REPORTS
ANALYTICS
INVESTIGATIONS
  • USD92.75
  • EUR100.44
  • OIL81.58
DONATEРусский
  • 915
OPINION

Rocking the boat: Vladislav Inozemtsev on the Putin regime's key weaknesses

In the midst of the seemingly predetermined Russian presidential elections, set to be held from March 15-17 of this year, discussions about potential scenarios for a change in Russian leadership have surged. Economist Vladislav Inozemtsev suggests that those with oppositionist sentiments in Russia should not waste its energy on pre-election strategizing, nor should it simply wait for a Russian military defeat in the hopes that a battlefield collapse will resolve the country’s political issues. Instead, he advocates focusing on the primary weaknesses of the regime: war fatigue, dissatisfaction among regions suppressed by the central government, and the injustice in the distribution of oil rent.

In the midst of the seemingly predetermined Russian presidential elections, set to be held from March 15-17 of this year, discussions about potential scenarios for a change in Russian leadership have surged. Economist Vladislav Inozemtsev suggests that those with oppositionist sentiments in Russia should not waste its energy on pre-election strategizing, nor should it simply wait for a Russian military defeat in the hopes that a battlefield collapse will resolve the country’s political issues. Instead, he advocates focusing on the primary weaknesses of the regime: war fatigue, dissatisfaction among regions suppressed by the central government, and the injustice in the distribution of oil rent.

The intensification of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in recent weeks points to just how seriously Moscow has enhanced its capacity over the past year to sustain the war, rather than to the idea that Kyiv is getting closer to victory. Vladimir Putin is decisively counting on the idea that a prolonged standoff will wear down Ukrainian society, creating a rift between those favoring the continuation of the conflict and those supporting a ceasefire. And in addition to domestic Ukrainian factors, the upcoming elections for the European Parliament and for the presidency of the United States may well work to limit the amount of assistance that Western politicians are willing to continue sending to Kyiv.

All of this confirms my earlier assumptions that the Russian opposition should not rely on the Ukrainian Armed Forces to defeat the Putin-led army and, in theory, thereby disorient Russian society so completely that it leads to the collapse of the political system established by the Kremlin. Ukraine is currently incapable of inflicting a serious blow on Russia, while the Russian military-industrial complex, it seems, can supply the army with weapons and ammunition to inflict increasing damage on its neighbor. In this context, the thesis that destabilization in Russia itself may be the only way to end the war — as I wrote a few months ago — becomes particularly relevant.

It's worth noting that Western leaders do not include regime change in Moscow among their stated goals, and the Russian opposition is noticeably losing its connection with society by not addressing the questions that concern the people (as far as I can judge, almost no one in Russia is currently concerned with political repression, the “fight against corruption,” or the most promising strategy for dealing with the upcoming presidential “elections”).

Western leaders do not include regime change in Moscow among their stated goals, and the Russian opposition is noticeably losing its connection with society

Attempts by Russian opposition figures to associate themselves with the Ukrainian cause, to openly advocate for Russia's military defeat, to advocate for the imposition of new and harsher sanctions against the Russian Federation, and to position themselves as supporters of battalions composed of Russians fighting on the side of the Armed Forces of Ukraine all provide the Kremlin's ample propaganda outlets with ideal opportunities to portray the opposition as nothing more than a collection of marginal traitors and separatists. In my view, the situation calls for a new strategy.

Disrupting the Putin-led army

Considering the state of modern Russian society as a whole — and the reality of the average citizen in particular — it would be naive to prioritize an appeal to the target audience’s moral or aesthetic sensibilities. The daily killing of the innocent civilian population of a country that Putin and the majority of his fellow travelers claim as part of “historical Russia” has failed to elicit any serious cognitive dissonance across the one-seventh of the world’s landmass that comprises the present day Russian Federation.

However, the war in Ukraine has not only an “ideological,” but also a practical side. It brings blood, tears, and death not only to the enemy, but also to Russian society. The methods used to mobilize Russian civilians into military service, the cruel attitudes that commanders and officers display towards their own soldiers, and the conspicuous social disparity evident in the disproportionate military burden borne by the “lower strata” of society (while the family and friends of the Russian elite carry on with their regular lives in the big cities), combine to offer a veritable apotheosis of injustice.

Something similar — albeit likely less pronounced — was characteristic of the Russian army during the trench warfare phase of the First World War. The gap in the social status of soldiers and officers was enormous, but over a hundred years ago, when people were called to the front, they had a better understanding that their service would last for as long as it took to achieve victory. Moreover, no one resorted to the use of barrier troops, to threats of violence from superiors, or to secret prisons where dissatisfied soldiers were held.

One hundred years ago no one resorted to the use of barrier troops, to threats of violence from superiors, or to secret prisons where dissatisfied soldiers were held

Fatigue on the front, which became evident within a year and a half of August 1914, led to a decline in discipline in the army starting from 1916. The Bolsheviks quickly noticed this development, intensifying their agitation among the soldiers. Today in Russia, dissatisfaction is also apparent: mobilized soldiers are filing complaints about violations of their rights, and soldiers' wives are organizing small but notable protest rallies. And yet, none of the regime's opponents are attempting to organize and lead this movement.

