In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

What Comes After Putin?

May 16, 2024
Mikael Pir-Budgyan

Sworn in for yet another presidential term, Vladimir Putin is firmly on the path to becoming Russia’s longest ruler, surpassing even Josef Stalin, who governed Soviet Russia for almost 31 years. For many, a future Russia without Putin remains a black box. Some fear a civil war, perhaps triggered by a coup attempt and followed by chaos. Others believe there will be a more or less orderly changing of the guard. 

The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and its Russia Matters project have recently hosted a conversation to discuss these and other scenarios. Entitled “Post Putin Russia: What Comes Next?”, the discussion featured Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Leon Aron, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. It was moderated by the Belfer Center’s Ambassador Paula Dobriansky.

According to Lieven, “Fear of [chaos] is deeply rooted in … Russian consciousness,” strengthening Putin’s and his team’s resolve to continue the war in Ukraine. If there is an orderly transition, "the successor … will want to continue the basic features of the regime; they might also want to distinguish themselves from Putin in certain respects, establish their own identity,” according to Lieven.

In Aron’s view, “there is an institutional desert in Russia today,” making the transition from Putin more unpredictable. Aron cites the “pendulum” in Russian history, “swinging from generally repressive, sometimes tyrannical regimes followed by somewhat less” repressive regimes, with more dramatic swings following on the heels of military defeats. Two things, according to Aron, could slow the pendulum’s swing in the direction the West would “consider hopeful.” The first is the “institutional legacy of Putinism,” and the second is “the extent to which [Putin] left an imprint on the country.” 

See below for the transcript of the event. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Paula Dobriansky: Good afternoon to all of you. I’m Paula Dobriansky, a senior fellow here at the Harvard Belfer Center, and I’m just really delighted to launch this series. The series, as has been posted, is about Russia, past, present and future. We did have an event when Dr. Fiona Hill was here, looking at “Does Russia Matter?”, but this is now the beginning of a series looking at Russia, past, present and future, and this one in particular is “Post-Putin Russia, What Comes Next?”.

I do want to say before I introduce our two distinguished speakers that we are very pleased at Belfer to be co-hosting this with Russia Matters. I think many of you know Simon Saradzhyan, who is right here, and Angelina Flood, who’s right there. We are avid readers of the materials you provide, which are very timely, very essential. And so, well, and thank you for the partnership here. Thank you for that. 

So, we have a very interesting topic, and one that I think also is really going to be debatable, but let me say a few words about our guest speakers.

First, we’re going to hear from Dr. Leon Aaron, who is a prolific writer and editor. You’re definitely a Russia analyst. He was born in Moscow. He’s at the American Enterprise Institute, and I will flash this [book], “Riding the Tiger, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War,” which just came out. His book, which does chronicle hundreds you have here of Russian sources, and the thesis is “Vladimir Putin has used militarized patriotism to transform Russian society and maintain his grip on power.” So, the question for you, of course, will be how long is he going to be able to do that given the current state of play. We will hear then from Dr. Anatol Lieven, who, by the way, is also of Russian background. He spearheads and runs the Eurasia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. 

He was a former journalist, and we were actually talking about some of the areas he covered, including, you said, you were in Peshawar, then looking at Afghanistan, the war there. So, you have a very broad overview here. I’m going to cite a few of his books. If I did both books and articles, we’d be here for the full session.

But he has a number of books, “The Baltic Revolutions: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, The Path to Independence.” And for those of you who do care a great deal about climate change, he did a fairly recent book a couple of years ago, “Climate Change in the Nation State.” However, one of his other ones was on Chechnya, “Tombstone of Russian Power.”

So, we’re lucky indeed to have both of you here, and just thank you for being here. The way we’re going to run it, they will open up with some brief introductory comments on this topic. They could take it in whatever direction they want to in post-Putin Russia, but what comes next?

Then, I’m going to give them a chance to see if they have anything they want to add after hearing both of them speak. I’m going to ask the question, and then it’s going to go to all of you because I really want it to be interactive. So, enjoy lunch while we’re hearing the statements.

Over to you, Leon, and welcome.

Leon Aron: Thanks very much, Paula, for organizing it, and thanks, Simon, for co-hosting. Well, we can’t, of course, predict the future, except in the sense of Yogi Berra to say that the future ain’t what it used to be. But we could look at a couple of factors that I think will be instrumental in shaping post-Putin’s Russia; and one is hopeful and two are not particularly hopeful.

They are the regime change in Russian history, then the institutional legacy of Putinism, and finally, the imprint that Putin has left on his country and continues to leave. So, I assume it’s true of other countries, and it’s certainly true in part of democratic politics, but I think in authoritarian regimes, it’s particularly sharp. In Russian history, we see a pendulum swinging from generally repressive, sometimes tyrannical regimes followed by somewhat less. We would want to have a better term and somewhat more liberal regimes.

We’ve seen that change after, of course, Ivan the Terrible with Boris Godunov and Alexei Romanov, who actually was the first and the only Tsar who was elected by the National Assembly. Then we saw that after the totalitarian Peter the Great, over 40 years of misfits and perverts, but eventually Catherine the Great. Then we saw after the martinet Paul the First, we saw Alexander the First, who started very liberally and, in fact, conferred with a self-conscious liberal by the name of Mikhail Speransky.

And, of course, in the … starkest, probably, and closest to us way, Khrushchev’s thaw after Stalin … Now, an important footnote. The amplitude of the pendulum was wider after the military defeats, which, of course, not that those stakes could be any higher, but the stakes in Ukraine matter very much because if you look at Russian history, military setbacks, and especially military defeats, make the pendulum swing even wider.

