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Putin's Reign, Like Russia’s Final Czar's, May End Following his Ukrainian Misadventure
Instead of expanding the Russian empire, he might preside over its disintegration
Since being elected president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has adopted many of the trappings and symbols of the former Russian czars, while his neo-czarist “vertical of power” has concentrated Russia’s political and police powers in his own autocratic hands. Indeed, Putin may have succeeded in becoming the new czar of all the Russians—in the sense, however, of being a new Nicholas II, the ruler who was Russia’s last real czar and who was deposed in 1917 during World War I.
One imagines Nicholas II is not the role model Putin sought to emulate.
Regardless, the two autocrats’ strategic choices on the European geopolitical map may have entangled their destinies. The current crisis in Ukraine may be Putin’s 1917.
Two Possible Futures for Putin, Russia and Ukraine
It is now clear that Russia cannot in any meaningful sense “win” the war in Ukraine, which is fiercely resisting Russia’s offensive with the help of Western military aid. Indeed, of the many scenarios that circulated back in February when Putin launched his ill-fated invasion of Ukraine, only two remain plausible. In the first, Russia is defeated, but Putin and his regime remain in power, bide their time, regroup and try again to rebuild the Soviet Empire, perhaps in the hope that Trump or another useful isolationist will win the U.S. elections, and that the will of the West will break under surging energy prices, inflation, and populist sentiment. In the second, Russia is defeated, Putin’s regime collapses, and the Russian state breaks apart—the “1917 scenario.”
Tyrannies can survive military defeats if three things happen: Their main centers of power and population are not invaded; the local opposition and alternative elites are disorganized; and the tyrant maintains loyal internal security forces powerful enough to suppress the opposition, such as it is. For example, Saddam Hussein survived Iraq’s defeat in the First Gulf War in 1991, and Gamal Abdel Nasser survived Egypt’s defeat in the Six Days War in 1967. Both men presented their survival as a kind of victory.
Such an outcome in Russia’s war on Ukraine would be doubly disastrous: Russians would continue to stagger under the yoke of Putin’s increasingly totalitarian and paranoid regime, remain isolated from much of the world and suffer from progressively destructive economic sanctions. Ukraine, in turn, would have to become a fortress, a militarized state, constantly preparing for the next Russian attack. Its economy would be shackled to these military goals.
True, as Israel has demonstrated, such a state can be sustained for decades if foreign aid and support remain sturdy, but Ukraine would have to simultaneously modernize its economy and liberalize its institutions, something it has struggled to do in peacetime. Ukraine’s friends in the West would have to continue to massively support the country’s military and shore up its economy, while finding sustainable alternatives to Russian energy imports and resisting the temptations of populist isolationists and their short-term foreign-policy solutions.
The 1917 Scenario
The alternative, the 1917 scenario, is at least as plausible and historically common: Napoleon lost his imperial crown following the loss of his Grand Army in Russia. Russia’s Czar Nicholas II did not survive his forces’ grinding defeats in the first three years of World War I.
Let us weigh this scenario, both past and present.
The draft riots, protests and pogroms that followed Russian conscription in 1914 were worse than those that followed Putin’s recent gamble on conscription. And Putin’s move is not without benefits for his regime. Admittedly, his decision to keep Russia’s borders open while conscripting reserve forces has encouraged, by now, many hundreds of thousands of mostly young male Russians to leave the country to avoid the draft or the prospect of being drafted. Yet in the short term, Putin is ridding himself of potentially the most dangerous sector of the population for his regime: young people with sufficient courage and initiative to leave the country.
In the longer term, however, these new exiles will be free to politically organize in ways that are impossible inside Russia. This is precisely what Russian exiles, including the Bolsheviks, did prior to 1917, and Putin’s regime, aware of the threat, will have to prevent them from returning individually or together to mount a revolution or lead an existing insurgency. Further, if a sufficiently large number of young Russians—millions, for instance—leave the country, Russia will face the same dire prospect that forced East Germany to open the Berlin Wall in 1989: the possibility of losing its working-age adult population, as well as its military reserves.
The most significant immediate question is whether the newly conscripted Russian soldiers will “vote with their legs for peace,” as the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin put it in 1917. Mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Russians for war may prove easy in comparison with the logistical challenge of providing for them in the field and keeping them warm and sheltered throughout the Ukrainian winter. Moreover, the increased density of Russian soldiers will give Ukrainian artillery more concentrated targets.
Putin may therefore be repeating the czar’s mistake during World War I. Initial expectations of a quick victory and Russia’s significant advances on the battlefield gave way to a deadly stalemate that cost the lives of about 2 million Russian soldiers. To replace its military casualties and its prisoners of war, Russia called up another 4.5 million recruits in 1916. These were younger teens and individuals exempted earlier for age and health reasons, as well as Moslems from central Asia, who rioted in response and evaded the draft. Meanwhile the czar, like Putin, remained ensconced in his palace, safe from assassination attempts and rioting demonstrators, but also removed from the capital, the center of government and the urban elites, where coup plots were hatching.
