14.07.23 Future Analytics

From Gorbachev to Stalin: Four scenarios for Russia according to analysts from Atlantic Council, plus one from RE: RUSSIA

The fleeting Prigozhin rebellion is now claiming the role of a 'black swan' or trigger event — something that seemed utterly improbable and, precisely because of this improbability, now that it has happened is forcing observers to reassess their understanding of the domestic political situation in Russia and, consequently, their perceptions of potential scenarios for its development. Experts outline four such scenarios for the country’s political dynamics in the medium term, based on the perception that Putin is a weaker and more vulnerable leader than had previously been thought. Re: Russia adds one more scenario, in which Putin seeks to overcome the label of 'lame duck' and restore his shaken position as the demiurge of the political system.

A military coup unfolding almost live on television: columns of military vehicles advancing towards Moscow; Russian helicopters and planes being shot down; panic among the authorities as they realised they had virtually no reliable means to stop the mercenaries' advance; negotiations with the 'rebels' and 'traitors' who ultimately evaded any form of punishment and even received an audience with Putin in the Kremlin. Such a scenario, had it been suggested by any analyst a month ago, would have been considered utterly fantastical and unbelievable. The fact that it has actually come to pass has compelled observers, both foreign and among the Russian elite, to rethink their understanding of the domestic political situation in Russia. And, accordingly, to reconsider the range of possible scenarios for its development in the near future and in the medium-term.

It is precisely this revision of the scenario paradigm that has been undertaken by Atlantic Council analyst Jeffrey Cimmino with support from some other experts. At the heart of this new vision for Russia’s future is the notion of a much weaker and more vulnerable Putin than many had previously assumed, as well as a significantly higher potential for alternative actors and a higher probability of their emergence.

The first scenario, 'Weakened Putin,' is based on two observations about what happened: while the Prigozhin uprising demonstrated the unexpected vulnerability of the Putin regime, it is worth noting the swift manner in which it was quelled through negotiations, as well as the fact that it did not impact the situation on the military front or weaken the frontlines. From this, we can assume that the regime, although it now appears less consolidated than it had once seemed, remains fairly resilient and resistant to various threats. In this construction, Putin is no longer an all-powerful tsar; he will increasingly depend on influential groups within his inner circle and be forced to consider their interests to a greater extent. A similar notion has been put forward by political scientist Ivan Krastev in his column for the Financial Times, suggesting that the outcome of the uprising represents a transition from the rule of Putin the tsar to the rule of a 'collective Putin.'

Likewise, external events will unfold in a similar manner: Russia's dependence, and specifically Putin's dependence, on China will increase. However, this vassalage is advantageous to China, which will consequently invest in the preservation of the weakened Russian regime.

However, other conclusions can be drawn from what has transpired, forming the basis for the second scenario: the 'New Regime.' In August 1991, the leadership of the former USSR attempted a coup to remove Mikhail Gorbachev from power. The coup was defeated in three days, but Gorbachev's authority was irreparably undermined, and within a few months he was forced to step down from his position. We can examine the present moment from this same perspective. The uprising has been quelled, but the insurgents have not been punished, leaving Putin's position fundamentally weakened. This may push internal rivals to consolidate and regroup as they await a new 'window of opportunity.'

In this scenario, the impact of the uprising on the military front is not as negligible as it may seem at first glance as the internal unity of the army has been undermined. Incidentally, this is suggested by the recent move by General Popov, who publicly expressed disagreement with his own removal from army command. If we assume that the Ukrainian counteroffensive will have a significant effect on the front, i.e. Ukrainian forces succeed in breaking through the front lines and 'cutting off' the land corridor to Crimea, it could lead to disarray on the front. In this case, Prigozhin's forces or other uncontrolled military units may embark on a march towards Moscow, resulting in Putin's resignation or removal.

At the same time, certain factions within Putin's inner circle may manage to consolidate their forces and balance the situation, leading to the birth of a new post-Putin regime. This regime will come to power under nationalist slogans and will be unable to end the war, but its ability to conduct significant offensive operations in Ukraine will be critically undermined, and the military will be weakened. Interested in stabilising the situation, this regime will limit hostile operations against the West, which, amid the approaching elections in America and the weakened state of the Ukrainian army, will also be interested in the temporary consolidation of the status quo. Moreover, the new regime will be inclined to engage in various behind-the-scenes compromises with the West. In this scenario, China's influence on Moscow will also be diminished, and the West will be inclined not to reject the new authorities and even to compromise on certain issues, despite their nationalist rhetoric.

