27.02 Future Review

The Russian Matrix Plus China: Presidential elections and scenarios for the country's future

Despite the predetermined nature of the results of the presidential elections in March, the uncertainty of Russia's future will not change an iota. However, there has been a significant shift in perceptions of different scenarios for this future in recent months. In the first year and a half of the war, doubts were cast on the Kremlin's ability to conclude its invasion in a way that would be deemed acceptable, and the outcome of the war seemed to be the main trigger for possible scenarios. Assumptions about an anti-Putin coup or a brutal internal crisis in Russia were popular in scenario exercises. At the end of last year, the Kremlin demonstrated its ability to get the war machine and troop management up and running, crushing almost all resistance to the war at home. In the short term, the regime-conservation scenario took centre stage in analysts' perceptions. However, in the longer term, given the cumulative conditions – confrontation with the West, sanctions, internal repression – analysts still do not see the potential for long-term stability. Therefore, the same matrix of instability — partial liberalisation and Putinism without Putin, regime collapse or broad democratisation — does not seem irrelevant. However, the scenario of long-term conservation of a sanctioned and repressive, economically degrading regime appears likely thanks to the China factor. In this scenario, Beijing can help the Putin and even post-Putin regime survive by sacrificing some sovereignty and assisting China in its political and economic goals. Such a regime of gradual degradation can exist until hydrocarbons lose their role as the main energy commodity. After that, the collapse scenario will be back on the agenda.

The complete predictability of the upcoming presidential elections in Russia is offset by their minimal significance for the development of the situation in the country: the more predetermined the outcome, the less significant it is for determining the real balance of power and confirming the legitimacy of the regime, whose stability will be determined by a set of external and internal factors, but not by the 'success' of the electoral ritual. Thus, the question of 'what next?' will remain fundamentally open, including for the Russian population and Russian elites.

Numerous scenarios of possible trajectories for events in Russia largely reflect short-term expert views on the current situation on one hand, and notions of a universal matrix on the other. In October of last year, analysts from the Clingendael Institute attempted to generalise various scenarios for Russia's future proposed by experts in the first year and a half of the war. The main factor in these scenarios was the question of who would win the war unleashed by Moscow. The failure of Putin's blitzkrieg, the retreat of Russian troops in the autumn of 2022, and Prigozhin's mutiny raised questions about the combat effectiveness of the Russian army and the Kremlin's ability to take control of developments on the front. At the same time, the successes of the Ukrainian army and the increasing supply of Western weapons fuelled hopes for a Ukrainian counteroffensive. The outcome of the war seemed extremely unclear.

The first of the six generalised scenarios — 'Dependence on China' - implied that the continuation of the war to exhaustion would lead to dissatisfaction among the elites and a palace coup. The new authorities turn to China for financial and military assistance, which neutralises Western aid to Ukraine but turns Russia into a vassal of China. In the end, this either leads Russia into a new war or results in growing internal contradictions. A number of the elite, dissatisfied with the growing dependence on China, chooses the path of establishing relations with the West.

The prospects of the second scenario — ‘Neo-Stalinist Fortress’ - were assessed by experts as relatively low, as it was based on the assumption of Moscow using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. In such a case, even Beijing would be compelled to impose sanctions on Moscow, leading Russia into complete isolation and turning it into a closed militarised country similar to North Korea. In the third scenario — 'The Empire Strikes Back' - the weakening of US and NATO support for Ukraine increases Russia's chances of victory, defined as keeping a significant portion of Ukrainian territory under Russian control. The result would be the strengthening of Putin's power and the rise of nationalist and imperialist sentiments within the country, leading Moscow to target not only Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine but also Georgia, Moldova, and even the Baltic countries.

Among the three scenarios which assume the Kremlin's defeat in the war, the most likely, according to experts, is the 'Reluctant Truce'. A lost war, economic problems, and growing discontent among the population would push Russian elites to remove Putin from power, withdraw troops, and move towards limited democratisation and reduced repression. However, this would not lead to the Kremlin abandoning imperial ambitions and a model of authoritarian governance. The other two scenarios — 'Wild East' and 'Disintegration' - look much more radical. The first one assumes that the country will plunge into chaos amid growing discontent among the population and elites. Rival groups of law enforcement and regional authorities will start a power struggle with the help of their own armies, China will take control of several regions in the Far East, and the rest of Russia will become a hotbed of crime, human trafficking and drugs, spreading instability to surrounding countries. The biggest problem in the unlikely 'Disintegration' scenario is the nuclear arsenal shared between Russia's warring factions, which they would attempt to use to secure international recognition.

The set of scenarios proposed by the Atlantic Council in February of this year partly reflects a shift in expert perceptions related to changes in the situation on the front and around the conflict. The Kremlin managed to organise a convincing defence of the captured territories, improve the operation of its military machine, overcome conflicts in the military leadership, and largely suppress internal resistance to the war. Accordingly, experts now see the maintenance of the status quo as the most likely scenario in the coming years. Putin's strategy of 'waiting it out' until the West's will to support Ukraine weakens may work, especially if Trump returns to power in the United States. However, it would set a dangerous precedent by demonstrating that a nuclear power can successfully invade the territory of its neighbours. In other words, this scenario appears both the most likely and extremely negative in its consequences. The timeframe for this scenario is the remaining years of Putin's life.

