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The fear from within

With or without Putin, the dysfunction of the Russian state will endure. That raises serious questions for the west about how to deal with Moscow, support Ukraine—and transform itself
October 4, 2023

Russia’s war on Ukraine has a long way to run. Neither side is close to a decisive military victory. Nor is there a path to a comprehensive negotiated settlement. There are, in fact, no grounds for a settlement—the war is a consequence of how Putin and the people around him see Russia and its place in the world, and an independent democratic Ukraine has no place in that world. There can be no lasting peace until Russia itself fundamentally changes under different leadership. 

It is nonetheless likely that, at some stage, there will be negotiations, quite possibly with the current Russian leadership or one like it. The circumstances and substance of any negotiation are critically important. It is possible to imagine a ceasefire that stops the fighting (more or less) but does not resolve the underlying conflict. This situation would be dangerous if it allowed Russia to regenerate its military, wait out the west and then dial the conflict up or down at its discretion. The Kremlin is well practised at the pursuit of war by other means. A successful negotiation would need to prevent such a scenario. 

Until Russia fundamentally changes, or unless the west takes a different approach to supporting Ukraine, the war will probably not end but instead give way to a state of affairs that is neither peace nor war, with negotiations taking place alongside the threat or use of violence by an angry and resentful Russian leadership with grievances to settle—some of them real, some imaginary, all of them amplified by the consequences of the Kremlin’s own actions.

The real negotiation is not about how Russia and Ukraine will find a compromise peace. It is within Russia, and it is about how Russia will return from the blind alley into which it has been led. 

This is Ukraine’s war of independence. It is also Russia’s war of succession: the latest stage in its long and failed transition from Soviet communism. How far the UK supports the next stage of Ukraine’s own, ongoing transition is a question for us and our Ukrainian partners. Whether and how Russia breaks with its imperial and totalitarian past is a question for Russians. But we do have interests in what happens in Russia. And our support for Ukraine, or lack of it, will affect the outcome.

We need a plan for how to deal with Russia as it is and as it is likely to be over the next decade and maybe a generation or more to come. Any such plan needs to avoid the belief, which is magical thinking, that giving Putin what he wants (or forcing the Ukrainians to do so) will somehow make Russia less dangerous. 

Seeing the future in these terms helps define our aims, beyond the mantra that Putin must lose. For Ukraine, the war is about national survival and setting the country irrevocably on the path to democracy and the rule of law, anchored in the European mainstream. It is about seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, bought at appalling cost, to achieve what has eluded Kyiv since 1991. 

For the Russian leadership, the war is about preventing that happening, reimposing domination over its neighbours and pushing back against what it sees as US encroachments on Russia’s rights as a Great Power. And it is about consolidating an imperialist and authoritarian vision of Russia in the minds of Russians. 

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Our interests lie in Russia failing to subjugate or break Ukraine; Russia being deterred from future aggression; and Ukraine becoming a successful European democracy. And they also lie in keeping the door ajar to a different sort of relationship with a Russia that wants to make a break with what it has become under Putin.

Could any of this be achieved through a land-for-peace deal in Ukraine? That is a trade-off that only Ukrainians can decide to make, based on the alternatives they have. But it would not change the nature of the Russian state, and it would most likely consolidate Putin’s power. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of Putin’s Russia. 

So how does this end? The war is a tragedy for Ukraine and a strategic disaster for Russia. Putin is weakened by his own mistakes as well as by the actions of others. He is looking more incompetent than at any time in recent memory. But his rule is not under immediate threat, nor does the regime appear to be close to collapse. Russia can and will keep this up for a long time.

Prigozhin’s mutiny illustrated this state of affairs. It reflected the nature of the Russian state after two decades of Putinism: weak institutions, strong but opaque patronage networks, factionalism, rent seeking and violence. Putin’s immediate response gave voice to his regime’s greatest fear: instability and rivalry within Russia leading to regime change. That is directly at odds with the most fundamental Russian propaganda theme of the war: that Russia is defending its unique civilisation from attack by a hostile west using Ukraine as its proxy. 

Since the mutiny, the Kremlin’s top priority has been to demonstrate Putin’s authority and grip. Defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov are still in their jobs. Prigozhin is dead. No Russian will have difficulty understanding his early demise as evidence of what happens if you challenge Putin. The Russian president has weathered that storm—so what happens next?

Both Russia and the United States have presidential elections next year. Putin will almost certainly stand and, if he does, will win. In Russia, the purpose of elections is to validate the decisions of its rulers, not to discover the will of the people. And Putin is betting on a Trump victory in the 2024 US elections or, failing that, the erosion of US and western staying power in Ukraine.

