By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
The first step in Russia’s disintegration was Vladimir Putin’s painstaking construction of a fascist political system centered on him and his personality cult as an infallible, vigorous and macho leader. Outsiders were impressed with what seemed to be a powerful and effective political system. In reality, Putin’s solipsistic fascism was unsustainable. It rested on Putin’s ability to project youth and vigor, qualities that inevitably diminished with age. It also increased elite in-fighting, bureaucratic empire building, systemic corruption, and individual buck-passing, thereby eviscerating the state and reducing it to a brittle shell, while at the same time transforming the economy into a source of personal enrichment for competing elites. Small wonder that the state’s vaunted military modernization was a bust.
The Putin state survived because Russian elites, like most Russians, found it to be convenient to pretend that all was well and that Russia was great again. That illusion crumbled in the aftermath of Putin’s idiotic decision to go for a quick, victorious, little war with Ukraine. The war also has delivered a body blow to the state. The military has proved to be inept. The policymakers lacked a clear plan of what they hoped to achieve. And the economy went into a slow secular decline, as a result of Western sanctions and unrestrained elite theft of scarce resources.
The war proved to be the spark that ignited the conflagration that threatens to burn down the Russian state. Putin is rapidly losing legitimacy, at home and abroad. The secret police are angry with him for blaming them for the military fiasco. The generals are angry that the war is destroying the armed forces. The pro-war faction in the policy elite blames him for being too soft. The pro-peace faction blames him for being too hard.
Russia’s foreign allies are also losing whatever respect they had for Putin. At the recent summit of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Putin publicly had to justify his actions in Ukraine to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who made no secret of Russia’s having become a very junior partner in their supposed alliance. Both Xi and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan, a country that Russian imperialists of Putin’s ilk have long aspired to seize. At a reception pointedly ignored by Xi, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took advantage of a photo opportunity to show himself seated above Putin, a signal that no Kremlinologist could possibly miss. And, adding insult to injury, Kyrgyzstan’s president showed up late for a meeting with Putin.
The Russian population appears increasingly aware of Putin’s diminishing authority and legitimacy. The initial enthusiasm for the war has visibly diminished. The soldiers, too, are demoralized and blame the leadership for their woes. An armed resistance movement appears to have emerged and is actively fire-bombing draft boards and derailing trains. A Telegram channel
that caters to Russian partisans provides instructions on how to assassinate officials. Local elites throughout Russia are demanding Putin’s resignation.
With Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization of reservists on Sept. 21, thousands went to the streets and protested and tens of thousands suddenly realized that the war had come home and worried about their sons and husbands dying on the front. Over a thousand people have been arrested; many others have bought one-way airline tickets or driven their cars to the nearest border. The flows will only increase as Russians come to realize that a secret clause in Putin’s announcement foresees the drafting of up to a million men.
The most telling mark of state failure is the loss of control over the forces of coercion. The Russian army is increasingly refusing to fight, so much so that the Duma felt the need to pass legislation specifying that desertion, surrender, insubordination and misuse of military property required tougher sentences. Given the poor condition of front-line soldiers, Moscow has taken to enlisting senior citizens, teenage graduates of military academies, mercenaries and hardened criminals. None of these groups can be expected to fight with conviction or elan, and the criminals are most likely to turn their guns against the officers who view them as cannon fodder.
Two well-organized, well-funded private armies already exist next to the inefficient and incompetent state-run armed forces: the Wagner Group, numbering 8,000 mercenaries; and the so-called Kadyrovites, some 12,000 Chechen fighters loyal to and paid by the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is believed to aspire to succeed Putin, while the duplicitous Kadyrov, though outwardly Putin’s ally, surely will stab his master in the back when the time is right. The Kremlin also has begun forming non-Russian battalions that, as history shows, often turn into the cores of future armies. With so many armed groups running around, with so much visible discontent, Russia is ripe for civil conflict, perhaps even civil war.
Yes, the fascist Russian state has failed. It kills foreigners with abandon — and now it also kills its own subjects. All that’s left to do is for Russian elites and masses to realize this fact, abandon their illusions about ever being “great” again, and take to restructuring the Russian Federation and establishing a post-Putin regime. Most of Russia’s neighbors know that the probability of the Russian state’s collapse is approaching 100 percent. Nervous Western elites, who thus far have preferred to ignore this eventuality, would do well to get on the bandwagon and prepare for a great power’s bloody demise.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”