If Putin wins in Ukraine, then what?

In his magisterial book “Stalin,” historian Stephen Kotkin declared his intention to write a “history of the world from Stalin’s office.” Adopting that perspective, what is the view from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office these days? More particularly, if Putin wins in the war raging in Ukraine, then what will he do next?

The view from Putin’s office today is a broadly positive one. This was reflected in Putin’s self-confident and energetic — even cocky — recent conversation with young Russian entrepreneurs and scientists on June 9. His cockiness is somewhat justified. Russia now controls approximately 20 percent of Ukraine up from 7.2 percent prior to the February invasion. According to the independent Levada Centre, Putin’s approval rating is 83 percent, the highest since July 2017. The Russian currency, the ruble, is stronger now than at any time since February 2020.

Most importantly, there now appears to be no viable alternative to Putin as Russia’s leader, at least in the near term. There is no one who, in the eyes of the Russian public, will make Russia stronger. Putin’s potential opponents are either dead, jailed, exiled or silenced. The moment of maximum danger to Putin’s reign appears to have passed.

Certainly, viewed from Putin’s office, Russia remains a turbulent place and will remain so for some time. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Russian economy is expected to contract by 8.5 percent in 2022, while consumer prices are projected to rise by 21.3 percent. And Russia’s excess mortality from COVID-19 is the highest of any major economy, creating unknown uncertainty and stress on its society.

But, on balance, the view from Putin’s office suggests that it is time to ask: What’s next?

As with other oligarchs, Putin is a master opportunist and is unlikely to make any obvious moves. Still, three broad directions might be coming into view from Putin’s office: the next adventure, an alternative to the United Nations, and securing the domestic legacy.

Putin’s next adventure could be the invasion of another nearby country. It is unlikely that he would choose to invade NATO members, such as Poland, Lithuania or Latvia, the last of which has a substantial Russian-speaking population. Nor is the payoff high for Putin by expanding Russian occupation of Georgia or Moldova.

Instead, consistent with his stated intention to gather in the Russian lands, Putin’s next move might be to the south and east, into Kazakhstan. Currently, 3.8 million Russian speakers live there, representing about 21 percent of the population. Russia has long had territorial claims on northern Kazakhstan, where Cossacks established settlements as early as 1584. These claims were articulated by Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and were manifest in the Russian separatist plots that emerged in Oral (Uralsk) and Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk) in northern Kazakhstan during the 1990s. The possibility of a Russian military incursion into Kazakhstan became real in January 2022, when Russian troops under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) briefly entered the country in response to anti-government unrest. Kazakhstan’s 39,000 active-duty military personnel would not be a significant challenge even to Russia’s degraded military.

Or perhaps Putin might move next to build the architecture of the emerging new international order. With the United Nations (UN) as the primary supranational symbol of the post-WWII Western international system, perhaps he envisions a new organizational symbol as a replacement for the UN. This new organization could be rooted in Eurasia. One can imagine the integration, for example, of the Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO (both Russia-led) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (China-led). Or the architecture of the new order could have more of a global orientation, based on the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) organizational structure. Or perhaps an entirely new organization is required. However it emerges, as seen from Putin’s office this initiative would have one godfather: Putin. He would be present at the creation of the new order.

Or perhaps Putin’s next move is to secure his domestic legacy. The main thrust here would be to select and carefully prepare an eventual successor who could build on his achievements.  Given Putin’s affinity for and identification with Peter the Great, the thought would be to find a successor for Putin more like Catherine the Great and less like her husband, the ineffective Peter III. Some possible successors include current Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin or fellow oligarch Yury Kovalchuk, although the war in Ukraine is dynamically mixing and remixing the candidate pool.

Another way in which Putin might secure his domestic legacy is to establish a new Russian capital beyond the Urals, further from perceived Western military threats and closer to Eurasia’s epicenter. Relocating some functions to cities such as Samara (former Kuybyshev, the Soviet Union’s alternative capital if Moscow fell to the Nazis), Novosibirsk or Vladivostok would generate significant new domestic economic activity and parallel Peter the Great’s own move of Russia’s capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1712.

Whatever direction he takes, it seems increasingly clear to Putin that Russia will eventually be able to declare some kind of victory in Ukraine. He seems ready to move on and lean in even further to the uncertainty his actions have created. Uncertainty that creates new opportunities for him and for Russia. What’s next? More change, not less.

David Lingelbach is a professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore. He lived and worked in Russia from 1994 to 1999, where he served as president of Bank of America — Russia and worked with Vladimir Putin. He is writing a book about oligarchs, whom he has studied for more than a quarter-century.   

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