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Freedom from within. Vladislav Inozemtsev on why Ukraine's victory doesn't guarantee democratization in Russia

On October 1st, the 5th Anti-War Conference of the Free Russia Forum is set to kick off in Tallinn. Since February 2022, opponents of the Putin regime have been gathering in such assemblies under the banner “Victory for Ukraine! Freedom for Russia!” This same rallying cry propels them into anti-war protests and demonstrations across European cities. Prominent figures in the Russian protest have iterated that after the complete liberation of Ukrainian territory, the downfall of Vladimir Putin's regime is unavoidable. They firmly believe that the “de-imperialization of Russian consciousness demands the raising of the Ukrainian flag in Sevastopol,” and triumph against Putinism beyond Russia will awaken the “dormant” populace both within and outside the country. Vladislav Inozemtsev presents a counterargument: while the liberation of Russia will lead to Ukraine's triumph and the reestablishment of its territorial integrity, it won't work the other way around—Ukraine's military advancements don't serve as a definitive assurance for democratization in Russia.

How close is Ukraine to achieving victory?

My initial doubt concerns the proximity of Ukraine's victory. Until the beginning of 2023, I was deeply convinced that the heroism of Ukrainian citizens and the unexpectedly consistent support for Ukraine from the West would lead to the defeat of the Russian army and the liberation of the occupied territories (while maintaining some skepticism regarding Russia immediately ending its prolonged affair with Putin). Considering the low motivation of Russian mobilized forces, numerous conflicts between branches of command, and the extremely optimistic attitude of the Ukrainian side, I presumed that the counteroffensive would yield significant results.

But what's the situation now? Kyiv has not yet achieved noticeable successes on the fronts. Russia has gone a year without a new mobilization. The Putinist economy is not showing a catastrophic decline. At the same time, some Western figures openly talk about the need to end the war and the impossibility of achieving victory in it.

Of course, this does not mean that Ukraine's liberation of the occupied territories is illusory. Kyiv opposes any attempts to “appease” Russia. And that's the right approach, as any negotiations with Putin, who has never honored agreements he himself signed, would be pointless. However, lately, Ukrainian leaders have increasingly acknowledged problems on the front and openly stated that with the current level of support from allies, Ukraine will not be able to achieve its previously set goals. One should also note that the significant losses, massive emigration of people from the country, and rampant corruption have exhausted many citizens of Ukraine and raised questions about the feasibility of keeping the status quo for an extended period of time.

The significant losses, massive emigration of people from the country, and rampant corruption have exhausted many citizens of Ukraine

The chronology of the conflict has indeed undergone significant changes. The Kremlin is prepared to remain engaged in the war for years, and it has the resources to sustain this. On the other hand, the West is more concerned about Russia's unpredictable actions (and even its internal destabilization) than about additional months and years of military actions. Currently, the conflict closely resembles the positional stage during World War I. Such a state of affairs could last for many years. Primarily because the current war does not lead to the catastrophic changes that inevitably occurred in the daily lives of citizens in warring countries in the past.

In other words, the change in the military-political situation in 2023 raises doubts about the possibility of the radical victory for Ukraine, which was considered a crucial precondition for the crisis of Putin's political regime. Attempts by the Ukrainian army to destabilize the situation in Russia through attacks on border territories are also unlikely to contribute to this.

In addition, it should be noted that numerous predictions about destabilization in the Kremlin, a “transfer of power,” and Putin's rapidly deteriorating health have been at least erroneous, or at most, a conscious and blatant falsehood. Instead, we are about to witness a successful operation to legitimize the dictator in the upcoming “elections” scheduled for the 10th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea.

Presumably, Ukraine's successes on the front are not likely until 2024-2025 when the Russian regime will have gone through a period of potential turbulence. Besides, no victories of the Ukrainian army are likely to reach a scale sufficient for them to be identified as the final failure of the Putin regime in the mind of the average Russian. Hence, I am inclined to assume that no military success by Ukraine in the foreseeable future will trigger a political crisis in Russia.

No military success by Ukraine in the foreseeable future will trigger a political crisis in Russia

Ukraine's victory won't help Russia

The question remains about how “freedom for Russia” and “victory for Ukraine” are related and to what extent the former can be conditioned on the latter. To assess this, one should turn to history and, using the example of the First World War, consider some lessons from that massive conflict.

The circumstances that led to the defeats and withdrawals of the main warring parties speak for themselves. Russia's military potential was undermined first by the February Revolution and then by the October Revolution. As a result, the country ceased military actions and signed the humiliating Brest Peace Treaty with Germany. It's worth noting that the revolutions in Russia paved the way for Finland's independence (acknowledged by the Bolsheviks in December 1917) and that of the Baltic states, which gained their sovereignty the following year after the failure of communist uprisings and the end of the subsequent German occupation. In Austria-Hungary, which surrendered on November 3, 1918, revolutionary ferment prevailed throughout most of the war's last year, mass strikes occurred at critically important enterprises, and incidents of disobedience in the army escalated.