The third scenario, the 'Coming Storm,' builds on the same interpretation of the situation as the previous scenario: Putin's power is weakened, the situation on the frontlines is unstable and may deteriorate, making a second wave of 'rebellion' highly likely. However, in this scenario, none of the competing groups succeed in consolidating power. They entrench themselves in their respective 'strongholds' (after the capture of Rostov-on-Don by the Wagner Group, this does not seem like such a fantastical idea). Essentially, we would be dealing with a scenario of a divided Russia, which raises numerous troubling questions (for example, regarding control over nuclear weapons). At the same time, this scenario would be extremely uncomfortable for China, as it would lose a reliable ally. Moreover, the overwhelming impact of internal destabilisation caused by the invasion of Ukraine will likely lead China's leadership to reconsider its plans for an invasion of Taiwan.

The fourth scenario, 'Moment for Reformers,' builds on the premises of the first scenario in that a weakened Putin would continue to rule. The situation on the frontlines will worsen but not critically: the Ukrainians would regain significant territory through immense efforts but not topple the Russian defence, war fatigue will grow, and there would be no end to the war in sight. Putin and his administration may manage to organise the 2024 elections and formally claim victory, but this victory would not appear convincing and legitimate to the population, with widespread knowledge of electoral fraud. Signs of economic distress would become apparent. This would lead to the devaluation of the militaristic-nationalist agenda in the eyes of the population and a growing demand for reforms, partial regime liberalisation, and normalisation of relations with the West. This scenario partly resembles the scenario witnessed during the decline of the Soviet system in the late 1980s. As a result of protests and new elections, a reformist coalition may come to power with an aim to end the war in the foreseeable future (similar to the 'withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan') and to normalise relations with the West.

The four proposed scenarios appear to be logical trajectories that stem from the perceived 'weakening' of Putin that was revealed during the Prigozhin uprising. However, Cimmino from Atlantic Council believes that the last scenario is the least likely. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the war in Ukraine and the increased repression against dissent have created a significant imbalance in favour of aggressive militaristic nationalism, for which there was little or no demand in the years before the full-scale invasion. Additionally, we have already written elsewhere, this political agenda faces resistance and dissatisfaction from the younger generations (ages 18-39). For these reasons, a pendulum-like 'backlash' and sharp disillusionment with the nationalist agenda do not appear as improbable a scenario as it may seem at this moment. Its likelihood will increase as official militarism begins to wane.

At the same time, there is one scenario conspicuously missing from those proposed above. This scenario involves Putin attempting to overcome the impression of 'weakening' that observers and elites have derived from the Prigozhin uprising, which the four aforementioned scenarios depict. In this fifth scenario, the uprising should be perceived and presented by Putin not as a spontaneous uprising 'from below' but as part of an elite conspiracy. In such a scenario, which can be hypothetically labelled as 'Stalinist,' Putin partially 'appropriates' Prigozhin's agenda and populist rhetoric, directing the blow against certain representatives of the elite and entire elite groups who are simultaneously blamed for the failures of the year and a half of the war. These 'purges' shift the focus of the country’s repressive policies from anti-war activists to the elites and so restore Putin's image as the all-powerful master of the situation. This would further solidify the dominant role of the security services in domestic politics and restore the disciplinary vertical in the army, which has now been undermined. A hint at the possibility of this scenario lies in the unresolved fate of General Surovikin, who is, apparently, under investigation.

This scenario does not solve many of the pressing issues that remain — the decline in combat readiness and technical equipment of the Russian army, the need for a new wave of mobilisation so that the conscripts mobilised in September-October 2022 can be rotated — but it creates new conditions for efforts to address these. Strong arguments that may dissuade Putin from implementing this scenario include uncertainty about the ability to maintain control over the counter-elite and especially the army corporation in the face of broad counter-elite repression. Second, there is the danger of new setbacks on the front, the political responsibility for which, in this case, would be more closely associated with Putin.

In one way or another, all these scenarios stem from the perception that the Prigozhin uprising has changed the trajectory of events, and its consequences have yet to become fully evident. The rebellion itself was the result of significant shifts in the system of power and the considerable internal tension it is experiencing due to the protracted nature of the war, which is being transformed into a high potential for internal conflicts.