September 15, 2022

Putin’s War in Ukraine: Alternative Russian Futures, Assumptions and Risk Calculus

A poster in St. Petersburg depicting Peter I, to whose conquests Vladimir Putin has compared his actions. Russia, 27 May 2022.
A poster in St. Petersburg depicting Peter I, to whose conquests Vladimir Putin has compared his actions. Russia, 27 May 2022.

Russia’s “besieged fortress” narrative generates grievances and resentments that enable President Putin to claim that Russia is “rising from its knees.” In this supposed existential construct, only Putin himself as a strong protector leader ensures regime continuity, stability, a sphere of influence and Russia’s strategic autonomy. If at some level Putin perceives Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a breakout from “encirclement,” all is not “going according to plan.”

A multi-axis attack did not result in the seizure of the capital, the “liberation” of the Ukrainian people from a “Nazi” regime, demilitarization and then the incorporation of “Ukrainian Russia” into the newly minted empire. The defeat in Kharkiv region in early-mid September further delegitimized Putin’s reputation, that of his military and Russia as a superpower. The second-best army in the world became the second best in Ukraine.

Extrapolating forward, it is possible to envisage three broad alternative outcomes for Russia, each leading to different regimes advancing different foreign policies. These alternative futures have profound implications for the European and global security order. Let us examine each alternative in turn.

The First Alternative Future: Putinism 3.0 or Putin’s Rus

The first alternative future can be understood as “Attrition: Putinism 3.0: Putin’s Rus” This alternative is predicated on a shift of the conflict from Ukrainian maneuver warfare back to a longer-term protracted stalemate. Ukraine’s supply lines are stretched, and time is needed to consolidate and defend territory retaken, allowing Russia time to stabilize its front. As of 14 September, this appears to be the reality. Attrition recognizes Ukraine is militarily too strong to be defeated in the field but not strong enough to mount effective counter-offensives. Russia postpones but does not abandon the notion of Peoples Republics, to be annexed into Russia as Federal District and placed under Russia’s nuclear umbrella. In the meantime, the “General Winter” works in Russia’s favour, as the West does tire itself out. The Russian memes regarding European fear of “starvation,” food and energy price rises are partially validated, while solidarity with Ukraine is eroded.

What does this alternative future assume about the functioning of the Russian system? First, Russia lacks the military capability and will to end its “war of choice” on favourable terms but is unwilling to accept greater risks (such as “full mobilization” or “vertical escalation”) that might secure a “victory.” Second, Putin can manage Russia—its general society, professionals and opposition—more easily under the “quasi-war” mobilization conditions than otherwise. Subjective historical myths, memes and malleable memory are not contingent on any “key performance indicators.” “Who control the past control the future,”—welcome back, George Orwell, from 1948 to 1984 and now, to 2024.

“Putinism 3.0” instrumentalises Putin’s “forever war” to manage Russia more easily in the post-Ukraine invasion context. Current Russian elites imagine that they can transfer power to the next generation ‘organically’, within an imagined Tsarism, Orthodoxy and Nationalism narrative. The reality for Russia is, in fact, de-globalization, de-modernization and de-institutionalization.

Third, Russia weighs risks posed by the West far above those posed by China and, therefore, reduces the number of troops in the Eastern Military District. China boosts the Russian narrative in the “Global South,” suggesting that Russia confronts the US and NATO in Ukraine—a “Nazi-infested puppet of the West.” Fourth, until Russia has used nuclear weapons, the Russia-China axis is still viable, while the Western sanctions only facilitate Russia’s strategic reorientation eastwards and to the “Global South.”

Fifth, Putin’s “theory of victory” is based on the net effects of the deliberate and systematic destruction of Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure (CNI), as well as the country’s economic base, through missile attacks and a maritime blockade. Sixth, the weight Putin places on the perceived ideological rewards/benefits accrued by the “restoration of Slavic unity” and reuniting “ancient Russian lands” as a “Triune State” appears unlimited. Any price appears worth paying for such a “reward.” Seventh, Putin predicts that western unity will break. In a zero-or-negative-sum-game context, Russia’s pain threshold is greater than that of the collective West. In addition, Russia’s unfettered access to military resupplies via road and rail and a General Staff cognizant of the need for military reconstitution can “dial back” offensive activities or freeze the front to allow military numbers (infantry) to come back.“

However, such an outcome is predicated on a negotiated ceasefire, time for Russia to reconstitute its military and exploit the opportunity for renewed attacks.

