Capstones: Preparing for a Post-Putin Whirlwind
“Nations are not eternal,” French philosopher Ernest Renan observed in 1882. “They have a beginning and they will have an end.”
That’s something to keep in mind as we assess the damage Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is doing to Russia.
Births and Deaths
Renan made that bracing assessment in an era when most nations and people groups were under the sway of powerful, long-enduring empires—when the birth and death of independent nations came at a glacial pace. Indeed, there were only 49 independent countries in 1900. But by 1919, Renan’s prediction proved prescient, as great multi-national empires died and new nations were born in the wake of World War I. Sixty-three independent countries would join the League of Nations.
The prelude to and prosecution of World War II further validated Renan’s prediction. Between 1938 and 1945, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Austria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Abyssinia and other nations disappeared from the map, as tyrant regimes annexed their weaker neighbors.
But the conclusion of the war—and the postwar process of decolonization—triggered another wave of nation-state births and rebirths. By 1955, the UN roster included 76 members. Just six years later, there were 104. By 1974, there were 138 UN members. But then, in the early 1990s, nation-states and countries started to disappear yet again: Yugoslavia ceased to exist. Czechoslovakia died and divided in two. East Germany was absorbed by West Germany. The USSR became a part of history.
As the collapse of the Soviet Empire breathed new life into old nations and captive peoples, the UN roster swelled to 166 members. Today, the UN General Assembly enfolds 193 members.
Putin is trying to erase one of those members, which brings us back to the situation in Russia.
Putin believed he would seize Ukraine in three days, burnish the capabilities of the Russian army and revive the Russian Empire. Instead, he has galvanized and unified Ukraine, badly hobbled the Russian army, and set in motion forces that could fracture Russia itself. As the prophet Hosea warned, “Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.”
The forces now unleashed in Russia are embodied by restive and resentful people groups who see a window of opportunity opening, as well as military fiefdoms who could play the role of king-maker (or perhaps more accurately, nation-maker). Let’s start with Russia’s restive ethno-national groups.
By its own census tally, the Russian Federation comprises nearly 200 ethnic groups and 270 languages. Such ethnic diversity, in and of itself, doesn’t mean Russia is destined or doomed to fracture. After all, there are hundreds of ethnicities and hundreds of languages in America. Such diversity can be a strength for a country—as long as there’s something that holds those diverse groups together. For Americans, what holds us together is an idea—that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Russia’s ethnic groups have no such shared founding idea. Nor are they assimilated into something bigger than their group. Nor does it appear that Putin’s regime has the power—or largesse—to hold them together indefinitely. As an Economist analysis details, “For the past decade the main job of the Moscow-appointed governors has been to provide votes for Mr. Putin. In exchange they received a share of oil revenues and the right to rule as they see fit.” If Putin falls, that symbiotic arrangement will likely disappear, which could lead to these ethnic groups, regions and statelets breaking away from Russia.
The Russian Federation enfolds more than 80 regions, districts and territories. These include Chechnya, an enclave in southern Russia which fought unsuccessful wars for independence against Moscow in the 1800s and 1990s; Dagestan, a region with 33 distinct nationalities; the Ural Republic, which attempted to go independent in 1993; Tatarstan, Siberia and Karelia, each of which declared “sovereignty” in the early 1990s; Kalmykia, which has made moves toward independence; Bashkortostan, which claims political autonomy; the vast Sakha Republic in eastern Russia; and scores of other regions. One of those regions is the St. Petersburg district, where members of the city council have called on the Russian legislature “to indict the Russian president for treason and remove him from his post.”
Moscow’s use of ethnic minorities as cannon fodder in Ukraine surely is adding fuel to the bitter resentment that already smolders in Russia’s hinterlands. The British Ministry of Defense, for example, reports that the death rate of troops deployed in Ukraine from eastern Russia as a percentage of the population is “30 to 40 times higher” than the death rate of troops deployed from the Moscow region.
Add to this combustible kindling the fact that some regions have their own militaries; some corporate conglomerates have their own militaries; and some individuals have their own militaries.
