Possible Consequences of the Defeat of Putin

What will happen if Ukraine defeats Russia, asks Stockholm Free World Forum’s senior fellow Anders Åslund in this extensive essay. 

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is about to face a resounding defeat in Ukraine. On February 24, he launched a broad attack on the whole of Ukraine with the apparent presumption to be able to seize Kyiv and Kharkiv within three days, but after one month he had lost of the battle of Kyiv and the Russian troops in the north withdrew. By May 15, he had lost the battle of Kharkiv. After three months, Putin has only made minor advances in the south and the east.

The Russian military losses have been devastating. If we are to believe the detailed daily records presented by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the Ukrainians had killed 29,000 soldiers by May 21 and taken out half the military hardware deployed to Ukraine, save the ample old Soviet artillery, and two-thirds of Russia’s active conventional forces had been deployed in Ukraine. For how long can Putin continue this war, given Russia’s continuing heavy losses?

Since the end of March, Moscow has redefined its war aim as the seizure of the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, of which Russian-back forces have held only one-third since 2014. Ukraine still holds about one-third of this territory. A common Western view is that Putin can declare victory when he has taken the rest of the Donetsk and Luhansk territories, while President Volodymyr Zelensky has declared that Ukraine is determined to recapture all the territories conquered by Russia. With the new large inflow of heavy modern Western arms mainly from the United States, Russia cannot take much more territory. 

The Failure of the Russian Military

Putin’s attack on Ukraine is likely to go down in history as one of the most spectacular failures. The essence is that Russia is an authoritarian kleptocracy, while Ukraine is a democratic country of free citizens. Ukrainians summarize the situation in a meme saying that slaves cannot beat free men.

Putin appears to have caused most of the innumerable Russian mistakes. Just like Tsar Nicolas II and Adolf Hitler, Putin, who has had no military experience, has decided to take the command himself, and he makes every mistake in the book. Apparently, only he, his national security adviser Nikolai Patrushev, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov decided on the war, and presumably Putin and Patrushev decided everything. Even most the government ministers were taken by surprise. Moreover, because of his fear of the Coronavirus and perhaps his own security, Putin has lived isolated in a bunker since April 2020.

Strangely, Putin thought that the Russian troops would be welcomed by the Ukrainian Russian-speakers as liberators. The number of Russian troops, about 200,000 men, was far too small, since the Ukrainian armed forces were of a similar size. They should have been four times as large for a realistic attempt at the occupation of the whole of Ukraine. Furthermore, the Russian ground forces were only 150,000, of whom some 40,000 were riot policemen from the National Guard. Russia lacked all preconditions to win, if the Ukrainians resisted, and so they have done ferociously everywhere.

In his in famous long article of July 12, 2021, on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Putin declared that Ukraine was not a country but a part of Russia. Now, the Ukrainians showed that Ukraine is a nation, while Russia might not be one. The Ukrainian soldiers state that the Russian soldiers don’t know how to fight and they don’t want to fight. Therefore, they are afraid of Ukrainian soldiers and kill civilians instead, preferably with long-distance bombardment. 

Before the war, Putin insisted that he would not assault Ukraine, and he seems to have deceived most Russians. Thus, Putin declared that he launched a “special military operation” to defend Russian speakers in the Russia-sponsored Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, though he also wanted to carry out the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of the whole of Ukraine. Russians who claim that it is a “war” can be sentenced to fifteen years in prison on the basis of a newly-adopted repressive law. 

Putin’s decision not to call this a war has had serious consequences. According to Russian law, nobody is supposed to be forced to participate in a “special military operation.” Thousands of young Russian men, who have refused to participate or have resigned after they have been recruited, are not considered deserters and are not supposed to be punished. Formally, the authorities can do nothing but put a disapproving stamp on their military documents. As a consequence, the Kremlin has great problems mobilizing soldiers. Overwhelmingly, the Russian soldiers come from far-away provinces and ethnic minorities, such as Buryats, Chechens, and Dagestanis, are heavily overrepresented. 

Russian marines have even refused to land on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast with their landing crafts because they consider it too dangerous. Many conscripts did not know that they were being sent to Ukraine or that they were supposed to participate in an actual war and not in an exercise. Initially, the normal social benefits for veterans did not apply to Russian participants in this operation, though after one month the Duma adopted a new law providing normal veteran benefits.