But Russia’s 2024 elections will not address the biggest question in its politics. The entire Russian elite knows what the question is, but no one knows how or when it will be answered. It is the question of Putin’s inevitable departure from office and the succession to new leadership. The Kremlin’s propaganda has always emphasised that Putin is irreplaceable and the guarantor of Russia’s stability. The first cannot be true (he is mortal) and the second is increasingly questionable. But there is no tried and tested mechanism for achieving a succession, and Putin’s catastrophic war has made a managed transition much harder to achieve when the time comes. 

It is hard to see how new leadership could emerge without Putin’s active endorsement—attempting it without this precondition would be an insanely risky venture. The most likely scenario is that a Putin-approved securocrat capable of suppressing factionalism and instability takes the reins. We may see a messy and drawn-out transition, in a system where institutions, the law and the political culture have been thoroughly degraded. This is what Russians mean by a smuta—a time of troubles in which power, resources and the rules of the game are up for grabs. 

We should not count on a democratic Russia bursting into life as soon as Putin and his henchmen shuffle off. There are very brave democrats in Russia and in exile, but democratic institutions and culture have been systematically repressed. Many of Russia’s opposition politicians, journalists and human rights defenders have been branded foreign agents—in effect, fifth columnists—to discredit them and what they stand for in the eyes of the wider population. 

As for the wider population, we would be unwise to assume that a rising generation of Russians will embrace a more democratic and pro-western outlook. We will be dealing with people shaped by failure, humiliation, repression and manipulation. During Putin’s 23 years in office, he has spun a highly sophisticated narrative of Russia and its history, to underwrite the legitimacy of his rule and the worldview of ageing KGB men. Polling by the independent Levada Centre indicates a continued high level of support for the authorities. Where enthusiastic support is not forthcoming, passive acquiescence is enough to guarantee that the status quo endures. Russia is a society deeply damaged by its own history and leaders.

Will Russia itself break up and no longer exist in its current form? This is unlikely, and it is dangerous for westerners to wish for. We have no power to bring it about. The security risks to the west of a failed state with nuclear weapons would be enormous. And talking about it as a desirable outcome is a gift both for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine now and for angry Russian nationalists in the future, who will ascribe Russia’s self-inflicted wounds to western plots and Russophobia. 

For the foreseeable future, power in Russia will lie with anti-democratic and obscurantist siloviki (securocrats) whose worldview is rooted in the Cold War and the humiliations of the 1990s. 

There is a scenario in which we are dealing with securocrats whose worldview is not fundamentally different from Putin’s but who recognise the scale of Russia’s strategic failure and want to de-escalate the confrontation with the west while they attend to the consequences domestically. The risk here is that a violent and revanchist Russia plays for time to recover, without any underlying change in its intentions. But we should be ready to explore ways to reduce tensions and stabilise a highly dangerous confrontation in the heart of Europe, if that is what the Kremlin also wants.

A Russia that is the dominant security power in Europe is a threat to our interests. A Russia at peace with itself and its neighbours is the best long-term guarantor of peace in Europe.

To get Russia on such a path, we need to avoid two big fallacies. One is that we should make concessions to Putin or his successors (or, more likely, force Ukrainians to do so) because otherwise the risks of a failing Russia are too great. That is self-deterrence. Russia’s strategic failure is the consequence of decisions made in the Kremlin and of the system that Putin has built. Accommodating those things will not make Russia less dangerous. 

The second is that there is a path back to business as usual with Putin’s Russia. There is not. Things have happened that cannot be forgiven or forgotten: war crimes, lives lost or wrecked, colossal risks to European and global security. 

If it comes to a peace settlement, we are unlikely to be dealing with a comprehensively defeated Russia on which we can impose terms, and which wants to be rebuilt as a pro-western democracy. We would do better to think in terms of containing the risks, keeping options open while Russians decide what kind of country they want after Putin, and making clear what kind of relationship is on offer depending on Russia’s choices.

This requires realism and clear thinking about dealing with Russia as it is while maximising the chances of getting the Russia we want. There may be difficult decisions about what must be done now and what can safely be left for later. 

First, is it possible to negotiate with Putin? Yes, but we need to be realistic about the nature of any agreement that negotiations lead to. For Russia, the purpose of the Minsk agreements in 2014 and 2015 was to give the Kremlin a broader range of coercive tools with which to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and to peel off its western supporters. Putin’s two proposed treaties of December 2021, on the eve of the invasion, would require the US to pull back its commitment to Europe’s security and would cede to Russia the buffer zone in central Europe that Moscow lost after the disintegration of the Soviet system between 1989 and 1991. Putin shows no sign of moving away from these positions.

