Vladislav Zubok is a professor of history at the London School of Economics. His book Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union is a finalist for the Cundill History Prize.
Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has transformed international politics. The war has developed in a completely unpredictable way and may now escalate into the first conflict in Europe that sees the use of nuclear weapons.
Western analysts and state leaders succeeded in helping Ukraine to defend itself. They still scramble to imagine the outcome of the war, particularly vis-à-vis Russia. In March and April many expected a palace coup against Mr. Putin.
In September, when the Ukrainian army counterattacked, those expectations resurfaced. Some observers, Ukrainians but not only, began to envisage, in case of Ukraine’s victory, the collapse of the autocratic regime, perhaps even Russia itself.
History has given us two scenarios of a sudden collapse of the Russian state. One was the revolution of 1917, when the strains of the First World War and the weakness of the czar caused all the dominoes to fall. The conscripts in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) sided with the workers’ bread mutiny.
Everyone turned against Nicholas II and he abdicated. The fall of the monarchy led to the demise of the old society and the economy, of the army and the state. The Russian Empire disintegrated into several parts. The state structures collapsed and had to be rebuilt almost from scratch.
The result was what some historians consider the greatest tragedy of the previous century. The marginal party of Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, turned out to be the only actor up to this task. They saddled the revolution, crushed rivals in a civil war, and reassembled most of the empire into the Soviet Union.
The Soviet state was consolidated with a reign of terror that cost millions of lives. The world was thrown into another world war, followed by decades of the Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the outcome of an improbable combination: Mikhail Gorbachev launched reforms that, instead of rejuvenating the Communist system, fatally undermined all its institutions. Fearful of a new period of violence and civil war, the last Soviet leader refused to use force to save the regime and the state.
The country disintegrated into 15 states, most of them with terrible historical baggage. A group of pro-Western politicians and economists around Boris Yeltsin strove to build a democratic Russia, but this noble endeavour was buried by the avalanche of economic disasters, crime and ethnic violence. In the end, this chaos became a stepping stone for the autocracy of Vladimir Putin.
What could this history mean for the future of the Putin regime? One conclusion is obvious: A highly personalistic regime, where one man embodies the order, may crumble unexpectedly and thoroughly.
Mr. Putin, in fact, made this scenario more probable by emasculating Russian constitutional norms and institutions, pursuing might-makes-right policies, and promoting apathy, cynicism and mistrust in Russian society.
The current Russian regime is arguably much more fragile than the late Soviet order, as it lacks ideology, the centralized Party, and consolidated elites. Cowed oligarchs, paper parties, disjointed and corrupt bureaucracies, and the pliant Orthodox Church bode ill for Russia’s political future. And there are warlords with their semi-criminal armies waiting in the wings.
If one removes Mr. Putin from the top of this unholy pyramid, factional strife and chaos seem inevitable.
What would happen then? A “soft” version of collapse, like the one that happened in 1991, is highly unlikely. Mr. Gorbachev, when he faced the Soviet collapse, acted to diminish the potential for violent catastrophe: He voluntarily delegated power to parliamentary institutions as well as popularly elected leaders, such as Mr. Yeltsin. He preached the rule of law.
Those institutions and leaders contributed to the collapse, yet at least they managed the transition. Mr. Putin, on the contrary, has been doing everything to complicate any future transition. He did not believe, like Mr. Gorbachev, in legitimacy and ideas. His tools were force, fear, greed and shameless propaganda. He forged a political environment where the Russian majority sees him as an indispensable leader, without any conceivable alternatives.
The longer the war lasts, the more chances for a “hard” Russian collapse grow. Mr. Putin’s gross miscalculations have already led to the near-destruction of the professional Russian army. His conscription of untrained people, the option he had long resisted, enhances domestic instability.
Down this road looms a scenario of an explosion like that in Petrograd in 1917. Poorly disciplined military formations, if routed and retreating, may trigger a mutiny or worse. The denouement for Mr. Putin may happen very suddenly, when popular discontent would spring up from below, and the security apparatus would step aside or use this moment of chaos to remove the leader.
In December, 1989, in Romania, this combination toppled the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The Romanian “revolution” at least ended in a “soft” transition of power to the ex-communist elites. It may be much worse in Russia.
Mr. Putin worked for years to create an autocratic system of checks and balances that precludes military or security officials grouping together. So there is no one force, such as the Securitate, to pick up power.
More likely, different security structures and fragments of a collapsing army would start fighting among themselves. In a word, the price of removing Mr. Putin from power would probably be very high.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, when asked “what will happen to Russia after Putin,” replied: “I don’t care.” His priority is to wage and win the war.
The rest of the world, however, should care, as it is a vital concern for international security. The Russian Federation is a nuclear superpower with 6,000 nuclear warheads, tactical and strategic. In 1991, the Soviet collapse galvanized Western statesmen and congressmen into action.
They failed to give a financial package to Mr. Gorbachev to alleviate the economic catastrophe, yet they did much to steer the collapse toward a “soft” scenario. The United States spent billions of dollars to keep Soviet nukes under tight control.
As Mr. Putin loses his war, he warns the West: Whoever wishes Russia to go down should consider the nuclear risks involved.
There is a strong psychological temptation to dismiss the dictator’s blackmail. Yet the Western policy should avoid this trap. A balance must be found for how to help Ukraine to prevail without triggering “hard” scenarios of the Russian collapse. It is an extremely delicate and difficult task.
All those who wish Ukraine’s victories to cause a demise of the evil regime in Moscow should be careful what they wish for. If the Ukrainian dreams come to fruition, the world may have an even more serious danger to face.
As Mr. Putin continues to escalate in a futile search for “victory,” anything unimaginable yesterday may become inevitable tomorrow. The moment he loses his grip on power, horrible consequences of another Russian collapse may eclipse the effects of Russia’s brutal war.