By contrast, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have wanted to voluntarily defend their motherland. The Ukrainian army demands combat experience. Because of the eight-year-long war in the Donbass, Ukraine has plenty of such soldiers and veterans, who are happy to go to war. Therefore, Ukraine has more soldiers than Russia, and they are better and far more motivated than Russian soldiers. The common view that Russia has more soldiers is a misconception.

Russia’s other big problem is its pervasive corruption. Before the war, myths exaggerated the strength of the Russian conventional forces. All of them are now in tatters. Russia seems to be too corrupt from the top down to pursue a serious war successfully. Putin has given monopoly of food supplies to the army to his chef Yevgeny Prigozhin, who provided too little and too old food. Some rations had expired in 2015. The Russian soldiers received food for only three days, compelling them to feed themselves through looting. Putin had given a near monopoly over the production of armaments to Rostec, a state company run by his old friend from KGB in Dresden, Sergei Chemezov. Rostec is a holding company with 700 companies and this highly secretive company sems to be unable to produce much, and hardly any modern arms, while Chemezov is the proud owner of a superyacht. Somebody had purchased cheap, low-quality, Chinese tires to the many military trucks that regularly crack up. Russian soldiers themselves tend to steal half the diesel for their own private sales, so many tanks stopped halfway. Corruption turns out to be much less of a problem in Ukraine, where publicized scandals, decentralization and patriotism help to keep corruption at bay. Transparency International has long considered Ukraine less corrupt than Russia, which appears accurate.

The list of Russian military failures could be made much longer. Everything was wrong – strategy, tactics, command structure, intelligence, logistics, soldiers, etc. Stunningly, Russia has seen at least eight of its probably twenty commanding generals in Ukraine killed and several times more colonels.

Why Did Putin Instigate This War?

The ultimate question is why Putin instigated this war. The answer is that he could and he needed another war for his domestic politics. Putin is a connoisseur of wars. He started his reign with the levelling of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. In 2003, he launched a virtual war on the oligarchs by arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest oligarch. In August 2008, he pursued a five-day war with Georgia and occupied one-fifth of its territory. His domestic popularity rose to an all-time high of 88 percent according to the independent Levada Center. He got away scot free without Western sanctions and the next year President Barack Obama launched his “reset.”

In February-March 2014, Putin occupied and annexed Crimea almost without bloodshed, and his popularity rose to the same height once again. Putin tried to expand the war to eastern and southern Ukraine, but now the West responded with significant, though not severe, sanctions. Putin hesitated and stopped, but he was not satisfied. Ukraine remained unfinished business. In September 2015, Putin joined the war in Syria, where his troops levelled Aleppo. This war strengthened his standing in the Middle East and it cost him little, though it had no positive impact on his domestic standing.

Since he returned to the presidency in 2012, Putin has paid minimal attention to the Russian economy, which has stagnated after the Western sanctions hit Russia in 2014. Putin has only focused on macroeconomic stability, in particular the accumulation of large international currency reserves, while he has been oblivious of economic growth or modernization of the economy. Under his rule, the business climate has steadily deteriorated and skillful entrepreneurs tend to emigrate. Putin seems to understand that little economic growth is possible under his kleptocracy, but he requires the top-down corruption to rule Russia.

As Putin cannot deliver more bread (economic growth), he opts for circus (war), as I argued in my 2019 book Russia’s Crony Capitalism. War boosts his domestic popularity, which has now risen to 83 percent after having been below 60 percent, and war also facilitates his increased repression. Putin is now harping back on Stalinist repression, with tens of thousands of Russian liberals fleeing wherever they can before Putin closes the borders.

Therefore, it was to be expected that Putin would start a new war, and Ukraine was the most obvious potential victim. Putin did not attack Ukraine because it wanted to join NATO but because he could since Ukraine was not a member of NATO. If Ukraine had been a member of NATO, Putin would hardly have dared to attack Ukraine.

Strangely, many Western policy thinkers have completely misunderstood Putin. They feared they would provoke him if Ukraine became a member of NATO, with arms deliveries to Ukraine, or with sanctions on people close to him. On the contrary, Putin only respects force. After 2014, many Westerners had time and again threatened with “sanctions from hell,” if Putin did one thing or the other. Putin pursued his foreign murders and other aggression and the West offered no significant penalty. Nor did the West appear united. The West had zero credibility in Putin’s eyes, so het ignored it. He had successfully engineered Germany’s dependence on Russian gas and the construction of Nord Stream 2 by giving former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder several million dollars. Western politicians are so cheap.

