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Future Perfect

The West May Get a Second Chance to Nurture a New Russia

With Ukraine seizing momentum in the war, the time is ripe for Western political leaders to ponder a post-Putin future—and how to avoid the mistakes that ushered in his dictatorship.

Russian President Vladimir Putin peeks out from behind a grey curtain.
Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin

The past week has been unlike anything seen yet in the war in Ukraine. Following months of planning, Ukrainian forces barreled through Russian lines in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, rolling back Moscow’s troops. While the final casualty numbers remain uncertain, it’s clear that Ukraine has recaptured more territory in the past week than Russia was able to capture in the last five months. None of which means it’s time to declare this war over. But the path to Ukrainian victory suddenly seems far more attainable than anyone had the right to expect at the outset. Momentum has shifted—and there’s no reason to think that will change in the near future.

But with Ukraine seizing the initiative, it’s now time for the West to start thinking more broadly about the road ahead. The impact of the past week’s successes has only begun to reverberate. Western policymakers need to begin gaming out the likely, and the preferred, scenarios for what happens when Ukraine turns its theory of victory into a reality—and thinking hard about what it will take to nurture a restored Ukraine, a new Russia, a changing Europe, and a lasting peace.

Because one thing is clear: If and when Ukraine proves victorious—if and when Ukraine boots Russians from every inch of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea—there won’t be a simple return to the status quo ante. Ukraine will be assured a future place in the European Union at the very least, and potentially even in NATO. And Russia will suddenly be facing a situation unlike anything seen in decades, both as it pertains to the country’s leadership and as it pertains to the shape and structure of the country as a whole.

Game this out for a moment. Should Ukraine manage to uproot Russian forces from within its borders—which would likely bring devastating casualty numbers; they are already far surpassing what the Americans saw in Vietnam—the basic platform buttressing Putin’s leadership will crumble. Putin, after all, has staked his leadership on entrenching Russia’s status as a supposed “great power” and on supposedly protecting Russian “compatriots” in places like Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Combine that with sanctions that are “crippling” the Russian economy—plus hundreds of thousands of demobilized troops, saturated in violence and looking for those responsible for Russia’s loss—and Putin’s days as Russian leader will be effectively numbered. As noted Russian sociologist Greg Yudin recently tweeted, “Putin will not survive the military defeat in a war where he staked the whole country.”

Naturally, that would be phenomenal news (as it is whenever any genocidal tyrant is toppled). But it’s in that very moment that things have the potential to become far, far more explosive than they are even now—and when the fractures of Russian society will become far more evident than they currently seem. Putin’s fall will precipitate some amount of chaos, as the centrifugal forces that have already begun to operate on the nation’s political culture accelerate and threaten to splinter a federation that has long been held together with little more than rent-seeking and rank brutality. And it’s when the West has to be ready. When identical trends tore apart the Soviet Union in 1991, it wasn’t.

For many in the West, the idea remains that Russia stands as some kind of cohesive, coherent construct. But that is a fallacy. Not only were the borders of the Russian Federation delineated by a claque of Communists a century ago, but, as one analysis in New Eastern Europe recently read, “There is no great difference between the former Soviet republics, which gained their independence in 1991, and the ‘autonomous republics’ of the Russian Federation, which were unable to do so at the time.” Places such as Kalmykia and Bashkortostan, Tatarstan and Chuvashia, Chechnya and Sakha and Buryatia: All of these colonized nations pushed toward sovereignty during the Soviet collapse but fell short of independence. All of them ended up subsumed into Russia once more. And all of them have seen their nationals slaughtered at a far higher rate than ethnic Russians during the war in Ukraine—turned into cannon fodder, once more, for a despot in the Kremlin.

And as Russia loses the war, and as Putin loses his grip on power, there’s little reason to think these nations will go along with yet another Russian imperial project or line up behind another Russian imperial tyrant. Already, the conversations among these colonized nations are “more radical compared to the old conformities and silences,” The Financial Times recently reported. “They are talking about colonialism and imperialism, ethnic and racial discrimination.” Recent conferences among members of these nations have already started plotting out a future without Putin—and a future without Russia.

This is all, presumably, years in the future. But it’s also a reality that becomes more and more apparent by the day—especially after the past week. “Sooner or later something will happen to Putin and everything will fall apart,” Ukrainian editor Oleksiy Radynski recently said. “The end of Putin will mark the end of Russia as we know it.”

This is a shift the West needs to begin preparing for, the sooner the better. It begins with decolonizing our own broader thinking about Russia—recognizing Russia as the lone remaining European empire, and treating it as such. Part of that also has to do with building up Western relations with these colonized nations. “U.S. policymakers should shift the lens through which they view Russia and work toward building channels for diplomatic negotiations and economic partnerships, as well as focusing its soft power projection efforts on the regions and not just the Kremlin,” as Leyla Latypova recently wrote. “As Washington-Moscow relations worsen, it is more important than ever to recognize that a greater diversity of potential partnerships exists in Russia and to open new paths with other power centers across the vast country.”

And part of that is, at a bare minimum, familiarizing ourselves with the historic crimes and legacies of Russian colonialism, especially among those nations still considered part of Russia proper. Russia not only slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chechens but also legalized the enslavement (the “enserfment,” as Russian officials called it) of Tatars, Kazakhs, and more. Russia forced the Kalmyk nation to flee across the Eurasian steppe, with over two-thirds of Kalmyks dying as a result. Russia ordered the execution of one Bashkir for every Bashkir who tried to flee the long grasp of Russian colonization.

This is just a taste of the nation’s long imperial history. Over and over, Russia followed the identical patterns of its imperial European peers, dressing up its designs in innocent claims that it was spreading “civilization” to populations in great need of correction. As scholar Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote, Russia was “fundamentally no different from … the Western European empires.” And we know what happened to all of these other European empires.

This, then, is what is in store for Russia, barring something unforeseen: Putin’s ouster, Russian destabilization, and the emergence of anti-colonial movements that have been long buried but never disappeared. It’s a situation nearly identical to what we saw in 1991, when the West did everything it could to keep Russia together—turning a blind eye to the Tuvans, Chechens, Tatars, and more who all tried to claim their own sovereignty from Moscow.  

We can’t afford another case of history repeating. “Our failure to prepare for the last Russian collapse some 30 years ago, and the internal unrest that ensued in its aftermath, arguably led to the Putin presidency,” retired U.S. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe from 2014 to 2017, recently wrote. “We cannot risk being unprepared a second time.” He’s exactly right. Otherwise, we’ll be repeating this cycle yet again, decades from now, when some new Russian leader tries to claim Moscow’s right to dominate its neighbors—and tries to complete the disastrous project Putin left unfinished.