The Putin Crucible
Three scenarios ending Russia’s special operation in Ukraine
The starting point for writing any script is its orientation in historical space and time. It is difficult to build a curve, and even more so to understand where it will lead, if historical coordinate axes are not laid for the situation. For today’s Russia they are intersecting lines of development of the world and Russian civilizations.
World civilization is now in a state of phase transition from a post-industrial to an information society, when all the constants that ensure relative stability have simultaneously become variables — technologies, climate, demography, morality and law have moved simultaneously. Russian civilization, one of the varieties of “swing civilizations,” in turn, has reached the next maximum threshold value, which is usually followed by collapse and rebirth in some new unrecognizable form. For a quarter of a century, there were expectations for clash of civilizations. We wound up with a clash of civilizational crises instead.
Everything that happens in Russia can usually be described using Chernomyrdin’s famous formula — “This has never happened before, and here it is again.” Nevertheless, what happened today fits perfectly into the general logic of Russia’s historical development and represents its logical outcome. It’s not first time that a Russian crisis has caught up to and surpassed a world crisis. The problem is that in all such cases, possible scenarios for Russia turned out to be rather meager, with few non-grudge bearing outcomes.
War is a unique historical catalyst. Paradoxically, it does not so much create new strategic scenarios as it sharpens the storylines of old ones. In part, this effect arises because war is sufficiently ruthless to past accumulated experience and quickly forms new experience. During war years, old stereotyped forms of behavior are being rapidly washed out of political practices due to their more intensive use than usual.
The war between Russia and Ukraine (actually, with the entire Western world) leads, in spite of the will of its initiators, to the accelerated amortization of Russia’s own history and, thereby, can indirectly contribute to the development of scenarios which, under other circumstances, would have waited for decades before being “staged,” stacked up in the literary portfolio of the Grand Inquisitor. War makes relevant what in peacetime lies in the storerooms of history.
Despite self-immolation during previous civilizational apocalypses (Peter’s “reforms,” the Bolshevik “revolution,” Yeltsin’s “democratization”), Russia has never completely burned out. Each “new Russia” for a long time retained the cinders of long-forgotten historical epochs. By the beginning of the 21st century, a critical mass of recrement had accumulated in Russia’s cultural baggage that blocked sustainable development of the country.
Of course, Russian culture has learned to gradually remove these slags from itself in a natural way. But this process is not fast, and in its normal form can take decades, if not centuries. By unleashing a war, Putin has provoked the accelerated burning of accumulated historical slags. He has lit a blast furnace, where steel is smelted from scrap metal. So it is still very difficult to guess what Russia will get in the end. The result can be the most unexpected, unless the furnace blows up. Putin’s contribution to history is controversial. On the one hand, he made his business collecting historical scrap metal, on the other hand, he started burning it in his blast furnace a month ago.
If this continues, the whole old Russia under Putin will fly out through chimney.
A menu of scenarios
Smelting, however, can also be done in different ways. In relation to the current situation, the development of the plot (melting algorithm) will greatly depend on the goals set by Putin (temperature regime). According to first impressions, the dials were set initially at maximum levels, so the settings can now can only be reduced. The main problem of this war for Russia is that Putin’s goals are irrational and unattainable in principle.
Ukraine itself, with its resources, population and territory, is only a pretext for war, but not its cause. For reasons of a purely religious and ideological nature, it was from Ukraine that Putin began the active phase of the struggle for the reorganization of the world order, in fact, for shared world domination. The irrationality of this struggle is twofold. Firstly, it cannot end in success even in the event of a complete victory over Ukraine, because “a continuation of the banquet” will definitely be required. Secondly, it is unattainable in principle, since Russia does not have the ammunition to ensure its indicated ambitions. Of all the necessary ammunition, only nuclear weapons are in abundance. You can use that collectively to kill yourself, but you can not win.
That is, Russia’s strategic choice is either to be defeated or to become a martyr.
That is, the option to become the mistress of the sea, and to have the Goldfish (Europe) waiting on him, does not exist for Putin in the real world. The existing options are much less attractive and can be reduced to three basic scenarios: “cremation,” “recycling” and “mummification.”
Technology of war and peace
My working hypothesis is that peace or at least a truce in the war between Russia and Ukraine is possible under the existing circumstances only when the political cost of war for both sides is higher than the price of peace. So far, for both Putin and Zelensky, this is not the case. Putin managed to awaken the instinct of war among the masses, thanks to which he was able to enlist the support of a significant part of the population (how and why is the topic of a separate study, but this fact itself is now disputed by no one). But Zelensky has managed to garner just as much, if not more, support. For Ukraine, the war took on the character of a people’s and liberation war, which turned out to be a complete surprise for the Kremlin and exponentially increased the resistance of the Ukrainian army. As a result, we have all the prerequisites for a bloody and protracted conflict.
At the same time, the support of the population of both countries for the policy of war for both presidents, although for different reasons, is still not unlimited. The population of Russia “signed up” for a small victorious war, one in which you can earn some extra money (in the broadest sense of the word). The option of another patriotic war with hardships and trials that stretches on for years is not envisaged by this political mandate. For Zelensky, on the other hand, the window of opportunity for peace with each new Bucha shrinks to the size of an embrasure from which a sawed-off shotgun sticks out. Yet at the same time, Ukraine’s human and economic resources, even with Western assistance, are insufficient for a long and exhausting war with an adversary like Russia. So there are prerequisites for a compromise. The only question is where and when these lines will cross. The probability of this or that scenario depends on the intersection point.
