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28 June 2023

It is naive to think that Vladimir Putin’s fall is imminent

Failed coups often have few major consequences, and the Wagner Group’s mutiny may not alter the Ukraine war’s outcome.

By Wolfgang Münchau

Wishful thinking guides Western discourse about Russia. When Yevgeny Prigozhin began his coup attempt on 23 June, commentator after commentator proclaimed the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin. There was talk of cracks. When Prigozhin accepted a deal 24 hours later and withdrew his troops, this was yet another embarrassment for Putin.

A more sober assessment is that this episode is probably not going to have much of an effect in the short term; that it may or may not affect Putin’s power position. Moreover, from a Western perspective it is far from clear whether we should think of Putin’s demise as a promise or a threat.

The great majority of putsch attempts fail, and have no long-term consequences at all. But two Russian ones did. Lenin’s orchestration of the 1905 Moscow Uprising stood no chance of success. But it was the start of the most strategic insurrection of modern times. It still took another 12 years until the October Revolution of 1917.

In 1991 military hardliners attempted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. That too failed, yet Gorbachev and the Soviet Union fell that same year. This was followed by a period of Westernisation in Russia. Many Russians do not have happy memories of that time. The Russian government embarked on a liberalisation programme that failed and resulted in the oligarchs. The policy failures of that period were well portrayed in the recent Adam Curtis documentary TraumaZone. The decade ended with Putin becoming prime minister in 1999 and president in 2000.

Many in the West are hoping for another triumph-of-democracy story. I think this is very naive, especially in view of what happened in the 1990s. If Putin were to go down, he would most likely be replaced by another hardliner, or a politburo.

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I also see wishful thinking in analysis and commentary about the war in Ukraine. Military leaders, by contrast, tend to be more cautious – and less prone to cognitive biases. The Pentagon papers leaked in April asserted with “moderate confidence” that the war (specifically the battle for the Donbas region) was headed for a stalemate. These documents, mostly dating from February and March this year, give the most nuanced assessment of the situation on the ground I have read. I would be very surprised if this state of affairs had changed despite the start of Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive.

Brigadier General Christian Freuding, who heads the German armed forces’ planning and command staff, also recently warned against high expectations about Ukraine’s counteroffensive despite some initial successes. In a recent interview, Freuding said Ukraine would require a superiority of between three to one and five to one to regain the occupied territories – an advantage it does not have.

[See also: What Ukraine knew about the Wagner mutiny]

A total Russian defeat – one that is seen in Russia itself as a defeat – would undoubtedly be a disaster for Putin. He might not survive that. But the most likely outcome of this war is not a binary one. If the Pentagon assessment of a protracted conflict is correct, the role of continued weapons deliveries and financial support would be critical. And if the US were to reduce its support for Ukraine after the next presidential election, the burden would fall on the European countries.

There is no way they could shoulder this. The Kiel Institute for the World Economy compiles the “Ukraine Support Tracker” database, which shows that during the first year of the conflict, the US provided €71bn in total aid, followed by the EU with €29.9bn, and then the UK with €9.7bn and Germany with €7.3bn. The gap is huge. We would be in that scenario if Joe Biden was to lose to Donald Trump. Even if Biden won, it is far from clear that the current level of support would persist.

Most Western countries are facing a fiscal squeeze and competing priorities. From next year onwards, eurozone countries will have to comply with the fiscal rules again, which have been suspended since the start of the pandemic. Austerity is returning. This is the least conducive political environment for quasi-permanent multibillion transfers of military aid.

Reduced media interest in the war is another troubling sign. In the UK, the war in Ukraine was pushed off the front pages recently by the Titan disaster and the high inflation numbers. It is hard to maintain public interest in trench warfare when the story does not change much from day to day. The same happened in Afghanistan. The transition from enthusiastic support for Ukraine to a generalised lack of interest has been remarkably short.

Based on the imperfect information that we have available, it is reasonable to assume that the most likely war outcome is for Ukraine to recover a large part, but not all, of the occupied territories, and for the West’s willingness to continue military and financial support to weaken over time.

In Russia, too, there is now talk in the state-controlled media about an eventual settlement – possibly early next year, before the US and Russian elections. Putin, too, has to worry about war fatigue. This is not a forecast, but a somewhat more plausible scenario than a Western happy ending.

In the meantime, we should remember that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 triggered a transition to liberal democracy in some parts of the former Soviet empire, but a retreat into authoritarianism in others. It was also the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Be careful with your wishful thinking. And be careful what you wish for.  

[See also: The paralysis of power]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia