Fearing Russia’s futures

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Russia, Ukraine

Two years into Russia's fullscale invasion of Ukraine, the prospect of both Putin's victory and defeat invoke deep fears about the future of Russia.

A Ukrainian soldier member walks through a neighbourhood destroyed by Russian missiles in Borodyanka, Ukraine, April 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier member walks through a neighbourhood destroyed by Russian missiles in Borodyanka, Ukraine, April 2022. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain / For promis’d joy!’ (Robert Burns, 1785)

When Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he expected the war to last days – at most, a few weeks. Instead, it has now entered its third year. It wasn’t just Putin who was wrong. This war has thrown up many surprises. For all the twists and turns of this brutal, criminal affair, what fascinates are the things that could have happened – but never did. I have my own personal collection of fears that I have carefully nurtured from that dreadful night of 24 February 2022, when I – and the rest of us – awoke to the news that Russia was bombing Ukraine.

These fears tell a story of one man coming to grips with a rapidly changing world. And worrying. And despairing. And hoping.

My two biggest fears about this war, which remained thankfully unfulfilled, were Putin’s victory and Putin’s defeat. Putin’s victory – something that looked distinctly possible and even probable in the first weeks of the war – would have not just been an awful tragedy for Ukraine. It would have almost certainly emboldened Putin to become even more aggressive. Who would then have become the next victim of his effort to reconstitute the great Russian empire?

This possibility – that Putin may yet claw his way to something resembling a victory in Ukraine – remains of course, but it no longer appears as terrifying as before. Europe has had time to prepare, and, having begun to awaken from its 30-year slumber, it is beginning to invest more seriously and purposefully in defence. Finland has joined NATO and Sweden is poised to join. Russia’s war machine has proved to be much less formidable than it appeared before the invasion.

The key lesson of Russia’s two years of advance and retreat in Ukraine is that the Russian army is terribly unwieldy, often poorly commanded, underequipped, and that it can be defeated by a seemingly weaker but more agile adversary. Ukraine has, and continues to bleed, Russia. While enormously costly to Ukrainians, this war has cut Russia down to size, depleting its manpower and its stock of weapons. Russia’s conventional capabilities, and its ability to project power globally, have been dealt a grave blow from which it will not easily recover.

Putin’s defeat is something I should have been much less concerned about. Seeing the blood-thirsty tyrant chased out of Ukraine would have been a joyful sight. Putin’s defeat would not just teach a memorable lesson to would-be aggressors, it could also give impetus to changes inside Russia, perhaps even to a revolution that would see the vile dictatorship finally overthrown.

There was a part of me that was deeply apprehensive of Russia’s defeat. When in September 2022 Ukraine began making gains on the battlefield, in the Kharkhiv and Kherson regions, and when it seemed, as it briefly did, that the entire Russian effort might collapse, I worried incessantly as to what might come next and whether Putin, in his madness and desperation, might not nuke Ukraine, especially if the Ukrainians made sufficient progress to threaten Moscow’s control of Crimea.

The other nuclear fear that waxed and waned as the battlelines shifted to and fro was that of some horrific accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, whether because it was accidentally hit (as appeared all too possible in the early months of war) or deliberately blown up, or just from sheer neglect. Very real memories of Chernobyl gave credence to these concerns: if it happened once, it could happen again.

My fears did not come to pass. One way of explaining why is to admit that these fears were from the start exaggerated, probably exploited by Russian propaganda in a psy-op aimed at weakening the West’s resolve. The Ukrainians certainly took this view. They showed little concern for the Kremlin’s shrill rhetoric and pressed on while they could to retake the territories they had lost to the Russians.

Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling had a certain effect, especially on Washington. From the start of the conflict, the Biden administration took extra care not to overcommit to Ukraine, and tried to respect Russia’s real or perceived red lines, even if it gradually probed and poked them. This showed in the painstakingly deliberate way in which the United States provided much-needed weapons: air defence systems, tanks, and, finally, short-range missiles. Pundits subjected the White House to criticism over such foot-dragging, but it was the responsible way of handling a crisis that could – and by all indications, still can – result in a nuclear exchange.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, the nuclear threat has retreated from the centre of our attention, but it has not disappeared – far from it. What made it wane, ironically, has been Russia’s relative success in Ukraine. The failure of Kyiv’s 2023 counteroffensive has relegated Putin’s defeat to an uncertain future. For as long as he is gaining ground in Ukraine, why would he resort to nuclear weapons? Such a possibility only becomes real if Putin once again begins to lose on the battlefield. The more he loses, the shriller the rhetoric will become. We have travelled this road before. We just don’t know where it leads.

My other two great fears that did not come to pass were fears of tyranny and revolution in Russia. The first point may cause certain bemusement if not angry objections. After all, Russia is a tyranny. Brutal suppression of dissent, draconian prison terms for selected transgressors, murder of activists like Alexey Navalny, pervasive censorship and a distinct personality cult: all these are signs that Russia is making steady progress towards a rendezvous with its Stalinist past.

It is not yet there. And this, for me, is one of the puzzling aspects of the country’s current situation. The legal framework for rebuilding the Gulag is fully in place. Putin can unleash mass repressions of the kind that the Soviet Union experienced in the 1930s. Back then, millions of people were pulled into the meat grinder. Almost 700,000 were executed in 1937-38 alone. The entire party elite was practically wiped out in the Great Purge.