The second scenario presented by the Atlantic Council suggests that Russia will experience a rise of nationalist forces. The Prigozhin uprising demonstrated the superficiality of support for Putin and the existence of opposition to him from another, non-liberal-democratic perspective, manifested in broad sympathies for Prigozhin's (and not only Prigozhin's) nationalist rhetoric. In this scenario, Putin's shift towards imperial fascism with tolerance for kleptocracy is replaced by overt Russian fascism, shifting the populist focus to 'internal enemies.' Considering the lack of resources available to the Russian army, a nationalist regime in the process of formation may opt to freeze the conflict in Ukraine, blaming Putin for the military failure. Essentially, this scenario appears to be a projection of Prigozhin's speeches and, to some extent, Igor Girkin.

Another scenario — the country sliding into the abyss of civil war and disintegration — is considered unlikely by the Atlantic Council experts, but the changes are not zero. Scenarios of sudden collapse have shaken Russia in the past (in the late 1910s and the late 1980s), exposing weaknesses in its internal cohesion. Such a collapse results from a combination of economic degradation, loss of all legitimacy by central authorities, external pressure (war, confrontation with the West), and a sudden rise in separatist movements within Russia, which the regime lacks the resources and support to simultaneously counter. The likelihood of such a scenario increases if the repressive Putin regime persists amid ongoing international sanctions, further economic degradation, and a refusal to reconsider the 'colonial' relationship between the centre and the regions for many years. Essentially, this scenario is the realisation of the first scenario.

Threats of the two previous scenarios lead to two reformist tracks, which are as follows: the first is associated with the assumption of removing Putin from power by a coalition of technocrats who recognise the deadlock into which Putin has led the country. The new government will continue to praise the achievements of the former president for some time, but after a technocrat consolidates power through early elections, they will embark on partial liberalisation, testing the ground for restoring relations with the West. When it comes to Ukraine, the new authorities will use the 'land for peace' formula: if Crimea remains under Russian jurisdiction, they will withdraw troops from the newly occupied territories. This peace formula, partial liberalisation of the regime and readiness to return to the status quo of 2021 will, for many in the West, be sufficient grounds to declare another 'reset' of relations. However, such a scenario will not lead to a real change in the regime. Experts suggest that the West should treat the technocratic regime born out of Putinism with caution and act according to the principle of 'trust but verify,' maintaining essential containment measures and preventing the normalisation of Russia's external economic relations, which could allow it to return to imperial revanchist policies.

Experts suggest using the opposite formula — 'trust but verify' - if, in the wake of the economic and political crisis, new democratic forces come to power in the country and start implementing the 'three Ds' policy: decentralisation (reducing presidential powers and amending the 1993 Russian Constitution to restore federalism and local self-governance), deconfliction (stopping Russian armed support for separatist politicians in Moldova, Georgia, and especially Ukraine) and democratisation (free elections at the local and national levels). According to experts, this most optimistic scenario is unlikely to materialise in the medium and short term, but its probability increases over a longer horizon. Post-imperial trajectories for Portugal, Spain, and France took decades before these countries reached the state of stable democracies.

It is easy to see that the two pools of scenarios assess the current stability of the regime and its potential for governance differently, and therefore focus to differing degrees on more radical and more inert developments. Beyond this distinction, however, the basic scenario matrix looks almost identical: 1) conservation, 2) partial liberalisation within the 'Putinism without Putin' scenario (→ Nikita Savin: Putinism without Putin), 3) collapse democratisation and 4) collapse of statehood. Within the second pool, the scenario 'Russian fascism instead of Putin' is added. This is due, among other things, to the fact that, although in the short term the probability of the 'conservation' scenario appears high, in the longer term its chances begin to melt away. The current stabilisation of the regime does not appear to be long-term. The past two years have shown that there is no reason to speak of the sustainability of the current economic model: it does not generate internal growth factors but, on the contrary, requires artificial stimulation through budgetary spending. Therefore, one cannot speak of the long-term sustainability of the Russian military machine or the social situation within the country.

Nevertheless, the long-term 'conservation' scenario still seems realistic. After all, as the experience of Cuba, North Korea, and Iran shows, such a scenario is quite standard for countries facing broad Western sanctions. In this case, its realisability is supported by one more factor. As the last year has shown, the key condition for the Putin regime's survival is increasingly becoming not the situation on the frontline or even oil prices, but relations with China. China accounts for more than a third of Russia's trade turnover, and the yuan is essentially the only international currency available to the Russian authorities (→ Re: Russia: Dead End U-turn; The Bell: Made in China). All of this gives the Chinese authorities centralised leverage over Russia. In this situation, Beijing will 'keep its hand on the tap' of Russia's economic opportunities, allowing Putin's regime (as well as that of Putin's successor) to persist only at the cost of losing some sovereignty and assisting China in its political and economic goals. Such a regime of gradual degradation may persist until hydrocarbons lose their role as the primary energy commodity. After that, most likely, the collapse scenario will be back on the agenda.