Those desiring regime change in Russia should be careful what they wish for
Vladimir Putin’s 21 September mobilization order, which aims to deploy 300,000 reservists to Ukraine, and possibly as many as 1.2 million, is an act of desperation aimed at saving a faltering war that he now owns. But his military call-up is also a huge gamble. For 22 years Putin has solidified his rule through an implicit pact with the Russian people: don’t make political waves and you will live comfortably. His mobilization order has broken that pact, and many Russians are taking to the streets or running to the border to flee the country.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Putin is facing his biggest challenge since becoming president in 2000. A leader who once seemed infallible and irreplaceable suddenly appears vulnerable, so much so that the media is now speculating about whether Putin might lose power.
The honest answer is that no one knows for sure. But what can be said with reasonable certainty is that the hypothetical downfall of Putin, as morally satisfying as it would be, is unlikely to be simple and straightforward. Nor should anyone assume that a Russia without Putin would make the west more secure.
To be sure, cracks are appearing in the political edifice Putin has built over past two decades. Approximately 2,300 protesters have been arrested since the Russian military mobilization order was announced last week. Many Russian men eligible for the draft are now trying to leave for Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, even Mongolia – in short, any potential haven. At least 200,000 Russians have fled the country since the mobilization order went into effect; the number of Russians crossing into Finland increased by 80% from the week prior.
Military-age men in poor, remote Russian regions like Siberia and Dagestan, which have suffered a disproportionate number of casualties in the war, are especially outraged about being conscripted into a faltering army. And the slipshod, uncoordinated implementation of Putin’s order has only fueled the anger.
Town councilors in St Peterburg recently petitioned the national parliament to try Putin for treason. Another petition, signed by nearly 100 district-level elected leaders across Russia, called on him to resign.
Could the growing discord in Russia weaken Putin’s political position to the point where his authority crumbles and a pro-western democracy takes its place? There is no doubt many analysts in the west are hoping for such an outcome. David Kramer, a former official in the George W Bush administration, spoke for many when he wrote last May that Putin’s downfall would be a huge defeat for global authoritarianism.
Yet such optimism assumes that regime change in Russia will eventually usher in a political system marked by free and fair elections, pluralism, an unfettered media, an independent judiciary and accountable leaders – in other words, the best-case scenario. This would not be the first time American leaders have placed such a bet.
Unfortunately, those bets haven’t paid off. Consider post-Saddam Iraq, which, despite US attempts to create a beacon of democracy in the Arab world, has been plagued by sectarian violence, civil war, corruption and a political elite more interested in preserving the privileges of power than meeting the needs of their constituents.
Likewise, the US and Nato bombing campaign to assist Libyan rebels in ousting Muammar Gaddafi was supposed to make Libya blossom into a democracy. “I am proud to stand here on the soil of a free Libya,” then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared shortly before Gaddafi’s execution.
The dream of a Libyan democracy, however, was just that: a dream. In reality, the north African country has been mired in civil war for over a decade. Its political landscape is fractured between a constellation of militias, rival governments and terrorist groups. The country is also a chief way station for tens of thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. More than 3,000 died attempting that crossing last year alone.
True, Russia isn’t Iraq or Libya. Nor are US officials proposing forcible regime change in Moscow, as they did in those two countries. It’s a sensible policy: unlike Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin has more than 5,900 nuclear warheads at his disposal and an army that, although weaker and less competent than western military analysts expected, still possesses formidable firepower.
But the fact remains that the US has a terrible track record of predicting events after a strongman is removed. A post-Putin Russia could turn out to be more than a disappointment. It could prove downright dangerous.
To start, another strongman could take over and continue the war in Ukraine. Studies suggest that only 20% of personality-based autocracies become democracies. Putin could be replaced by someone from his inner circle who is even more ruthless – Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s security council, may be one candidate.
Putin has managed to keep the Russian elite together, but if he left they could turn on one another. And Russia’s security services, the siloviki, could seize the opportunity to settle scores – sometimes violently.
Or Muslim regions in Russia, such as Chechnya or Dagestan, might use the post-Putin political vacuum to seek greater autonomy, even outright independence, as they have in the past. Russia might move to crush what it sees as secessionism and precipitate a prolonged civil war in a country with nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads.
These are just some possibilities; no one can foretell what will happen. This much is clear, though: while a democratic future for Russia cannot be ruled out, neither can one or more of these other outcomes, each dangerous. Upheaval in Iraq and Libya is one thing, prolonged instability and bloodletting in the world’s only other nuclear superpower quite another.
A Russia without Putin could undergo monumental change – but not necessarily of the sort that is anticipated or desirable.
- Rajan Menon is the director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, a professor emeritus at the Powell School, City College, and a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies, Columbia. He is the co-author of Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order
- Daniel R DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek, among other publications