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Russia’s elites know they’ve lost the war. They should jump ship

The Hill logo The Hill 12/12/2022 Alexander J. Motyl, Opinion Contributor
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Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has managed to maneuver his country’s elites into the unenviable position of having to choose between two radically different alternatives with what they believe are identical consequences. Regardless of whether Russian elites opt for peace or for war, many of them believe that Putin’s regime and, possibly, Russia itself will not survive. Worse, some Russian elites are certain that the writing is on the wall and that it’s ineradicable. Small wonder that a profound malaise — a sense of approaching doom — appears to have gripped them.

How can peace possibly have the same consequences for Russia as war? As Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues, although realists who favor peace differ radically from the hawks who want to intensify the war, both sides agree that “even if Putin gives up and admits that the best Russia can do is freeze the war, it will not assuage elite fears about Russia’s survival and territorial integrity in face of the West, which even the realists believe wants to subjugate Russia.” Hence, she concludes, while “ultranationalists still envision a clear victory … [t]he growing chorus of realists … has come to see that Moscow does not have the resources that it needs to win.” One Kremlin insider put it this way: “The understanding has come that we have lost the actual war.”

Both hawks and doves apparently believe that any form of defeat will bring down Putin and his regime and thereby threaten their own lives and livelihoods. Writes Stanovaya: “Despite the different interests in play, technocrats, security operatives, conservative nationalists, and business leaders are largely united in believing that Russia cannot lose, lest it result in the collapse of the regime on which they all depend.”

But how should losing be forestalled? Other than bombing Ukrainians and engaging in wanton destruction, no one knows. Instead, what Russians with even faulty memories do know, or should know, from their own narratives of World War II is that people threatened with annihilation — whether Russians by Germans or Ukrainians by Russians — fight back.

In other words, victory looks, and is, impossible, and defeat looks, and is, almost inevitably inevitable. Russia’s elites have only their Führer and themselves to blame for the approaching catastrophe. They should have known that an armchair general and professional genocidaire surrounded by fawning acolytes could not possibly succeed in making Russia great again.

But are the realist elites so tightly bound to Putin as to be unable to resist going down with his ship? Stanovaya errs in suggesting that the answer is “yes.” Russian imperial, Soviet Russian, and post-Soviet Russian history is replete with instances of elites turning against their masters. Aristocrats encouraged Czar Nicholas II to abdicate in 1917. Joseph Stalin sidelined his mentor Vladimir Lenin. Nikita Khrushchev lambasted Stalin. Leonid Brezhnev betrayed Khrushchev. The hardliners staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. And Putin came to power because key elites turned against Boris Yeltsin.

And then there’s world history. Elites the world over change their political alliances at the drop of a hat, depending on which cohabitation is more advantageous to them. That “more” is critical. Most elites are too cynical and too realistic to be bamboozled by ideologies that promise “all or nothing.” Instead, they prefer more power and wealth to less power and wealth.

Today’s Russian elites are no different. They will gladly throw Putin and his cronies to the lions when the circumstances demand such a course of action. One year ago, betrayal seemed undesirable and unnecessary. Now, it’s increasingly becoming desirable and necessary — for their very political and physical survival.

Stanovaya suggests that, given elite loyalty to Putin, the West should engage Russia in a “dialogue” that “would be designed to firmly guarantee to Moscow that Russia would continue to be a stable, autonomous state.” But, if a strategic defeat is all but unavoidable thanks to Putin’s gross miscalculations and Russian elites’ unwillingness to oppose him, there is nothing the West can do to guarantee Russia’s strategic survival. At best, the West can assure Mother Russia of a decent burial.

What the West can and should do is encourage the realist Russians to jump ship by offering them, in the spirit of Cold War attempts to encourage defections, comfortable lives under assumed names in the West, but in exchange for testimony against Putin and his comrades at the inevitably approaching war crimes trials in The Hague.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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