Remarkably, given Russia’s objective is to erode the Western support for Ukraine, Putin has not made President Zelensky an offer he cannot accept: declare a ceasefire, launch the negotiations and end the violence. Instead, Russian duplicity only undercuts Western willingness to pressure Ukraine into concessions in return for some future agreements. Russia’s military targeting of Ukrainian civilians and dehumanizing and exterminationist rhetoric only strengthens European solidarity with Ukraine and justifies further supplies of lethal weapons. Russia exaggerates the role of the West, misunderstands and discounts the identity and agency of elites and societies in the former Soviet states. Russia has great-power ambitions but weak capabilities. This real and enduring structural disparity is an issue that only Russia can address. The “modernization agenda,” initiated by Chancellor Merkel and President Medvedev, will not be repeated until the 2040s or beyond.

The Second Alternative Future: Defeat: Brezhnev 2.0

A second option appears to be “Defeat: Brezhnev 2.0”. It is predicated on Russia being unable to stabilize its front in or around the Oksol river in Kharkiv region, with further Ukrainian break throughs (for example, towards Kherson, Melitopol, Donetsk city, or Luhansk city directly through northern Luhansk to Luhansk city) or the disintegration of Russian military cohesion. This future is being severely stress-tested. Ukraine does appear to have deployable reserves and further sudden advances cannot be discounted. More importantly, the fighting will of the Russian military is in doubt and anger/humiliation and fear within the Russian elite can change their risk calculus regarding the benefits stability/status quo versus change and their capacity to act. The convergence of both leads to a coup in Moscow – perhaps with Putin isolated in Sochi. Putin is removed from power (presented as retirement for health reasons) and the Security Council brokers a successor transitional alliance.

What does this alternative future assume about the functioning of the Russian system? First, Russian military culture is strong but brittle. It is characterized by the notion of “reasonable sufficiency,” self-reliance, fatalism and a sense of exceptionalism/hubris paired with a zero-defect mentality, corruption, connections and conspiracy. These traits lead to implosion when faced with defeat.

Second, as the Russian military collapse in Ukraine leads to a coup in Russia, then Putinism can exist without Putin if a Putin⁠—rather than anti-Putin⁠—consensus candidate is consecrated since the regime is self-resilient rather than Putin-dependent. Third, intra-elite bargaining would give regional elites a bigger voice, and a weak technocratic consensus candidate manager (current mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin, Mishutsin?) would emerge as a consensus candidate.

Fourth, coexistence with the West is still possible. Russia remains in the international system, taking predictable and pragmatic economic approaches—with 44% of its GDP generated by foreign trade⁠—which allows for funds to reconstitute the Russian military. Fifth, such an outcome has elite support as it resonates with post-Putin predictive thinking: Soviet-type stability/stagnation and PRC dependency are better than Perestroika 2.0, regime and political system’s collapse.

What are the regional implications? A security vacuum in the Western Military District emerges as the Western Group of Forces cease to act as an effective fighting force. Belarus becomes the forward line of defense against NATO, shifting the power dynamics between Minsk and Moscow and ensuring Belarus’ continued independence. This alternative future best chimes with the aspirations expressed in the EU’s Strategic Compass. It builds on Ukraine and Moldova’s EU candidacy status (23-24 June EU summit) with a fast-track integration process and a new “Marshall Plan”. The “European path” is validated in the Balkans, and the EU candidacy promises a way to build democratic resilience. As part of this process, states in the region integrate into CSDP missions and operations and the EU-led Pristina-Belgrade dialogue. However, Russia itself is destabilized, with the near inevitability of a third Chechen war, as Putin’s patronage ends, and a fight over revenue flows becomes bloody. While Belarus remains independent, Russia’s legitimacy crisis impacts the roles of its military bases in Tajikistan, Armenia and Moldova. And their utility—as effective tools of Russian foreign policy influence—is put into question.