Topping this list is the Wagner Group. A private military organization numbering in the tens of thousands, the Wagner Group was once the vanguard of Russian military operations—from Georgia and Crimea, to Syria and Libya, to Sudan and Mali. Wagner’s founder and leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, enjoyed close ties to Putin. Wagner’s personnel had access to the best military equipment. And Wagner’s exploits accorded it prestige inside Russia—and fear outside Russia.
But in Ukraine, Wagner fighters have been eviscerated. Some 40,000 Wagner mercenaries have been killed, captured or disappeared in Ukraine. Wagner’s mercenary army has been mauled in Bakhmut—apparently by Kremlin design. Wagner has been cut off from direct communications with the Kremlin and has not received needed ammunition. Prigozhin claims the Russian Defense Ministry is engaged in “an attempt to destroy Wagner.” Putin confidantes, in turn, accuse Prigozhin and his mercenaries of committing “war crimes”—perhaps an early indication of how Moscow will defend and deflect the charges issued by international tribunals.
With his private army being ground down by Ukraine’s monthslong defense of Bakhmut—and with little reinforcement from Russian regulars—Prigozhin cryptically said in March, “The Wagner private military group must turn…into an army with an ideology. And that ideology is the struggle for justice.” He added, “We will begin to reboot…we will start recruiting new people from the regions.” (That’s a reference to those far-flung territories whose sons Moscow has dragooned into war.)
In addition to Russia’s corporate armies and mercenary armies and regular army, the Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service, Federal Protective Service, Ministry of Emergency Situations and National Guard have well-armed military units. Revamped over the past decade, the National Guard has been described as Putin’s own Praetorian Guard. Including Interior Ministry troops, riot police and special operations commandoes, it answers directly to Putin and is focused largely on maintaining internal security.
Some of Russia’s semiautonomous regions have their own military-security forces. British diplomat John Dobson notes that Bashkortostan has a 40,000-man security force “loyal to its president, Murtaza Rakhimov.” Related, some of the troops fighting for Putin in Ukraine are under the command of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov’s troops are backed by Putin’s support and funding. But there are now pro-Ukrainian Chechen battalions actively fighting against the Russian army and pro-Russian Chechen forces in Ukraine. As the Guardian reports, the pro-Ukrainian Chechens see a Ukrainian victory as the best path to independence for Chechnya. “We are fighting for a free future for us and for Ukraine,” declares one pro-Ukrainian Chechen soldier.
Perhaps more worrisome for Putin: Some Russians are taking up arms against Russia.
With its core comprised of Russian defectors, the Free Russia Legion (FRL) numbers more than 4,000 Russians. They are fighting alongside the Ukrainian military. FRL has its sights set on Moscow. “We will go to liberate our home—Russia—in order to destroy the Putin regime and establish a new free country in Russia,” an FRL fighter recently told Newsweek.
The FRL is reviewing thousands of applications. Indeed, there’s a deep reservoir of disenchanted and AWOL Russian soldiers. Consider the thousands of Russian soldiers who have refused to deploy; the reports of Russian troops killing their commanding officers, turning basic training into fratricidal massacres, rioting and mutinying; the torrent of social-media posts referencing absentee commanders, worthless equipment, desperation, disillusion and desertion. Russian troops from at least 16 regions have posted videos (see here, here, here) detailing incompetent leadership and lack of gear. An army of mistreated, disgruntled soldiers is a recipe for revolution.
In addition, a group calling itself the “Russian Volunteer Corps” has launched attacks in Russia’s Byansk region, which borders Belarus and Ukraine. “There is hope,” the group declared on a social media platform in April, “that free Russian people with weapons in their hands can fight the regime.”
Political scientists note that one indication of state failure is when a government loses its internal monopoly on military force. That appears to be what’s happening in Russia.
As Gen. Ben Hodges (former commander of U.S. Army-Europe) observes, “There is a lack of cohesive military structure in Russia.” Gen. Mark Hertling (also a former commander of U.S. Army-Europe) adds that these various armed groups, regional forces and private armies will “contribute to chaos” if Putin falls.