Putin’s war preparations have been quite transparent. In April 2021, he started his arms buildup around Ukraine. On July 12, his infamous article on Ukraine read like a declaration of war on Ukraine. He has dismissed all proposals of peace agreements out of hand, because Putin wanted a war for his domestic purposes. He did not want to achieve anything else in particular. The Minsk process was never serious. For Putin, it was just a pause to further arm Russia, weaken Ukraine, and split the West.

Regardless of how this war ends, Putin will remain a persistent source of instability as long as he stays in power. He is likely to act like Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War in 1991, trying to rebuild his military force for aggressive purposes. Therefore, President Joe Biden was right in calling for the end of Putin’s power in Moscow, which is necessary for peace in Europe. President Biden is also right in doing everything to build up Ukraine’s military might so that it can beat Russia. This should have been Western policy since 2014, but it is better late than never.

Opinion polls by the well-considered Ratings Group show that more than 90 percent of the Ukrainians think they will win the war, and 98 percent of them consider Russia an enemy. Aware of their great successes in the current war, the Ukrainians are not prepared to give up any territory or leave the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as hostile holdouts or cancers on their own land. They want to drive the Russians out of the whole of Ukraine for good and teach them a lesson not to come back, possibly leaving Crimea aside. President Zelensky is obviously aware of these sentiments. By demanding that any peace agreement be subject to a referendum, he has made it impossible for himself to conclude any peace agreement with Russia, unless the Russians have been driven out of Ukraine. Both sides want this war to be determined on the battlefield in the Donbass.

Western Sanctions Have Become Serious

Since 2014, the official Moscow line has been that the Western sanctions have not harmed the Russian economy and implausibly that the Russian stagnation has been caused by lower oil prices. This has been a serious misconception, but it reduced the deterrence of Western threats of more sanctions.

The Western sanctions introduced on February 24 are far more serious. The United States and its Western allies took out the big hammer, introducing severe financial sanctions. They imposed full blocking sanctions against four big Russian state banks, VTB (the second biggest), Bank Otkritie, Sovcombank and Novikombank. They also prohibited a dozen big state companies to issue new debt or equity. In parallel, the G-7 froze the international currency reserves of the Central Bank of Russia that they held (about $300 billion) and they took off many Russian banks from SWIFT, the international messaging system for interbank transactions. On April 6, 2022, the US imposed blocking sanctions on the biggest state bank, Sberbank, and Russia’s biggest private banks, Alfa Bank, and their many subsidiaries. Although loopholes remain, most of the Russian financial system has been sanctioned. The Western financial sanctions no longer aim at deterring Russia but at weakening the Russian economy to reduce Russia’s ability to pursue wars and to minimize Russia’s access to the global financial system.

There is much talk about the need to constrain Russia’s exports, but it is actually more important to cut Russia’s imports, because without inputs its production cannot function. The strict export controls on technology to Russia, notably on semiconductors, have imposed a horrendous blow on the Russian economy. Now most of the imports Russia needs for its manufacturing have been blocked. As a result, a lot of Russian production is being halted, from automotive production, tanks, and missiles to all kinds of paper products. Most kind of transportation – airlines, truck traffic, and shipping – have been sanctioned, too.

The sanctions have become self-reproducing and self-reinforcing. Any enterprise or person who deals with Russia runs serious reputational risks. Hundreds of multinational companies have stopped dealing with Russia, further aggravating the shortages of inputs in Russia. Russia has almost become a no-go area, which has driven up insurance costs to often prohibitive levels. The big remaining issue is to what extent or how soon Russia’s exports of oil and gas will be sanctioned or boycotted.

The sanctions and Putin’s countermeasures are disrupting Russia in so many ways. The young, liberal and well-educated are fleeing the country, while many Russian businessmen have returned to Russia to try to protect their property against the state or predatory competitors. The economy is becoming ever more regulated, and the ruble is no longer convertible. In one day, Putin abolished all Russia’s economic achievements during the last three decades. Russia has returned to the disastrous 1991.

At present, most forecasts anticipate a decline in Russia’s GDP of 10-15 percent this year, but the decline might be much greater. My guess is 15-20 percent. At present, the Western sanctions on Russia are comparable to those on Iran, but an important aggravating factor is that the sanctions on Russia have been imposed all of the sudden, so unlike Iran Russia has not benefited from any adjustment period. Therefore, the damage to the Russian economy is likely to be greater than in Iran. When the United States imposed full sanctions on Venezuela in 2019, the GDP of that very poorly managed economy fell by 36 percent. 