… I mentioned that Alexander II, the liberal revolution from above, followed the classic reactionary Nicholas the First after his defeat in, what I should say, the first Crimean War, 1856. Then, of course, Russia’s first revolution, 1905, and the Russians essentially turned to constitutional monarchy, the October Manifesto, followed the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. Of course, Russia’s democratic revolution of February 1917, after the setbacks in World War I. [It] was not the only factor, but, of course, it was a factor in Khrushchev’s ouster, his retreat from Cuba in 1962.

There were other reasons for his demise or the coup, but it was a regime change from milder, creeping anti-Stalinism to Brezhnev’s conservatism. Then, of course, the quagmire of Afghanistan, again, was not the only factor, but it certainly contributed to Gorbachev’s glasnost revolution from above. Now, as we come to Putin’s Russia, there are a couple of factors that could either stay or certainly slow the pendulum in the direction that we would consider hopeful.

When we talk about something closest to us, probably one of the most dramatic swings of the pendulum, and that’s the movement from Stalin to Khrushchev’s thaw, at the time, of course, the NKVD and the MGB [Ministry of State Security of the USSR] under [Lavrenty] Beria was the most powerful institution, no doubt about it, but it was not the only institution in Russia. On the Politburo sat men with more or less independent institutional basis, there was the party, and there was, of course, the government. 

Question, who is the head of the Russian government today? Right, Mikhail Mishustin. Now, who is, a bonus question, who is the head of the ruling party? Yes, you’re right. It’s the pitiful and ridiculous Dmitry Medvedev and Secretary General Andrei Turchak. 

So, under Putin, the FSB subverted, hollowed out, and destroyed every independent institution in Russia. As the Russian analysts put it, the FSB “podmyalo pod sebja,” smushed under it—I think that’s a very good way to put it—every institution. And so, there is an institutional desert in Russia today. The closest we come, or so I was told by an analyst by the name of Marchenko, who investigates these matters very closely, the closest we come to the Politburo today is something not at all like the post-Stalin Politburo, not somebody like Khrushchev and Malenkov and Mikoyan and Kaganovich and others, with their own independent institutional basis, semi-independent, but still existing. The National Security Council, the closest that comes to the Politburo, everybody there is absolutely ridiculously powerless, except for the three secret policemen.

By the way, all three of them are from Putin’s Leningrad KGB days. That is Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the FSB. Alexander Bastrykin, who is the head of the investigative committee, was actually Putin’s classmate in Leningrad State University’s Law department. So, chairing that Politburo, or quasi-Politburo, is a man by the name of Nikolai Patrushev; I’m looking closer at him, and compared to him, Putin is almost a liberal internationalist.

If you read his interviews, what he says is phantasmagorical. So, that’s one factor. The second factor is, of course, the extent, which will be obvious after Putin’s removal or death, the extent to which he left an imprint on the country.

I would pose to you that no modern Russian ruler, save for Stalin, left an imprint on Russian consciousness. That is, how the Russians see themselves, how they see their country, how they see their history, as Putin. He reshaped and reawakened the imperial tropes, both Soviet and pre-Soviet, equating the national glory with imperial sway and military aggression.

He, again, reawakened or refurbished the myth of the perennially perfidious West, which is out to undermine, and now it’s no longer just undermining. It’s destroying Russia as an independent state. And, of course, there is one other thing that appears to be very pernicious and deep now, I think, in Russia’s bloodstream. And that is what my friend and colleague, one of the top Russian political sociologists, by the name of Igor Klyankin, called militarized patriotism in peacetime.

This is a unique, I would pose to you, it’s really unique, probably since Stalin’s days, or even under Stalin. By now, a generation of Russian children has grown up in sort of paramilitary organizations. It’s the “Yunarmia,” the youth army. It’s “Orlyata,” incidentally for kindergarten, meaning little eaglets. It’s “Bolshaya Peremena”—big change, and so on and so forth.

Millions have gone through those structures. There are 36,000 military-patriotic clubs. The defense of the motherland is now in the curriculum of all Russian schools.

Putin, I think, announced this, more or less, in his campaign speech in Luzhniki, which is the largest state in Russia. That’s February 2012, on the way to his third term, when he cited the classic line, a classic poem by Mikhail Lermontov, that every school child knows. It’s called “Borodino,” and it’s about the struggle against Napoleon's invaders in 1812, the battle of Borodino.

And he cited the line which says, “Umrem zhe pod Moskvoi”: Let us die defending Moscow. And the stadium roared back. There’s, by the way, a video of that, if anybody wants to see it.

So, Putin declared patriotism “Russia’s only and the most important national value.” But patriotism is a level of the motherland that is no longer enough. It has to be instilled with mercilessness toward the enemies, the readiness to die for the country, well, not for the country, for the state.

And that’s also an important change. And this militarized patriotism is, I think, something that, in addition to those other factors that I mentioned, is going to be a big problem in post-Putin Russia.

PD: Okay, thank you. Thank you for covering a large swath in a timely way. All right, Anatol, over to you and welcome.

Anatol Lieven: Thank you, Paula. By the way, do stop me if I talk for too long. I have a tendency to do that. I’d also like to say thank you.

I’d also like to say thank you to the health department and also thanks to Russia Matters, which I very much admire and have indeed written about on a number of occasions in the past. Yes, well, there’s also a famous quote from Yogi Berra, who said that he never made predictions, especially about the future. This is something that everyone in policy analysis should keep well in mind.

