A post-Putin Russia will be a land of blood, toil, tears and sweat, but not of victory or a future.
“Après nous, le déluge!” has been attributed to Madame Pompadour, commenting on financial and political problems inherited from Louis XIV and exacerbated by Louis XV and Louis XVI, leading to the French Revolution in 1789.
As the long-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive looms, Putin’s grasp on power appears increasingly precarious. While prognosticating when the war in Ukraine will end is a thankless task destined to make a fool of the prognosticator, I will, nevertheless, venture to predict that contrary to the prevailing expectation of a prolonged conflict, the war in Ukraine will end before the New Year, if not the autumn of 2023. Yes, I believe that this summer may likely mark the end of Putin’s rule.
Of course, there are contingencies to this, with the major one being that Ukraine must achieve several meaningful victories on the battlefield in the coming month. If this happens, the demoralised, poorly led and inadequately equipped Russian army will collapse and, with it, Putin’s regime. Even if we hedge our bets on the exact timing, Putin’s demise is a historical inevitability; whether this year or next, he is a dead man walking.
The critical question the West must consider is what comes after Putin and how we can prepare for the ensuing consequences. Considering the sad state of the economy, infrastructure, education and military, the post-Putin period promises to be one of blood and the complete dissolution of Russia as we know it today. Are we ready for the ride? The vultures are circling, despite Russia’s propaganda regime ramping up, and dissatisfaction with the war and Putin’s pervasive kleptocracy has seeped into the upper echelons of the governing elite. While long-standing criticism of Putin has come from Russian “liberals,” denunciations from the “elites” who remained in Russia, let alone from extreme Russian nationalists, were previously unheard of – until now.
Recent leaks of phone conversations involving high-profile individuals criticising Putin and his regime are noteworthy for their content and timing – just before the anticipated start of Ukraine’s counter-offensive. Oligarchs Roman Trotsenko, with a fortune estimated at $3.8bn, generated chiefly through high-profile infrastructure projects, Nikolay Matushevich, who developed popular cultural venues such as Moscow’s “Flakon,” infamous music producer Iosif Prigozhin, and former Senator Farkhad Akhmedov, who ranks 98th on Forbes' list of wealthiest Russians, are just the tip of the iceberg, representing the escalating internal discontent and disillusionment.
Evidence of growing rifts among Putin’s acolytes is everywhere. Ramzan Kadyrov has retreated to Grozny with his army, preparing for whatever comes after the war. Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a vehement Russian nationalist who spearheaded Russia’s encroachment into eastern Ukraine and was convicted for his role in shooting down flight MH17, has openly criticised Putin for corruption, incompetence and weakness. Even Alexander Dugin, the ultra-nationalist ideologue of Russian fascism, rumoured to be one of Putin’s more influential advisors, has published calls to replace Putin if Russia’s military fortunes in Ukraine do not significantly improve. The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is positioning himself as an ultra-hardline option for the top job, with Dugin anointing him as a potential saviour of the Russian empire and a private army wholly loyal to him for the task. However, his running feud with Shoigu and the Ministry of Defence may put him into early permanent retirement if Putin is no longer in the picture.
Even propagandists are voicing their outrage at what they perceive as excessive softness from Putin. Vladimir Solovyov, one of the Kremlin's most vitriolic propagandists, leads a chorus of pundits demanding the return of SMERSH (a counter-intelligence umbrella formed in 1942 under Stalin) to combat internal enemies and the reintroduction of Stalinist repressions to quell internal dissent, which is growing with every day the war drags on.
This cauldron of disaffection has been brewing for some time. Russia’s failure to capture Bakhmut, mounting losses on the battlefield, and tightening of conscription laws in a desperate attempt to enlist more young men into the meat grinder while anxiously awaiting the Ukrainian counter-offensive have all contributed to increasing unrest. The tinder has been laid and is waiting for a spark to ignite it. Losses on the battlefield and retreat from occupied territories will set Russia ablaze.
What comes after? Whatever ideological differences the Russian right and left may have, they agree that Russia’s troubles begin and end with Putin. Both peddle the thesis that once Putin is gone, Russia can rebuild itself into a global power, either with a democratic or fascist tilt, but within its current geopolitical framework. However, while modern Russia’s troubles may have begun with Putin, they certainly will not end with his departure.
I feel justified in my scepticism because aside from vast natural reserves, Putin and his regime will leave nothing from which a nation can be reborn. This war has exposed the extent of the destitution that will be the legacy of this regime. Putin’s Russia cannot produce anything of value. It has exhausted the remnants of the industrial system left behind by the USSR. It has not invested in developing a technological knowledge base. There is no infrastructure to speak of. The glitz and shine of Moscow end at its borders, where desolation, infirmity and poverty prevail.
