international analysis and commentary

Moscow’s vulnerability

From Aspenia international 2-2023


Despite the apparent stability of an authoritarian war regime that still has resources available to it, Russia’s future is uncertain. Whereas Vladimir Putin came to power promising to restore order following the “chaos” of the Yeltsin years, he has actually been creating the conditions for anarchy. The Russian regime is under the illusion that it can keep control of the post-Soviet space, but it risks having to negotiate with the new republics over new forms of decentralization.


“It’s a stab in the back for our country, and our people. Just such a blow was dealt in 1917, when the country was fighting in World War I, but its victory was stolen. Intrigues and bickering behind the army’s back turned out to be the greatest catastrophe, the destruction of the army and the state, the loss of huge territories, resulting in a tragedy and a civil war.” (Vladimir Putin, June 24, 2023.)

In his video message to the nation on June 24, Vladimir Putin compared Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow – which was under way at the time – to 1917. The parallel, so evidently excessive, between the unrest and revolutions of that year and the mutiny by the head of Wagner, revealed just how unprepared the Kremlin was for dealing with the operation. Above all, it showed that in Moscow there was, and still is, a real fear of a civil war.


THE PRECEDENTS FOR PRIGOZHIN’S REVOLT. In truth, rather than the Bolshevik revolution, Prigozhin’s march partly calls to mind two recent episodes in Russian history, in which the risk of civil war was very real, and which left a deep impression on the Russian president’s generation. The first was the failed August 1991 coup, when members of Mikhail Gorbachev’s government – including the Defense and Interior Ministers, and the head of the KGB – declared a state of emergency, and sent tanks out into Moscow to avert a Soviet disintegration. Their actions actually ended up accelerating this. The second is the bombing of parliament by President Boris Yeltsin in October 1993, which put a violent end to a clash between institutions over the new Constitution, and in which hundreds of people died. But whereas in 1991 the Soviet institutions were already on the brink of collapse, and in 1993 the “new” Russia was at the height of a crisis and in the midst of transition, today the situation is different: Putin is still in control of the country, the opposition is repressed (or in jail) and the economic situation is not dramatic.

Despite the current stability of an authoritarian war regime, which still has resources available to it, the country’s future remains uncertain. After Prigozhin’s public execution, in the form of a “mysterious” airplane accident on August 23, Putin’s Russia has, on the one hand, reinforced its Stalin-like characteristics; on the other hand, it has acted in such a way as to recall the era of the 1990s mafia gangs. The fatal attack on the Wagner chief, and Putin’s comment on the subject a few hours later (“He was a talented man who made many mistakes in his life”), set the official seal on the fact that the only law that counts in the country is the law of the boss. However, the consequences of Prigozhin’s elimination are paradoxical.


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While Putin came to power promising to restore order after the “chaos” of the Yeltsin years, in actual fact, for some time now, he has been creating the conditions for that same anarchy that he used to say he wanted to avoid at all costs: a political system that is collapsing in on itself, that is shored up only by the president himself, where the relationship of trust with elite groups – even when they form part of his inner circle – is broken and has been replaced by fear, where non-institutional actors that serve the purposes of the regime – including (and especially) criminal actors – have ample scope to do business and to line their pockets.

Faced with the prospect of opaque and difficult days ahead for Russia, some historians have started to talk about a new “Time of Troubles,” referring to the years of political anarchy between the end of the sixteenth century and the start of the seventeenth. This was the period that followed the death of Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV), and preceded the arrival in power of the Romanov dynasty, in 1613. But as well as helping us to imagine what factors will be important in Russia’s political evolution in the years ahead, such historical parallels also serve to spell out the differences between what is happening today and the great historical turning-points of the past.


THE ILLUSION OF POST-SOVIET DOMINION. In his linear and two-dimensional version of history, divorced from any context, Putin tends to put the 1917 revolution and the collapse of the USSR on the same footing: two moments of crisis and disintegration of a centralized, Russian-led, imperial entity that were humiliating internationally and disastrous domestically, and which must not be repeated. But one fundamental difference between the Bolshevik revolution and the end of the Soviet Union was their outcome in territorial and thus political terms. In 1917 the imperial space, which was huge and multiethnic, only fell apart for a few short years. At the cost of a civil war, and major territorial losses (Poland, Finland, the Baltic states), and despite the radical change at the top, with the advent of Communism, the Bolsheviks regained most of the lands lost in the previous years, and the tsars’ era was over.

With the collapse of the USSR, on the other hand, Moscow lost – for a long time, perhaps for all time – the former Soviet republics. Its imperial nature (but not its imperialism) is gone. Up until Maidan in 2014, and even more so until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many people in Moscow had not really accepted this loss. Yeltsin himself, who immediately recognized the independence of the new states, believed that the post-Soviet space would continue to revolve around Russia, and to be influenced by it. One of the reasons for this illusion was that – unlike the break marked by the years 1917-1921, and unlike in the case of Yugoslavia – the Soviet break-up was largely peaceful. The continuity of the elite in government and in the various administrations – despite a number of new features – was very pronounced.


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This very idea – namely, that the former republics, and Ukraine first and foremost – were destined to remain within Moscow’s orbit come what may, explains the inertia and substantially passive stance with which Russia has handled relations with the post-Soviet space over the last three decades. Moscow has pursued unsystematic policies aimed at attracting the return of the Russian diaspora and made few investments. This idea also helps us understand why Putin genuinely believed that many Russian-speaking Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers as liberators. In any case, even when Russia has resorted to force in Georgia and Ukraine – to impose a political direction opposed to the autonomous, anti-Russian direction that was about to gain the upper hand – “successes” have only been relative and partial, and certainly not comparable to the lands recaptured by the Bolsheviks.

