How the War in Ukraine Can Turn into a War in Russia

Sergei Erofeev, research professor at Rutgers University and senior fellow at the Polish Institute of Advanced Studies, has bad news for those who think that for Putin everything boils down to the warfare in Ukraine and that with its end there will be peace.

The predetermined defeat in Ukraine – which is only a matter of time and price – does not mean the end of the current devastating war. Putin has empirically proved that he will fight back until he is removed from power. A palace coup in the current situation is too hypothetical, premature suicide through the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield is even worse, and return to the pre-war state equaling defeat is impossible. This means that the war – in one form or another – will move on to Russian territory.

Putin’s withdrawal from Ukraine can be presented and propagated by the state media as a mix of sensible retreat and victory. It can be said that, in the course of the “special military operation”, Putin has somewhat defeated Nazism or something else equally or almost equally important, while, at the same time, having solved certain Russia’s problems, for example, the problem of lack of patriotism. It is important to understand that having forgotten about the existence of such an enemy as Ukrainians (for him it has always been temporary, situational and, despite the actual horror, instrumental), Putin will throw his last forces into a war with his archenemy – the Russian people.

This is destined to happen: Putin’s attempts to move to full-fledged mobilization without which he simply has insufficient resources to endure, will also mean mobilization of his opponents.

What Russians is Putin going to fight? The answer has long been there: all those who are against him. This war is already underway, the only questions being about the degree of, as some political commentators say, its hybridity and about the growth in the number of Putin’s active opponents. The transition from informational autocracy to an attempt to establish a totalitarian order has already been completed with independent media destroyed and key opponents imprisoned or exiled. This attempt is doomed to fail but it is going to bring troubles to the Russian society comparable to war or, indeed, being a kind of civil war. To fully unleash this new stage of the current war, Putin – provided that the current structure of his personal security remains unchanged – needs to transfer all loyal combat-ready forces, including parts of his army, to the streets of Russian cities.

Putin’s open war against the Russians as a future modern nation can give them a chance to atone for what Russia is doing in Ukraine, free Northern Eurasia of Russian imperialism and rid the whole world of further nuclear blackmail

Will this involve actual military clashes with self-organized civil groups and army splinter units? Right now, this can only be speculated about. It is clear that Putin’s last resources will be spent on those who will fight for him in one form or another until they reconsider the costs and benefits of their actions.

Putin’s power system has already changed its operational regime twice – in 2011-12 and in 2020. The next regime change can be presented by him as a transition from the “special military operation” in Ukraine to a “counter-terrorist operation” within Russia. We can already see its rehearsal in Belarus. Putin’s new plan may be based on fighting “terrorist attacks” of “the Anglo-Saxons” supported by “Ukrainian diversionists” and “the wrong Russians”. Almost anything will be possible to be presented as such attacks – from the work of lawyers to arsons of governmental offices, from the mobilized civilians’ riots to Internet resistance, and from transportation sabotage to open armed skirmishes.

Putin is losing his main weapon of “slowly cooking the frog of the Russians” because history is accelerating. Until the mobilization was announced, he had managed to avoid radically shocking the society from the break of his long-term contract with it. Neither the pension reform nor the full-scale aggression against Ukraine served as such a shock. But Putin still runs the other important shock-mitigating instrument which is lies and euphemisms. Therefore, he will disguise the transfer of the war to his own territory with the help of propaganda and avoid openly declaring a full martial law since it would imply the possibility of defeat. Enemy actions on the Russian territory will have to be presented as rather massive but, at the same time, marginal to avoid admitting that there is a civil war with his own people or that some Anglo-Saxons are already there.

To ensure temporary success, Putin will have to disrupt the remaining normal work of all civil and economic structures from education to business, and fully subdue “the creative class” and wage workers’ organizations. But the main danger for him will be – at least at first – not even an open armed resistance but the structural condition of his bureaucracy. It is the Russian bureaucrats and not the security forces, not to mention the “intelligentsia”, who represent the backbone of the country. It is in this domain that critical sabotage is possible in a variety of forms and at every level – from a passport-issuing officer to a school principal and from housing infrastructure workers to managers of state-owned enterprises, governors and ministers.

It may sound paradoxical, but Putin’s open war against the Russians as a future modern nation (it does not matter whether it will eventually become a confederation or not) can give them a chance to atone for what Russia is doing in Ukraine, free Northern Eurasia of Russian imperialism and rid the whole world of further nuclear blackmail. Some Russians may soon respond to Putin’s war quite radically – so that their historical guilt is fully redeemed. This may incur enormous losses possibly exceeding those of the Ukrainians, but this may be how the century-long Civil War in the Eastern European space will eventually end.

While, at the moment, such a scenario may seem no more likely than a palace coup against Putin, it may be a way for the Russian society to radically change itself for the better in a relatively short time, but it may come at a price of numerous victims among the general population. There is hardly any doubt that Putin is ready for that: he started his war in Ukraine not only to solve the legitimacy problem in the face of future presidential elections, but also to show his own people what he can do to them physically to preserve his system.

Putin’s general power retention resources currently seem to exceed the costs of his defeat in Ukraine. This means that it is unlikely that a war within Russia can be avoided. However, this transferred war can be made less bloody. How to achieve this is to be discussed separately.