I think something else that we need to keep in mind always is the, you know, difference between “is” and “ought,” between what we would like to happen and what is likely to happen on the basis of evidence. Because, you know, on the one hand, I assume that all of us can agree on some of the detestable features of the Putin regime. And it’s, as you said, Leon, it’s military, with military chauvinist culture, which has been noted in Russia.

But that, of course, is a different matter from what we think is actually likely to happen or likely to change. So, I would say that there is. I mean, one should never say no, but there is very little chance, indeed, of Putin being overthrown. Could, of course, be dropped dead or be assassinated, and then I think there would be a period of real confusion.

But he will not be overthrown. And he never was likely to be overthrown unless there was a really shattering defeat in Ukraine. And, of course, the movement of [Wagner Group chief Yevgeny] Prigozhin against him was very much on the basis of deep resentment between Wagner and, of course, in sections of the army about how the war ought to be managed.

But, of course, Prigozhin, although right at the end he did say that, you know, they blundered by starting war… You know, but Prigozhin was never anti-war. He, like his backers in the military, was waging war more efficiently. And a key, an absolutely central point to the failure of Prigozhin is … well, I would say, an attempt to put pressure on the regime.

You know, this was not really an attempt at a revolution or even a revolt. It was, I mean, he, right up to the very end, was careful not to criticize Putin personally. It was an attempt, precedent in history, to state that the good Tsar had been deceived and misled by his wicked advisors, in this case, of course, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and that the Tsar should be encouraged to get rid of those advisors and replace them with, well, “me,” who would then be the king.

But an absolutely critical moment in the failure of Prigozhin…In some ways, Putin had already had a general…on whom he had some reasons to rely, Gen. [Sergey] Surovikin, the former commander in Syria, in Ukraine. Surovikin came out on television and appealed to the Russian military to stay loyal. Very well, being that Surovikin basically had a gun pointed at his head while he was doing it. But the point also is that the Russian military, at least its commanders, is determined not to lose.

And I would presume [Putin] knows very well that the one thing that can produce defeat out of Ukraine is if Russia itself splits if the regime splits and collapses. And this, I think, plays a wider role in Russian society and in Russian needs. Now, I mean, in the wider Russian people and wider Russian establishment, and I hasten to add, of course, this does not include the inner establishment, you know, the people around Putin himself, it’s a different matter.

In the wider establishment, perhaps one of the people, maybe two, would have launched a war in Ukraine. A great majority of them didn’t. In fact, I know very few Russians who actually wanted a war in Ukraine … But now they’re in it, they don’t want to lose. And that is a very familiar pattern in many countries. You’ve seen it in America.

I myself strongly opposed the Iraq period, but that didn’t mean that once we were in it, I wanted us to lose. Great differences, but this is nonetheless a very basic human notion. And, of course, that has partly to do with nationalism and patriotism, if one wants to use a less loaded word.

This also implies something, both in Russia and for us, which is just what exactly winning means. Because, of course, not losing doesn’t imply total victory either. This is something which we’re not clear about and which, in my own view, we can only discover as far as Putin himself is concerned or the regime is concerned through talks.

People often ask me, I hope no one will do so today; what is Putin thinking? And I replied, “Well, you know, the last time we shared a bottle of vodka together, I meant to ask him about the war, but all he would do was…kind of complain about the heating in the Kremlin and about his problems with his girlfriend, and we never did get around to that.” Well, I don’t know, ask him yourself. But that’s the whole point. We’ve got to ask him ourselves.

But as far as the establishment is concerned, including the economic establishment, who most certainly did not want the war, including the technical establishment in terms of the people who have, with considerable success … adapted the economy to the war. But also, of course, the wider population. And they also don’t want to lose because they do think there have been many statements to this effect, and the West as well, that outright defeat would indeed lead to the forced overthrow of the regime, and that would lead to chaos, “Smuta.” And very, very, very few people want that.

I mean, fear of that is deeply rooted in Russian history and Russian consciousness and, of course, has been tremendously reinforced by what happened in the 1990s. So, this feeling of, “We cannot—we don’t necessarily want to win outright, but we certainly do not want to lose.” Now, I think Russia is quite clear, and it is not going to lose it. 

If you look at the situation on the battlefield, if you look at the disproportion of forces, I could go on for a long time about this. I’m happy to do so in response to questions, but given the balance of population, the imbalance of numbers of troops and the economic balance, it is, I think, in terms simply of hard-headed military reality, very hard to see how Ukraine can actually defeat Russia in Ukraine. What, of course, it can do with our help, which, by the way, I should emphasize, I advocate continuing to persuade Ukraine, is hold the Russians, though even that is becoming less and less certain.

I mean, if you read the reports from the frontline a few times, Washington Post, Financial Times, the odds are now very much against Ukraine. So, Putin is not going to lose. How much does he want to win?

We don’t actually know. That can only be explored in negotiations. What I think is true, though, is that Putin, not as far as the Russian ultra-hard lines are concerned, and of course, he has taken some measures to curb that, with the arrest of [Igor] Strelkov [an ex-DPR commander critical of the way Russia has waged its war in Ukraine].

The hardliners, of course, would be deeply dissatisfied with some form of compromise peace, but given Putin’s control of television and so forth, he might have to sack a couple of people, but he could almost certainly successfully present [the outcome as a win]. 

Even though I hasten to add, speaking here with historians, as I’m sure you’re all aware, in terms of the history of Russia and Ukraine over the past 350 years, the compromise peace, leaving most of Ukraine and all the traditional areas of Ukraine as independent and with a path to the West, and bitterly anti-Russian by now, would be a great victory for Ukraine. Not an absolute victory, no. A qualified victory, but still a victory. That’s a different set of questions.