It should hardly be counted among Putin’s achievements that, murderous though he is, he has not yet become another Stalin; that outright murders are still rare; that though draconian terms are applied to some, most protesters are let out after a short detention; and that it is still possible to travel and leave Putin’s Russia in a way that it was never possible to leave Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The Russian media, though subservient to the state, remains relatively freer than, for instance, the Chinese media, never mind that of North Korea. Information is easily accessible from inside Russia, despite the government’s gradual squeeze on foreign resources. Opposition activists write letters from prison and even (through their teams of course) post on X.

All of this is merely to point out that Putin has not used the opportunity afforded by his brutal war to turn Russia into a totalitarian tyranny. He prefers Stalinism-lite. Is this a result of a natural predisposition or some pragmatic calculation aimed at preserving his hold on power? It is difficult to say. What is clear is that there are no institutional checks on Putin’s brutality, no civil society that can push back, no elites that can resist. If he wanted to go full Stalin, he certainly can.

My other fear that did not come to pass is that Russia would have a revolution. It is truly astonishing that anyone would entertain such a fear today. It is after all well past the point when the more conservative Russia watchers – myself included – cautioned against revolutionary action.

That earlier caution was borne of the conviction that changing the Russian government through a violent insurrection was a recipe for long-term disaster. What Russia really needed, the argument went, was slow, painstaking, institutional change. Even if the government was corrupt (and it was), even if the elections were fake (and they were), I still entertained a vague hope that somehow Russia could slowly return to democracy, through evolutionary rather than revolutionary means. The peaceful return of democracy would provide a degree of institutional support that would make this democracy more stable in the long term.

It turned out that I was badly wrong, which, to be fair, is a comfortable position for a Russia watcher. Instead of slowly overcoming corruption, Russia sank deeper and deeper in the morass. Instead of rebuilding principles of democratic governance, Russia succumbed to vile Putinism that – so it now it seems – cannot be overthrown except by force. And why should anyone fear this?

The question acquired more than a theoretical significance in June 2023 when the world witnessed the short-lived but breathtaking mutiny by one of Putin’s long-time associates Evgeny Prigozhin.

Prigozhin’s mutiny was not the same as a popular revolution, but this was what made it credible. After all, Russian revolutionaries tend to be a peaceful lot. Their chief weapons against the regime are their idealism and good intentions, which don’t fare particularly well against police batons. Prigozhin’s men were armed, however. And he was genuinely popular. He also had allies inside the system.

The world watched and waited with bated breath as this gangster-turned businessman-turned warrior-turned Robin Hood, spewing abuse at the failings of Russia’s military machine, launched his ill-fated march on Moscow. But Prigozhin seemingly lost his nerve, and the mutiny failed.

Like everyone else, I was quite excited about this mutiny. I had no illusions about who Prigozhin was (whatever he was, he was certainly not an opposition activist) but at that point it hardly mattered that Prigozhin was not a starry-eyed liberal. What mattered was to see Putin toppled. It was hard to see how Prigozhin could succeed, but it was even harder not to entertain, however fleeting, a hope that he just might. His success would possibly bring about much-needed change, perhaps even a revolution, and, most likely, the end of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Yet there was also a nagging fear, one shared, I am convinced, by many Russia watchers, and certainly Russians themselves. It was the fear of chaos (smuta in Russian), a fear of the return of the Time of Troubles, the period of about 15 years following the death of Tsar Feodor I in 1598, when Russia succumbed to internal strife and foreign invasion. For all the horrors of the war in Ukraine, it is even more horrifying to contemplate what a fully fledged civil war in Russia might look like.

The last time the country had a civil war – following the Bolshevik revolution – the affliction lasted for about six years and cost Russia between seven and 12 million lives (over a million were driven into exile). The party that triumphed in the end – the Reds – established a brutal dictatorship that lasted for the better part of the following 70 years.

Add the nuclear angle, and a civil war in Russia acquires apocalyptic undertones. It was just fine from the perspective of battered Ukraine, but anyone other than Ukrainians would have – or at least should have – flinched at the prospect of Russian chaos.

Yet that possibility, too, did not come to pass. Russia’s Icarus – Prigozhin – flew too close to the sun. His predictable death (he was blown up mid-air in his aeroplane) had no visible consequences for Putin, who moved to consolidate his control over Russia much in the face of assumptions by many (myself included) that Prigozhin’s mutiny would weaken Putin’s hold on power.

As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues to grind on, I go on with my fears, worried as I am about Putin’s victory, but also his defeat, and the prospects for the return of Stalinism to Russia, and the return of revolution and, just perhaps, another smuta.

Fearing the future is a normal part of the human experience. ‘But Och! I backward cast my e’e / On prospects drear! / An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see / I guess an’ fear.’ If the Scottish poet Robert Burns lived today, would he not have related to my predicament?

Yet, if the two years of the war in Ukraine taught us anything, it is how to overcome fears and act decisively. Ukrainians have been the best teachers. For them, this struggle is one of survival. For the rest of us here in the West, the war has been a wake-up call. What we had never expected has now come to pass – or very well may come to pass in the future. We could – and should – rightly worry about these frightful scenarios, but this fear gives us time to prepare ourselves morally and materially for the trials ahead.


Sergey Radchenko