Chaos may already have been unleashed in Russia. Military commanders, diplomats and senior members of Putin’s personal security unit are defecting. The mysterious fires, attacks and bombings all across Russia—airbases, National Guard facilities, police stations, railroad lines, military recruitment centers, government agencies, the headquarters of Putin’s political party, assassinations of Putin allies and regime propagandists—are evidence of an active anti-Putin resistance. Anti-Putin groups are taking responsibility for many of these guerilla-style attacks. Likewise, in Belarus, which Putin controls like a puppet master, guerilla groups have conducted drone attacks against Russian air force assets based in the country, waves of cyberattacks against the Russian government, and at least 17 acts of sabotage targeting railways.
Although Putin’s demise—and Russia’s defeat in Ukraine—would be welcome news, chaos in Russia would not. Russia’s fragmentation into ethnic shards would create countless new national security concerns for the U.S. It pays to recall that Russia fields more nuclear weapons than any other nation. Russia’s territory borders regions of vital importance to America’s security and prosperity—the Euro-Atlantic, the Indo-Pacific, the Arctic. And Russia’s natural resources help sustain many countries.
British diplomat Fergus Eckersley captures what our posture and goal should be: “We do not want Russia to fail as a state,” he explains. “We want Russia to be a stable and prosperous nation—just one that does not try to annex and illegally invade its neighbors…What we all want is a peace in line with the UN Charter.”
But we cannot protect the United States and promote the national interest based on our wants, hopes or dreams. Because a broken Russia would spawn something bloodier and uglier than the failed states that have shaped much of America’s foreign and defense policy, we must prepare for the worst.
While U.S. intervention in the world wars was triggered by powerful expansionist nation-states, many U.S. military interventions have been triggered by failed states, weak states, states that are poorly governed or ungoverned. Consider the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Florida, Cuba and the Philippines; the continual U.S. deployments to pre-communist China between 1912 and 1941; the ethno-religious civil war in Lebanon; the manmade famine in Somalia; the war of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia; al Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks; Iraq’s recidivist attacks on its neighbors and affronts to international order; Libya’s civil war; the failure of Iraq and Syria to maintain internal order and fend off ISIS. All of these are examples of state failure drawing in the United States—for humanitarian as well as strategic reasons. Contrary to the critics of American power, these places were not broken because the United States intervened. Rather, the United States intervened because these places were broken.
This is not to suggest that Russia is destined to go the way of Yugoslavia—or that the U.S. must intervene in a post-Putin Russia. But these examples serve as a reminder of how difficult it is for America—a superpower with a conscience—to remain aloof when desperate people call for help.
Even if America could steel itself against intervening in a post-Putin cauldron of chaos, Russia’s sprawling size and nuclear arsenal would place a disintegrating Russia in an entirely different category than a disintegrating Yugoslavia. Indeed, the U.S. has significant national-security interests along Russia’s borderlands—especially the security and stability of NATO allies. It’s not difficult to imagine some of those allies seeking U.S. support in trying to quarantine or firewall post-Putin disorder.
Nor is it unimaginable that elements of a post-Putin regime could ask the U.S. for assistance in securing Russia’s nuclear assets. In this regard, it’s worth noting that the Pentagon has a range of operational plans premised on deploying “Nuclear Disablement Teams” to neutralize Pakistan’s entire nuclear arsenal. (It’s difficult to say whether such plans are reassuring or terrifying.) Obviously, securing a relatively small nuclear arsenal on a relatively small chunk of earth would be nothing like securing Russia’s enormous arsenal spread across Russia’s vast territory.
Preparing for the worst means planning for the worst—opening Russia-focused lines of communication between the White House and the Gang of Eight, standing up Russia-focused interagency taskforces, red-teaming possible post-Putin scenarios, identifying and quietly signaling post-Putin powerbrokers, prepositioning relevant military assets. As President Eisenhower observed, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”