A month before the end of the war, Emperor Karl I granted national autonomy to the peoples of the empire in an attempt to transform the dualistic monarchy into a federation of independent states. In Germany, dissatisfaction with the war gave birth to a powerful revolutionary movement. As a result, the country became ungovernable by the end of the summer of 1918, leading to the overthrow of the monarchy on November 9. The new government immediately signed the Compiègne Armistice with the Entente countries, which marked the end of the First World War.

These examples indicate that in the slogan “Victory for Ukraine means freedom for Russia,” the cause and effect are confused. The experience of past protracted positional wars precisely indicates that changes within warring countries lead to the victory of their opponents, not the other way around.

Changes within warring countries lead to the victory of their opponents, not the other way around

This idea is further supported by another event from a century ago. In 1919-1920, the Bolsheviks aimed to restore the empire that had been lost and began an offensive against Poland and Western Ukraine. This was intended to accelerate the anticipated large-scale proletarian revolution in Europe, as envisioned by Lenin and Trotsky. However, in the summer of 1920, the Red Army suffered a catastrophic defeat at Warsaw. Most historians consider this event the most significant failure of the Bolsheviks during the entire Civil War: several armies were defeated, and the number of soldiers taken prisoner exceeded 100,000. However, this failure did not prompt any adjustments in the Soviet leadership's policies. They continued on the course of eliminating their political opponents and enforcing the “war communism” policies.

The shift to the New Economic Policy (NEP) wasn't triggered by setbacks on the Western front; instead, it was instigated by extensive peasant uprisings during the winter of 1920-1921, and notably, the Kronstadt rebellion in March 1921. This rebellion pointed to a crisis in the Bolsheviks' support, even among the most steadfast segments of the military and naval forces. Hence, the events in early Soviet Russia affirmed that neighboring nations achieved peace not solely through their heroism and resolve, but also due to internal issues within the aggressor countries. It's important to emphasize that the Riga Treaty, a pact that temporarily defined the borders of the RSFSR in the West, was signed in March 1921. This occurred when the Bolsheviks realized that pursuing further expansion couldn't be actualized due to domestic political considerations. Consequently, the notion of the importance of Ukrainian military triumphs for political shifts in Russia is erroneous.

Country's problems first and foremost

From the very beginning of the war, the Russian opposition, driven by unquestionable moral considerations, focused on supporting the victim of aggression, condemning the Kremlin's foreign policy, and obstructing anyone who could be considered a collaborator of the Putin regime. However, this stance did not lead to outstanding results. On the one hand, there is a wary attitude toward “good Russians” in the world and even in Ukraine. The position of Russian dissidents, apparently, is unable to overturn the general course toward collective responsibility of Russians for the war.

Moreover, solidarity with the Ukrainian people, apparently, has not become a unifying force even for the Russian emigration — divisions and conflicts continue within it. Finally, for a significant part of the remaining Russians in the country, the unity of opponents of the Putin regime with Ukrainian resistance and their anti-war stance became an important factor contributing to the rejection of the opposition agenda. Moreover, under the influence of Kremlin propaganda, it is now viewed as “hostile.”

On the flip side, those opposing the regime, who held the belief that significant changes within the country hinged primarily on a drastic shift in the “external landscape,” diverted their focus from purely Russian matters, offering limited responses to events and concerns relevant to the ordinary citizen.

The military-focused narrative began to take precedence in the content and presentations of prominent opposition channels. Speakers attempt to discern potential events within Russia by observing subtle shifts on the fronts or the imposition of added sanctions by Western nations. Additionally, numerous sanctioning measures either bolster the unity of Russian elites (especially certain sanctions targeting businessmen) or come off as somewhat absurd (such as sanctions directed at cybercriminals, cautioning them against careless travel abroad and potential arrests). This represents a fundamental difference between today's Russian opposition and the Bolsheviks, who, during the First World War, did not become fixated on expectations of Russia's or the entire Entente's defeat. Instead, they actively delved into issues concerning land, property, and national relationships that were of concern to those of their compatriots who at that time had no inclination or opportunity to emigrate from the country.

Many of the sanction measures only strengthen the solidarity of Russian elites

I am not prepared to propose a specific course of action for Russian opponents of the Putin regime right now—and I wouldn't do so, as I don't consider myself a politician. It seems to me that the freedom of Russia is related to the victory of Ukraine as a cause and effect. A free and democratic Russia must undoubtedly condemn Putin's policies, rid itself of its fascist present, compensate the neighboring country for the damage inflicted, and do everything necessary to prevent the resurgence of authoritarian chauvinism.

Therefore, the freedom of Russia implies the success of Ukraine and the restoration of its territorial integrity. Nonetheless, Ukraine's military achievements should not be viewed as a guarantee for Russia's freedom.

The majority of Russians are completely indifferent to Donbass and Crimea. Their loss will not trigger a crisis in the legitimacy of the Putin regime. The success of the Ukrainian armed forces will provoke a new wave of hysteria about the threats to the country's security and further propaganda outbreaks. Against the backdrop of intensified suppression of any dissent, the system will only strengthen, as its functionaries will become beneficiaries of a new “great rearrangement.” Therefore, if the Russian opposition wants victory for Ukraine, it must finally focus on liberating Russia—from within, not from outside.

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