A ‘Morgenthau Plan’ for Russia: Avoiding Post-1991 Mistakes in Dealing With a Post-Putin Russia (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 179

(Source: Atlantic Council)

Moscow’s all-out war of aggression against Ukraine, which commenced on February 24, has vividly demonstrated that Russia’s militarism and drive toward colonial expansion has not disappeared. This has, in turn, revealed that arguments supporting the notion that economic growth and inclusion in major international organizations would bring stability and normalization to Russia have largely failed. The war against Ukraine has also underscored the bitter reality that Russia is indeed the number-one threat to European security. Additionally, the conflict has revealed a staggering discrepancy between the pre-war image of Russia, which was skillfully crafted by Moscow`s own propaganda and the Kremlin`s open and tacit supporters in the West, and the woeful reality, that of a deeply corrupt, criminalized, economically weakened and militarily archaic country.

Meanwhile, international sanctions in the economic sphere, the impact of which is likely to acquire a much more powerful effect in the coming months, are now slowly strangling Russia, resulting in declining living standards and the flight of foreign investors. Clearly troubled by this, Moscow has considered strengthening command-administrative methods, best reflected in the Gosplan 2.0 model, as a remedy (see EDM, September 7). For now, the so-called “parallel-import” mechanism, in which Turkey plays a key role, remains the main lifeboat saving Russia from a Soviet-style budget deficit (YouTube, November 19). Simultaneously, the Kremlin’s strategic dependency on China has gradually transformed into one of economic dependence (RBC, November 15).

Domestically, the Russian political elites are losing confidence and legitimacy, while criminals, such as Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, and local warlords, primarily Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, are directly challenging Russia’s military commanders (Kavkaz.Realii, October 4) and governors (RBC, November 11). Alarmingly so, the emergence of convicts and criminals in both the civilian and military domains is becoming a new norm for Russia.

Regarding military affairs, Russian forces have greatly underperformed in Ukraine, to such an extent that Moscow`s last resort is committing open acts of terrorism as a means to push Ukraine to the negotiating table, hoping to use the accompanying ceasefire as an operational pause to reinforce its front-line units (Kommersant, November 19). Moreover, private armies and illegal mercenary groups—whose existence Moscow used to vehemently deny—are now being openly promoted, sometimes in lieu of the official armed forces.

These examples point to the fact that the current political regime in Moscow is losing stamina, and the country may well be entering a period of internal havoc and serious instability. Thus, it may be the case that Russia`s political regime might not survive the current and upcoming challenges. As retired US Lieutenant General Benjamin Hodges has noted, Russia may well be on its way toward deep stagnation and collapse (24tv.ua, November 9). Hodges also argued that the West’s inability to adequately prepare for the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 might have resulted in Russian President Vladimir Putin`s advent to power and all the tragedies that have occurred since (The Moscow Times, September 15). A similar statement from Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in the Ukrainian Office of the President, accurately stipulated that there is “no need to be afraid of the truth. Russia cannot continue existing in its current form. Russia must lose, be punished for neglecting international law and undergo a political transformation” (Twitter.com/Podolyak_M, November 15).

Indeed, instead of seeking a compromise and negotiating with Putin (or his successor in the case of a reshuffle among the Russian elite), the West should increase military, economic and diplomatic support for Ukraine while making adequate preparations to face a potential collapse of the Russian state in its current form. This primarily means that a comprehensive strategy aimed at pre-empting the re-birth of an aggressive, revanchist and militaristic Russia must be established.

To do so, the United States and its strategic allies should concentrate on three primary aspects:

First, the West must come to the understanding that Russia, both for its own good and the overall security of Europe, must lose its war against Ukraine. That is why the West must do its utmost to ensure that Ukraine receives all necessary weapons and military equipment and that Russia`s conventional military capabilities are broken. Stephen Blank of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) claimed, in an interview with this author, that an even more powerful move would be to grant Ukraine North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership “now. Not later, not tomorrow” (Author’s interview, November 23).

Second, Western countries need to carefully study and analyze their past mistakes that ultimately led to the rise of Putinism in Russia. As argued by Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Paul Goble, three fundamental mistakes on the part of the West led to the emergence of Putin`s Russia. “First, the West declared victory, sought peace dividends and assumed ‘history was over.’ Second, it blocked lustration for its own convenience and, in the name of stability, allowing many of the same people to come back to power. And third, it assumed that political action was not necessary and that economics would solve all problems. The West declared Russia to be a democracy when it was not and focused all its attention on promoting a market economy. That opened the way to … an authoritarian, even fascist, Putin regime” (Author’s interview, November 22).

Along this vein, Blank further stated that “we [the West] should have supported democratic capitalism. … Democracy and capitalism are not the same things, but you cannot have democracy without capitalism, and the essence of capitalism is that of the right to private property.” He also added that support for “government under the law [and] support of private enterprise, that is guaranteed by law” were the key preconditions for Russia`s transformation in the 1990s. Furthermore, the idea of Russia as an empire “entitled to a sphere of influence” should have been uprooted, but none of these critical actions ever took place (Author’s interview, November 23).

The third step involves targeting the three major destructive forces that have historically had a detrimental impact on Russia itself and constantly jeopardized its neighbors’ security. Those forces are:

  1. A drive toward territorial expansion;
  2. Incessant militarism and militarization of public sentiments;
  3. Endemic corruption (based on, among other things, Russia`s strategic dependency on natural resources), which has not only had an eroding effect on Russia itself but has also been used by Moscow to promote its interests and agendas abroad.

Each of these elements could be addressed through, respectively, accomplishing a partial de-colonization of Russia, implementing a comprehensive de-militarization program and overseeing a thorough de-Sovietization of the economy, moving away from such a resource-dependent system.

In the case that Russia loses its war against Ukraine and enters a period of severe internal havoc, re-engagement with Moscow in the domains of economics, business, technology, culture and science must be made conditional on the adoption and implementation of these measures, among others.