ANDREY KUZICHKIN Three scenarios for future Russia: destroy, isolate or transform

Andrey Kuzichkin
, columnist
Andrey Kuzichkin.
Andrey Kuzichkin. Photo: Konstantin Sednev
  • What to do with a Russia that is at war against Western civilization?
  • There are three main scenarios.
  • The most correct one seems the most difficult.

Many believe that only a military defeat and the collapse of Russia will eliminate the military threat to the entire world. Columnist Andrey Kuzichkin suspects that this is not quite right.

Recently, Mark Galeotti, who is the number one expert on Russia, formulated a very important idea: «The goal of Europe is to transform Russia into a stable, democratic, prosperous state where everyone lives happily. This is the best guarantee of European security in the long term.» The claim is bold at this time, since many Western experts, politicians, Russian exiles, and the majority of Ukrainian citizens are certain that only a military defeat and the collapse of Russia will eliminate the military threat to the entire world.

I want to share my opinion on this matter. But to begin with, I propose to agree on the basic term «Russian mentality». I will assess namely the Russian mentality, because 81 percent of the Russian population are Russians. And the fate of Russia is largely determined by the history and personal characteristics of the Russian people. This is not a manifestation of my imperialism, but the acknowledging of reality. In this context, the «mystery of the Russian soul» is not a metaphor, but an object of analysis and a tool for changing Russian society.

Of course, every nation is unique. What does the uniqueness of the Russian people involve? Russian and foreign philosophers, historians and writers agree that the Russian people, amazingly, possess a combination of laziness and industriousness, the cult of suffering and a sudden change of mind from a state of peace to a state of rage and aggression, the triumph of morality over law – hence the disregard for laws and a heightened sense of justice – , the superiority of the collective over the individual, paternalism and belief in fate. The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, who emigrated from Russia in 1922, noted that the character of the Russian person is very polarized: «On the one hand - humility, on the other – rebellion; on the one hand – compassion, on the other hand – cruelty, on the one hand – love of freedom, on the other hand – a tendency towards servitude.» Extremes and contradictions break the Russian soul. This is the essence of the Russian national character.

Refugee writer and Nobel Literature Prize laureate Ivan Bunin put it this way: «Like from a tree, both a bludgeon and an icon can be made from us, the Russians.» Therefore, no one should be surprised by the rapid change of heart of the Russians from loving Ukraine to hating everything Ukrainian, and the transformation of anti-war sentiment into militancy. The archetypes of the aggressive subconscious, awakened and fed by Russian television propaganda, easily destroyed the taboos of the civilized world, and turned a nation of liberators into an army of killers. Yesterday's anti-fascists requalified themselves as ideologues of Russian Nazism. Liberals became conservatives and loyalists, and the debauchees of the entertainment industry exchanged colorful clothes with Western brands for the domestic uniforms of the defenders of morals and those fighting against the LGBT.

The leader of the Kremlin, who shone yesterday on the political stages of European capitals and who was enticed by presidents and prime ministers from Washington to Tokyo, invaded Ukraine two years ago and started a war in Europe, and has now declared a crusade against the West and its «satellites». And here comes the question: what to do with a Russia that has essentially raised its sword against Western civilization?

Scenario number 1: «Destroy»

There are two ways to destroy Russia: either the whole world will burn with it in a nuclear fire, or the Russian state will be demolished to the ground. As I understand it, there aren't many people who want to start the last war in human history. There are many more who are waiting for Russia to be defeated militarily or to collapse on its own. Only all their expectations are in vain. Ukraine is not capable of causing Russia's military defeat, at best it can take back the occupied territories. And any invasion of Russia would lead to a rallying of the people around the leader and widespread popular resistance. There are also no prerequisites for the collapse of the Russian economy. Western sanctions limit the Putin regime's economic ability to wage war. But Russia still has a large margin of safety.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is often cited as a precedent. But analogies do not fit here. In the Soviet Union, there was a non-market mechanism of vertical distribution of resources and goods - from top to bottom. The goods ran out, the vertical broke and the economy collapsed. Modern Russia has a market economy and business is organized according to the network principle. It is like a network of canals that irrigate the fields. If one channel no longer lets water through, the same amount of water is redistributed to other channels. Therefore, there is no shortage of goods in the regions of Russia, which could trigger the disintegration of the common economic space, as happened in the Soviet Union in 1986-1991. The sharp drop in living standards quickly turned Soviet people into supporters of perestroika. There was a demand for change. Demonstrations and protests began. Everything is stable and calm in Putin's Russia – like in a cemetery.

There are also no political prerequisites for the collapse of Russia. In the Soviet Union, by 1991, an elite had emerged in the national republics and several regions, which distanced itself from Moscow. In Putin's Russia, the entire elite is on the Kremlin's short leash. Sometimes, there is talk of the «decolonization» of Russia, which is essentially a code name for the process of disintegration. But in the national republics that are part of Russia, no movements towards independence from Moscow can be seen, the FSB suppresses any separatism in its infancy. In addition, many national regions are dominated by the Russian population, which actively opposes the severance of relations with Moscow.

At the same time, the hypothetical collapse of Russia poses more threats to Europe than the preservation of a united Russian state. The reason for this is the threat of a mass emigration of millions of refugees from Russia to Europe and the loss of control over nuclear weapons, as well as the emergence of several dictatorships, especially in the Caucasus, which Russia has been trying to subjugate for 500 years but has never been able to do so. Thus, the option of destroying Russia does not seem realistic.