But, so, the [Russian] regime at the moment is secure. What comes after? What I would expect is, unless he drops dead or something completely unforeseen happens, I mean, obviously, if there’s a nuclear war, that would change things rather radically…

But, all of the things being equal, I would expect that at some stage, I mean, he’s presumably not going to live forever, though if you look at some other examples, one sometimes has to ask oneself. There will be a regime change, not a regime transition. And, actually, I mean, most of the examples you gave, Leon, were, in fact, of regime transition. You know, it wasn’t the overthrow of the regime. It was within the regime itself.

Then, of course, when Putin does go, there could be, there could be a split. And, of course, I mean, the Russian elites are full of very ruthless and ambitious people. As you indicated, the people whom, you know, Putin has emasculated, not just institutions but also individuals within the regime.

So, there could be a split. And, of course, if there is a radical split, and one of the parties, or the losing party, appeals to the streets or appeals successfully to the army, or I think the army would do everything in its power to keep out of the attention, then one could see a radical transformation, though along what lines, one simply cannot say. I would only like to point out, though, that more widespread predictions of this, as far as the Central Asian regimes, certainly, people said, “Oh, well, you know, when Karimov, it looks stable at the moment, but when Karimov goes, when Nazarbayev goes, when Turkmenbashi goes… that’s when the regime will split… that’s when the rivalries will really break out.” Well, actually…there were rivalries, one saw that in Kazakhstan, but they were contained, and that, I think, is a reflection of the fact that, in certain respects, the Soviet Union left behind some very strong underlying institutions, chief among them, unfortunately, the secret police and the domestic security services.

However, everyone who really needs it will lose an enormous amount if the regime splits and collapses. Especially since we have now closed off their option for leaving and running away to the West, which they now can’t do because they’re under sanctions, so they have a tremendous incentive to stick together. Certainly, a wise successor if he’s learned anything from Putin, would follow Putin in establishing a system and a tradition whereby … if you lose in a struggle within the regime, but you do not come out against the regime as a whole, you may not get to be Prime Minister or minister, you may not get to be the director of Gazprom, but you will get to be a director of Rosneft, you will continue to live very, very comfortably and safely. You’ll remain very rich and you’ll be safe. That’s quite an incentive to keep quiet and turn the lines.

Now, as far as the successor is concerned, the final point, I hope, but here I’m expressing a hope, but not a prediction, that the successor, while he or possibly she, will want to continue the basic features of the regime, they might also want to distinguish themselves from Putin in certain respects, establish their own identity. 

And, perhaps, to try to attract back to Russia some of the very important technological achievements, especially those which have left since the war, and therefore that you will have a qualified reduction of some of the features of oppression and chauvinism that we have seen under Putin. However … none of that is going to happen as far as the war is concerned.

Because, of course, this has been driven not just, as with a great majority of wars, it hasn’t, this kind of thing has not just been driven by Putin. It has also been driven by the war. So post-war, qualified liberalization – perhaps, as long as the war goes on – [no].

PD: Okay, thank you. So, a quick: do you [LA] have any brief, literally brief, one or two comments on what Anatol said and then I want to give you a chance because you had your presentation, your opening remarks, or just a quick dialogue, because I really want to get in the interactive, at least for a good 30 minutes here.

LA: The point about the army is that you’re absolutely right. Ever since the Decembrist revolt in 1825, the army tended to stay in the barracks, with one exception: the war of attrition. You know, this is the third year of the war. The fourth year is a bit ominous because, of course, it was in the fourth year of World War I that the army, as they said, “povernula shtyki na Moskvu i Sankt Peterburg” - turned the bayonets towards the capitals. Again, that makes the support for Ukraine, that makes keeping Ukraine in the fight extremely important. Interestingly enough, in his first rather panicked address to the nation, on account of the Prigozhin rebellion, Putin invoked 1917. He said there was a war, and some adventurists, I assume he meant Lenin and Trotsky and others, took advantage of it, and they started a civil war.

I think he had something there. So Prigozhin was killed for two reasons. One, of course, you don’t forgive an open rebellion, but as you mentioned, in his [Prigozhin’s], I think, very last video address, he said the war was, Putin was deceived about this war. It was forced upon him by the oligarchs and incompetent military. That sort of thing, you don’t forgive. That’s why he had to be killed.

PD: Anatol, any subsequent comments, brief?

AL: Yes, I mean, I think that’s basically right. But as a, when it comes to sort of turning against the war, you know, the imperial regime had been undermined for many years by social change, political… it’s not about crumbling the regime. And also, of course, by 1914-15, a series of catastrophic defeats, which so far, I mean, what you’ve seen in Russia is, in Ukraine is certainly defeats, but it could do less than that.

And, but the other thing is if you want to in the end, any chance of turning significant numbers of  Russians, including in the establishment and the economic elites, against Putin and the war, I think, would involve [the West offering] a compromise peace, which Putin then turned down. But as long as you have … [peace plans like] a statement by Josep Borell of the European Union, together with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, saying that Ukraine has put forward its peace points, which the European Union completely supports and agrees with. These peace points involve total defeat, Russian acceptance of total defeat in Ukraine, complete withdrawal from all the territories that it’s occupied since 2014, war crimes, trials and reparations.

