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Why Russia’s strategic defeat is in the cards

Bloomberg commentator Leonid Bershidsky recently argued that a “strategic Russian defeat” is a “wishful theory.” As Bershidsky argues:

“The flaw in the ‘strategic defeat’ logic is that, while Russia’s nuclear capability is seen as the joker in [Vladimir] Putin’s hand, there are no practical means for the West to render Russia small and pliant. To achieve the maximum goals, the West would need to ignore Putin’s nuclear leverage and put boots on the ground. Because, again in this perspective, unless Russia is similarly subjugated, it cannot be ‘de-Nazified’ the way Germany and Japan shed their imperialism thanks to decades of occupation, forced demilitarization and externally imposed political structures.”

Since the West will not engage Russia in a war, “any prospect for a new world order in which Russia becomes a meek, contrite, post-imperial state now rests on the shoulders of Ukrainians,” who may or may not win and, even if they do, “they have no interest in conquering and ‘de-Nazifying’ Russia: They just want their own country back, and they have a lot of rebuilding to do.” (Actually, many serious Ukrainians do believe that they will be safe from another war with Russia only if it is “de-Nazified.”)

The argument, while persuasive at first glance, is fatally flawed. Bershidsky ignores internal Russian developments and focuses only on what the West, and Ukraine, might do vis-à-vis Russia. The oversight is typical for scholars and analysts in the “neorealist” school of though; the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer is perhaps the most prominent example.

Naturally, if one takes Russia as strong and stable and pretty much impermeable to outside influence, then it easily follows that Russia will be able to resist Western attempts to defeat it strategically. To be sure, the embarrassingly poor performance of the Russian armed forces — despite general Western expectations that the second most powerful army in the world would overrun Ukraine in a few days — might have given supporters of this view pause. After all, the army’s sad state was a product not of Western influence but of domestic Russian corruption and inefficiency.

The reality is that Russia — as a state and as a regime — is profoundly weak. The economy, one of the world’s least impressive performers, is in a tailspin. The much-vaunted army has proven to be a paper tiger. The society is increasingly dissatisfied with declining living conditions, growing numbers of body bags, and the regime’s indifference to the fact that at least 65,000 Russian soldiers reportedly have died and at least as many are out of commission. Up to a million men have fled mobilization and certain death in Ukraine. Generals and secret policemen are at each other’s throats, hoping to shift the blame for the disastrous war from themselves. 

Political and economic elites are also unhappy with the current state of affairs and talk of alternatives to Putin’s leadership has become commonplace. Putin, the linchpin of the state and regime, is manifestly weak and his legitimacy is hemorrhaging. Russians have taken to violence and armed resistance, fire-bombing draft boards, destroying railroad tracks, derailing trains, and vandalizing posters, flags and Russian symbols. None of these factors bespeaks a healthy, thriving, strong Russian regime or state.

As if this weren’t enough, the Russian Federation’s many non-Russian nations are getting visibly restive. Chechens, Circassians, Buryats, Kalmyks and Dagestanis have protested actively against mobilization. The Bashkirs, whose republic is rich with mineral resources, have established oppositionist groups — the Bashkir National Political Center and the Bashkir Resistance Committee — that have accused the Russian authorities of genocide and called for independence. The Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has a private army and, even though he is Putin’s current ally, he will be among the first to jump ship if Putin’s authority weakens to the point of impotence. 

All in all, the possibility of manifold non-Russian nationalist movements arising, demanding and seizing independence is anything but far-fetched — especially as the Russian economy, regime and battlefield performance continue to degrade. As in 1991, non-Russian elites will opt for independence as the only means of survival in a crumbling Russia.

Internal Russian weakness and continued systemic decay mean that Russia will impose a strategic defeat on itself. There is no need for the West to invade or actively promote strategic defeat. All that’s needed is a continuation of the status quo: Ukrainian military success, Western support of Ukraine, and Russia’s internal decay.

Putin is destroying the Russia he created. A different Russia, a better Russia, is possible only if Putin goes and his Russia collapses. There’s little for the West to do but sit back, read Bershidsky’s analyses, and watch Putin’s fascism go up in flames. 

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

Tags Ramzan Kadyrov Russian economy Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian military Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin
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