Scenario 1: Cremation
Cremation is an unlikely, but still real scenario for a radical and rapid evolution of the situation from bad to worse and catastrophic. One of the likely prerequisites for such a development of events could be the strategic defeat of the Ukrainian army, either as a result of mistakes made by its military commanders, or as a result of the use of weapons of mass destruction by Russia (general mobilization in Russia and the transition to scorched earth tactics and total war could have a similar effect). This extremely unlikely scenario could lead to the full occupation of Ukraine, which would be a real fiasco for the Putin regime.
With a high degree of probability, it can be assumed that defeated remnants of the Ukrainian army would flee to Poland and other neighboring countries, Zelensky or his successor would organize a Ukrainian government in exile, and a guerrilla war of unprecedented proportions would begin in a devastated and weaponized country. The sanctions regime would reach its apogee, but at the same time, Russia would, at its own expense and in complete isolation, have to somehow restore the economy of Ukraine. This is a trap, and to get out of it, the Kremlin will need to raise the stakes further. Having swallowed Moldova and Georgia, not covered by a nuclear umbrella, Russia will quickly face a fundamental choice: either to admit defeat, or to be drawn into a direct military conflict with NATO, with a likely exit into a nuclear apocalypse. That is, the achievement by the Kremlin of all its cherished goals in this war is the most provocative scenario in which, in the next iteration, the world becomes hostage to the suicidal syndrome of the Kremlin’s wise men, who are ready to self-immolate and burn others alive in an atomic crematorium.
Scenario 2: Recycling
Recycling is the same as cremation, but with a cheerful facade painted in the colors of hope. In fact, this is an even less likely radical scenario for the catastrophic development of the situation. It may arise as a result of the strategic defeat of the Russian army. Such a highly unlikely, but in principle not impossible, event could be the result of a series of ill-conceived and criminal actions by Russia’s top military leaders. Anyone who do not believe in the possibility of such a development of events can refresh their memory by re-reading the history of the Russo-Japanese war at the beginning of the 20th century.
Such an obvious strategic defeat of the Russian army, which would not have succumbed to any Photoshop with the help of state propaganda, could provoke the very revolution in Russia, to combat which this whole militaristic circus with horses, in fact, was originally invented. It is known that in cases of obvious and large-scale military defeats, an almost instantaneous change of mood poles occurs, and jingoistic patriotism turns into a deaf and vicious hatred of the upper classes, which, in fact, has already happened more than once in Russia in 1853–1854, in 1904–1905 or in 1916–1917. In such circumstances, the change of poles of mass moods occurs without buildup, almost instantly.
Today — wild sex, tomorrow — seething hatred. Russia ran the gamut with the Romanovs and Rasputin, with Gorbachev, and now with Putin.
If the revolution starts, then in the current situation it will not stop until it smashes the state machine to an atomic state. Russia will then unexpectedly quickly get a chance for a complete reassembly in a new configuration (in fact, recycling). Maybe it will work out well, but the cost of the experiment will ultimately be almost the same as the cremation.
Scenario 3: Mummification
Between the extreme options there is always a vast field of less certain, but much more probable scenarios. All of them, one way or another, come down to freezing the existing conflict for a sufficiently long period. In this case, the whole of Russia will begin to resemble its main Soviet symbol — the Mausoleum, but only with a living political corpse on a pedestal in a large poorly lit room. How long it will lie there depends on how frozen solid it becomes.
Theoretically, two options are possible: conflict localization and conflict sublimation.
Localization of the conflict. Already today, some signs indicate that there is a tendency to localize the conflict, that is, to turn it into a permanent hotbed of military confrontation in a fairly limited area. In this case, the Russia-Ukraine war be similar to one of Russia’s Caucasian wars, with endless exhausting battles in the Kharkiv-Donbas-Kherson triangle. Both countries will burn huge resources in this war, abandoning any development plans. But there will be a difference: Ukraine will rely on the help of the West, while Russia will face the most uncomfortable sanctions regime. The way out of this situation is either in cremation of recycling, but not immediately.
Sublimation of the conflict. Sublimation of the conflict is possible only if both sides have enough political will to bring the matter to a peace agreement. Strange as it may seem, from a strategic historical perspective, such an agreement is beneficial, first of all, to the Kremlin, and in theory allows the Putin regime to “pass between the water jets.” I practically have no doubt that at this stage, the Kremlin will be able to sell any version of the agreement on the domestic political market as a victory, and that any agreement will formally or informally be burdened with a “concept” according to which Kyiv will agree to the removal of part of the imposed package of sanctions from Moscow. In this case, Moscow slips out of the “Nesterov loop” that it arranged for itself and buys a few more or less predictable years for itself. Although the fear experienced by the elites will not go unnoticed, the consequences will not immediately be felt. Moreover, they can be mitigated by repressions, turning the external front into an internal one.
On the benefits, drawbacks of compromise scenarios
A compromise solution to the situation will almost certainly greatly upset the radical opponents of the Putin regime, both among the Russian opposition and Western government circles. For them, it seems preferable to localize the conflict and turn it into something similar to the Iran-Iraq war. The motive here is simple — such a scenario brings the end of the regime closer. But for many “simple plebs” who still want to live on this planet, even if it means living next to the Putin regime, the option of sublimating the conflict through a peace agreement still seems more attractive.
(A quick translation of an article by London-based practicing philosopher Vladimir Pastukhov appearing on April 12, 2022 in poligon.ru)