That can only be achieved by total Ukrainian military victory on the battlefield, which is not going to happen. It’s just not going to happen. Now, as long as that is our position, you’re not going to get anyone significant to the Russian establishment. Or, I think, among ordinary Russians, coming out against the continuation of this war. And one of the reasons for that, of course, is that even if someone, these are highly educated people in that way, I mean, however bigoted and ideological, and they know the history of perfectly well. Who on earth is going to want to take the risk of trying to overthrow Putin, only then to have to take governmental responsibility for total defeat and be blamed by the Russian military, hardliners and probably much of the population? This is an absolute stab in the back, a legend in the making if it were to happen, which is why it’s not going to happen.

PD: There’s a lot to be asked. As I said, I was just going to have one question. And first, a comment: I do take away that both of you took it from different angles, very interestingly enough.

But I didn’t hear that either of you felt that Putin is in jeopardy here. I didn’t see that you talked about what you saw in the “what next” part, but in your basic premise, you gave elements you had while looking at the current angle. So I took that away.

Let me ask a core question, and you probably will give a very basic and straight answer. I think you were going to give a short one to this.

Being in government, okay, not just academia, I’m going to ask you this. Those in Washington asked the question, what influence do U.S. policymakers have on the internal developments in Russia today? So, what would your answer be?

You’re already shaking [your head]. That’s why I said, I have a feeling there’s going to be a fast answer.

LA: Very little except, and I don’t, you know, I mean, we could go [into] that in Q&A. I mean, there’s a great deal to say about the sanctions, how they work, in what way they don’t work and in what way they do work. In what way are they slowly degrading Russian society and the Russian military, and why don’t they work and, you know, India and China…

PD: But it doesn’t seem like it takes out the bottom-line question about [that] it doesn’t destabilize Putin’s own position. 

LA: Not in the short run. 

AL: Right. Sanctions have, in certain respects, degraded Russia. In other respects, they strengthened. You look at what’s been called military cadence in the summer, which is really to build up the domestic industry.

How the United States can affect the domestic situation is what the United States does about Ukraine and war in one way or another. The suggestion that as far as a direct influence on the Russian domestic scene, I have to say this. Putin…has managed to put the Russian liberal opposition in an impossible situation. Driving them abroad made them dependent on the West, although, of course, many of them were far too dependent on the West. And that, thereby, I mean, branding was “traitors.”

Frankly, the more that the West explicitly supports the Russian liberal opposition, the more it gives Putin the paint to paint that word in bigger letters, “traitor.” And, you know, I often recall Ken Burns’s documentary on Vietnam. You may have seen the last episode. American veteran, several times wounded who fought in Vietnam, became a bitter opponent of the Vietnam War, strong, strong opponent, but was nevertheless outraged when Jane Fonda went to war [to North Vietnam]. Because opposing the war is not the same thing as actively siding with the enemy in a war. Once again, that’s a very, one may disagree with this, but it’s a very fundamental human emotion. And so my advice would be, “Keep your distance.”

I mean, obviously, protest about, you know, crimes like the treatment of Navalny, but in terms of actually formally promoting the Russian liberal opposition, we can only harm.

PD: And the question did not have influence. So we don’t have that. That’s the bottom line. So, let’s open it up. And if you don’t mind, let’s introduce yourself. And then we’ll go to you.

Audience member Will Grenoble: What elements inside Russia, whether people or organizations, still have leverage over Putin’s decision-making? Is there any left? There is a lot of effort behind tweaking the oligarchs that did not really do anything.

AL: Well, there are no oligarchs in the sense of, you know, we can say. I mean, there were in the 1990s, there are still in Ukraine, to an extent, but not in Russia, in terms of independent economic figures who…influence government policy. There are, of course, state oligarchs, but they are so much part of the regime.

The institutions that can influence Putin to some extent are the army. Putin is capable of accepting military realities to a degree, as the withdrawal from Kherson in the fall of 2022 demonstrated. If the military says to him, “You are facing disaster,” or “You have to go on to the defensive,” he will listen. But that’s not something we can influence.

And then, of course, he does have to listen to the economic managers. That’s not to say that they are independent, but they have played a critical role. And, of course, he listens to his, unfortunately, to his immediate circle and advisors. But beyond that. 

LA: I agree. Okay.

Audience member: Yes. My name is Greg. I’m in my third year at the college. My question is for you, Dr. Lieven. Last semester, we had Mary Elise Sarotte, author of the book “Not One Inch,” argue from actually your exact same chair that settling on giving away any land to Russia would be existential, as they would only use it as a launching pad for further actions in the future, right? That was the sort of commonly held belief at the time.

Even [Ukraine’s] Foreign Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba himself explicitly advocated against negotiations with Russia. But most recently, you wrote a quite compelling defense of negotiations at the Quincy Institute about why a settlement is necessary, which I personally thought was quite convincing. So, do you think that’s where conversations will be going now as the war drags on? Or generally, what would be your arguments to the approximately 80% of Ukrainians polled who still want to keep fighting?

AL: Well, on the polls, I think one has to be a little bit careful. Because when I was in Ukraine last year, which was before the offensive, just about everybody I talked to, in fact, yes, everybody said that they hoped the offensive would succeed and that Ukraine would recover all its territory. But a quite large minority and a majority said, “Yes, … Ukraine must recover all its territory.”

But already before the offensive, a large minority said, “Look, of course, we want to get the territory back because we should get the territory back. But if the price of this is years and years and years, and hundreds of thousands more dead for a victory, which in fact looks impossible, then most unfortunately and tragically, we will have to do a deal…if, in fact, we cannot recover those territories, well then, we’ve got nothing.”

But I would say we cannot and must not ask the Ukrainians formally and legally to give up these territories. That would indeed be a violation of fundamental international principles and what’s more, they can’t do it. No Ukrainian government can do that.

