia, and, in this spirit, it backed Russia just before Russia’s nightmarish disaster of an escalatory invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022. China probably thought like many others that in a few days, weeks, maybe a few months, Russia would triumph in Ukraine: the war would be over quickly and China’s relationship and substantial economic ties with the West would not really come into play or be too strongly negatively affected.
But to China’s dismay, a year later Russia’s war is failing and the Russian pole in the multipolar order is now shattered, Russia having exposed its weakness, China obviously having buyer’s remorse and knowing it has backed a loser and now a pariah, not at all what Chinese President Xi Jinping had bet would happen. With Russia desperate for help, China is still clearly declining even now after an entire year of massive military escalation to send Russia any weapons or direct military support. China appreciated having Russia as a useful pole bent away from the West (and its utility is now fast diminishing), but it’s not like it likes Russia. If it liked Russia, it would be doing far more to help Putin’s war effort, like just about all of the West and even places like Morocco are helping Ukraine (yes, Morocco has offered more military support for Ukraine than China has offered Russia).
Some “no-limits” “friendship.”
Instead, China must feel like it has hitched itself onto the Titanic and does not want this Titanic to ruin its far stronger, far more important economic ties with the West at a time when the economy and COVID policy in China have the domestic situation there faltering, and, in reality, it is obvious China has been and is considering all of this heavily or it would already have been voting with Russia at the United Nations and been sending it weapons to help crush Ukraine if it really, truly believed in its alliance with Russia as a true alliance and not an alliance of mere convenience. Sure, China could technically still throw a lot more support behind Russia, but why would it risk a major economic fight with the West now after a whole year of keeping its distance from Russia’s war when Russia is clearly losing that war and at a time of increasing domestic woes in China? It would be highly irrational for China to do so and would not further China’s national interests.
In fact, Xi and the Chinese leadership have to be looking at Russia and seeing the dreaded potential for what they fear most in their own country: revolution. The Chinese Communist Party has already lived through the demise of one communist regime based in Moscow in 1991 and has to see the similarities between then and now in Russia as well as with the 1917 revolutions in the midst of another major war for Russia, revolutions that brought down the Russian tsar and ushered in communist Bolshevik rule followed by the terrible years of the Russian Civil War. The point is, if—in my view, when—Putin goes, the Chinese will have had some time to think about how they will adjust, and they will know that increasing their isolation and following Putin’s path will not be in their interests.
I asked one Brookings scholar at a live event in early February what she thought of this scenario, and her answer was that China would likely look to replace Russia with others. Except there is no replacing Russia with any other state of similar stature because all those states, even if not fervently pro-Western, are not really anti-Western and enjoy playing both the West and East off each other for their own advantages and interests, even while still overall being closer to the West: we’re talking the rest of the BRICs, that is, Brazil and India, along with a number of other nations in the Global South of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Neither India nor Brazil neither wants to be or be seen as anti-Western. The other large non-Western G-20 economies of Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia do not want to be anti-Western with the possible exception of Turkey (at least to talk that talk but less so walk that walk), but even NATO-member Turkey has been and will very likely try to play both sides rather than veer so far as to be anywhere near as anti-Western as Russia (even less anti-Western if would-be Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can finally get voted out of office in May). Outside the G-20, there are non-Western states of Iran, Thailand, and Nigeria to round out the top 30 economies in the world, and with the obvious exception of pariah Iran, they do not want to be anti-Western.
So China’s best bet for a new BFF to replace Russia is…Iran? Meh. Maybe Turkey? Doubtful even if possible. While both Muslim-led countries have been conspicuously and relatively silent on China’s genocide against the Muslim Turkic Uighurs to try not to rock their relationship with China too much, that hardly means Turkey will want to become the new anti-Western power to replace Russia and China is not going to be thrilled about cozying up too much more to an isolated Iran pursuing terrorism and nuclear weapons and even it likely won’t end up supporting Putin’s war against Ukraine dramatically more than it is already, save for another weapons system or two added to the so-so drones it has already supplied.
With Putin’s Russia out of the mix and is led by a different person, then, frankly, China just doesn’t have any good options but to become less antagonistic and more cooperative with the West. That hardly means that China cannot compete and fight for its interests with the United States, that China must be subservient to the U.S. or cannot pursue its own path and oppose American policies, sometimes sharply and persistently. It just means that all this talk of two major blocs opposing each other, one led by the U.S. and Europe, the other by Russia and China, that has gripped analysts for years will be a thing of the past. Sure, China could go it alone among major world powers in pursuing a sharply anti-American path, but then China will suffer from some of the same problems that are bringing Russia down today.
