When the Dust Settles

Vasily Gatov, media analyst and senior fellow in USC Annenberg Center – CCLP, makes an attempt at a medium-range prognosis in an impossible situation.

  • All wars come to an end: through questionable peace or the defeat of one side. Call the war by any name – a “special operation”, or a “fulfillment of international duty” – it will still come to an end. In the new millennium, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is the first truly large war, which employs hundreds of thousands of soldiers, from which many civilians suffer and in the aftermath of which tens of thousands of people on both sides are losing their lives.
  • The unique feature of the war waged by Putin in Ukraine is that it is a war of the military machine of a state that is large, but not united by anything, with a political nation that is much less populous, but certainly united in their strife. And it turned out unimportant, which language citizens of Ukraine speak – they, without a doubt, proved to be Ukrainians. If Putin read anything besides the informational debris fed to him by special services in “little red folders”, he could have noticed that the formation of the political Ukrainian nation occurred a rather long time ago. Through his own actions – the annexation of Crimea and the support of separatists in Donbass – he, one could say, “formatted” this event documentally. Despite all the political fragmentation of the Ukrainian society, internal hassles and conflicts, the presence of direct traitors in the Rada and even in the special services – at the moment that their nation was attacked, Ukrainians turned out to be a unified nation, which came together and showed its teeth so effectively that the nearly 200 thousand group of the Russian Federation Armed Forces got stuck not just in the local marshland, but also in the totality national resistance.
  • Unlike Russia, the free political environment of Ukraine did not enable the negative selection of politicians and bureaucrats. Even with a quite high level of corruption, Ukrainian politicians, both national and local, had to remain human and interact with other people. As a result, we see that besides the heroic president Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian political nation is represented by his counselors, the prime minister, the defense minister, the heads of the regional administrations, mayors, and even the former presidents and ministers – and all of them are able to speak openly, beautifully and powerfully, to explain their actions and feelings, to show humanity and sincerely regret the victims that were made. As their counterpersons, Russia displays the shameful robot Konashenkov, accompanied by the so-called diplomats Nebenzya and Polyanski in the UN, with the rare sightings of Putin (which some suspect are staged) and Lavrov. Not a single one of these characters is endowed with empathy, not one has anything remotely similar to charisma, and the defeat in this regard is full and evidently final.
  • I am not a specialist in military affairs and will not judge on how poorly the operation of the Armed Forces is going. It is definitely not going “well”, because the bombing of peaceful Ukrainian cities and villages is not a way to win the war. This is a way to become war criminals, to the name of which captured Russian officers own up to during press conferences in Ukraine: the documental evidence of cluster and thermobaric weapons against non-military objects is enough to put both those who gave the orders and those who followed them behind bars for the rest of their lives.
  • However, I believe myself to be a sufficiently competent analyst of a different part of military affairs – the evaluation of the form, location and role of the military offices, the army, the fleet and the special services in the activities of a given state. What happened – a provoked aggressive war with multiple victims, both troops and civilians – regretfully does not give us enough foundations to forecast the development of the situation. The nervous equilibrium of the second week of March may be upset at any moment, for example, by an insane attempt at a tank breakthrough into the Kiev city center, or a carpet bombing of the Dnieper. Or perhaps it will remain still.
  • If the war in Ukraine does not evolve into a global thermonuclear conflict (that is the single limitation of any modeling), there are two key scenarios for its inevitable end. The first scenario is the attrition of the Russian army’s attacking capabilities with the simultaneous strengthening of the Ukrainian army through the supply of most modernized weapons, and the achievement of a some kind of truce. With this in mind, Ukraine will never officially accept the “loss” of its occupied territories. Together with the unprecedented sanction pressure on the economy and social life in Russia, such an outcome puts the numerous options of regime change in the Kremlin on the agenda. The second scenario, a more somber one, is a significant mobilization inside the Russian Federation, which would allow it to occupy the entire Eastern part of Ukraine through Dnieper/Southern Bug with numerous, albeit poorly trained divisions. Under the second scenario, keeping the situation under control would only be possible only through the measures of extreme police totalitarianism, which, in the context of the ongoing economic catastrophe, could lead to absolutely unpredictable problems inside Russia, first and foremost in its largest cities.
  • If we are to change our optics and consider the consequences of this war in a more long-term historical perspective, several strange theses become clear:
    – The rebellion of 1,3% of the global economy (even with China’s silent approval) against 50% of the global economy could lead to nothing but an embarrassing defeat;
    The number of victims among troops will be significantly higher than throughout the entire war in Afghanistan, and the attitude towards veterans (considering the unique features of the current Russian regime) will be even more brutish than the one toward “Afghans”;
    – Two “classes” will emerge among the troops: those whose arms are soaked to the elbow with Ukrainian blood, and those who, due to various reasons, were not directly involved at least in the initial stage of the conflict;
    – The so–called “law enforcement organs” inside Russian Federation will evolve into a factual gestapo, since no one will control the cruelty of treatment of arrestants, especially political ones, in any way; the authorities will inevitably have to resort to forced labor, a compulsory draft and other elements of totalitarian rule of society (a reminder that this all will be taking place under the conditions of inevitable economic collapse).
    So, when considering the near future, we can envision a complete fascist state, controlled by excessive police terror, bound with the blood of captured territories (and willing to spill the blood of its own population), in a most grave conflict without a real chance for victory with the majority of the world, and under the growing influence of China, who won’t shy away from using the new opportunities. In the meanwhile, a guerilla war is raging on the so-called conquered territories: those very rockets (if not the reconstructed Pershing-2), which Putin was so worried about, are now certainly standing in Jelgava and Pytalovo (those very 600 km of flight, less than 10 minutes), no international collaboration, COCOM sanctions, the disintegration of higher education – all this is the new Russian reality.
  • This reality is upheld on three pillars: Putin’s personality, the profits of the security management sector (because the economy will simply be given to the FSB as a fief-office) and enormous military expenses (because one has to provide for the army’s loyalty somehow). Any problems with Putin personally will lead to an instant violent conflict between the second and the third pillar, the scale of which will only depend on what kind of plans at this moment, beautiful for the rest of the world, the generals of each side have been harboring. That their ultimate dream is to see each other executed with a firing squad against the Kremlin wall is pretty much guaranteed.
  • Of course, there is yet another option, wherein victory over Ukraine will not happen, and, due to some kind of complicated reasons, the Russian army will have to retreat, fully or partially. A retreat, even if the propaganda will sell it to the population as a strategic success, will require an analysis of who’s to blame. Its consequences are generally known; however, there are nuances. From the “security” point of view, all of the Russian special services together do not have anything to juxtapose against the brutal strength of the Armed Forces, if a conflict emerges between them. Military officials will overpower any resistance through sheer numbers, not really accounting for the losses. The problem lies in the fact that historically, military officials in Russia are a force outside of politics, albeit one loyal to the country’s administration. What happens if there is no administration? If it has no legitimacy in the eyes of military officials – and, in the case of a crisis, I do not even mean the defense minister or the head of the general staff; what about the regular generals commanding the land forces or the special operation troops?
  • As I have already mentioned earlier, the Russian Federation Armed Forces will be divided into two large groups – “arms up to the elbow in Ukrainian blood” and “the uninvolved”. As of now, the second group remains both more populous and clearly stronger from the positioning point of view.