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Be Careful What You Wish For


What effect will Putin’s war have on Russia? There’s an active trade in historical analogies, but the more I look at those analogies, the more I become convinced that few of them work. They don’t even rhyme.

War in Europe because of an attempted grab by a declining power with no strong allies. It doesn’t fit the Cold War Soviet attack through the Fulda Gap, the objectives of which were never clear – control of West Germany? Disruption of Europe’s prosperity? Perhaps it’s a little like Vietnam, with the technologically favored side being undercut by defenders of the homeland and now a draft of unwilling fighters.

World War I started between major powers who were spoiling for a war and did it very badly. Russia has mobilized three times, I’ve seen more than once on Twitter: World War I, World War II, and now. It went badly for them in World War I.

There are a number of reasons to analogize Putin to Tsar Nicholas II, but as many that the analogy doesn’t fit. Nicholas, of course, was not the only Russian autocrat who came to a bad end through mismanagement.

It’s tempting to think about how Putin might be brought down, but I don’t see an obvious path right now. It also seems unlikely that Russia will come apart in analogy to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

There are no broad-based organizations to support a popular uprising, even though it looks like Russians do not like Putin’s partial mobilization. For now, the burden of conscription falls on minority groups, as have many of the military deaths so far. Putin has hollowed out civil society so that there is nowhere for them to go within Russia. Discontent will grow, but organization is necessary for it to have an effect on the leadership.

A coup by the military or others in the upper echelons of the hierarchy is a more likely path, but still not obviously likely to happen. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group of mercenaries, have openly criticized Putin’s leadership. Both Kadyrov and Prigozhin have military force at hand. Unlike Nicholas’s critics, they are of the war party, which wants more war against Ukraine. Russia’s right wing is the more vocal and probably the more powerful of the factions that are discontented with Putin.

Putin’s cabinet contains no obvious successors. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in New York at the United Nations General Assembly meeting, indicating his distance from power. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is reported to have heart problems, and appeared after Putin’s latest speech in a taped discussion.

The most likely prospects for replacing Putin are even more bloodthirsty and lawless.

Another popular idea is that Russia will break apart as the Soviet Union did. The Republic structure of the Soviet Union, with legislatures and executives in each Republic, allowed a break into autonomous units. Some of those governments were more fully developed than others, but all had governmental structures in place. The governments of the various statelets within Russia range from about equivalent to American states down to American cities, not enough to split off on their own. Kadyrov’s Chechnya is probably the most advanced in this respect, along with Tatarstan.

If the center failed to hold, the outcome might be analogous to Russia after the 1917 Revolution. Intermittent fighting with what is left of the central government’s troops and neighboring polities, even as now hostilities are breaking out between Azerbaijan and Armenia and between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with Russia’s attention elsewhere. As in the late 19-teens and –twenties, there might be interventions from other countries.

Both transitions seem unlikely, and I don’t see a way they turn out well.

Update: Sergey Radchenko considers the succession to Putin and comes up with similar conclusions.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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