In short, it just doesn’t make sense and isn’t likely for China to become the next Russia in terms of anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism, to take up the flagging banner now being dragged by Russia though the mud and blood of its Ukraine war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united the U.S. and Europe even more intensely than before, the narcissism of its small differences always being exaggerated (even now, the coverage of the recent Leopard/Abrams tank tussle reminds me of the coverage of Biden’s infrastructure bill debate in the U.S.: the commentariat highlighted the differences, then myopically did not properly appreciate the success of those differences being overcome), so China’s hope of driving a wedge between Europe and America must be fading fast.
3.) When Putin is finally finished—dies, is killed, or deposed—it will be because Russians—the Russian people, the military, and the elites around Putin in the Kremlin—are absolutely exhausted and have learned the hard way that a different course is needed
I have encountered numerous commentaries stating we may very well end up with someone worse than Putin if Putin is taken out, but I don’t buy that. Maybe temporarily and briefly someone worse ends up in charge, but when the dust settles and leadership stabilizes after Putin is overthrown/replaced, I think it is far likelier we would see someone better than Putin running things than someone worse. When Putin is gone —and I am saying when because I cannot think of a time in recent centuries when a leader of a major state fails so badly in a major war and just stays in power with no major consequences, and I am convinced Russia has already lost this war, it’s just a matter of how much longer and how many more dead—it will absolutely be a reflection of a national exhaustion with Putinism. By Putinism, I mean the man himself, his stooges, his system, his war, all of it; Russia will not be looking for more of the same and will certainly not be wanting to double down a failing war that has already cost hundreds of thousands of casualties, including, by Ukraine’s credible estimate, nearly 150,000 killed, and who knows how many more wounded and ruined in mind and spirit.
There is also the reputational damage. The nation of Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, and Pajitnov is being led barbarians who have created a barbaric culture that has created a barbaric army that is behaving more like ISIS than a respectable army (this is not meant as some kind of hyperbole: the atrocities happening throughout this war are exhausting to consider and massive in scale, pure barbarity of the terroristic variety—as I discussed with Ukraine’s 2022 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Oleksandra Matviichuk—atrocities in line with centuries of atrocities committed against Ukraine by Russia, centuries I summarize here) and yet, somehow instead of being truly fearsome, these barbarians are only good at killing innocent civilians and fare far less well against the Ukrainian military. Thus, the Russian state’s military that so many feared for so long has exposed itself an object of ridicule when it comes to actual military prowess, the Russian Army getting slaughtered to advance mere miles in months while losing far more territory and the overhyped Russian Navy and Air Force largely cowed by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles and air defenses, respectively.
Russia is a pathetic state with a pathetic military, pathetically losing a war handily to a former part of its empire that is far weaker and much smaller than it. Every single day this war drags on is additional humiliation not only for Putin but for all of Russia and all Russians. This is one of the greatest military upsets in world history, no doubt about it, and it is hard to think of many parallels for a mighty nation to have lost its reputation so rapidly (France in 1940 and Persia in last few years of the 330s BCE are two that come to mind).
Then there’s the economic costs. The international sanctions ensuing from Putin’s invasion, while not bringing Russia to its economic knees in a matter of months, are still hurtling Russia’s economy into a prolonged era of pain. Despite extreme, unsustainable measures taken by the Kremlin to hide and minimize the very real effects of the sanctions (basically, don’t trust Russia’s official numbers), Russia’s economy is, in fact, struggling and will only be degraded more over time. With more sanctions just imposed and more sure to come, the substantial effects are already widespread in Russia and are shrinking Russia’s role in the global economy, with an energy revolution (one I called for some time ago) rapidly unfolding in Europe and fundamentally altering and diminishing Europe’s relationship with Russia (please feel free to consider the sources above in this paragraph as rebuttal-central to the idea that the sanctions are “not working”).