Putin Is Not Likely to Stay in Power

The world has focused on events in Ukraine, as the war is taking place there, and Ukraine is a very open society allowing foreign journalists everywhere. The greatest drama, however, might be taking place in Moscow, where few journalists are permitted and those who are receive little information. Regardless the exact end of this Putin war, it amounts to a devastating defeat of him, and he is not likely to survive it politically.

If Russia is routed from Ukraine, this war would be reminiscent of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, which prompted the revolution of 1905 and a decade of relative freedom in Russia. Tellingly, that was the last time Russia lost a flagship (Knyaz Suvorov). In parallel, Russia is facing an economic collapse, for which Putin bears full responsibility.

Although we currently receive few hard facts from Moscow, whatever we hear is pretty shocking. Fear, dismay and secrecy prevail. Everybody argues that Putin is more isolated than ever and that few reach him. Three major political actors have been reported to be arrested – Putin’s long-time policymaker for Ukraine Vladislav Surkov, the head of FSB’s international intelligence Colonel General Sergei Beseda, and the Deputy Commander of the National Guard Roman Gavrilov. In addition, rumors circulate about mass sackings and arrests of senior FSB officials and military generals. Meanwhile, at least eight prominent businessmen have allegedly committed suicides, some of them after first having stabbed their families to death. Numerous top officials are rumored to want to resign but Putin does not allow anybody to do so now. His novel terror is reminiscent of Stalin’s. One former Vice President of Gazprombank even defected to Ukraine to join the Ukrainian territorial defense. The very well-informed investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, now in exile, report about a severe rupture between hardline military officers and FSB’s foreign arm that allegedly opposed the war. An eruption of leaks from the security forces indicates fierce infighting, which may be serious for Putin’s hold on power.

Recently, Russia has been hit by numerous fires and explosions. Two major fuel depots close to Ukraine have burnt. So have two rocket research centers close to Moscow, as well as at least five conscription centers and a couple of munition depots. Nobody has claimed responsibility for these deeds, but Ukrainians have probably been carried out the most important ones. The Ukrainians neither deny nor confirm. Also thirteen military enlistment offices have been burnt with Molotov cocktails.

The conventional wisdom is that Putin’s Praetorian Guard, the Presidential Protection Service (FSO) is so strong, well paid, and loyal to Putin that they can stop anything from happening in Putin’s court, but the cost of Putin to Russian society is so great and obvious that it would be surprising if no group would mobilize against him. Even with Russia’s currently extreme censorship and propaganda, the truth of his disastrous war in Ukraine must become obvious. In two months, more Russian soldiers have been killed there than during a decade in Afghanistan, where 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed, and that was perceived as a significant reason for the collapse of communist rule. A comparatively small financial crisis in 1998 brought down that Russian government within six days. 

The Russian domestic situation looks explosive and it would be surprising if it does not blow up in the face of Putin. It could be because of his failed war in Ukraine, his devastation of the Russian economy, or dissatisfaction among the security forces. The alternative would be that Putin transforms Russia into a new North Korea, which would of course be much worse. It is difficult to see any middle road.

Putin Is Unlikely to Use Nukes

The ultimate argument in any Washington discussion about Putin is: “But imagine that he will use nukes!” No, he is not likely to use nukes as long as the West credible states that it will respond in the same fashion, because then Putin has nothing to gain from using nukes. He will not survive.

During World War II, the allies worried that Hitler would use chemical weapons, which had been used extensively during World War I. Germany had plenty of chemical arms, but even Hitler never used them in spite of his Richard Wagner-inspired ideas of Götterdämmerung or twilight of the gods. He talk his life without using chemical arms, because he could not gain from them. Putin has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear arms, but since he lies most of the time, the saying goes: “Don’t believe anything until the Kremlin has denied it!” 

A curious indication that Putin intends to survive is that two weeks before he started this war, his alleged superyacht “Graceful” was moved from a shipyard in Hamburg to the Russian Baltic military port of Kaliningrad, although its repairs had not been completed. I am not aware of any other Russian superyacht having escaped at that time even among Putin’s closest associates, suggesting how secretive Putin was about his plans to attack Ukraine.

The war is not over, and Putin can cause much more damage, but whatever he does is likely to only aggravate his own situation. If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging! What will happen to Russia after Putin is a much later question. 

Anders Åslund

Senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum and the author of “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.”