The education system, once the pride of the country, which consistently churned out mathematicians, physicists, engineers, chemists and doctors that are now plying the halls of top western Universities, is destroyed. The healthcare system is an insult to Hippocrates, with poor, if any, modern diagnostic equipment, a constant deficit of medication, and a corrupt corps of nurses and doctors extorting money out of patients for them to receive any treatment. Those who cannot pay are forced to wash dirty floors in dilapidated hospitals.
Most importantly, Russia lacks the key ingredient necessary for any revival of a nation – a qualified, educated and motivated population. The war drove the final nail in Russia’s demographic coffin as an estimated 1.5mn educated young men fled the draft and the tenuous Russian dream of imperial grandeur. Various estimates indicate that over 60% of the graduates of Moscow’s very best STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] schools have left Russia and are now studying and living abroad. None of our acquaintances [in Russia] plan to allow their children to stay beyond graduation.
Finally, the war has shown that Russia lacks an army capable of securing its borders and propping up a failed dictatorship. For 23 years, Putin and his cronies invested in yachts, private planes, expensive horses, wine, watches (lots of watches) and innumerable villas, mostly in much-hated Europe and the US. There was not enough left over for the country and its people.
In conclusion, let’s play a game. Pretend that only 50% of what I describe above is accurate. Now imagine you are magically transformed into the Russian presidency tomorrow. You are sitting atop a gargantuan bureaucracy populated by incompetents you cannot trust. You depend on a 2mn-plus strong military and security apparatus consisting of the former KGB, GUR, MVD and Rosgvardia, to name a few of the “power ministries” you will need to tame. You have an ageing, unmotivated and primarily unskilled workforce. You cannot rely on the legal system because Russia never developed the rule of law. The entire system is drowning in corruption, and your best and brightest minds, the flower of the youth, live and work abroad. Finally, you have almost 100 nationalities with varying degrees of thirst for independence that have been kept at bay either by the bayonet or the treasury purse. To top this off, you are managing a ruined economy saddled with hundreds of billions of dollars of reparations payments [due to Ukraine]. Go ahead, rule! Build a democratic and prosperous country upon the putrid legacy Mr Putin and Co. left behind!
On May 1, the coalition of “Russian Democratic Forces” met in Berlin to try to frame a potential vision for Russia after Putin. Their efforts resulted in a declarative petition consisting of five points diluted in generalities. The points are:
1. The war against Ukraine is criminal. Russian troops must be withdrawn from all occupied territories. The internationally recognised borders of Russia must be restored, war criminals must be brought to justice, and compensation must be paid to victims of aggression.
2. Putin's regime is illegitimate and criminal. Therefore it must be eliminated. We see Russia as a country in which the rights and freedoms of the individual are guaranteed and in which the possibility of usurpation of state power is excluded.
3. The implementation of imperial policies within the country and beyond is unacceptable.
4. Political prisoners of war must be released, forcibly displaced persons must be able to return and abducted Ukrainian children must be returned to Ukraine.
5. We express solidarity with those Russians who, despite the monstrous repressions, have the courage to speak from anti-Putin and anti-war positions and with those tens of millions who refuse to participate in the crimes of the regime.
This seems a weak platform from which to rebuild a crumbling colossus. Superficial and merely declarative, the petition is a reminder of why “democratic forces” in Russia have always failed to deliver at the critical juncture, whether in 1905, 1917 or 1991. They always start with generalities and then fall into complete disarray and incompetence trying to work out the crucial details upon which the future of tens of millions depends, allowing more radical, less intellectual forces to take power into their hands and return Russia firmly to an authoritarian course.
It is tough to imagine a good scenario for the future of Russia. While the “Russian Democratic Forces” can talk a good game, peddling simple ideas and superficial solutions, they have a poor history of delivering on their vision.
Over the last twenty-three years, they have proved unable to subjugate their overblown egos in the interests of a nation. That is why Putin had such an easy time dividing and conquering.
Any hope that there is a political force capable of leading Russia to a future other than breaking apart on the one hand or transforming into a larger version of North Korea under an even more brutal tyrant than the venerable Putin is, in my opinion, a misplaced pipe dream. Indeed, there is only one conclusion to be drawn: “Après Putin, le déluge!”
Alexander Kabanovsky is formerly Russia-based banker and entrepreneur. This article first appeared on his substack “Thinking Out Loud” here.
“Politics, history, culture and whatever strikes me as important or interesting. For the time being, highly focused on the war in Ukraine.”