President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk past honor guard officers during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia. April 2019.

The Third Alternative Future: Vertical Escalation

The third alternative future is characterized by “Escalation: Russian DPRK”. This scenario presupposes Russia’s inability to stabilize the front in Ukraine and unwillingness to accept defeat and loss of power. This stark reality leaves Putin with the choice of full mobilization or vertical escalation and he chooses the latter, using non-strategic nuclear weapons against targets in Ukraine in late September/October 2022. This allows for a Russian military reset, so a revitalized use of Russian military force once again threatens Kyiv, Odesa, and Dnipro, and forced “pacification” (camps, terror, deportations) in the “occupied territories” re-intensifies. Indeed, rumours of Russian requests for 100,000 North Korean soldiers—dressed up as workers and dedicated to rebuilding Donbas— feed into this Russia-North Korea alternative.

What does this alternative future assume about the functioning of the Russian system? First, Putin’s management is central to the system. Those willing to remove him are unable, and those able are unwilling. Second, Putin uses one conflict to leverage his presence into another so that he can generate new opportunities and negotiate from a position of strength. Putin escalates—up to the nuclear option—until he reaches an outcome that he can spin as a victory. Putin’s primary focus is on the risks to his personal reputation as a strong leader, as well as on the threats to his “destiny” which stokes his phobias, paranoia and unpredictability. Since Putin equates existential threats to his person, regime and Russia (the ‘triune’) as one and the same, the use of nuclear weapons to prevent a defeat becomes a reality.

Third, Putin discounts—or does not realize—the fact that such vertical escalation triggers Russia’s isolation in the international system and forces a break with China and India. Fourth, a consolidation of the elite and society occurs once the state of emergency in national security is triggered. The latter is best expressed by the idea: “We have passed the point of no return.” Slavophilism, Stalinism, anti-Western and anti-liberal thinking support unambiguous confrontation with the Euro-Atlantic space. Fifth, Putin’s predictive thinking that supports this outcome is based on the notion that it is better for Russia to be a “rogue DPRK” than a China-dependent “greater Kazakhstan with nuclear weapons.” “North Koreanization” is understood as a necessary means to preserve Russia’s strategic autonomy. Russia needs to be stable but unpredictable to be strategically relevant.

What are the implications of this scenario? Nuclear testing resumes over Novaya Zemlya. Putin makes a Goebbels type speech endorsing “total war” against NATO. Belarus is reduced to a Russian Federal District status, whereas Russia imposes its hegemony on a “Eurasian Sparta.” Horizontal spillovers from Ukraine into Georgia, Moldova and the Balkans and Baltics in the shape of strategic intimidations, direct threats to statehood and new armed conflicts occur alongside the “guerrilla geopolitics”–that is, subversion and political warfare. Russia weaponizes interdependence, undertakes hybrid operations and continues aggression against Ukraine. The US Army Fifth Corps, not just its HQ, is permanently located in Eastern Europe (from Romania up to Sweden) as reassurance.

The Policy Trilemma

Currently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine creates a policy trilemma for a “political” or “collective West”: it seeks three objectives but may only be able to achieve two.

What are these three objectives? First, to provide Ukraine with weapons, training and actionable intelligence to maintain its statehood and have negotiation leverage for sustainable peace. Second, to balance the pragmatic national interests of individual states with their collectively embraced democratic principles. Third, to maintain a degree of ambiguity over the desired end state to uphold unity, avoid unwanted escalation and becoming a “party to war”, as well as limit open-ended commitments to Ukraine and preserve some potential “offramps” for Russia.

Russia is at an inflection point. If Ukraine continues to advance, Putin faces the prospect that Ukraine retakes all its territory, Russia faces a political-military strategic defeat and regime change follows. The potential of Russian defeat, leading to a nuclear armed failed state in civil war poses a greater challenge than even how to rebuild and reform a resilient democratic Ukraine. The policy trilemma has been squared.

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine and is now updated in the light of recent events.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).