While regular Russians will feel the economic pain the most, Russia’s elites—including those staffing the Kremlin and in Putin’s inner circles as well as social and economic elites—are also worse off for this war and will hardly stand by Putin forever, especially as things will go from bad to worse; indeed, the process of them despairing and turning on him has already begun, and I have argued this before, with this paragraph of mine worth quoting here:
It is clear that the Russian military—rank-and-file and officers alike—are more aware of Putin’s failures than anyone as they wade through their own blood. But this war is not just affecting them and regular Russians: the lifestyles of the elites—powered by luxury goods and lavish vacations—are also suffering; nobody in Russia is benefitting from this war and nobody will. And nobody knows how bad things are going more than the very people surrounding Putin in the Kremlin, not just those closest to Putin, but the layers of bureaucracy underneath them. When those types of mid-level government officials gave up on the Soviet system, they were happy to dismantle it from within to find some power to grasp onto amidst the system’s collapse and did not work to preserve it but to preserve themselves, one of the fatal five reasons Stephen Kotkin gives for the Soviet Union’s collapse. Thus, the spawn of the crisis of legitimacy in Moscow that Mikhail Gorbachev faced in the late 1980s and early 1990s is ready to return with a vengeance, this time targeting Putin and his regime.
And as I read the new book (Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921) of another great historian, Antony Beevor, I am relearning how the same happened in Russia 1917 as Tsar Nicholas II’s autocratic regime gasped its last spasmodic breaths in its final months and days. Russians successfully resisted the powerful tsar and the dreaded Soviet state; they can handle the weaker Putin when they are of a mind to do so. And today, there is already dissent and resistance, active resistance in Russia that is only going to grow over time, however small or ineffective it seems now.
This is all hitting Russians hard both psychologically and materially and, again, goes a long way to destroying the tacit deal Putin made with Russians to Make Russia Great Again if Russians just let him take their freedom. Since he is failing miserably to uphold his end of the bargain, since in one year he has undone everything, he has accomplished in two decades of holding power and with the worst yet to come, Putin has outlived his usefulness for Russians even if many or even most do not realize it yet. But at some point—when Russia suffers more major defeats and Ukraine takes more and more territory back from Russia up to perhaps all of it if it gets to that point or even maybe when Ukraine has driven Russia out fully from its sovereign international recognized territory and Russian counterattacks against the Ukrainian border fail and fail and fail repeatedly (scenarios I laid out several times), sometime around that point or before with some good fortune—enough Russians will realize this Putin product is expired, hazardous, and must be tossed into the garbage, like a piece of rotting food that is stinking up the refrigerator and will make anyone foolish enough to still try to consume to retch it back up the hard way.
Putin is, simply put, a disease not only in the Russian body politic but the global body politic. The sooner the Russians realize this and do something collectively about it (or the sooner one brave person or a few brave people around Putin do a great patriotic duty, perhaps inspired by growing public unrest), the fewer dead Russians, the less damage to Russia’s economy and reputation, and the sooner Russia can begin building a better future for itself, for all Russians, and for Russia’s long-abused and weary neighbors, most of all Ukraine.
All nations and people’s have breaking points, and Putin is well on the way to pushing Russia and Russians to theirs.
So when this man is finally ejected from a decision-making capacity for the Russian state, yes, I am highly confident Russians will not opt for a Putin wannabe or anything close, not someone to his right who will raise the stakes even further and force even more Russians to keep fighting a losing war, no. Russians by then will want to envision a future where they become a part of the world again, travel without drawing contempt, buy the things they were used to buying, be with relatives and friends who are alive and not buried in some crater in Ukraine or a cemetery in Russia of living in exile in foreign lands, begin the path to becoming accepted among the nations of the world again not as monsters but as peaceful and friendly good-faith people. They will not want to continue the war but will want the war to end, as they did during World War I and the Soviet-Afghan War. They will want to move in the opposite direction into which Putin had dragged them. They will want to transcend this horror and start anew.
Even if someone like Putin or someone worse came to power immediately after Putin’s fall from grace, that person would not last long. That person would not command the loyalty of the army or government officials, let alone the people. Putin was the singular force above all others and there is no one approaching him in terms of that stature, yet his failure will mean those most closely associated with him will be horribly tainted even as not one can truly fill his shoes in his role as it has been up to now. Likely the only outcome most people will accept, from the insiders to the common folks, will be an end to the war and the killing as well as the repression, something approaching free and fair elections in its place, and the ability to breathe a big sigh of relief, maybe shed a few tears, and begin to move on the only way possible: one step at a time, with the desire for it to be one free step at time.