In 2023, the rebellion of the Wagner Group demonstrated how powerless the authorities are against armed uprisings within the country. In the same year, raids on Russian territory carried out by the “Russian Legion” — an armed group of Russian citizens who have volunteered to fight under the command of Ukrainian authorities — did not elicit any enthusiasm among the local population. This indicates that the disorganization of the Putin-led army should be the top priority on the agenda of any anti-Kremlin opposition movement.

Support in this endeavor should also come from Ukraine and the West, which could not only extensively highlight the misconduct in the Russian army but also stimulate desertion by creating camps for those willing to lay down their weapons. In this case, those voluntarily leaving the service would have a status different from prisoners of war. They would not be treated as exchangeable assets and would not be coerced into further participation in combat. Considering that there is a significant number of mercenaries on the front, substantial rewards could be announced for those willing to cross the front line after killing or capturing their officers.

Again, the First World War can serves as a guide. The events of the early months of 1917 beautifully illustrated that people sent by the authorities to die for unclear reasons have no “immunity” from joining the ranks of their opponents, as Russian soldiers became one of the crucial driving forces of the February Revolution. The dissatisfaction of their loved ones is also growing — and a quite probable new mobilization, which may occur in the spring or summer of this year, would only make the situation more explosive.

People sent by the authorities to die for unclear reasons have no “immunity” from joining the ranks of their opponents

In my view, a systematic effort aimed at breaking down the Russian army and confronting the masses mobilized throughout the entire “power vertical” offers the best prospect for success. Of course, any activities on this front ought to be coordinated with Ukrainian representatives and their Western supporters, but these initiatives must break from the old template of lobbying European institutions to protect the rights of Russian immigrants, or of simply narrating the depressingly true tales of flourishing corruption and political repression inside Russia.

The slogan in the mouths of Bolshevik leaders was justified not by how much grief the Russian army was causing the unfortunate laborers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but by the belief that the Russian soldier deserved a better fate — and Russian women, tired of waiting for their husbands and sons to return from the front, largely agreed. However, those taking up the cause of anti-war agitation in Russia today face an obstacle that their predecessors in the 20th century did not: taking action that ultimately saves “our boys” is, in Putin’s Russia, seen by the authorities as a criminal act.

Ending the dictate of the “Russian world”

Putin's war is creating another set of problems reminiscent of those that paved the Bolsheviks’ path to revolution. Unlike the Great Patriotic War, the First World War was genuinely imperialistic, waged not in the name of the “internationally friendly” Soviet Union, but of the Russian Empire — a “prison of nations.”

While the full-scale war begun in 2022 is purportedly justified — from Moscow’s side — as being fought for the ideals and interests of the “Russian world,” Russian citizens of various nationalities are nevertheless being sent into the inferno. This has already sparked protests in those national regions whose residents, if not identifying with Russia, at least see themselves closely aligned with Russians. One of the Bolsheviks' key promises, as one might recall, was the commitment to national self-determination for the non-titular peoples of the empire.

Presently, opposition forces are divided between those who seek to avoid this issue altogether and those who wish to see the country disintegrate into hundreds of separate principalities. There are, of course, those who draw the attention of strategists to the issues of small nations, expressing concerns about dividing the unified state into clearly ethnic territories, but their voices are rarely heard.

It seems to me that the crimes committed in the name of the “Holy Russia” or the “Russian world” imply the necessity to conclude the history of Russia as the national state of the Russian ethnic group. The Russian Federation should be transformed into a Confederation of the Peoples of Russia, where each territory would have the rights of a semi-independent state, including the right to establish a state language, to set tax rates at its discretion, to organize its own police forces, and so forth.

The goal is not to “dissolve” Russia but to provide an opportunity for the peoples inhabiting the country to restrain its central institutions, thereby suppressing the imperial and chauvinistic character of the Russian people. This program should not be considered anti-Russian. There is no doubt today that, at least in the last five hundred years, no one has inflicted such significant demographic and economic losses on the Russian people than their own authorities have. It is not Russia that should be destroyed; rather, it is the Moscow-centric rule over Russia’s vast territory that must come to an end.

In the last five hundred years, no one has inflicted such significant demographic and economic losses on the Russian people than its own authorities have

The concept of a confederation, as I view it, could attract a wide array of socially and ethnically diverse groups to the opposition across what still would be the Russian Federation. On one hand, such a slogan could interest supporters of national and cultural revival, as well as politicians currently leading individual regions on the basis of Kremlin-issued labels (we all witnessed 35 years ago how dangerous this sort of situation can be for the center of power in Moscow).