In any case, we should put little weight on agreements signed by Putin or commitments made by him. Putin’s word is worthless. He has personally signed agreements guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity. His regime routinely uses lying as an instrument of statecraft. What matters is what he does, not what he says that he will do.

Second, is it possible to find mutually beneficial agreements with Russia? For most of the last three decades the west sought to bind Russia into win-win cooperation: trade and investment, the G8, the WTO, and the Nato-Russia Council. Those policies were not wrong or cynical, but they did not work. We were slow to realise that our strategy was failing and that the nature of the regime was becoming increasingly poisonous. 

Will there ever again be convergence between Russia and the west? Arguably, that would be in the interests of Russia and Russians, whose alternative is to be the junior partner to China—a position Russians deeply fear. But convergence with the west is unlikely to happen for a long time, if at all. Under Putin, a powerful ideology has taken hold, of a unique and sovereign civilisation that a malevolent and degenerate west is intent on destroying. This ideology is constructed on a heady mix of entitlement and victimhood: the role of the Soviet Union in saving the world from Nazism, the entitlement this earned the USSR to a buffer zone in central and eastern Europe after 1945, Russia’s inheritance of those entitlements as the successor state to the USSR, and the west’s disregard of them. These narratives culminated in the absurd prospectus for the war against Ukraine as a war of “denazification”. It will be a long and difficult path back from there. 

We would be unwise to assume that a rising generation of Russians will embrace a more democratic and pro-western outlook

Then there is the question of justice—the great reckoning for what Russia and Russians have done in Ukraine. This is not a detail that can be negotiated away. Will Russia give up its leaders or even its foot soldiers for war crimes trials in The Hague? I seriously doubt it. This will limit the scope for reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians, who will still be neighbours, and constrain our future relations with Russia.

But this is also about how Russians come to terms with what has been done in Russia, to Russians, by Russians. External aggression and internal repression are two sides of the same coin. 

Is this Putin’s war or Russia’s war? Its origins lie in the decisions of the men in the Kremlin, but the conduct of the war is another matter. The war crimes, murders, sexual assaults, looting, and the indifference and worse back home, are the responsibility of individual Russians from a society whose moral compass is smashed to pieces. Without an effort to account for such crimes, Russia’s societal regeneration will be stillborn. 

The country’s compromised or destroyed institutions and political culture will severely hamper Russia’s ability to evaluate its recent past. The Orthodox Church, the universities, the legal system and the state-authorised media have become part of the fabric of Putinism and of its embedding within society. The Russian state has eviscerated the institutions that flowered under glasnost. The Russian NGO Memorial, set up to investigate Stalinist crimes against the Soviet people and to bear witness to contemporary human rights abuses, was closed down in the early days of the invasion. 

Only Russians can repair the damage, with whatever help they want from their counterparts abroad. We should think about how we offer that help, if it is wanted. For the UK, an obvious place to start is through reimagining the British Council and the BBC World Service for the 21st century, and the university links that were painstakingly built over three decades. 

But we are unlikely to see a repeat of the optimism of 1991, when many Russians viewed the west as offering something better than what they had under Soviet communism. Partly this reflects the remembered hardships of the 1990s, amplified by the Putin regime to demonstrate the economic stability and prosperity that Putin has supposedly given Russia since 1999. It also reflects disillusion with the west. That disillusion is fed by allegations that the west imposed experimental market reforms on Russia, and that the US and its allies supposedly reneged on commitments not to place Nato forces in the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. 

No lasting peace can be built that leaves Ukraine unable to defend itself. We are facing a long, difficult transitional period in Russia, during which Ukraine will need some kind of security guarantee to ensure its survival and to maximise the chances of it succeeding as a law-based democracy. Security guarantees are only worth the paper they are written on if they reflect both the capability and the intention to deliver. Russia, the US and the UK all underwrote the 1994 Budapest memorandum under which Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons. That did not stop Russia invading Ukraine or using nuclear blackmail against it and its allies.

The Nato summit in Vilnius in July 2023 did not get hung up on the question of Ukraine’s membership. It should not become a fixation for the west as it has become for Russia, and above all should not be allowed to become a divisive issue within the alliance. Membership can wait; what cannot wait is ensuring that Ukraine has the means to defend itself indefinitely, and that Russia is disabused of the idea that it just needs a change of leadership in Washington or a loss of resolve in the alliance. The key issue here is maintaining alliance cohesion and unity of purpose—one of the big successes of the last 18 months. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine has a transition to make to become a European democracy. The prospect of European Union membership is the bigger deal—the institution that has done such an extraordinary job of bringing peace to Europe since 1945. There needs to be a serious path to membership and help for Ukraine so that it can achieve that goal. For much of the past few decades, the EU’s approach to its eastern neighbours has been as much about avoiding the question as answering it. 

