DANIEL VAUGHAN: A Post-Putin Russia is likely nearing – US needs a plan

Two weeks ago, news spread rapidly of Ukraine’s stunning advances against Russia. I wrote then that the shift in fortunes in the war in Ukraine likely marked the end of Vladimir Putin’s reign in Russia. He would have to respond or face the prospect of a coup from within. We’ve got the answer: he’s making veiled nuclear threats and announced a partial mobilization of the entire army.

The Russian mobilization was described as: “‘Only those citizens will be drafted to military service who are currently in the reserve and first of all those who have served in the army, who have certain professions and have necessary experience,’ will be recruited for the campaign, said Putin in a televised address to the nation.”

A controversial mobilization effort.

Putin’s televised description is a sanitized version of what is happening on the ground.

The BBC revealed footage from Russia’s Wagner group, a mercenary outfit, recruiting inside Russian prisons. The BBC reported, “In filmed footage, verified by the BBC, Yevgeniy Prigozhin [head of Wagener] can be seen addressing a large group of detainees. Mr Prigozhin told prisoners their sentences would be commuted in exchange for service with his group. The video would confirm long-running speculation that Russia hopes to boost its forces by recruiting convicts.”

Public mobilization efforts seek to raise an army of around 300,000 total men. Estimates between the West and Ukraine say that Ukraine has lost somewhere between 45,000 – 55,000 soldiers since the start of the fighting until now. For comparison, the United States lost an estimated 58,281 soldiers in the nearly 20 years we were active in Vietnam. Russia has experienced its own Vietnam in less than 6-8 months of fighting.

Even in a country with deep censorship like Russia, there’s no way to hide a loss of life on a scale like this in Ukraine. Russia may lie to its people, but people will notice when approximately 50,000 soldiers don’t come home. That fact is making the recruitment drive that much harder.

Protests and a humiliated Russia.

The Washington Post reports, “More than 1,300 people were arrested at anti-mobilization protests in cities and towns across Russia on Wednesday and Thursday, in the largest public protests since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of booked-out flights and queues to leave Russia as ‘false information.'”

Just as America experienced widespread protests over the Vietnam War and its losses, so Putin is experiencing resistance here.

That brings us to Putin’s reaction: he’s doubling down on the war and making nuclear threats. As I wrote before, the danger of Putin using nuclear weapons is likely minimal:

In the past, the threat was a humiliated Russia would resort to using nukes. While Vladimir Putin has used that kind of rhetoric (likely mimicking the fears of some western elites), little has come of it. Throwing caution to the wind on nuclear weapons would mark the end of Russia as a country. I’m not sure China would be on board with that, and the result of that move would allow both the West and China to dismantle Russia and divvy up the spoils.

If Putin does that, it’s the end of Russia as we know it. The West would retaliate, likely with Chinese support, and divide Russia up as spoils. If Putin starts pushing in that direction, I’d even expect his inner cabinet or a coup to form to stop him. That’s a red line, and everyone knows the consequences.

The United States has allegedly sent warnings to Putin against using nuclear weapons. I have little doubt that they’ve made the consequences of bringing out nuclear weapons abundantly clear to Putin. Engaging in conventional warfare is one thing. Crossing the red line of nukes is quite another.

Post-Putin Russia is nearing.

Putin is searching for a win of some kind now. “Victory” is whatever he can define. Putin wants to punish Ukraine and the West while achieving something to take home. If that eludes him, or he starts looking weak, we can only expect Putin to remain in office for a short time.

The question remains: what does a post-Putin Russia look like? What contingency plans does the United States have in place to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, the end of the war, and an end to hostilities? The world was lucky and blessed to have leadership that saw the end of the USSR as a peaceful moment in history.

An empire rarely crumbles without a shot being fired. We achieved that with the USSR and need to start asking whether that’s possible with Putin. Furthermore, we need to figure out what Putin’s replacement is. If we get someone who is more of a hardliner and can outflank Putin, we could end up in an even worse position.

Putin’s decision to launch the war in Ukraine was a gambit. He was expecting replays of Georgia and Crimea. Instead, he may have met his Waterloo. What kind of Russia emerges from this rubble is very much in the air. US leadership needs to have a plan ready.