Main Image Credit Depiction of Bloody Sunday, 22 January 1905, a key event during Russia's 1905 Revolution. Painting by Vladimir Makovsky
A domestic upheaval in Russia may not be likely, but Western governments would be negligent if they did not plan for the possibility.
Authoritarian governments are often better able to sustain legitimacy amid a protracted attritional struggle than recover from defeat. Russia now faces the prospect of a military defeat in Ukraine having spent months radicalising its own population. Moreover, such a defeat strikes at the heart of the identity that the Kremlin has promulgated for Russians for at least the past decade. It is vital that Ukraine’s international partners think through and prepare reactions to what has the potential to become a volatile situation.
Firstly, it is important to underscore why revolution in Russia is unlikely. The repressive powers of the state are extensive, the population is mostly politically apathetic, and the geographical distances separating communities make organisation of political movements difficult to carry out undetected. There are few plausible opposition figureheads. Movements like Alexei Navalny’s are thoroughly infiltrated by the Special Services. The robustness of Saddam Hussein’s grip on power after defeat in the Iran–Iraq War and even more conclusively in Kuwait shows that regimes can survive and recover from failure.
In spite of sound analytical reasons for assuming that Vladimir Putin’s leadership will remain stable, it must also be acknowledged that intelligence agencies have a terrible track record of predicting revolution: Western agencies failed to predict the Iranian Revolution or the fall of the Soviet Union. This is because intelligence agencies gather information on groups, organisations and networks who actively plan with intent. But most revolutionary situations are not the result of an organised group challenging the state.
Whether in 1905, 1917 or 1989, revolutionary conditions in Russia were brought about through a collapse in cooperation with – rather than resistance to – the state, weakening it sufficiently to enable other actors to gain freedom of action. Moreover, all three of these very different revolutionary moments partly emanated from military defeat, poor economic prospects, and crucially, a collapse in confidence among Russian elites. The ambivalence of the latter in enacting repression can rapidly generate the space for a plethora of popular grievances to be vocalised.
Rather like a row of shark’s teeth, whoever replaces Putin would likely have a similar outlook, use similar methods, and be deeply distrustful of the West
The emergence of a revolutionary situation does not inevitably lead to revolution. 1905 saw limited reforms in an attempt to placate the Russian population, only for these to be subsequently curtailed. 1917 saw months of political wrangling and the continued failure of the state to manage the war effort, sufficiently weakening the Provisional Government to enable one of the 20th century’s most devastating political ideologies to carry out a coup d’état. 1989 began as a revolution from above, but rapidly fell out of Gorbachev’s hands and created the opportunity for a new relationship between the West and Russia – arguably an opportunity squandered.
Contemplating the current situation, one can see multiple unlikely – but nevertheless plausible – scenarios. One is that Putin himself is viewed as personally responsible by the elite and is removed in a palace coup. Rather like a row of shark’s teeth, whoever replaced him would likely have a similar outlook, use similar methods, and be deeply distrustful of the West. Nevertheless, the international community would need to determine whether they offered this new leader the opportunity to turn the page so long as Russian forces departed Ukraine, rewarding a change in policy even if there was not necessarily a change in intent.
Another scenario could see veterans, regional governors and local authorities become increasingly critical of the central government, while the state apparatus suffers from a lethargic response from the official organs of state power. Such a situation could rapidly build momentum so that people begin to voice their own diffuse grievances, crippling manufacture, mobilisation and other functions critical in war. Importantly, many of these grievances may be difficult to justify repressing. For example, if Russian soldiers begin to die in Ukraine over the winter for want of winter clothing, protests criticising the incompetence of leaders who failed to equip the troops would be difficult to frame as unpatriotic.
There are multiple possible trajectories. One is that the Kremlin could embrace a populist approach and promise to resolve grievances through decisive action. Given that it is the hard-line nationalists who are most vocal and have the greatest latitude for organisation, the risk is that this is the ideology the Kremlin would seek to co-opt. The placation of that ideology would likely demand the most dangerous courses of action. It is this path that most plausibly leads to tactical nuclear use in Ukraine.
If potential scenarios have not been considered and if objectives have not been agreed, there is a risk that Western policy could rapidly fall behind events and become reactive
Alternatively, the Kremlin might try to buy off the various grievance groups with targeted and limited concessions. This could either defuse opposition or lead to an acceleration of demands. In the latter scenario, the Kremlin would face the decision of whether to unleash systematic repression. Such a move is often effective – but it can also fail. Much would depend upon the attitudes of the Rosgvardia and other law enforcement personnel in the wake of defeat in Ukraine.
At present, the primary focus of Western governments is the war in Ukraine and managing the risk of escalation. This is entirely appropriate. Nevertheless, if events develop in an unexpected direction, there are both favourable and dangerous outcomes. If these scenarios have not been considered and if objectives have not been agreed, there is a risk that Western policy could rapidly fall behind events and become reactive, coming too late to help produce a positive outcome, while signalling an intent that poisons any capacity for rapprochement. Just because it is unlikely does not mean we should not be prepared.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare