“Ukraine will win this war – at the cost of immense sacrifice and not too soon, but it will. Moreover, it will most likely recapture all of the territories seized by Russia, including Crimea,” believes a former US marine who has served in Ukraine's foreign legion. My interviewee, who took part in the Afghanistan War, says he arrived at this conclusion seeing the Russian army's technological backwardness and low morale, with the latter resulting from Russia's approach to warfare: without any regard for losses of its own.
Experts have varied views on the matter. However, if we were to treat the Kremlin's future defeat as a working hypothesis, the question is as follows: will Russia be covering the damage inflicted on Ukraine? If so, how specifically?
If we were to assume that the Ukrainians recapture the Donbas, I believe that Putin may survive this loss. The ranks of potential candidates for his post have been purged, and the negative selection of human resources against the loyalty criterion has come to fruition as well. Governing the country with two elementary tools – corruption and fear – may grant Putin a few more carefree years.
By contrast, losing Crimea would finish him off. It's not that the nation would rebel against the “national disgrace” inflicted upon it by Kremlin honchos. The Russian public is generally too passive for that to happen. I would say mass protests could only be triggered by a truly horrendous economic situation, which won't happen for a while.
If the Ukrainians recapture the Donbas, Putin may survive it. By contrast, losing Crimea would finish him off
And yet, a forced withdrawal from the peninsula would become a political catastrophe for the Russian dictator, one that no amount of propaganda makeup could cover up. Putin’s paramount achievement would turn into a defeat, exposing his weakness for everyone to see; finger-pointing among the junta would spiral out of control and most likely end in its crackup. The situation that arose after Joseph Stalin's death may repeat itself: squabbles among the elite followed by consolidation around a new leader or group of leaders.
There are two more possibilities, however. One of them is that Russia may split, one way or another. This scenario would drastically complicate the matter of reparations to Ukraine. There would hardly be any volunteers to take responsibility for this aspect of Putin’s legacy. The other option is the ascent to power of sincere, democratically-inclined leaders who are also capable of practical policy-making. They may call for national repentance and redemption and will take active steps in this direction. The latter option seems the least likely for now.
However, any post-Putin government, even one comprised of Putin's former associates, will generally be predisposed to negotiations and ending the war. They will want to at least try and recover frozen Russian assets from abroad, obliterate or considerably shorten Western “black lists”, and go back to the sweet spot of profitable cooperation with multinational companies.
Unlike Germany in 1945, no one is occupying Russia, so there will be no need for domestic rebuilding. The landscape could be similar to that in Serbia in 2000 after Slobodan Milosevic's downfall. Back then, a faction of the establishment removed the most infamous figures of the old regime from the forefront and even turned Milosevic over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Unlike Germany in 1945, no one is occupying Russia, so there will be no need for domestic rebuilding. The landscape could be similar to that in Serbia in 2000
Putin's successors may attempt something along those lines (although Russia turning over even a nondescript major sounds like a sci-fi twist today) and present themselves to the world as a “new government of a new Russia”.
Over the five months of the war, Russia has inflicted damage on Ukraine's infrastructure to the amount of $108 billion, according to a study by the Kyiv School of Economics. Rebuilding will cost at least $185 billion. With 129,900 residential buildings damaged or destroyed, housing accounts for most of the damage. Infrastructure ranks second, with losses amounting to $31.6 billion. Industry ranks third with $8.8 billion. As estimated by the Kyiv School of Economics, since February 24, Russia has damaged, destroyed, or seized a total of 388 industrial facilities, 43,700 agricultural equipment items, 1,991 shops, 511 administrative buildings, 18 civil airports, 105,200 light vehicles, 764 preschools, 634 cultural centers, 27 shopping malls, and 28 oil terminals.
Ukraine will apparently be guided by two goals: bring to justice those suspected of war crimes and secure war reparations. Moscow’s initial response is clear in advance: “Do not ask anything of us! Our position is precarious, as the dark forces of Putin’s revenge are plotting their return to the political stage. If we pay as much as a ruble to Ukraine, they’ll mow us down.”