What kind of security relationship should Nato seek with Russia? The temptation is to say: none. Russia has declared itself the enemy of western democracies, and our defence policy should reflect that reality. But in the longer term, that leaves a lot of unmanaged risk. We have lost almost all the arms-control treaties and risk-reduction mechanisms painstakingly built over decades, mostly because Russia’s leadership believed they no longer served Russia’s interests and that deterrence was breaking down to Russia’s disadvantage. We can disagree with that, but our saying so won’t change their perception. In any case, we are now entering a world of three-way strategic deterrence between China, Russia and the US, which changes everyone’s calculations. 

By definition, arms-control treaties and confidence-building measures exist between potential or actual adversaries. They are there to reduce the risk of mutually catastrophic outcomes. If we are to persuade a successor to Putin to de-escalate, the west’s military and diplomatic posture needs to demonstrate that we do not intend to threaten Russia and its leadership but that we can and will defend our interests if attacked. That is a hard balance to achieve. But Russia now faces the consequences of mistakenly believing that the west would avoid confrontation even where Russia directly challenges the west’s interests, as it did in Estonia (2007), in Georgia (2008), in Ukraine since 2014, in the murder of opponents using radiological and chemical weapons, in political interference and so on. We will all be safer if we can find ways to agree mutual restraint. That cannot be achieved with Putin, but it should be on the agenda for discussion with his successors. 

No one should give the time of day to Russian arguments that its security can only be guaranteed by it having weak and insecure neighbours. The irreducible fact is that Russia attacked Ukraine, believing it to be weak. No one attacked Russia, nor was anyone about to do so in February 2022.

There is one other important question that we need to face up to: how much damage we have done to our own soft power. George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram”, written from Moscow in 1946, set out the basis for US and western containment of the Soviet threat as the Cold War set in. Towards the end of his telegram, Kennan makes two crucial and sometimes forgotten points. The first is about the necessity to “formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of [the] sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in the past.” The second is about the imperative of attending to the “health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like [a] diseased parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is [the] point at which domestic and foreign policies meet.”

Why does Russian propaganda work even when it is manifestly dishonest? Why has Russia had such success in framing a neo-imperial war as a war against western imperialism? Why are the US and the west so mistrusted in so much of the world? What happened to our own confidence and trust in democratic values and institutions? 

This is not only about Russia: it is about how we keep the peace in a rapidly changing world

What are we to do? Above all, we must not lose sight of how big the challenge is to our security and our values. The problem will not solve itself, and because we will be dealing with a Russia that may be violent and revanchist for a generation, it will compete for attention and resources with other big, intractable challenges for the foreseeable future. Do we have the clarity of thinking and resolve to rise to the challenge for as long as it takes?

We should set out, plainly and patiently, what we want in our relations with Russia. We should not flinch from talking about what would need to happen for Russia and Russians to enjoy a different sort of relationship with the west. We should be prepared to be generous but principled.

We should not wait for a democratic Russia to think about change—it is a long way off. We should think through how we would deal with the more likely scenario: one in which a post-Putin regime wants to de-escalate the war and the confrontation with the west to focus on internal stability.

We should refrain from advocating regime change or disintegration in Russia. Loose talk about either by western politicians is wide open to instrumentalisation by malevolent people in Russia.

The worst thing we could do would be to breathe a sigh of relief and return to business as usual at the first opportunity. The second worst thing would be to turn our backs on Russia and hope the problem goes away.

We should talk about Russia and about the future of the rules-based international order with China, with the emerging centres of power in the 21st century, such as India, Brazil and South Africa, and with the countries of the global south. They are drawing their own conclusions about what Russia is doing, how the west is responding and how it affects their interests. This is not only about Russia—it is about how we keep the peace in a rapidly changing world. We gain nothing from talking only with people who agree with us.

We should not succumb to the notion that because “all wars end with a negotiation” we should push Ukraine to negotiate before the conditions are right for it to secure acceptable outcomes. Ukraine will negotiate when it sees advantage in doing so. We should help the country achieve the best possible starting position. 

Our politicians need to show leadership based on a sound analysis of the nature of the war. Success in this war will be costly. Failure will be far more costly. We need to build and maintain public understanding about what is at stake, and to sustain that over electoral cycles. We need to keep alliances in good shape.

Finally, we should fix our own roof. Remember that forgotten element in Kennan’s long telegram.