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03 July 2023

Beware of wishful thinking

Wishful thinking is what guides western thinking about Russia. What shall not be, that cannot be. When Yevgeny Prigozhin started his coup attempt last Friday, commentator after commentator proclaimed the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin. There was talk about cracks. When Prigozhin accepted a deal 24 hours later and withdrew his troops, this constituted yet another embarrassment for Putin. 

A more sober assessment is that this episode is probably not going to have much of an effect in the short-run, that it may or may not affect Putin's power position. Moreover, it is far from clear, from a western perspective, whether we should think of Putin's demise as a promise or a threat. 

The vast majority of putsch attempts fail, and have no long term consequences whatsoever. But two Russian ones did. Lenin's orchestration of the 1905 Moscow uprising stood no chance of success. But it was the beginning of the most strategic  insurrection of modern times. It still took another 12 years until the October revolution in 1917.

In 1991, military hardliners putsched against Mikhail Gorbachev. That, too, failed, and yet it brought down Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in the same year. This was followed by a period of westernisation of Russia. Many Russians do not have happy memories of that period. The Russian government embarked on a failed liberalisation programme that ended up with the oligarchs. The policy failures of that period were well portrayed in the BBC's recent documentary Trauma Zone. The decade ended with Putin becoming prime minister in 1999 and president in 2000. 

Many in the west are hoping for another triumph-of-democracy story. I think this is very naive, especially in view of what happened in the 1990s. If Putin were to go down, he would most likely be replaced by another hardliner, or a politburo. 

I also see wishful thinking in commentary and analysis about the Ukraine war. Military leaders, by contrast, tend to be more cautious - and less prone to cognitive biases. The leaked Pentagon papers from February and March asserted "moderate confidence" that the Ukraine war is headed for a stalemate. These papers date give the most nuanced assessment of the situation on the ground I have read. I would be very surprised if the situation had changed despite the start of Ukraine's long-awaited counter-offensive. Brigadier general Christian Freundig, who heads the German Armed Forces Joined Staff [https://www.tagesschau.de/newsticker/liveblog-ukraine-sonntag-312.html], also recently warned against excessive expectations about Ukraine's counter-offensive despite some initial successes. In another interview last week Freundig said Ukraine would require a superiority of 3:1 to 5:1 to regain the occupied territories - which it does not have. 

A total Russian defeat, one that is seen in Russia itself as a defeat, would undoubtedly be a disaster for Putin. He might not survive this. But a binary outcome of this war is not the most likely outcome. If the Pentagon assessment of a protracted war is correct, the role of continued weapons deliveries and financial support would be critical. If the US were to reduce its support for Ukraine after the next presidential elections, the burden will fall on the European countries. 

There is no way they could do this. The Kiel Institute for the World Economy compiles the Ukraine Support Tracker, which shows that the US has provided €71 billion in total aid, followed by the UK with €9.7bn, and Germany with €7.3 billion. The gap is massive. We would be in that scenario if Joe Biden were to lose to Donald Trump. Even if Biden were to win, it is far from clear that the current level of support would persist. 

Most western countries are facing a fiscal squeeze and competing financial priorities. From next year onwards, eurozone countries will have to comply with the fiscal rules again, which had been suspended since the start of the pandemic. Austerity is returning. This is the least conducive political environment to quasi-permanent multi-billion transfers in military aid. 

Reduced media interest in the war is another troubling sign. In the UK, the Ukraine war was pushed off the front pages last week by the Titan disaster and the high inflation numbers. It is hard to maintain public interest in trench warfare where the story does not change much from day to day. The same happened in Afghanistan. It is the media that lost interest first. The period from enthusiastic support for Ukraine to a generalised lack of interest has been remarkably short.

Based on the imperfect information that we have available, it is reasonable to assume that the most likely war scenario is for Ukraine to recover a large part, but not all of the occupied territories, and for the willingness of the west to continue military and financial support to weaken over time. In Russia, too, there is now talk in the state-controlled media about an eventual settlement, possibly early next year, before the US and Russian elections. Putin, too, has to worry about war fatigue. This is not a forecast, but a somewhat more plausible scenario than happy western ending.

In the meantime, we should remember that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 triggered a transition to liberal democracy in some parts of the former Soviet empire, but also a retreat into authoritarianism in others. It was also the year of the Tienanmen Square massacre. Be careful with your wishful thinking. And be careful what you wish for.


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