The story is as old as the sea. For want of reliable and independent political institutes in Russia, the West is forced to focus its efforts on the country’s leaders. In the late 1980s – early 1990s, Mikhail Gorbachev was said to have “no alternatives”. When the alternative in Boris Yeltsin's face took down Gorbachev, Yeltsin became another “leader without an alternative”. All the talk about the “chaos in Putin's absence” or how “Putin is a familiar evil, but his successor could be even worse” is incessant. The rulers of post-Putin Russia will most likely keep using this simple reasoning – not unsuccessfully, if I may assume.
Getting war reparations from Russia would take a strong political will on the part of the West and a degree of Western involvement in Russian affairs that is unimaginable today.
Prosecuting those suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity would be marginally easier than securing indemnity payments – at least because the “new Kremlin gang” would pick those responsible for the “wrong” outcome of the war to throw them under the bus on an international level and to appease the Russian public at the same time. The new leaders will start by giving up “pawns” and ushering the “queens” to safety so as not to answer the question: “What were you doing after February 24?”
Moreover, if the current Russian law stays in effect, the trial will only be possible on Russian soil because the country does not extradite its nationals. Even though Russia’s Criminal Code stipulates punishment for all the relevant offenses, it is somewhat difficult to imagine a fair and unbiased trial in Russia. Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and his henchman, Colonel-General Ratko Mladic, were only tried a while later and not without considerable pressure from the West on Belgrade. Could similar pressure be exerted on Moscow? In theory, yes, but the Kremlin would have to be desperate to get the sanctions lifted, which would be the case if an economic disaster creates the threat of mass protests.
When the issue of reparations is raised, Moscow will insist it doesn’t have the money, demanding that the sanctions be lifted first. Moscow will also resist any regular payments stretched out in time; even if it consents to pay anything, it will be a small, one-time payment: a “goodwill gesture”, considering that “the new leaders are not responsible for the crimes committed by their predecessors”.
Naturally, Ukraine and its allies will have a diametrically opposite stance. However, making Russia pay would require an independent evaluation of its assets, international agreements on the size and scheme of payments, and finally, an efficient control mechanism. All of the above is extremely hard to implement if we are looking at an immense nuclear power that would retain the means of intimidation even in the case of defeat. This is all the more true considering that a great many Western politicians would jump at any pretext to avoid making hard choices.
Few would volunteer to provide even a ballpark estimate of the war indemnity. As economist Vladislav Inozemtsev believes, the assessment should focus on rebuilding costs, not the scope of the damage. “Thus, the Azovstal steelworks is pointless to rebuild in its initial form,” Inozemtsev explains in conversation with The Insider. “We need to calculate the costs of erecting new cities and industrial facilities. In my opinion, this is a job for the consortia of companies willing to undertake the rebuilding effort – under the auspices of the EU. My personal estimate fluctuates within the range of 400-500 billion euros. It is also practical to establish an investment management fund and make some of the investments commercial.” However, Inozemtsev is convinced that Russia will pay no reparations and that no one can make it pay.
If Ukraine recovers the territories it controlled after the dissolution of the USSR, both Moscow and some of the European leaders will try to persuade Kyiv: “Haven't you gotten back what you wanted? Go on, build your future with support from the EU and US and forget all about Russia. You’ll be better off without a penniless and peeved northern neighbor.” And then we’ll hear more about “stability” and the lack of alternatives.
A commodity the Kremlin of the future will probably have to offer is air, figuratively speaking: Moscow’s “consent” to Ukraine's accession to the EU and NATO. Domestically, it would only take a new set of propaganda guides for Solovyov, Kiselev, Norkin, and the likes. They will quickly convince the Russian public that no actual harm will come out of it. In a hypothetical situation when real, not fake leftist and nationalist candidates run for a relatively free election to the State Duma, their outrage about Russia “backing down” could be converted into another dose of American and European “understanding” and support for the new Kremlin team.
In a country that is going through such a profound moral crisis as today's Russia, it is hard to anticipate the advent of an ethically advanced administration guided by some sort of ideals. Even if Moscow is defeated, the future will most likely bring us never-ending bartering.