Despite the fact that the percentage of non-Russian nationalities in today's Russia is significantly lower than that of the USSR circa 1989, launching such restructuring processes seems to me to be a powerful potential weapon to aim against the regime. Moreover, unlike the end of the 20th century, the potential for the independent “survivability” of territories in contemporary Russia is lower than in the Soviet Union. The global community's stance would therefore likely be directed toward supporting the country’s administrative reform rather than its disintegration.

In the new system, presidential authority would be nominal, and competition among regional authorities would ensure both economic progress and the impossibility of returning to an imperial model. Each territory would have the right to exit the confederation — with a transitional period lasting at least twenty years and with the demand that consensus be reached on all relevant exit-related issues (a good example being Brexit). Of course, countless details would need to be debated before any such system could come into existence, and yet, in general, the larger topic does not even appear to be up for discussion among Russia’s mainstream opposition.

Developing the economy

Another question with tremendous mobilizing potential revolves around the principles governing the organization of the new Russian economy. It is crucial to acknowledge that Russia is a very poor country on a global scale. Even before the war, the notorious National Wealth Fund struggled to reach $1,000 per person, while in Dubai and Norway, these figures stood at $107,000 and $278,000 per citizen, respectively. The situation appears all the more dire given the fact that the country's primary revenues come from natural resources, the utilization of which can sustain it for a maximum of 25-40 years before either Russian oil reserves are depleted or the world shifts towards a “green economy.”

Under the circumstances, ensuring that the population receives maximum benefits from the natural wealth of their country is imperative. Deposits of natural resources should be nationalized, licenses for their development suspended, and, within a short timeframe, these licenses ought to be made available for purchase on equal terms to whatever Russian or foreign firms are offering the highest rental payments. The revenues generated should be distributed among the entire population in order to improve the overall standard of living, while all “statewide” and defense expenditures should be financed exclusively from income tax.

Such a system could exist for 20-30 years, serving as a transitional phase towards a true confederation. Then, once the conditions for moving towards the new model are met, the economic development of individual parts of the country would be determined solely by their individual capacity to create favorable business conditions for entrepreneurs, along with attractive living conditions for the population.

Regardless of how liberal Russian opposition figures portray themselves to be, envisioning an exit from the Putin system is impossible without significant changes in property relations, primarily those concerning major assets. It is not necessary to replicate the experience of early 20th-century revolutionaries. The goal should be the extraction of a substantial portion of the rent that has been appropriated by bureaucracy and regime-friendly businessmen over the past quarter-century.

Envisioning an exit from the Putin system is impossible without significant changes in property relations

These funds are the only means available to help the Russian population adapt to a new economic reality in which there will be no room for overarching state paternalism. Additionally, these rent revenues must serve as the sole source for gradual payments to Ukraine and other countries in order to compensate for damages inflicted during the years of Putin's dictatorship. I must acknowledge that this issue is one of the most challenging for future reformers. Still, the topic must not go undiscussed, and potential solutions ought to be presented in an attempt to garner support from Russians for the anti-Putin opposition.

The salvation of Russia lies in the hands of its people

Russia's historical path is one of the most contradiction-laden among all of Europe’s countries. It has repeatedly sought to break free from perennial backwardness. However, even as it achieved significant technological progress, it stubbornly resisted forms of social progress that place their supreme values on the preservation of human life and the protection of individual freedom.

Nonetheless, Russia’s conflict with the wider world has never been as acute as it is today, when the country embodies the quintessence of archaism, standing against a world that continues to move forward. The unique aspect of the current moment is that the rest of the world does not perceive Russia as an existential threat, instead recognizing the limitations of its capabilities.

Given the above, one should not hope that the global community will prioritize the fight against Russia in the way many nations united in the struggle against fascism in the mid-20th century, nor that world leaders will declare a “crusade,” as Ronald Reagan called the struggle against communism. In the best-case scenario, both Ukraine and the Western world will more effectively defend themselves, but not even their success can save Russian liberals, let alone establish democracy in Russia (these experiments, it seems, no longer inspire anyone).

Today Russia embodies the quintessence of archaism, standing against a world that continues to move forward

The transformation of Russia's political and social structure is in the hands of the Russians themselves. Its success or failure ultimately depends on their efforts — carried out from within the country, not from outside. As the lyrics of the well-known song ring out,

No savior from on high delivers

No faith have we in prince or peer

(The French version, notably, strikes a chord with the character who has recently positioned himself as the leader of the “Freedom of Russia Legion”:

Il n’est pas de sauveurs suprêmes :

Ni dieu, ni césar, ni tribun…)

Our own right hand the chains must shiver

Chains of hatred, greed and fear

All of this means only one thing: the Russian opposition needs to develop a program that will resonate across Russia’s still vast territory and through multiple layers of the country’s diverse society — not in Berlin, neither in London, nor Washington. And not even in Kyiv.

Subscribe to our weekly digest

К сожалению, браузер, которым вы пользуйтесь, устарел и не позволяет корректно отображать сайт. Пожалуйста, установите любой из современных браузеров, например:

Google Chrome Firefox Safari