But of course, we have seen a number of occasions in the world. [the Korean War] is an example of how a territorial situation that remains legally unsolved can be shelved virtually indefinitely. And, of course, this is actually what [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy himself proposed in the second month of the war, “We can’t solve the territorial issue and we are never going to, you know, formally give it up, but we can shelve it.” As far as the precedent is concerned,  all of this, at least as far as Putin personally is concerned, but also most people in Russia… all this supposition that ending the war by giving up part of Eastern and Southern Ukraine would automatically lead to further Russian aggression is, I mean, there is actually no basis for this.

Putin himself has said that, after all, if he wanted to go further, he’d have to attack NATO. Well, Putin has said recently in a notorious interview with Tucker Carlson that Russia has no interest, no intention of attacking NATO. We don’t have to trust him, but we have to look at what he could possibly gain from that compared to the enormous risks he could run. 

After all, the Russian, you know, war economy has kept going on the basis of Russia’s energy exports, certainly, which, of course, we have continued to allow, partly because we continue to buy them, to some extent, we Europeans. Now, if Russia attacks NATO, then there is war.

Then, even if it doesn’t turn into nuclear war, you have a complete naval blockade, which we are in a position to impose. Now, of course, they’d still go on exporting energy to China, but for their other exports, that’s it. It stops, which would do huge damage to the Russian economy. You would have a blockade. Now, why exactly would he do that?

PD: Anatol, may I? I think you got your point across. Do you [LA] have a comment on this?

LA: Just a chronological comment. So, this year, I think it’s a stalemate because, for one thing, Putin will wait for the results of the American election. He could get much more and quicker if a certain person is elected.

Then Zelenskyy too, because of the public opinion and of other reasons… It is going to be a very bloody stalemate so long as we keep Ukraine fighting. But the key, I’m firmly convinced that the fourth year of the war, which starts a year from now, will be decisive because of all the things that are happening below the surface in Ukraine, the West and Russia.

PD: By the way, at risk, I normally, as a moderator, don’t like to put in maybe my own, but I am going to add something here. I just want to, in the context of the polls, in Washington, the former Foreign Minister, Radosław Sikorski, he was former foreign minister and defense minister and speaker of parliament [of Poland], he … came and spoke. And I will say this because on the issue, even though you mentioned the calculation of no one looking at really, genuinely, will Russia be aggressive?

I’ll say this: from their own calculation, I think the Baltic states are very concerned, honestly, because of the sizable Russian population in two of them. So he articulated that and actually spoke to Poland, thinking of a new kind of security architecture, which would involve the Nordic countries that have also been concerned – why Sweden and Finland joined NATO. And then also maybe even factoring in Belarus, potentially.

I leave that over here for the moment. But my comment is that I think there’s a real discussion about this. It depends on where you sit, you know, on this.

And their arguments may not be as compelling to you. But I haven’t heard anyone from that region actually make this argument. And they’re very concerned. Many of them, the polls talked again about how, under the previous government, they had made the recommendation of having Camp Trump, you know, the permanent base. Interestingly enough, this new Polish government is very different from the previous Polish government. But if there is one thing they’re unified on, it’s this issue of their security.

Sikorski certainly came to Washington to make an extremely strong case, arguing that we should be giving certain types of military equipment. He’s livid about the supplemental [package] and what’s happening in Congress. So I just wanted to add that just briefly in the in the in the mix. Whatever the bottom line is about the outcome here, I think that there’s still a real effort to try to influence where you’re sitting on the table at the time of negotiation.

Because if you’re sitting in a very bad military situation, you’re not going to have much influence over anything.

AL: And so I think that’s all I entirely agree with. And as I’ve written, this leads to the question, and the Biden administration, of course, there have been very contradictory Western messages on this because sometimes it said, you know, “We back Ukraine to total victory.” Others have said in public, “We want to strengthen Ukraine at the negotiating table.”

But that raises the obvious question: is Ukraine getting stronger? And that’s why, you know, people have said, look, the moment to try to negotiate was when Ukraine was at its moment of maximum success in the autumn of 2022. And, you know, Russia admitted defeat in Kherson.

All the evidence on the ground and the present economic evidence from Ukraine, apart from the, you know, doubts about the continuation of U.S. aid, suggests that Ukraine’s position will get weaker at the negotiating table, not stronger over time. …

Just responding that when it comes to the Poles and the Balts, I lived for three years in the Baltic states during their struggle for independence. My attitude has always been this: one must have the deepest sympathy with them and the Poles because of what they have suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union. Historically.

But if one looks at our own societies, or indeed, in some cases, our personal relationships, having sympathy with somebody who has suffered a crime does not in itself necessitate agreement with the attitudes that they have developed as a result of that crime. Indeed, it is very common to find people who have suffered crimes to develop some pretty irrational attitudes as a result. Very understandably, one must have deep sympathy with this, but you don’t have to agree with it.

And so far, the Russian government has not tried to weaponize the Russian or Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states. It would, in my view, be difficult to do so, partly because there are so many of them now in Western Europe.

PD: Well, their position is that they tried to take a kind of deterrence action that would deter any potential. 

LA: On Putin’s rationality. We all know the film “The Triumph of Will” by Leni Riefenstahl. Putin has joined a group, I think, of leaders for whom ordinary rationality is no longer a factor.

Was it rational for Hitler to declare war on the United States? Was it rational for Saddam Hussein to invade Iran? We could go and go on and go on.

