‘His brother was worse’ – the rise of a post-Putin Russia

There is an old joke that a man disliked by nearly everyone in his town dies — gladdened by his death, the townsfolk show up for the funeral;  when asked by the presiding minister if anyone had a good word to say of him, an old man rose and said “His brother was worse.” 

When Vladmir Putin leaves office — either to funeral music or a coup — it is unlikely we are going to get someone better. In fact, that person will likely be someone much worse.

Baby Boomer siloviki

As an intelligence observer of Russia since the late Cold War days, I believe there is little leverage for the West to get a better Russian leadership situation. The oligarchs are too tied to Putin — and they will swing their loyalty to whomever takes care of them. That will likely be the siloviki — “men of force.” These are the former KGB and Soviet military types now running the FSB, SVR, and GRU. These are the elite of Russia. They believe they are inheritors, the protectors of “Mother Russia.” They will do anything to glorify her and re-establish (in their minds) her lost place in world leadership.

The siloviki are Baby Boomers who were born into a strong USSR and trained in the spy tactics of the Cold War. They will not hesitate to use those tactics: civilian casualties; terror overseas. I expect attacks on our intelligence personnel and other “enemies” in the West. In short, standard practice from the Cold War days.

Georgia, Crimea, and Chechnya were small spetsnaz operations — think special operations, not full-scale military and relatively successful. Ukraine is the first full-scale war since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and it is the first war fought with an enemy of large-scale provision and power since 1945. The siloviki are being embarrassed by what appears to be a “paper tiger” Russian military. They are enraged to the very marrow of their bones — and they will seek revenge.

True believers

All empires — British, American — view the world through their own lens; it’s particularly true of the siloviki. They believe in the idea of “Rus.” Kiev, in their mind, is the heart of old Russia, the very founding place — the place which became the Third Rome after Constantinople fell in 1451. For us, it is of vague historical interest. For these Russian elites, it is in their souls. Even in the worst of the Stalin days, the Orthodox Church remained — and they will back whoever is strong and in power.

I worry we scoff too easily at the trumped up charges of Nazis in Ukraine. To the siloviki, this is no fallacy. They can easily point to the small examples of recent times and Ukraine’s brief embrace of Germany as a liberator, ignoring that this was after the killings and mass starvation promulgated by Stalin in the 1930s. And, of course, ignoring the Ukrainians who fought against the Nazis — including one former Soviet leader born in Ukraine: Nikita Khrushchev. 

The threat of the West is a real one to the siloviki. The invasions of Napoleon, the Western nations during and after WWI, Hitler’s slaughter in the 1940s, and a Cold War of over four decades confirm that feeling for them. Plus, the ideology of the West is based on an Enlightenment that believes in the power of the individual over the state. The Russians never had this Western Enlightenment — and for them, the power of the individual represents chaos. They see 500 years of the Russian state versus a weak and corrupt democracy for a decade. No thanks, say the elite.

And, of course, there is the element of the ‘Big Betrayal.’ Like the Weimar German “stab in the back,” the elite view the end of the Cold War as an unnecessary surrender and humiliation. Gorbachev is no hero to them. Yeltsin, a clown. Putin for them is a restoration of power. And if Putin can’t carry it off, they will. 

Something to prove

I believe when Putin departs the scene, none of these factors is going to charge — save one. It is highly unlikely that any of the potential leaders — and there will be an inevitable scrum for power among them — is going to show the slightest inclination to negotiate with the West. Such an action would represent the ultimate weakness and would be fatal for anyone who tried.

So, they will not stop at Ukraine until they “win” there.

A win is what they declare it to be — but it will no doubt simply be a respite, at best, in terms of taking all of Ukraine back and a restoration of the former non-NATO Russia.

In some ways, they are already on their way. Belarus is an ally. The “Transdniestria” taking Moldova is easy picking. And a weak Georgia and a corrupt and confused Kazakhstan represent much smaller challenges.  This revanchist domino theory is well within the realms of possibility and would fit with the glorification of Russia back to its 20th century boundaries — again, without taking on NATO directly. That is a step the siloviki are unlikely to take, a line uncrossed. For now.

The quagmire “solution”

In my opinion as an old Cold War hand, our best strategy is to make Ukraine a quagmire that so sucks Russian manpower and equipment resources that they cannot continue or engage in another war; a 2020s version of the 1980s Afghanistan. A continued show of strength from NATO from Lapland to the Black Sea is crucial and the only way to bottle military action. The siloviki will understand this strength and perhaps leave other countries alone. For a while.

However, make no mistake, the siloviki that take over from Putin will have the humiliation in Ukraine to add to their grievances. They are capable of learning from their mistakes, but the siloviki view the world differently than the West and are driven by forces beyond our norm. This challenge, the revanchist restoration of Russia, is not going away for the foreseeable future.

Ronald Marks is a former CIA officer who served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Tags Baby Boomer baby boomers Cold War FSB GRU insecurity Kievan Rus NATO post-Putin Russia Russia after Putin Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russian oligarchs Russian war in Ukraine siloviki Vladimir Putin

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