Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) On 24 Feb 2022, Russia launched a second invasion of Ukraine, greatly intensifying the war that the Kremlin has been waging on the country since 2014. Neither Europe nor the world at large has witnessed a similar event since the end of the Second World War. While Ukrainians suffer, Moscow faces the prospect of domestic upheaval and even the implosion of the Russian Federation, of the kind the USSR experienced in 1989.
The situation in Russia today is the result of a series of policies adopted in the 90s by political strategists, oligarchs, and strongmen who sought a successor to President Boris Yeltsin. The candidate identified was Vladimir Putin, tasked with re-establishing control over the country’s economy and society without losing the international legitimacy that stems from being a democracy.
By establishing a Russian sovereign democracy, President Putin was able to simulate political pluralism, engage in globalization, and selective rule of law regime. Through the engagement of Russian oligarchs in government and majority shareholding power in strategic sectors, Russia created a hybrid regime. An integral part of this regime was the promise that oligarchs could shift part of their assets to the West, partly shielding their security.
However, since 2014’s illegal annexation of Crimea, support for puppet separatist regimes in Eastern Ukraine, and Western sanctions, it has become difficult for Russian strongmen to spend their time and money in the West. This itself becomes problem number one: Vladimir Putin is no longer able to perform the role he was assigned, namely to be the powerbroker between oligarchs. The Russian president has feudalized the country, undermining governance in the Federation as power is overconcentrated and ineffective.
Russia annexed Crimea in an attempt to reassert itself as a regional and global power, protect strategic assets, counter NATO and EU enlargement, and discourage further alignments of post-Soviet states with the West. None of these objectives has been realized; instead, Moscow is increasingly isolated, while Russia faces crippling economic sanctions. To compensate for this failure, the Kremlin has engaged in counterproductive acts of weakness and desperation such as the attempted murder of Sergey Skripal in 2018, the 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro, the 2015 poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, and the sabotage of the Czech ammunition depot in Vrbětice in 2014.
This invasion of Ukraine follows the same misguided disruptive strategy. It is almost certain that Russia was counting on a swift campaign – acquire control over airports and use air superiority to prevent Ukrainian maneuvers on the ground, cut off communications, enter Kyiv, and demoralize Ukrainian forces to crush hopes of sovereignty and discourage Western sanctions. The effect has little to do with the initial intentions. Russian expectations of a disorganised and fragmented response by the EU and NATO have proved illusory; the Ukrainian military response has been formidable. This objectively means that Russia is led towards a strategic stalemate, prolonged urban warfare, and political humiliation.
It should be noted that Moscow has a terrible track record in urban warfare in Syria, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. Unlike Syria and Chechnya, there is little to suggest that Russian public opinion considers this to be a just war. The longer the campaign lasts, the likelier it becomes that Russia’s own forces will be demoralised. The Kremlin has dispatched as many as 200,000 troops that will not suffice against motivated Ukrainian forces, volunteers, and the population. Moscow is trying to present itself as a liberator to a country that sees it as an aggressor. Time appears to be working against the Kremlin.
This objectively leaves the Kremlin with two incredibly bleak scenarios. First, there may be a domestic initiative to replace President Putin, who is unlikely to maintain the support of the oligarchic elite who brought him to office. The more unpopular the war, the less safe is his hold on power. Secondly, the lack of a popular political figure could challenge the unity of Russia’s vast territory, whose unity relies on coercion. It is to be noted that the Second Chechen War officially ended in 2009, with local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov coming to a new understanding with Vladimir Putin. That understanding could be reviewed if the balance of power changes. This scenario poses another long-term challenge for the West, as Russia’s collapse would present major security concerns in Europe and Asia.
Left unchecked, this unraveling of Russia begs the question of whether the world is able to avoid the challenge of nuclear escalation, amid socioeconomic and political disintegration and international isolation. Taking into consideration that Russian strategic planning views the limited use of nuclear weapons as legitimate, one should wonder whether the Kremlin’s rationality is a dependable factor. This “rationality” is less dependable given that the long reign of President Putin has eradicated critical voices in government that could hold his decisions in check.
Russia’s war in Ukraine presents Russia with the prospect of a catastrophe. There are no acceptable answers to Russia’s emerging medium-to-long term dilemmas, none of whom can be addressed by crude military might. The coming Russian tragedy objectively illustrates how in the grand scheme of things power over-centralisation is self-defeating.