It’s a very small club of totalitarian utopians. And, in fact, was it rational for him to invade Ukraine? I remember I doubted very strongly, and until the night before, the Ukrainian general staff did not believe that he would. Because on every rational point, military, strategic and political, it looked like an enormously risky endeavor. So, I would not say that because it seems irrational to us, Putin would not do it.

Audience member Richard Parker: Richard Parker, I’m a faculty emeritus. Thank you. Listening to the two of you, it seems to me that one should assume that this war, in some militarized form or another, is going to drag on for four to eight years, that the process of getting to negotiations that would cease the military option are not going to come quickly.

We have no evidence of examples, I think, of the U.S. experience in Vietnam, which is Kissinger, Nixon coming to office in ‘69, and it’s another six years before we get to a Paris peace talk. And it seems to me that, in some ways, the stakes are even higher in terms of geopolitics in which the United States is engaged. You haven’t talked at all about the role of China or the relationship of Russia to Europe.

I’ll set aside the United States. But I’d like to hear you on those two because it seems to me that this is a war that’s being played out at multiple levels of geopolitical conflict. By talking at one or two levels and omitting the third or fourth, we lose sight of just the complexity of this.

As to rationality, the Japanese had no reasonable belief that striking Pearl Harbor would result in a Japanese victory. There are plenty of examples of wars that were started and prolonged by people who were otherwise sane and, in retrospect, just didn’t look rational.

PD: By the way, I was just going to say thank you. Those are our next two seminars. The next one is focused on Russia and the West, and the one after is Russia and China, but gentlemen, please, do you want to go first, Leon, and then we’ll do it?

LA: Well, on the war, last thing, just a couple of numbers, borrowing from Marx’s metaphor about the mole of history. There is a mole of war that’s digging into Putin’s store of men and money. Putin spent an estimated $300 million a day conducting that war.

Every six months, he killed or injured 50,000 men. He has to replenish every half a year with almost 300,000 new men, and he just announced another extension just to keep even. And so I don’t see it lasting, you know, three, four more years. Again, I would like to emphasize that if we keep Ukraine in the fight, I think the fourth year of the war, starting a year from now, might be decisive.

AL: Well, the thing about, you know, military losses is that they’re never absolute. They’re relatively unscathed. And once again, I mean, there is so much objective evidence that Ukraine is running out of men a lot faster and running out of ammunition.

RP: And there are ways to conduct war that don’t involve heavy use of manpower. You couldn’t do aerial work of all kinds. 

LA: That may be coming to that, by the way, when they get their F-16s.

AL: Well, look, I mean, in terms of a state of frozen, semi-frozen conflict, I have a horrible feeling that this could last basically forever. Kashmir, I’ve been covering Kashmir for 37 years.

PD: By the way, Sikorsky predicted it as being a long-term conflict.

LA: So long as it’s frozen because, neither side could continue fighting this raid for many years.

AL: But I fear that if, I mean, I think it ought to be clear now in terms of the military that if there is a breakthrough and a collapse, a breakthrough on one side and a collapse on the other, that it is overwhelmingly likely to be Ukraine and not Russia. Many of us, once again, totally neutral military experts have pointed to the First World War and the fact that it gets from a bloody stalemate lasting for years, but then the only army that did not at some stage crack was the British.

Every other one, however vast its morale and its discipline, at some point just, they couldn’t go on. They were worn out. They were exhausted.

Their economy was depleted. They’d suffered such massive casualties. And you’ve seen the figure that the average age of the Ukrainian troops is now not quite the same as that of these frontline troops, 43.

That is terrifying. I don’t know how many 43-year-olds there are in this room, but I think we know very well that 43 is not the same as 23 when it comes to sitting in a trench on the frontline. So what I’m afraid of is that actually, you know, there could be a much quicker collapse.

Audience member Margaret Williams: Margaret Williams with the Arctic Initiative here at the Belfer Center. There’s a lot of people saying that after the so-called election [in Russia], things are going to get worse domestically in terms of repression.

And I wonder what you think about that and what it looks like? So, could things get worse in terms of political repression? Yulia Navalnaya is really stepping up, rallying troops and inspiring a lot of dissident voices. But what do you think her potential influence is?

Audience member: I’m Peter. I’m Graham Allison’s research assistant. I also serve as the executive officer of the Applied History Project here at the Belfer Center.

My question is about the political sustainability within Ukraine. I feel like we talk a lot about whether Putin’s position is in jeopardy whatsoever, but we don’t talk a lot about whether Zelenskyy’s is, especially with the recent sacking of [Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces], the canceling of the election, the unpopular draft legislation. So I’d like your opinion on whether it’s sustainable.

Simon Saradzhyan: Thank you. I know Anatol has already expressed his opinion, but I’m going to ask anyway. It’s not just the Baltics, but the Polish, the Bulgarian, the British and the German high-ranking officials at the rank of Defense Minister are predicting that Russia will attack NATO, and the range they give is from three years to 20 years.

So my question to you, and only a few of them, by the way, say will this happen if Ukraine is defeate. Others just say we have to prepare for war in that period. Do you share this kind of assessment? If so, in how many years do you think it would occur and why?

LA: So, Margaret, quickly to you, that reminds me of that Soviet joke about the Soviet pessimists and the Soviet optimists, where the Soviet pessimists said, “Oh, things are going to get worse.” And the optimist says, “Oh, no, no, no, they cannot possibly get worse than they are now.”

The only thing for which the election would matter is that I think he will announce another partial mobilization, national mobilization. … [H]e will do it after the election because it’s extremely unpopular.

Navalny’s wife, best of luck to her. I admire her. Those things are, you know, the sort of the passing of the baton never really, very rarely work. So, we’ll see.

