The Soviet Union’s successors were never made to accept the fact of defeat. Whoever comes after Putin must be forced to demilitarise
DANIEL HANNAN 15 July 2023 •
Vladimir Putin is finished. You can see the bleak despair behind his high, sullen, surgically-enhanced cheekbones. He looks, to use an old word, fey. The shadow is upon him.
He might struggle on for a few more weeks, even months. But the aura of invincibility on which his regime rested has gone. Potential successors are manoeuvring openly. Big companies are building private armies. Whole regions of Russia are laying the ground for independence referendums. Army officers speak openly against the leadership.
Events are taking on a momentum of their own. Once the oligarchs and generals begin to plan for a succession, to hold tentative conversations, to identify their preferred candidates, there is no going back. Putin, who understands the psychology of fear better than most men, feels his authority flooding away.
The only thing that could have saved him, a military victory in Ukraine, is out of reach. I don’t mean only that his original objective of regime change in Kyiv is a distant memory. Even a secondary, face-saving goal, such as establishing full control over the four oblasts which he declared to be Russian following Stalin-style votes in September, is now unachievable.
Indeed, the terms that were being discussed in Minsk, and which Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to be contemplating as late as April of last year, are definitively off the table. There is no way that Kyiv could settle for the de facto independence of its eastern provinces under notional Ukrainian suzerainty. The best Russia can hope for is an eventual referendum under international supervision in a demilitarised Crimea following Kyiv’s reabsorption of the Donbas – a crushing defeat by any standard.
Could Putin be holding out in the hope of a Republican victory at next year’s US elections? Donald Trump has a hideous soft spot for the Russian autocrat, going so far during his presidency as to say that he believed Putin over his own security agencies. Other Republicans, while not pro-Putin, have none the less declared that they won’t fund another “forever war”.
But the whole question is irrelevant, for it presupposes that Russia’s demoralised troops could hold out for another 18 months.
In practice, it will be over before then. Sure, Ukraine has not repeated the lightning gains it made last August, but that was never going to happen. Russia has entrenched along a line which includes a belt of landmines three miles deep. To dislodge an army from such a position takes time.
The initial step, as during the first Gulf war, is to degrade the enemy’s infrastructure through bombardment – a process that cannot be hurried. In the meantime, Ukraine is probing for weak points, keeping the Russians guessing as to where the main assault will come, all the time turning up the pressure.
There is, in theory, a short-cut. Prigozhin’s march on Moscow showed the world how poorly defended Russia is. Ukraine could launch a massive left hook through Kursk, aiming to cut off the enemy’s forces. But most of Ukraine’s Western weapons were supplied on the basis that they would not be used on foreign soil. To quote Admiral Roland from Where Eagles Dare, “There are certain, ah, niceties to be observed in our relationship with our allies.”
So Ukraine is left with the option of grinding Russia down – not by hurling conscripts at guns, but by the intelligent use of advanced missiles, drones, satellites and, if they arrive, F16s. The only question is whether there will be regime change in Moscow first, or whether there will be a 1917-style Russian collapse along a section of the front.
In the latter scenario – that is, in the event that Russia’s boyars have not already deposed Putin – Ukraine will break through, cut off Crimea and kettle the large Russian garrison there. With only the fragile link of the Kerch bridge, Russia will not be able to relieve the peninsula. Ukraine will choke off supplies of food, water and electricity, invite the Red Cross to evacuate civilians, and wait for the Russian surrender.
If we can foresee these things, so can Russia’s elites. The oligarchs and siloviki know that Putin is leading them to ruin – national ruin and personal ruin. They know that, with every day that passes, the price that will be exacted from them rises. They will move sooner rather than later.
This is the context of Prigozhin’s mutiny. It is in the nature of these things that we have few solid facts. It is far from clear that Prigozhin or his men have relocated to Belarus. We cannot say why they halted when Moscow lay naked before them. We don’t know what deals were done.
But we do know that Wagner launched an armed rebellion, and we can reasonably assume that Prigozhin was at least acting in concert with forces which wanted change.
Last week, Igor Girkin, a former officer and FSB agent who played a key role in the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas, was reported to have suggested that the people behind the Wagner rising were a faction of oligarchs headed by Yuri Kovalchuk, reputedly Putin’s personal banker, and the energy magnates Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.
He seems to believe that these men aimed to weaken Putin rather than to bring him down, because they did not want him to be succeeded by a hard man such as Nikolai Patrushev. The theory goes that they used the insurrection to wring concessions from the weakened dictator in preparation for a later handover to a junta that would seek peace and protect their business interests.
We have no way of knowing whether this is right. But we do know that all sides are limbering up for a bloody interregnum, a Time of Troubles like that which preceded the accession of the Romanovs in 1613. The balance of opposed factions has broken down, the Tsar has lost all authority, and Russia faces the prospect of warlordism.
To some Western analysts, these things are terrifying. They conjure the prospect of ongoing civil war, or of local magnates acquiring nuclear stockpiles. But it is no more in the West’s power to hold the Russian Federation together than it was to hold the USSR together – something American and European diplomats foolishly tried to do in 1990.
What is in the West’s power, as some Russian dissidents are now arguing, is to push for denuclearisation, both of any breakaway republics as the price for recognition, and of the rump state around Moscow and St Petersburg.
Such a state – let’s call it Muscovy – would have few options. Its assets would have been seized for reparations, its citizens barred from overseas travel, its natural resources lost with the secession of various republics. Its choice would be to become an ill-tempered Eurasian khanate, a kind of nuclear Kazakhstan, or to embrace the free world, as West Germany did under Konrad Adenauer.
As with West Germany, the prize would be economic recovery as part of the Euro-Atlantic world. And, as with West Germany, the price would be demilitarisation – including, in this case, the destruction of nuclear weapons, possibly as part of a reduction of global stocks.
After 1990, Russia was never made to accept either the fact of its defeat or the nature of the crimes it had committed over the previous seven decades. This time, things will be different.