Defining Russia’s defeat: the war’s exit strategy and a new international security architecture


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Dmytro Zolotukhin
Dmytro Zolotukhin

Founder of the Institute of Post-Information Society and former Ukrainian deputy minister of information policy

The NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on 11-12 July 2023 is likely to focus on the rebuilding of the global security architecture that was disrupted by the unprovoked Russian military aggression against Ukraine. The ultimate cynicism is that, as of April 2023, the country that started the war in Europe assumed the presidency of the Security Council of the United Nations, the very international body designed to prevent wars and conflicts.

Numerous publications have recently explored various scenarios for the development of the conflict, considering both military and political aspects, as well as the involvement of key decision-making centres, such as Kyiv, Moscow, Washington and Beijing. These scenarios can be broadly categorised into two main categories: stalemate or Ukrainian military success.

If Western military support to Ukraine is insufficient, the Russian army and the Wagner terrorist group may achieve a stalemate on the battlefield, leading to a war of attrition. In this case, the situation would transform into an inertial scenario that would depend on the amount of military and financial support that Ukraine receives from Western countries, funded by Western taxpayers.

If the West decides to provide Ukraine with all the necessary military equipment and armament, the Ukrainian army may have some uncertain success in recapturing occupied Ukrainian territories, either in one or several directions, such as Crimea and Donbas. We don’t know what this military success would look like. Of course, the best option is to recapture all Ukrainian territories, but the political effect of what is happening on the battlefield must be taken into consideration – and without giving hints to the enemy about Ukraine’s plans.

Neither of these scenarios would necessarily lead to the end of the war but rather a transition to low-intensity conflict, in which neither party has enough forces to continue the battle. The experience since the annexation of Crimea in February 2014 has shown that this may only mean that the conflict will renew when Russian Federation is able to restore its lost military capabilities. For this reason, even the recapture of Ukrainian territories, including Crimea, and the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity may not lead to sustainable peace, which is the ultimate goal. The Ukrainian army’s control over the internationally recognised borders of Ukraine from 1991 may not prevent missile and kamikaze drone attacks, just as the military strength of Israel may not prevent missile attacks from the territory of Lebanon or the Gaza Strip.

Seen as benefiting Putin’s political power and survival, the stalemate scenario presents two options for the West: continue supporting Ukraine financially, akin to the support provided to Afghanistan, which may result in tough decisions down the road; or make tough decisions before taxpayers’ money is spent. The reduction of aid to Ukraine could potentially strengthen Russia and China politically, under the leadership of Putin and Xi Jinping, respectively, and may further be reflected in political crises in the West rooted in the betrayal of the value of freedom.

The names ‘Russian Federation’ and ‘Russia’ cannot be considered equivalent

The ‘Sustainable Peace Manifesto’, created by Ukrainian experts and intellectuals, emphasises the need for political changes within the Russian Federation to prevent it from being an existential threat to Ukraine and other European countries. The manifesto argues that military success by Ukraine on the battlefield could create the justification for Vladimir Putin’s incapability to govern Russia effectively, leading to potential political changes and creating uncertainty for the Western political decision-makers because of the risks similar to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The key to an exit strategy from the war in Ukraine lies in projecting the potential political changes in Russia that could be triggered by successful counteroffensives by the Ukrainian army.

In order to examine exit strategies and ‘the defeat of Russia’, it is critical to distinguish what is meant by the ‘defeat’ and ‘Russia’.

Article 1 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation states that: the Russian Federation is a democratic federative legal state with a republican form of government, and the names ‘Russian Federation’ and ‘Russia’ are equivalent. The problem is that neither statement is true.

Firstly, the Russian Federation is ruled by Putin not as a federation but as an empire. The military aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine is an imperial war against its former colony, which proclaimed its independence and now conducts its own international politics through democratic processes. Certain amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation made during Putin’s rule have transformed it from a federation into an empire. For example, Putin has lobbied for changes to the legislation that have resulted in the cancellation of direct elections for governors of federation subjects. Now, governors of the federation are effectively appointed by the Kremlin.

Secondly, government-controlled media propaganda attempts to make people believe that the power in the Russian Federation is ordained by God and that people cannot challenge the authority of God in establishing the authorities. The Russian Orthodox Church, whose head patriarch Kirill is very close to the Federal Security Service (FSB), supports this narrative extensively.

