Almost a year has passed since the beginning of what experts have characterized as the largest military conflict in Europe since the Second World War, so it seems natural to ponder the viability of a number of potential scenarios that could bring about an end to the war in Ukraine. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev identifies three distinct camps with regard to the underlying philosophies in relation to the desired endpoint of the crisis. The realists generally express a belief that Russia’s actions are attributable to valid security concerns and also raise the alarm pertaining to the prospect of an apocalyptic end game in Ukraine, possibly entailing a nuclear exchange, unless a quick diplomatic solution to the conflict is prioritized, even if it ultimately turns out to be at the expense of some core Ukrainian national interests. The optimists profess that there are many signs that a decisive Ukrainian victory is on the horizon, which may conceivably also spell the end of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The revisionists go a step further, apportioning blame for the war not only to the Putin administration but also to wider Russian society, and thus advocate for policies (in the aftermath of the war) that would knock Russia out of the ranks of the great powers and bring about a disintegration of the country.
While at this stage it would still be premature to make any definitive assessments or predictions, there seem to be solid grounds to assume that the scenario envisioned by the optimists (even though optimism can be a bit of a misnomer given the terrible price being paid in terms of human casualties by the Ukrainians) is likely to materialize.
The first reason to subscribe to the views of the optimists is due to the major players like the United States and other Western countries appearing to still be very much on course in terms of their willingness to provide vital material and financial resources to Ukraine. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has since February 2022 been regarded as a pro-Putin outlier, is gradually changing his tune on the topic of the provision of aid to Ukraine, albeit largely for instrumental purposes. At the same time, Russophile political organizations in Central & Eastern European states, such as those in Slovakia, have had to contend with a reduction in electoral support while parties with strong pro-Russian factions, to take the example of Bulgaria, have seen internal dissent, resulting in prominent members willing to break with the party line and even face expulsion due to their outspoken sympathy for Ukraine. All in all, the signs are clear that not only mainstream pro-EU parties, but also those considered to be anti-establishment and of right-wing populist persuasion, especially in Western Europe, have as a rule preferred to distance themselves from the Putin apologists.
An examination of the political and social dynamics inside Russia itself also lends credence to the views of the optimists. Even though a number of opinion polls indicate that most Russian citizens are supportive of the “special military operation,” viewing the conflict as a proxy war against the West, what is arguably a more nuanced recent study suggests that the ‘doubters’ (who are quite detached from the war and rather amenable to changing their minds, which makes it likely that at some stage they may join one of the other two camps) are more numerous than the supporters and opponents. Thus, the Russian public’s continued support for the war is by no means guaranteed, with further spillovers of the conflict into their country, as in the cases of Bryansk, Kursk and Belgorod oblasts that are located near Ukraine, possibly entrenching the perception that the Putin government is unable to guarantee the security of its citizens inside Russia’s own borders.
In contrast to the 2008 small and victorious Russo-Georgian war, during which the Russian public was largely shielded from the events, the lack of major successes in Ukraine actually forced Putin to tear up the unwritten Russian ‘social contact,’ according to which the people who do not involve themselves in politics are essentially guaranteed a peaceful and stable life. The partial mobilization declared by Putin in September 2022 highlighted how the regular people’s tacit approval of the Putin regime was no longer sufficient – most Russians could suddenly find themselves in a situation of having to prove their loyalty by taking up arms and risking their life and well-being in actual combat. Another mobilization, which could see most of the middle class in Moscow directly affected, may be an even greater threat to the regime in terms of its potential for protest mobilization.
Furthermore, the criticism of the Russian military’s approach to the war unleashed by pro-Putin figures such as Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has also been regarded as an indication that the Kremlin is no longer well-placed to maintain a single media space and subscribe to a common trope regarding the war, which could provide further openings to dissenting voices.
To compound matters, a number of statistics suggest that crimes involving the use of weapons have risen in Russia for the period since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. While it remains to be seen whether these trends will continue over the course of 2023, such reports will likely play a role in eroding the legitimacy of the Putin administration, which has for a long time taken pride in providing a high level of domestic security and predictability, especially in contrast to the crime-ridden and chaotic years associated with the Boris Yeltsin era during the 1990s. The past precedents need to be taken into account as well, with notorious crimes such as the 2010 Kushchyovskaya massacre serving to tarnish the image of the Putin regime.
In addition to becoming a harbinger of insecurity for Russian society as a whole, with one study suggesting that during the year 2022 anxiety about the war managed to override all other concerns for ordinary Russians, the sheer brutality of the conflict in Ukraine coupled with the stepping up of repression inside Russia against any forces expressing opposition to the government narrative, may also work against the Russian leader on another level. Part of Putin’s appeal to many Russians arguably stemmed from his ability to convey an image of a competent strongman while at the same time managing not to conjure up an association with a propensity for gratuitous violence in the popular mind, unlike Soviet era leaders such as Joseph Stalin. Once the pendulum swings in the direction of excessive state coercion, this is often a sign that the authoritarian regime in question is entering a phase of greater vulnerability. American journalist David Remnick in his coverage of the August 1991 coup d’état attempt, which was organized by Soviet hardliners against then President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, hypothesized that the Communist reactionaries orchestrating the events at the time had an aversion to some of the Stalinist excesses from the past and were not fully prepared to sacrifice the lives of too many Russian civilians for their cause. In a reverse fashion, it is not inconceivable that Putin’s reabsorption of a number of elements of Stalinist totalitarianism, his prior gripes with Stalin notwithstanding, and the Russian president’s decision to revert to an anachronistic ‘Soviet’ archetype has caused even formerly loyal supporters to view him in a less magnanimous light compared to before.
Even though there is a significant overlap between the preferred scenarios of the optimists and those of the revisionists, there are a number of reasons to be more skeptical of the latter’s vision. On the one hand, as alluded previously, the revisionists may be overestimating the degree to which regular Russians are supportive of the war as well as the chances for any ethnically-driven separatist movement to succeed in Russia, at least in short-term. Furthermore, given the Western countries’ pronounced reluctance to make any moves that could be perceived as escalatory, which is one of the main reasons a direct NATO intervention in the conflict appears to be highly unlikely at this stage, encouraging protest movements that strive for greater territorial autonomy inside Russia may be deemed to be an overly risky endeavor due to the potential for such actions to be viewed as a “red line,” even by an eventual successor of Putin who may hold less bellicose and more liberal views.
Thus, barring a monumental shift in the nature of the events on the ground, the optimists so far appear to be on track when it comes to their predictions for the eventual resolution of the war in Ukraine.
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