Staunton, February 4 – Even though many of those around Vladimir Putin fear that his ouster would lead to a new time of troubles, some of them have become convinced that the situation now is already so dire that he must be replaced and are “quietly searching” for a possible successor, according to Moscow analyst Andrey Okara.
In an interview with Ukraine’s Gazeta, Okara, director of the Moscow Center for East European Research, says that the Russian elite is deeply split with some believing everything the Kremlin propagandists say and others certain that the reverse is true and even leaving the country.
Relatively few of the latter are speaking out in the Russian capital, the Moscow analyst adds, but they are speaking with their feet, leaving if they can and even transforming Kyiv into “a center of the Russian emigration.” But the most interesting developments are taking place among those who are not speaking out and who appear to be in Putin’s good graces.
Among Russia’s oligarchs, Okara says, dissatisfaction with Putin is growing. Their business is suffering and “they talk about this openly but are not able to influence Putin. Otherwise they risk suffering the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was in prison for ten years. In Russia, you are either with the president” or else.
Nonetheless, he continues, “in Putin’s entourage,” there are people who today “are quietly searching” for a successor, with the names of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin being the most often mentioned. “But for the time being there are no alternatives to Putin” in fact.
Public support for Putin has not fallen, Okara says, but Russians are no longer laughing about sanctions. They are patient because most of them still are convinced that the situation will improve quickly, with sanctions being lifted and Russia’s earlier advantages as an oil and gas exporter returning.
At the same time, however, “the authorities are trying to merge all negative protest attitudes by creating the ‘Anti-Maidan’ organization,” but that act allows one to be “certain that a Maidan in Russia must at some point appear,” Okara continues.
Putin’s strategy with regard to Ukraine remains unchanged: he wants it to be within the Russian sphere of influence and not to have any independent geopolitical role. But his resources are “much less” than many believe: Moscow does not have enough forces to march on Kyiv, but it does in order to prosecute a war like the one going on now for five years.
According to the Moscow analyst, “Putin cannot retreat. A retreat would mark his end as a political figure.” Therefore, Okara says, there are three possible scenarios for the end of the war now that “all bridges have been burned” with the shelling of Mariupol and the start of an open armed invasion.
In the first, Russia wins and Ukraine is dismembered into “several puppet states.” In the second, Russia loses and Russia is split up as Germany was after 1945. In that case, Russians go through what Germans did, Ukraine develops successfully, and possibly part of Russia becomes “a satellite of Ukraine with the rights of an autonomous formation.”
The third scenario, Okara says, is “a nuclear conflict with unpredictable consequences.”
Asked which of these was “the most likely,” Okara responds that “if the Ukrainian elite were mature and educated, then Ukraine now would be making world history,” but unfortunately, it lacks one. “All that civil society is doing is effective,” but “almost all tha the state is doing is idiotic.”
Asked if Putin is prepared for a compromise, the Moscow analyst says that the West’s “silent acceptance” of the annexation of Crimea seemed to open the way for that as there were no sanctions then in place. He adds, however, that there is one “obligatory condition: Russia must be recognized as a world power and Putin as equal” to the leaders of the other powers.
“But after the shooting down of the Boeing, Volnovakha, and the shelling of Mariupol, no compromises are possible,” Okara says.
And that creates a most dangerous situation: “when a rat is driven into a corner, he may snap at you.” Right now, “the ‘collective Putin’ feels itself to have been driven into a dead end.” As a result, people near the top are talking about the use of nuclear weapons as if that were simply another choice. What Putin thinks about that is uncertain.
Moscow has sufficient resources to hold on for 18 months to two years, Okara says, and therefore, Russia isn’t about to collapse or disintegrate “today or tomorrow.” Indeed, it is still “unknown who will fall apart: Russia or Ukraine, especially given the policies in place now.” Russia would be at greater risk if Putin ceased to be president.
“If Ukraine does not fall apart, then it will become very strong, a center of gravity on the East European and post-Soviet spaces,” Okara says. And if Russia does, then “tens of millions of Russians will flee to Ukraine.”
In short, the Moscow analyst concludes, “Russia without Putin” will be a new “time of troubles,” because Putin has done everything he can to ensure that there is no real opposition or alternative to himself. “Therefore, after Putin will be a flood and global political chaos.” Fear of that is thus acting as a constraint on those who disagree with him.