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26 July 2023

What happens if the Russian state collapses?

The West yearns for Vladimir Putin to fall – yet this could trigger mayhem in Russia, and instability throughout Europe.

By John Gray

For anyone who believed the West has a coherent endgame in mind for the war in Ukraine, the response to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny must have been perplexing. Commentators could hardly contain their glee at the spectacle of Vladimir Putin’s weakness. Given his responsibility for launching a barbarous war of conquest, it was not an unreasonable reaction. The Russian state was shown to be deeply hollowed out. Along with Putin, it survived because the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov and, for reasons that are unclear, Prigozhin himself chose to keep it in being.

Yet few of these commentators asked some obvious questions. Suppose the head of the Wagner Group had continued his march on Moscow, and succeeded in overthrowing Putin. What then? There would have been a scramble for power, with Prigozhin a key player. The former Kremlin caterer, ex-con, social media manipulator and chief executive of a transnational conglomerate of mercenary armies that specialise in atrocities speaks more fluently to disaffected Russians than does Putin. A flamboyant, self-invented entrepreneur skilled in the performative arts, Prigozhin is quintessentially a figure of our time. A dour, calculating securocrat, Putin has seen his autocratic charisma evaporate along with his fatally misjudged invasion.

[See also: In its pursuit of Russian regime change, the West is doomed to repeat the errors of the Iraq War]

But what if no accepted leader emerged after Putin was toppled? Ukraine’s stalled counteroffensive has induced Joe Biden to provide cluster bombs banned by over 120 states, including Britain. If Ukrainian forces nonetheless fail to break through Russian positions, a frozen conflict becomes a realistic outcome. Western support is nearing exhaustion. Munitions are running out in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, with a manufacturing base weakened by offshoring. Deindustrialised societies cannot sustain a protracted conflict when Russia is operating as a fully fledged war economy. The pro-Putin parties of the far right that are gathering strength throughout Europe will not endorse indefinite assistance, while Biden fears facing an anti-war Republican candidate in the next presidential election.

Behind the facade of unity at the recent Nato meeting in Vilnius, the prospect of partition must somewhere be on the table. The defence alliance’s reluctance to admit Ukraine is well-founded: any direct confrontation with Russia would be a catastrophic escalation.

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Yet with Putin indicted as a war criminal, he could hardly negotiate any settlement. In effect, the West is staking its endgame on regime change. What if that has the same result as it did in Iraq and Libya? What if there is then no state in Russia with the authority to enforce a grim peace?

Some will say this is apocalyptic scaremongering, but history teaches otherwise. The Russian Civil War of 1917-21 serves as a template of what could happen. It began in September 1917 with the Kornilov Revolt, an attempted coup by the commander-in-chief of the army of Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government, General Lavr Kornilov. More than 30 states sprang up in the ruins of the tsarist empire, all of them armed. Western military intervention involving British and other foreign troops exacerbated the bloodshed. As many as ten million people died, some in battles and massacres, many more from famine and disease. Millions fled to Europe and Asia.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks triumphed because they were the best-organised of the contestants for power and offered a vision of security, however delusive. Human beings crave safety more than they yearn for liberty, and nowhere more so than in Russia. For all its cultural achievements, this vast country has never enjoyed an extended period of freedom – only interludes of chaos in immemorial despotism.

Loose talk of fascism understates the intractable threat that Russia poses. Many of the interwar European countries where fascists seized power had well-established civil institutions. Decapitate the dictatorship, and democracy could be restored. In Russia, there is practically nothing on which a Western-style state could be built. The fall of communism left a shrunken version of the Russian empire intact. Contrary to the hallucinatory visions of unteachable liberals, there is zero chance of its minority peoples making a peaceful transition to self-government.

A larger version of the ethnic mayhem that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, intensified by wars for control of unevenly distributed natural resources, is more likely. A humiliated Russia would be driven back into an impoverished, nuclear-armed Muscovite redoubt. Floods of refugees would head for Europe, destabilising governments across the continent. We may not be far from a point at which a Chinese takeover of Russia would be welcomed with relief.

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny lasted not much more than a couple of days. His whereabouts are uncertain and his mercenaries dispersing. Some are apparently returning to more profitable zones of conflict in Africa, while others have gone to Belarus, from where President Lukashenko has claimed they are ready to attack Poland. Before the aborted putsch, oligarchs were tooling up militias to protect their assets. Government ministries and ultra-Orthodox groups have also formed brigades, and there are now dozens of private armies in Russia. The chain of command is fragmenting.

A cabal of intelligence insiders may ultimately take charge and slow the process, but the logic of events points to further disintegration. The West’s task is not to intervene in a vain attempt at installing democracy, but to prepare to deal with the consequences of a potential Russian collapse. Unless the West shakes off its liberal delirium regarding the future of Russia, Ukraine’s tragedy could be swallowed up in a still greater calamity.  

[See also: The New Age of Tragedy]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special