It won’t be easy—it never is—and yes, freedom was scary in the 1990s, but better to try again after the alternative has produced the current nightmare of a reality that is now consuming all of Russia and ruining a proud nation and a proud people so that they have little left of which to be proud. Something other than that will probably find it close to impossible to impose its will on the Russian project overall.
Still, there may be some instability and fighting over what comes next. There may even be some separatist movements that gain (further) steam within the Russian Federation, given how awful its history of its treatment of minorities is, how minorities are disproportionately being used as cannon fodder in this war (as imperialist and colonialist as anything about this war), and that some minorities are concentrated in particular regions. And yet, I do not see some prolonged civil war: in the end, it should not take terribly long for a consensus—of the public, the battered military, and the elites who are souring even now on the current regime—on a more peaceful, stable, and cooperative way to engage with the wider world to emerge. And when that happens, Russia will have to focus on remaking and rebuilding itself, leaving China without any major partner to carry any sort of anti-Western banner.
A lot of people are understandably bearish and quite cynical when it comes to betting on the Russian people, and I get it, especially with Ukrainians. But history can be our guide here, as I have mentioned; and if the credulous, ignorant, superstitious peasant masses can turn on the tsar in the early twentieth century, if the masses of relatively better-educated Russians choking on Soviet totalitarianism can turn on Soviet communism, then, yes, you better believe Russians today can turn on Putin and the war as a whole, you better believe it is more likely than not that what will finally settle into and run the Kremlin after Putin will be better and not worse.
The Future Looks Better
When you take out the trash, the air is clearer, smells nicer. Such will be the case for the world with Putin, with a man at the head of a state with a large nuclear arsenal that wields (irresponsibly and often alone) a veto on the United Nations Security Council, a state that is a declining power with a bad addiction to revanchism, and, for the reasons outlined above, the tone and tenor of major-power statecraft will be redefined for the better with his absence. That doesn’t mean Xi or China can’t and don’t make mistakes—clearly more so presently than before—but China is very likely going adjust in a way that is best for China, and, as argued, that will not be fighting and being confrontational with the West even more than now while alone among major powers in a post-Putin world: it will mean confronting the West less—significantly less—paving the way for a new era of relative cooperation, perhaps at a level never seen before in human history. The unipolar moment after the end of the Cold War was brief, but this emerging era should be a lot longer than a moment. And together—especially without the Russian knee-jerk veto at the United Nations Security council—the great powers of the world can accomplish so much more working together than opposing each other.
A quick Taiwan aside: even if China were to invade Taiwan—and that, of course, would be a disaster on so many levels—given the differences between China’s and Russia’s imperial history and the far, far larger scale of Russian revanchism that does not end with Ukraine, whereas China’s (excepting some nearby tiny islands and reefs) would seem to end with Taiwan, I do not think that would doom the world to another dysfunctional era of the type Putin wants to create. That is not to say war over Taiwan is likely—and I would argue Russia’s performance in Ukraine and the Biden-led West’s response to it makes that far less likely)—just that I would expect more norm-abiding and normalcy from China relative to Putin’s Russia even after such an horrible potential event, given time for the dust to settle.
In conclusion, I will not-so-humbly proclaim that one year after Putin’s massive escalatory invasion of Ukraine, the world is one year closer to a post-Putin world and, therefore, a better world. Let’s keep up and keep increasing support for Ukraine to ensure Putin falls on his face and falls on his face sooner, as I know Russian leaders doing so in Russian history can often find themselves falling “into the dustbin of history,” a phrase made famous by communist Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky just days before the 1917 Bolshevik October Revolution when he shouted “You are miserable bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on: into the dustbin of history!” at the leader of the rival Menshevik communists, Julius Martov, as he and his crew walked out of a meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets and into irrelevance. That was the fate of the backwards tsardom, the backwards Soviet Union, and it will be the fate of Putin’s backwards regime, as Putin is doing so much to advance himself and his regime down a similar path: “into the dustbin of history.”
Brian’s Ukraine analysis has been praised by: Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces; Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army (Ret.), former commanding general, U.S. Army Europe; Scott Shane, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The New York Times & Baltimore Sun (and featured in HBO’s The Wire, playing himself); Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump and member of the January 6th Committee; and Orwell Prize-winning journalist Jenni Russell, among others.
© 2023 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
Also see Brian’s eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia, or, Ukrainegate: A “New” Phase in the Trump-Russia Saga Made from Recycled Materials, available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook (preview here).
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