Thirdly, the majority of the Russian population uses its influence to proclaim Russian ethnic identity as universal and unified. Population censuses are not credible in the system of power built by Putin, primarily because one must identify as Russian to achieve certain professional success, despite ethnicity. According to the existing population censuses, there are almost 190 peoples that populate the Russian Federation, at least five of which exceed a population of one million: Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvashs, Chechens and Avars. Even within the Russian ethnic group, there are many subgroups like Cossacks and Pomors.

Lastly, on the basis of the above mentioned, the names ‘Russian Federation’ and ‘Russia’ cannot be considered equivalent because a federation is a more logical form of coexistence for these peoples. Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvashs, Chechens and Avars are not Russian, despite what government propaganda says. For example, Tatarstan can be defined as a part of the Russian Federation, but the majority of its population are Tatars, not Russians. Therefore, these peoples have the right to live in the Russian Federation, while maintaining their own names and futures.

An empire cannot exist in defeat

Russia should be restored as a Russian Federation, in which the constitution gives people the right to proclaim their independence, as was declared by the Tatar people in 1992 with the Tatarstani sovereignty referendum. This means that Russia must be defeated as an empire. The word ‘defeated’ in this context implies that Russia should no longer pose an existential threat to neighbouring nations, meaning that situations like the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the decision to start a bloody war against an independent nation in February 2022 should never be repeated.

To dismantle an empire means rendering its instruments of power incapable of following the ruler’s unlawful rulings. Even now, as Ukraine prepares to liberate its territories from Russian aggression, the existing form of power in the Russian Federation allows for the drafting of people into the army and sending them to die on Ukrainian soil simply because the emperor decreed it. Recent amendments to Russian laws, such as those allowing for digital military conscription summons, were adopted by the parliament hastily and unanimously, despite members of parliament admitting they did not have time to fully understand the proposals.

The ‘defeat of Russia’ on the battlefield could result in the liberation of the Russian Federation from the grip of the empire. At the same time, the ‘defeat of Russians’ could signify a resurgence for Tatars, Chechens, Bashkirs and other nations within the federation.

A stalemate scenario with no clear military victory means that the Russian political elite would likely remain unchanged and Putin’s policy of attacking Western civilisation and deepening cooperation with China would likely continue. A post-war Russian Federation is only possible with a successful Ukrainian military counteroffensive with the support of necessary weapons. Russian media propaganda would have limited opportunity to spin the narrative for the Russian audience. An empire cannot afford to lose a war that it initiates, as the concept of self-sacrifice for the sake of res publica or ‘the public affair’ does not apply to empires. Simply put, an empire cannot exist in defeat. In the aftermath of a defeated empire, there are three scenarios for the post-war future of the Russian Federation.

The first scenario is the inertial consolidation of power in the Kremlin and a civilised transfer of power from Putin to another individual or group of leaders. However, this can only happen if there is a consensus among the different and often conflicting factions of the Russian political elite. The new leadership that replaces Putin may not have the intention to change the existing trends within Russian society or the political goals of different power groups. If the new leadership is accepted by the West, it may result in the lifting of some sanctions and the restoration of economic resilience in the Russian Federation.

However, even if there is a consensus among political groups to replace Putin with another leader, the continuation of revanchist sentiments and the political process based on aggression may eventually lead to a repetition of conflict and aggression against Ukraine and the European Union. As the renewal of the conflict could be only a matter of time, this scenario may not provide sustainable peace.

Negotiations require at least two parties that are willing to make an agreement. It is clear that Putin and his allies are not willing

The second scenario is extreme destabilisation and turmoil within Russia, leading to a war of ‘all against all’ for resources and control over power due to the absence of a consensus on the next formal leader. This may be indicated by the active dissemination of information that key Russian companies are forming quasi-military units known as private military companies (PMCs). Such developments could result in uncontrolled migration, widespread increase in conflicts, a strengthening of China’s role or the uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The risk of this scenario is a cause for concern among Western political leaders, as they fear that arming Ukraine to defeat Russia on the battlefield could result in uncontrolled processes within the Russian Federation that could be even more dangerous for the security of Western countries than the continuation of the war in Ukraine. This dilemma presents a complex challenge in deciding on appropriate actions to address the situation.

