A defeat for Putin in Ukraine will improve the chances for the Other Russia

Alexei Navalny’s funeral and this weekend’s so-called election show us two Russias. Support the better one

A man walks out of a voting booth at a polling station on the final day of the presidential election in Saint Petersburg, Russia, March 17, 2024
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Anton Vaganov

According to official Russian media, Vladimir Putin has just been ‘re-elected’ president of Russia with an overwhelming majority. In truth, Russian voters had no genuine choice last weekend, since Putin had killed his most formidable opponent, Alexei Navalny, and ordered the disqualification of any other candidate who presented even a small chance of genuine competition. This plebiscitary legitimating procedure – quite familiar from the history of other dictatorships – was also implemented in some parts of eastern Ukraine, which Russian official sources describe as the New Territories. The high figures for both turnout and the vote for Putin are no more reliable than his historical essays on Russo-Ukrainian relations.

Encouraged by signs of Western weakness such as German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s refusal to send Taurus missiles to Ukraine and Pope Francis’s recommendation for Ukraine to hoist the white flag, Russia’s brutal dictator will continue to try to conquer more of Ukraine. Not only does Putin believe that Ukraine belongs historically to a Russia whose manifest destiny it is to be a great, imperial power. Unlike Western governments, his regime is both politically and economically committed to continue this war, with as much as 40 per cent of its budget devoted to military, intelligence, disinformation and internal security spending, and a war economy that cannot easily be switched back to peacetime mode.

Yet these last few weeks have shown us that there’s still an Other Russia, as there was an Other Germany even at the height of Adolf Hitler’s power in the Third Reich. Tens of thousands of Russians of all ages and classes took the risk of subsequent reprisals in order to pay tribute to Navalny, producing that unforgettable image of his grave covered in a sheer mountain of flowers. At his funeral, they chanted “Navalny! Navalny!”, “Stop the war!”, and “Ukrainians are good people!”.

Other brave campaigners for a better Russia, such as Vladimir Kara-Murza and Oleg Orlov, are in prison, and we must fear for their lives. Outside the country, Yulia Navalnaya carries on her husband’s fight with extraordinary courage and dignity,  also making it plain that she condemns Putin’s war in Ukraine. Giving a fine example of the more ‘innovative’ politics she recently advocated to the European Parliament, she joined other Russian opposition leaders in calling for those opposed to the Putin regime to turn out at polling stations on Sunday at high noon – ‘Noon against Putin’ – to create a visible image of the Other Russia without directly endangering any individual citizen. This they did in significant numbers, especially in larger cities. Meanwhile, many hundreds of thousands of Russians who loathe the Putin regime, and passionately want Russia to belong to Europe and the West, have resettled abroad. There, too, they turned up at noon outside Russian embassies and queued for many hours in order to register their dissent. Yulia Navalnaya voted in the Russian embassy in Berlin, and wrote the name “Navalny” on her ballot paper.

It’s impossible to gauge how much support this Other Russia really has inside the country. An estimated 20,000 protesters have been arrested since the beginning of the full-scale invasion just over two years ago. Increased repression produces increased fear – including the fear of saying what you really think to pollsters, journalists or diplomats. On top of this comes the psychological difficulty of accepting that your country, which sees itself as the historic victim of invaders from Napoleon to Hitler, is itself a criminal aggressor against its nearest neighbour. And, as many other nations can testify, the loss of an empire is always difficult to accept.

An experienced observer who still lives in Russia tells me he reckons some 20 per cent of the population actively support Putin, 20 per cent actively oppose him, and 60 per cent passively accept things as they are – without enthusiasm, but also without a belief that change can come from below. That can only be a guess. Of one thing alone we can be certain: if the Other Russia finally triumphs, the number of those who all along supported it will multiply like relics of the true cross, as retrospective members of the resistance did in France and Germany after 1945.

It would clearly be naive to expect regime change, or even major policy change, in the Kremlin any time soon. ‘Political risk’ consultants may earn fat corporate fees for making predictions about Russian domestic politics. In truth, the only statement one can confidently make about Russia’s future is that no one knows when or how political change will come, and whether that change will be for the worse or for the better – or, most likely, first one and then the other.

How, in these circumstances, to craft a Russia policy? A brilliant observer of Russian affairs has commented that before 2022 the West had a Russia policy but no Ukraine policy whereas now it has a Ukraine policy but no Russia policy. I would argue that our Ukraine policy is our Russia policy – and the only effective one available at the moment. That’s also because Putin’s Ukraine policy is his Russia policy.

Our Ukraine policy is our Russia policy – and the only effective one available at the moment. That’s also because Putin’s Ukraine policy is his Russia policy

Former Russian president and leading Putin-amplifier Dmitry Medvedev recently stood in front of a giant map, on which all of Ukraine except a tiny rump around Kyiv was shown as Russia, and declared “Ukraine is definitely Russia”. Notice the ultimate colonial grammar: not Ukraine ‘belongs with’ Russia, but Ukraine is Russia. Compare: Ireland is Britain (1916), Poland is Germany (1939), Algeria is France (1954). A Russia that incorporates Ukraine remains an empire. A Russia without Ukraine must start down the long painful road travelled by other former colonial powers, from empire to something like a more ‘normal’ nation state.

That process usually takes decades, accompanied by instability and conflict. More immediately, however, a victory for Ukraine – which, despite recent siren calls to the contrary, necessarily requires Ukraine to recover most of its territory over the next few years – would be a major defeat for Putin. That defeat would be more likely to catalyse political change in Russia than any alternative scenario.

In the short run, this will bring an increased risk of an escalatory response from Putin, and instability in his wake. For that reason, a realistic Russia policy must include keeping open all possible lines of information-gathering about and communication with Russia; detailed contingency planning for every eventuality, from worst to best; and clear messaging to the Kremlin about the cost of further Russian escalation. The West should also do more to support the Other Russia wherever it can, which at the moment means mainly outside Russia and through virtual channels.

We are at the beginning of a new period of European history and what we do this year will have consequences for decades to come. Enabling Ukraine to win this war is not just the only way to secure a democratic, peaceful future for Ukraine itself. It’s also the best thing we can do to improve the long-term chances for a better Russia.

An earlier version of this article was first published in the Guardian on 14 March.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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