Scenario number 2: «Isolate»

Of course, the West can declare a complete political and economic blockade of Russia. In the world market, however, the complete isolation of national economies is impossible. Russia is among the top 10 countries in exporting 20 resources that are strategically important for global industry. Therefore, a complete embargo against Russia would mean a serious blow to the entire world economy. In addition, Russia's allies Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan create transit corridors for «parallel imports» from other countries and form an economic security cushion for Moscow. But the presence of Russia's large foreign trade partners in the form of China, Turkey, India, and Brazil guarantees the Putin regime an inflow of foreign currency in the long term, which eliminates commodity hunger in the Russian markets and is easily converted into internal political stability.

Under the sanctions of 2023, Russia's economy grew by 3.6 percent, unemployment fell to a historically low level of 3 percent, and the real incomes of residents grew by 5.4 percent. Of course, it is the military orders that ensure the growth of the industry. Even if the war ends with Moscow's victory, there will be zero industrial growth. Therefore, Putin is forced to continue the war, becoming a hostage of the war economy. Moreover, isolating Russia will not eliminate the military threat. For example, international sanctions have been imposed on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Iran, which are successfully developing and testing various types of strategic weapons, including those capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Scenario number 3: «Transform»

The most difficult and complicated option for Russia, but the only one that guarantees long and lasting peace in the whole world. In short, we are talking about another attempt to Westernize Russia with the inclusion of Russia in the multipolar world system as one of its poles. Is Russian society ready for this? Today – absolutely not. Is Europe ready for this? The answer is the same: no. Does this mean that there is no need to move in this direction? No: it's necessary, it's possible, and it's time to get moving.

As the already mentioned Russia expert Mark Galeotti said, Europe urgently needs a new Russia strategy. Of course, this strategy should include continued sanctions pressure on the Putin regime and military aid to Ukraine. But if the West wants positive changes in Russia, it is necessary to split Putin's elite and create a class of bearers of new thinking, leaders of Westernization policy. In order for the strategy to work, it is necessary to thoroughly study the state of Russian society and the elite, find out their needs and expectations, and find out the strengths and weaknesses of the Putin regime.

At present, the Russian society is in a completely depressing state. The indicator is, of course, the war in Ukraine, although it is second only to the rise in prices in Russians’ list of problems. Here are the most recent data from a sociological survey by the Levada Center, recognized as a foreign agent in Russia. In March 2024, a survey was conducted on the attitude of Russians towards the «special military operation» in Ukraine: 76 percent of respondents support the «operation». 40 percent of the respondents are in favor of continuing military activities, and 48 percent are in favor of peace negotiations. Since the last survey in August 2023, the number of supporters of the war has increased by 6 percent. At the same time, 10-14 percent of the respondents refuse to answer the questions. They can be classified as «hidden pacifists».

These figures illustrate well the contradictions of the Russian character: 76 percent of Russians support the war, but only 40 percent favor its continuation. Among the respondents, the group of young people aged 18-24 stands out, whose priorities are completely different compared to older age groups. The ratio of supporters/opponents of the war in Ukraine is 58/31 among young people, but 86/8 among the 65+ group. The ratio of those in favor of continuing the war/negotiating peace among young people is 22/59, but in the 55+ group it is 50/40. Data analysis shows that Russian youth are a target group among whom it is necessary to actively spread the values of freedom, democracy, human rights, humanism, and tolerance. This generation of Russians is the human starting capital, which can become an investment in the future of the new Russia. Communication channels are needed for contacts between Western and Russian youth.

YouTube channels can become the main means of influencing the mental state of Russian society, because, as research by the Levada Center shows, their audience is significantly different in terms of their views from those who get their information through TV channels. For example, 48 percent of consumers of information received from television and 17 percent of viewers of YouTube channels are in favor of continuing the war with Ukraine.

And we need a very competent information policy to create and promote Western narratives for Russia. All attempts to humiliate the Russians, which is done by many Ukrainian and European bloggers, serve only the interests of the Kremlin, which gains arguments from this to support the claim that Ukraine and the West are hostile to everything Russian. But this is the justification of aggression. Also, my personal experience has shown that the Russian people do not like it at all when the problems of Russian life are dissected with pleasure in Europe. Under the slogan «You live in shit!», foreign bloggers often show the poor life in Russia with broken roads and dilapidated houses in the mass media. The Russians' reaction is: «Yes, we live in shit! But this is our shit! And don't you come to teach us!». Therefore, it is not necessary to show the Russian audience their own manure, but to offer stories of European/Western successes and the advantages of the European way of life. Let them compare themselves.

Criticism of the Putin regime is necessary, but at the level of serious analysis, not in the form of insults. Honest news about the war in Ukraine are needed. And a lot of stories about what Russia of the future should be like are needed. Ideas that can unite Russians and awaken in them the desire for change are needed. For example, the idea of switching from a presidential republic to a parliamentary one in order to remove from Russia the curse of the «leadership cult», in which every resident of the Kremlin sooner or later turns into a tyrant. Throughout their history, Russians have fought not for a free state, but for freedom from a state. But the state was personified by the tsar/emperor/party leader/president who had hijacked the country. Parliamentary Russia will help return the stolen state to the people.

But in addition to high-flying politics, it is necessary to offer Russians recipes for simple human happiness. Specifically for this article, I conducted a focus group survey and asked 30 people living in Russia what they need to be happy. Health took first place with 90 percent of the responses, second is peace and stability with 60 percent of responses. One respondent said they were already happy. These are the guidelines for Europe's Russia strategy: to bring peace to Russia, high-quality Western medicine and make everyone happy like in Finland. People must believe that happiness is possible even without Putin.