Russia’s future: if Putin is ousted, forget the risk of an even worse dictator!

  • 2023-07-19
  • Anders Aslund

I never thought that the Soviet Union would persist. It was just too cruel and inefficient. I thought the repressed Baltic people would regain their independence and democracy. My dream as a teenager was to stand on the Red Square and shout “Down with communism!” I was happy to see all that come true, working as an economic advisor to the reformist Gaidar government in Moscow, 1991-94.

This experience makes me biased. I believe in Russia’s democratic future. My friend Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is now absurdly prosecuted for treason, always states that whenever offered a free choice, Russians have voted for democracy. The Levada Center’s opinion polls have indicated a stable Russian view. One-third of the Russians favor European liberalism; one-third are dumb Putinistas; and one-third are apolitical, staying as far as possible from politics. Russians are not that different from ordinary Europeans.

Russia’s future is likely to be determined by the outcome of its war in Ukraine. Two scenarios appear most likely. One is that Ukraine launches a successful counteroffensive this spring and that Ukrainian forces seize Melitopol, the main traffic juncture south of the Dnipro between Crimea and Donetsk. That would leave Crimea highly vulnerable. Ukraine does not need to concur it immediately. It can simply strangle supplies to Crimea, undermining the large Russian garrison there.

The alternative scenario is that Ukraine’s offensive does not materialize or fails. Then, the current stalemate since October would continue and the pressure on Ukraine to concede to a humiliating defeat would increase. But all Ukrainians know that such a defeat would pose an existential threat to Ukraine, since Russia presumably would attack the rest of Ukraine after having recovered sufficient military strength.

Obviously, the collective West needs to provide Ukraine with all the offensive arms ity needs right now, so that Ukraine can win a decisive victory in the south. It makes no sense to hold back. Russia already does everything it can to defeat Ukraine, so it cannot escalate. Whoever starts using nuclear arms will die rather than benefit, and Putin is not mad, so that is no real risk. 

Besides, the Ukrainians use Western arms much more effectively than anybody else. Last year, the US gave Ukraine only 3% of the US defense budget, but Ukraine took out half of the conventional Russian armed forces. 

If Ukraine takes Melitopol and cuts off the land bridge between Crimea and Donetsk, it has won the war. The rest is essentially a mopping up operation. And Putin is unlikely to stay in power. The man is obviously dead scared to be murdered by one of his closest collaborators. He holds a Security Council approximately every ten days, but last year he held only three such meetings in person, and none so far this year. He does not let his closest aides to come closer than ten meters, presumably suspecting that they may poison him. We have also all reasons to believe that he operates with two doubles for popular events among strangers, as in Sevastopol and Mariupol. He lives in bunkers in Valdai, Novoe Ogarevo and Sochi, and travels between these bunkers in armored trains. Stalin was paranoid, but Putin is far more so.

 A lost war or the demise of a cruel dictator has usually led to a liberalization in Russia. That was the case after the Crimean War in 1853-6, the Russo-Japanese War 1904-5, the February Revolution 1917, the death of Stalin in 1953, the death of Brezhnev in 1982, and the August 1991 coup. 

If Putin is ousted, forget the risk of an even worse dictator! Such were the flawed fears after Stalin and Brezhnev. Putin’s regime is an authoritarian kleptocracy, a personal authoritarian regime without values or supporting institutions. Nobody will be worse than Putin. Such a regime will just collapse as happened in August 1991. Russians will be tired of war. 

The key to success is to instigate democratic elections to a new parliament as soon as possible and the FSB must be dissolved.

Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University; together with former Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, he has just published the book “Reconstruction, Reform, and EU Accession for Ukraine.”