Peter, you’re absolutely right. So, Zelenskyy’s astronomical popularity went from 82% sharply down to 62%. He is extremely constrained because of this, and he faces all those decisions on the very unpopular mobilization and the inability to pay the soldiers already in the trenches.

How can you get 500,000 more, maybe with U.S. aid? So, the situation is dicey. Yes, the election was canceled, although the public opinion was for it.

But I’ve written about a troubling thing, speaking of oligarchs, at least, and that was very important paradoxically, that the oligarchs each, scoundrels and corrupt as they were, each had a competing network, newspapers and television. And so, in the end, the Ukrainians got a fairly wide range of views and opinions. One of the first things that Zelenskyy did was to get the licenses of all the television stations, and there’s only one channel now that reports government news. So, this is all a bit troubling in terms of domestic things in Ukraine.

To Simon’s, I think it’s going to happen much faster. I predicted, in fact, there’s something in the book, but I said five years ago that if Putin gets stuck in a situation in Ukraine of which he cannot get out, in other words, he cannot admit the defeat and he does not have a victory, I think he could do a Hail Mary.

And I predicted, of course, the obvious stuff is a Latgale in Latvia and the Narva area in Estonia. Very short, he can do it even now, and I could give you the troops number, really miserable NATO troops there. They’re just a few hundred square miles.

And then have an ultimatum and say, we are really coming to the brink of a nuclear war. Let’s have a comprehensive settlement. That comprehensive settlement, of course, would involve Ukraine as well.

AL: Many, many years ago, it was very simple, but some of you may know it was the Profumo case in England. There was a great scandal about this British minister who had an affair with a school girl…One of them was asked very pompously by Mandy Rice-Davies, a British journalist. But Miss Rice-Davies, you are aware that the minister has categorically denied having intimate relations of any kind with you. To which Miss Davis replied, well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Western defense ministers they need money. They need budgets. Of course, they’re going to talk up a threat. Lord Salisbury said, you know, “If I were to listen to the generals, I’d pay to defend the moon against an attack from Mars.” But the fact of the matter is, one cannot look. I mean, one can imagine, of course, all the unconventional Russian attacks that people talk about, satellites, etc.

However, you always have to remember that none of this would please the Chinese because their communications would also be mopped out. But the idea of a Russian attack on Britain or on Bulgaria. Oh, if I had the time, maybe I’ll tell it over lunch. I must tell you my favorite Bulgarian elephant story from the Soviet days. This is nonsense. This is ridiculous.

No. And also, I mean, if Putin is going to willfully attack the Baltic states because he’s pinned down in Ukraine, where’s he going to find the troops from? 

LA: Doesn’t need many troops.

AL: Yes, but he does if once Poland is going to sit there, Poland has a very strong, effective, highly motivated army. Poland is going to sit there while the Baltic states are invaded. 

RP: And Kaliningrad sits there. 

AL: What worries me is not that Putin will somehow completely madly, for no particular reason, fall off and attack NATO. What is possible is, of course, basically where it all came from in Ukraine as well, ultimately, that there will be an internal uprising in Belarus against the Lukashenko regime because Lukashenko has not already seen one such mass protest.

But there, talk to the Russian establishment. But if there is any threat of the West helping to create an anti-Russian regime in Minsk and taking Belarus into NATO and the European Union, we would have to occupy the country, whatever the cost. And that could then, of course, be in turn.

LA: That’s just as unrealistic.

AL: Well… Occupying Belarus? Are the Russians occupying Belarus?

LA: No, no, no, Belarus occupied, but you’re saying they’re taking Belarus into the EU and NATO?

AL: No, but it’s not that we would initiate that. It’s what happens if you get a successful or semi-successful movement in Belarus itself and in the context of post-Lukashenko chaos, which declares its intention to do this. And then how do we say no?

[Speaking about post-Russian election changes] Well, it can always get worse, but I didn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t get worse. And I think Navalny’s wife would be an important symbol, but nothing more than that.

On political stability in Ukraine, I mean, that’s the other thing. I mean, we’ve been talking about the potential fragility of the Russian retreat. The situation for Kyiv, of course, also looks much more dangerous.

And, of course, Zelenskyy got rid of Zaluzhnyi, whose military advice was obviously sound. Put in a general [Oleksandr Syrskyi] who firstly committed himself to Avdiivka and then lost and lost much worse than Bakhmut because Bakhmut was an orderly retreat. Avdiivka was not. It was a rout. Many more defeats and there will be, I think, serious questions.

The other point to be made about Zelenskyy is that from the point of view of the Ukrainian war effort, he has been a unifying self. If he ceases to be that, then his utility…has been getting Western help. If he doesn’t get Western help, his utility diminishes.

But the final thing, you know, people talk about, and quite rightly, I mean, I was there, and I talked to some of the Ukrainian veterans about the Ukrainian will to fight. But in the end, most people only fight if they see a real chance of victory. Now, resistance to conscription does not indicate a population, you know, which now is, in fact, willing to. What you say in an opinion poll and what you say when it comes to your son or husband who’s going to be sent on, you find, especially if he’s 43 and has kids, are two very different things.

And, you know, resistance to conscription, of course, that also reflects the resistance of the people in the Ukrainian parliament to see conscription happen so that the children of the elite will be sent on. That does not indicate anything about the will ...

PD: Let me say in conclusion, I have thoroughly enjoyed this today. You both have some similarities, and your conclusion about Putin's stability seems to be the same, if I can say so. But you have other points that you differed on. And really, it was really very stimulating and detailed. Thank you for coming.

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