Former Professor of International Business, at the Baikal School of BRICS, Irkutsk National Research Technical University (teach mainly Chinese students, with a particular emphasis on the high-tech sector). Previously, Visiting Professor, School of Asian Studies within the Higher School of Economics National Research University, Moscow, where I taught the entire Master’s Degree module: “Russia’s Asian Foreign Policy” (covering Russian relations with East Asia, South Asia and S.E. Asia).
I first visited Russia in 1991 and lived there on-and-off, for a total of about twelve years, until October 2022 – that is, ten months after the invasion of Ukraine and well after many foreigners had left. I decided to leave after the CCCS (a Indian Government internal think-tank) invited and paid for me to go to New Delhi and give a presentation on Russia-China relations — and specifically asked me to talk about the relevance of Vladimir Putin and Ukraine! (See my blog below.)
Much of the future of Russia over the next decade or so will be determined by the present events in Ukraine. But this is not the whole story, as there is much about Russian society and governance that will only be affected at the margin by this war. This article attempts to consider various possible outcomes of the war and marry these to more basic issues to put some views about Russia’s future.
In terms of possible realistic war outcomes, I assume that Crimea will remain part of Russia as only a small proportion of Russians would consider giving it up and the Ukraine and its foreign supporters (mainly NATO) would be incredibly silly to seriously attempt to return Crimea to Ukraine.
The recently annexed provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are at the other extreme. Neither Ukraine nor its backers will be able to stomach these two regions remaining part of Russia, as it would consolidate Putin in power until his death and risk further future “special military operations” in other parts of the Ukraine such as Odessa. It would be a massive and embarrassing backdown for Putin to accept that Russia could not keep Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, but he may have no choice because, in my view, there are limits to what Russians are prepared to sacrifice for these.
Based on my own observations and conversations the February 2022 “special military operation” was welcomed by only a small minority of Russians, although I was surprised that some well educated friends of mine were supporters. When asked why, the events in Donetsk and Luhansk regions since the annexation of Crimea would often be mentioned. If Ukraine can recognize reality about Crimea, the main issue to “ending” the conflict will be some way of handling those two regions closest to Russia.
The more recent attempt by the Kremlin to frame the “special military operation” as another “patriotic war” concerned with the survival of Russia will influence the thinking of many, but today’s Russians are generally more informed about the events than in the time of the Soviet Union and there will be a limit to the extent that they buy into this story. Nevertheless, the effect of nationalist pride in Russian “power” should not be underestimated.
If intensive fighting continues, the crunch time for Putin will come when Russian casualties reach a level that almost all people in Russia know someone who has been killed or wounded, and when there seems little prospect of “victory”. This could be in 2024 or 2025, but not 2023.
In the meantime, much of Russian society and even the economy will continue much as it was before 24 February 2022.
At various times I have lived in Moscow, Irkutsk (middle of Siberia) and Vladivostok (in the eastern part of Russia, near Japan) and never had the feeling that I was in some part of Russia where independence was desired. However, I have to admit to having no first-hand experience of such places as Chechnya in the Caucuses.
Russia will not fall apart. The Russian bureaucracy will continue to function. Few outside Russia understand that many government services are now accessible online or in the sort of omnibus “service centres” common in such places as Australia. At a more individual case level, bureaucratic decisions can be quite arbitrary and sometime corrupt, but Russians can be quite good at pushing back.
I have dealt with many Russian businesspeople, particularly as I at one time focused on teaching them English. In almost all cases, they were diligent and knowledgeable. Of course, in spite of what I have written above they were quite open about the challenges they faced and willing to share their solutions.
I have even had a fair bit to do with Russia’s police as a victim of several crimes, and even a court case, and found that both act in a professional manner. However, the approach clearly can be very different where extremely large amounts of money or political issues are involved.
Having been hospitalized twice in Russia and on several other several occasions needing complex day medical treatment, I can attest that while the equipment and efficiency of service can leave something to be desired it is generally adequate and in many private clinics as good as would be available in the West.
I have taught both Russian and Chinese students in universities, including Russian foreign policy to masters degree students at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Prior to February 2022, I found them no less independent minded than I would expect in Australia.
However, the most surprising and disturbing thing about the events in Ukraine in 2022 was how quickly and extensively people who I had known for some time – even years – declined to us the term “war” even after I had clearly used it. In the main this was not because they supported the “special military operation” but because they were afraid that they might be reported using the banned word. But this also happened in private conversations and I had the feeling that they wanted to get into the habit of not using the wrong terminology.
As part of a general move to restrict discussion and information in Russia this will have a corrosive effect on decision making, including general political and economic performance. In particular, it will act to suppress discussion about the events in the Ukraine and possible solutions, and so make the inevitable realization of reality more painful. However, this does not mean that Russia will turn into some sort of “Eurasian North Korea” as some have suggested. Russians have too much experience and knowledge of the wider world.
China is increasingly seen by some as a savior of sorts, but there will be limits to this. Not only are Russia’s main population centers much closer to Europe than China, but the Russian character – if I can use that word – is more akin to that in Europe than China. There is also the question of language with most Russian dialogue conducted in English, a very Western language.
In conclusion, Russia’s authoritarianism is beginning to verge on genuine dictatorship but the course will not change for several years. Russia’s overall performance as a “country” will deteriorate, but will not generally be a return to anything like the post-Soviet 1990s that I witnessed.