It is safe to say that, since 1991, Russia has contented itself (also because it was unable to do anything else) with keeping one foot in the former Soviet republics, and exerting strong but indirect influence over small, failed entities that were not recognized by the international community, from Transnistria to South Ossetia, and from Abkhazia to Donbass.


THE PROSPECT OF DISINTEGRATION. On the other hand, within its current borders, Russia is still a country on a continental scale. It is multiethnic (although less than before: today around 80% of the population is Russian), and, above all, it is still organized along the lines of the Soviet federal structure. For this reason, it is possible that future crises in the system may follow similar dynamics to those experienced by Russia both in 1917 and in 1991: that is, peripheral areas may play an essential role in determining changes in the leadership. Indeed, in both cases, the corrosion of power – first in St Petersburg and later in Moscow – led to a loss of control over the lands of the empire and of the Union. This in turn led to the break-up of the country and contributed in a crucial way to the collapse of the regime.

In today’s Russia, the scenario of a break-up along the lines of the imperial and Soviet one seems remote. After all, there is a major presence of Russians, or mixed families, in all the so-called “ethnic” regions of the country, including Tatarstan and Bashkiria. By contrast, it is realistic to imagine that, as available resources dwindle, owing to the war, local pressures on the Kremlin may increase. The Kremlin will not always be able to ignore them. However authoritarian it is, the government might be forced to negotiate a partial decentralization of powers, after years of intense recentralization. More specifically, some developments could be similar to those seen in the years of perestroika, with an initial phase in which, instead of openly opposing the regime, representatives of the republics call for greater recognition of local cultural and linguistic identities, before advancing more strictly political demands.


WHAT PRIGOZHIN’S MARCH HAS REVEALED. In hindsight, it is easy to see the dramatic and tragic side of the Prigozhin operation, rather than the threat that the Wagner chief represented vis-à-vis the Kremlin, for a few hours. However, the mutiny had major consequences for the regime’s internal organization. It showed, live on tv, that despite its appearance of monolithic power, the Kremlin is vulnerable for two reasons: one, because the government has outsourced a number of activities for conducting the war in Ukraine (and elsewhere) to external players who are unreliable; two, because it has been made clear, once again, that total control of Russia’s entire territory is a perennial illusion. It lives on in Russia’s collective imagination, but it can only endure for as long as the center maintains its legitimacy and credibility with an iron fist.

While on the one hand, as stated earlier, Prigozhin’s march made clear the feudal and gangster-run aspects of today’s Russia, the fundamental difference between the 1990s and today is the omnipresence of the state in all areas of activity. This was not the case in the Yeltsin era. The mutiny was in part a direct product of post-Soviet Russia, populated by actors, starting with Putin and Prigozhin, who owe their entire careers to the collapse of the USSR. However, the regime is much more akin to a form of neo-Stalinism than it is to a reproduction of Yeltsin’s two periods as president. Instead of entering a crisis, the regime reacted, predictably, by further strengthening its control over domestic military organizations. It did this, apparently, via purges of a number of generals, and by seeking to reduce the contribution of paramilitary groups that did not answer directly to the Kremlin.

From the economic point of view, official figures from summer 2023 prove that Russia’s economy is suffering from the impact of sanctions, and from the parallel rise in military spending. We are seeing, and will continue to see, an overall worsening of the average standard of living, as well as shortages in the industrial sector. This is true both in terms of personnel – many people have left the country or have been mobilized – and in terms of the production of goods not destined for the military sector.


POST-POST-SOVIET RUSSIA. It remains to be seen whether Russia will experience a political and economic crisis such as the one that led to the collapse of the USSR. It is not clear whether the country is recreating the conditions that caused the dramatic default of 1998, in which a sizable chunk of the population lost all their savings. While it is impossible to know how the situation will evolve, and how long the conflict will carry on, it is certain that the elite – formed by bureaucrats and technocrats who are currently in charge of the economy, starting with the director of the Central Bank of Russia, Elvira Nabiullina – are much better prepared than the elite that was in charge of Soviet and Russian finances two decades ago. Those figures helped to aggravate the crises that were already under way, to no small degree.

Indeed, an important new feature in recent years has been the generational shift that has taken place within the central and regional public administrations. These are now populated by more efficient officials who did not live through the Soviet era; many of them have even spent significant amounts of time abroad, experiencing other cultures and other thought processes. Understanding this new generation – knowing what they think, and how their positions are evolving – is central to understanding what kind of Russia we will be dealing with in the near future. It can help us judge the prospects of survival for Putin’s regime, after Putin is gone.

In this context, the other major new development is the Kremlin’s gamble that it can do without the West. For the last 30 years, after all, Russia has seen itself as being an integral part of the international system. That system may have been led by the United States, but Russia could impose rules of its own. Furthermore, over time, closer ties with China and with new countries could change the mentality, priorities, and professional and educational destinations of those Russians who did not leave their country when the war broke out.

In a relatively short space of time, the leadership elite will be very different than that which we have known thus far – including its president. The very notion of a “post-Soviet” regime, a notion implying continuity with a very specific cultural universe and set of values – one that is already obsolete today – will lose its last remaining shreds of viability.



*This article has been published on Aspenia 2-2023