The third scenario is a controlled transformation and reconstruction of Russian imperialism into real federalism, confederalism or a parade of sovereignties among some subjects of the Russian Federation. This would involve maintaining close relations with Moscow while allowing for increased regional autonomy, readiness for denuclearisation and demilitarisation processes in some regions in exchange for financial support from the West. This would also entail dismantling the vertical imperial power structure of the Kremlin while preserving general management and control ability in the regions, accompanied by increased support from the West and further democratisation of society, parallel to processes of denuclearisation and demilitarisation of regions, similar to 1991.

This scenario would likely require significant political and social changes within Russia, including a shift towards more decentralised governance and increased autonomy for regions. It would also require cooperation and support from the West in terms of financial assistance, diplomatic efforts and democratic engagement. The success of this scenario would depend on the willingness of different political actors in Russia to embrace such changes and work towards a more federal, democratic and peaceful future. It would also require careful negotiation and international support to ensure that the process is stable, inclusive and sustainable.

Public experts often repeat that wars end with negotiations. However, negotiations require at least two parties that are willing to make an agreement. It is clear that Putin and his allies are not willing, as stated by representatives of the Ukrainian authorities. Besides, Putin is a war criminal who should be arrested by order of The International Criminal Court. Moreover, Kremlin representatives have repeatedly claimed that Ukraine is not a party to the conflict, as they perceive it as a fight against NATO on Ukrainian territory.

The possibility for real political changes in the Russian Federation may not lie in Moscow, which is the stronghold of central power, but in the regions that could represent true federalism instead of blind obedience to the empire.

Regions are the backbone of the country’s financial resilience despite the sanctions

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, has argued that the Russian Federation needs to be re-federalised. However, re-federalisation cannot be initiated by the Kremlin’s central power. Its only chance of success is if regional entities demonstrate their readiness to shape their own future instead of being dictated by the Kremlin.

Thus, the real parties for negotiations on sustainable peace may not be the Kremlin or the central power in Russia, but rather the regional political elite who can assert their political autonomy on the issue of regional security.

According to reports from the BBC and Mediazona, regions of the Russian Federation have experienced a higher death toll among soldiers killed in action compared to the central regions considered the heartland of Russia. Economic reports suggest that regions are the backbone of the country’s financial resilience despite the sanctions, contributing more to Putin’s military endeavours and bearing the greatest suffering in return.

This is why there is a hypothesis that an exit strategy should be sought by local Russian oligarchs whose businesses have been severely impacted by the unprecedented Russian aggression against Ukraine, resulting in worldwide sanctions. These oligarchs, businessmen and regional leaders who are not directly tied to the Kremlin may believe that Putin has betrayed them with his unexpected decision. Hence, they could be approached with proposals for changing their future in exchange for renouncing loyalty to Putin and the Kremlin.

Ukraine cannot afford to engage in negotiations of this nature. Local Russian Federation oligarchs and politicians are likely seeking guarantees from Western counterparts, such as the United States, the United Kingdom or the European Union. Furthermore, Ukrainian civil society would never accept discussions about the necessity of negotiations with individuals who were once loyal to Putin.

The loss of Crimea as a pillar of the Kremlin’s propaganda could trigger political changes within the Russian Federation

The parties for negotiations should be Western politicians and intelligence agencies on one side and Russian regional oligarchs and political leaders on the other side. Only these parties can dismantle the vertical power structure of the Russian empire and provide hope for sustainable peace.

The West’s political decision to provide necessary weapons and armament to Ukraine could result in military success for the Ukrainian army on the battlefield and potentially lead to the recapture of Crimea. The loss of Crimea as a pillar of the Kremlin’s propaganda could trigger political changes within the Russian Federation, as Kremlin’s media propaganda would no longer be able to frame the defeat of the Russian army as an act of ‘good will’, as was the case with Chernihiv Oblast of Ukraine and Snake Island, the famous location of a message to a Russian warship.

The failure of the Russian government could provide justification for its former loyalists to dismiss Putin or simply ignore his orders, which could become a crucial turning point for the future development of the Russian Federation.

Any consolidation of power may only delay a new offensive against Ukraine or another European state, and the resulting turmoil could create significant risks, such as nuclear proliferation or strengthening China’s position. However, if the Russian Federation were to undergo reconstruction based on new direct relationships between Western states and hydrocarbon-producing regions, without Gazprom or the Kremlin, it could potentially create a brand-new business landscape that supports an international security architecture based on partial denuclearisation and demilitarisation of Russian regions, in exchange for lifting sanctions and investment support.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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