No, the devil you know – Putin – is not better than the devil you don’t
Stop believing Kremlin talking points about the dire scenarios of a Putin defeat in Ukraine
When I was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012-2014, I frequently met with senior government officials responsible for running the economy. I’m overgeneralizing, but this group tended to be highly-educated, pro-market, pro-Western, and much younger than Putin. They were the so-called “liberal technocrats,” some of whom joined Putin’s very first government, back in the early 2000s, to make Russia’s economy work. And they achieved some real successes, regarding market reforms and sound fiscal and monetary policies. Most of them claimed to support democracy too, not just capitalism. So, they rationalized their service to a dictator (my word, not theirs) with two kinds of arguments. First, they would explain to me that Putin was a necessary “transitional” figure who backward Russians needed in order to move from one economic system to another. Pinochet in Chile was often invoked as a similar historical figure. Second, they argued that someone else in power would be even worse. If not Putin, the scary communists might come to power. Worse yet, the fascists would take over. The name of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) at the time, was invoked. Alexey Navalny, the Russian leading opposition figure, currently in prison, was also portrayed in such terms. So, yes, Putin had his limitations, they would confess, but he was needed now as an interim figure and was better than the alternatives.
A decade later, these very same arguments are invoked as reasons that the Ukrainian army and Ukraine’s supporters in the West should not push Putin too far. He’s bad, but what could come after him would be even worse, or so we are told to believe. It’s exactly the same argument I heard when living in Moscow last.
The most apocalyptic scenario being proffered today is the collapse of the Russian Federation. If Putin loses too badly in Ukraine, so the argument goes, the largest country in the world in possession of thousands of nuclear weapons will implode. In this scenario, not just Ukraine but the entire world would be threatened by a nuclear holocaust. This argument echoes concerns the world had about loose nukes and ethnic wars back in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The second frightening scenario gaining traction these days is a right-wing coup. Dissatisfied with Putin’s failures and softness in Ukraine in 2022, the fascists will finally seize power should Russia suffer even greater losses in 2023. There’s already a shortlist. Evgeny Progizhin, the head of the paramilitary Wagner group currently fighting in Ukraine, tops the list. Dmitry Patrushev, the son of the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, is another popular bogeyman (Russians living in the United States who attend my talks refer to his name frequently). Others spin a scenario in which Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov comes to power. And there are still some who keep playing the Kremlin tape from a decade ago that we really need to fear Navalny seizing power, should Putin’s regime dissolve.
Don’t believe any of it. These are all fantasies that the Kremlin wants Western governments to believe to restrain Zelenskyy and to not give the Ukrainian Armed Forces the means to win on the battlefield. And even if one of these scenarios did unfold, I’m not convinced that it would be worse than having Putin in the Kremlin. Just the opposite; things eventually might get better.
First, on the probabilities. All these nightmares are very unlikely.
The most fanciful one is the collapse of the Russian Federation. That was a real worry in 1991, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Some resurrected concerns about state collapse after the 1998 financial collapse. But even back then, Russia’s state weakness was grossly exaggerated (As early as 2006, with Alexandra Vacroux, I’ve been making this claim. Read our article, “Russian Resilience as a Great Power,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 1 (January-March 2006), pp. 24-33.). Today, the Russian state is much stronger. Also, there are no strong successionist movements in Russia’s Republics. Nor is there a burning, cleavage issue, or a strong ideological divide among Russians that could precipitate a civil war. If Putin is weakened by defeat in the Ukraine war, regional leaders might press for a restoration of greater federalism that Putin has weakened over the last two decades. That would be a good outcome. But that’s not state collapse.
A fascist coup also is very unlikely. First, none of the names listed above are charismatic leaders with mass followings in Russian society. Nearly two decades of dictatorship have denied them the permissive conditions for cultivating such an image or a movement. Second, Putin has invested heavily in Russian intelligence services. As a former KGB agent, he fully understands the power of surveillance. The act of plotting a coup would be extremely dangerous in Russia’s current police state. Third, to carry out a successful coup, you need the “guys with the guns” to be on your side. Prigozhin has some guys with guns on his team, but the Russian military sees him and his hired mercenaries and criminals as a threat, not an ally. Kadyrov also controls some guys with guns, but his reckless actions over many years have festered hatred among those controlling soldiers and police in Moscow. The idea of an ethnic Chechen ruling Russia seems far-fetched. And Patrushev? Who is going to risk their lives to try to put a former banker in power who made his fortune because he was the son of a KGB general? (Whether that’s true or not, that’s most certainly the perception). Extremely unlikely.
But sometimes events with a low predicted probability happen. So, for a moment, let’s think about what would happen if the Russian state did break down or one of these people or someone like them did overthrow Putin. While others assume dire outcomes, I see opportunity.
First, on the very unlikely breakdown of the Russian Federation, we should remember that the darkest worries about Soviet collapse thirty years ago did not happen. Compared to the end of other empires, the Soviet collapse was relatively peaceful, and the Russian Federation of course did not crumble. Bandits did not smuggle nuclear weapons out of Russia; just the opposite, nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine were shipped to Russia. China did not step in to seize Russian territory back then and will not do so now. And in fact, a deeper conversation about the future of the political institutions of the Russian Federation, which still maintain many imperial features, might be good for the world, not dangerous.
Second, regarding the coup scenarios, the good news is that none of these prospective coup leaders would last long in power. They have no mass following, no national movements, and most importantly, no compelling ideologies needed to rule even in an autocratic country like Russia. Their coming to power would almost certainly trigger mass defections from the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine (The overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II’s monarchy in St. Petersburg in 1917 did precisely that during World War I). And a short-lived coup that pushed Putin out but ultimately failed to consolidate might actually create the necessary conditions for a rethinking of Russia’s autocratic and belligerent trajectory under Putin. Democratization is probably too much to wish for right now, but political liberalization is not. After all, the last coup attempt in Moscow in August 1991 did just that.
When people argue about Putin – better the devil you know, then the devil you don’t – I disagree. The devil we know is a barbaric one. The presumption that things will only get worse after him is wrong. And it’s exactly what the Kremlin wants you to believe. Stop believing it.
I struggle to see how things could be worse for the rest of the world with a new Russian leader. The present leader has shown himself to be thoroughly committed to occupying, indeed destroying, Ukraine and meddling in other countries. The only ‘good’ thing about him is that his misrule has greatly reduced the power of the Russian state to achieve its imperial ambitions.
Regime change would be nice but it’s a distraction. What we need to concentrate on is getting Russia out of Ukraine and leave it to the Russians to work their own politics. That said a new ruler at least offers a chance that he could recall the troops while he (or a very unlikely she) concentrates on consolidating internal power. At least that ruler won’t have their ego tied up with the Ukraine misadventure. Finally, Putin is 70 and not going to rule forever. It’s dumb to worry about the inevitable regime change. PS Glad your back in the saddle Dr McFaul!
Thank you for your compendious analysis. As a student, it is very beneficial. In addition, it was excellent to read Secretary Rice, and Secretary Gates oped in the Washington Post.