The Tipping Point of a Revolution
The final trigger that makes dissatisfied, ambitious elites show their cards against a “czar” can be trivial. In February 1917, it was the rise in bread prices and the temperate weather, perfect for popular demonstrations. The crucial factor is the behavior of the czar’s security forces. They may choose to attack their protesting countrymen, defect to the demonstrators, mutiny against their officers, desert and go home, or all of the above, as in 1917. Once Czar Nicholas II, out of touch with reality, lost the support of his security forces, he was compelled by other members of the ruling elite to sign his abdication.
The post-czarist government led by Alexander Kerensky repeated many of Nicholas’ mistakes in the spring of 1917. Following the overthrow of the czar, Kerensky and his ministers thought they could unite a fractured country through a successful spring offensive.
But this offensive led to the disintegration of the Russian military. Bolshevik agitators within Russian military units and Bolshevik anti-war propaganda encouraged mass desertions. Military discipline broke down, and Russian soldiers refused to participate in the campaign to take the city of Lviv, in today’s Western Ukraine. Consequently, Russia lost the region of Galicia (today’s Western Ukraine), much of today’s Poland and the Baltics. By June 1917, Ukrainian nationalists in Kyiv formed a rada (council) and demanded autonomy. By July, the government had to recall troops from the front to the capital of Petrograd to put down a Bolshevik coup attempt and restore order.
The eventual collapse of the Russian state in 1917 and its replacement by the Soviet Union of the Bolsheviks caused the breakdown of the empire that the czars had put together through centuries of relentless imperial expansion. Finland and Poland became independent nations. Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia separated from Russia, but were reoccupied in the ensuing Russian Civil War and in World War II, finally regaining their independence in 1991 with the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
It is too early to tell whether Putin’s war will result in a 1917-style withering away of the Russian state. It will depend on how well the Russian military stands its ground through the winter (without sinking into the mud and being frozen there), and whether it is able to maintain discipline in the face of potential agitation within and without its ranks by Putin’s political opponents and by agents working for Ukraine or the West. Unlike the highly organized and highly disciplined Bolsheviks, the current popular opposition to Putin in Russia is decentralized and of untested strength. At the same time, the officer class is decimated. It’s largely unknown how well Russia’s new officers will obey orders from Moscow and how well they will be able to discipline their raw new troops.
Of course, the czars did not have nuclear weapons. Putin may be tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons, though not so much to decide battles, which, given the decentralized and dispersed nature of the conflict, would be quite difficult. Instead, he may deploy them both to boost the morale of the Russian people and the Russian troops, reminding them of the illusion of Russia's superpower status, and to scare the Ukrainians and the West into thinking that Kyiv may be next.
Still, nuclear weapons are double-edged swords. How many Russian soldiers will want to remain on a battlefield while nuclear bombs are detonated around them? Radioactive clouds are not precision weapons. They may give Russian soldiers all the more reason to run back home to safety. Russians, and indeed Ukrainians, are famous for their love of picking mushrooms, but this taste for mushrooms does not extend to clouds.
Putin’s offensive in Ukraine has been marred both by a lack of coordination between Russia’s military units and by Russian units weakened by mutineers and deserters. These problems echo in miniature those of the Russian military in World War I. If they continue, Putin’s attempt to glue back together the shards of the broken Soviet and Russian Empires may trigger the disintegration of post-Soviet Russia and kick-start the unravelling of the post-Soviet order.
If the central power in Moscow withers away, Chechnya, Dagestan and other nations in the Caucasus will see their historic opportunity for secession and independence. As in 1917, local elites and provincial governors may declare their own republics in the mayhem, dividing Russia along ethnic and geographical fault lines. Russia is still a multiethnic empire in which Russians are but a bare majority, and it is still the largest country in the world, stretching over 11 time zones. It has plenty of space for new countries.
1917 was followed by years of bloody civil war before Lenin and Leon Trotsky established a central totalitarian state that could serve as a base for further expansion. But if 2023 becomes a second 1917, it is difficult to see who would have sufficient power to organize the equivalent of the Red Army and put imperial Russia back together. Russia could come to an end as an empire, possibly leading to the eventual founding of a smaller, homogenous Russian nation-state.
Russia missed the liberal, democratic “spring of nations” of 19th century Europe. As a consequence, Ukraine missed it too. But Ukraine is quickly making up for lost time. Paradoxically, Russia, having attacked Ukraine, may follow Ukraine’s example.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.