Opinion | What’s Russia’s future after Putin and the Ukraine war?

TOPSHOT - Reservists drafted during the partial mobilization attend a departure ceremony in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 27, 2022. - Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on September 21 a mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russian men to bolster Moscow's army in Ukraine, sparking demonstrations and an exodus of men abroad.  (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo by STRINGER / AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT – Reservists drafted during the partial mobilization attend a departure ceremony in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 27, 2022. – Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on September 21 a mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russian men to bolster Moscow’s army in Ukraine, sparking demonstrations and an exodus of men abroad. (STRINGER/AFP) (STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hail of missiles against civilian targets in Ukraine is both reprehensible and a desperate move in an unjust war he is losing. The question raised by imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a recent essay in our pages is worth trying to answer: What will come when it is over?

How Russia emerges from this disaster could shape the world for a long time. In addition to Russia’s own destiny, its course will affect Ukraine’s struggle to survive as a democracy, whether Belarus frees itself from a tyrant, whether China and Russia can sustain an alliance of despots, the fate of a global economy dependent on Russian energy exports, and much more. As Mr. Navalny put it, even if Ukraine is successful in repelling the Russian invaders, “where is the guarantee that the world will not find itself confronting an even more aggressive regime, tormented by resentment and imperial ideas that have little to do with reality?”

There is no guarantee — none. No one can be certain how the war ends or what the aftermath will look like. Just recall the surprising turn of events that brought Mr. Putin to power. He was the handpicked choice of an ailing President Boris Yeltsin and his entourage. When Yeltsin announced his resignation at the end of 1999, he entrusted everything that he stood for to a little-known former KGB officer with no experience in, nor affinity for, the democratic striving of the previous decade and who eventually reversed it. Mr. Putin then constructed a very personalized kind of dictatorship around his own power and whim.

Looking ahead, Russia has few apparent guardrails.

One dark scenario is that Mr. Putin’s anti-Western, authoritarian kleptocracy, mixing crony capitalism and despotism, will endure with or without him. A significant part of Russia’s population remains enamored with him, angry and inchoate, making it a ready constituency for a demagogue. As analyst Nikolai Petrov noted before the invasion, Mr. Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric “has taken a firm hold in the hearts and minds of many Russian citizens,” who are in a “state of deep resentment toward the West” and believe that it has prevented Russia from regaining great-power status.

Also reinforcing continuity are the powerful security and military structures that Mr. Putin has exploited and expanded for more than two decades. But key questions, impossible to answer now, surround the fallout a defeat in Ukraine would have: Would the military, humiliated and resentful, turn against the Kremlin power structure? Would the population at large?

Another part of Russia’s population — clearly sizable, and perhaps overlapping with the first — has simply wanted to be left alone. These citizens tolerated Mr. Putin’s thieving elite and political repression in exchange for a certain amount of private space in their own lives, as well as some prosperity and freedom to travel abroad. They have finally been motivated to object after Mr. Putin’s recent mobilization order disrupted their tranquility, but their alienation from politics and their passivity remain.

A third cohort, much smaller, are the professionals and middle class, educated, experienced, well-traveled and democratic. Many in their 20s and 30s, they have left Russia in droves since the war began — but perhaps not forever. Those who are older witnessed Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika and saw the 1990s as a brief window of freedom in a long Russian history of autocracy. Thousands of this group are stuck in Russia’s prisons for protesting in support of Mr. Navalny or against the war and mobilization.

What mr. Navalny described in his essay is no less than tearing down Mr. Putin’s fortress of avarice and making a second attempt at democracy. Mr. Navalny correctly notes that a super-presidential system was created for Yeltsin in Russia’s 1993 constitution. “Giving plenty of power to a good guy seemed logical at the time,” he wrote. Mr. Putin inherited Yeltsin’s powers but not his commitment to the constitutional guarantees of freedom.

Mr. Navalny advocates a parliamentary republic that would result in “a radical reduction of power in the hands of one person.” Such a change would require a new constitution, no small task, and much more. In a report last year for the Atlantic Council, Anders Aslund, an economist and specialist on Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and Leonid Gozman, a politician and commentator long active in Russia’s democratic movements, sketched out what might be needed to build a democracy in Russia. They advocate a parliamentary system and a new democratic constitution but add a long list of must-do tasks: restoring full freedoms of speech, assembly, belief and others; releasing political prisoners; cutting out the “cancer” of oligarchs who milked the state for their own enrichment; establishing genuine rule of law; dissolving the pernicious existing security services and starting over, which would be extremely difficult; rebuilding a functioning parliament; holding free elections and decentralizing power to the regions and cities, another thing that would be difficult to accomplish.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, genuine attempts were made to build a market democracy and emulate the West. As scholar Maria Lipman noted recently, “People in early post-Communist Russia yearned for their country to become ‘normal’, which implied ‘as in the West.’ The West was proclaimed a political role model. For the first time in its history, Russia was emulating not just Western culture or technology, but the Western political system. The framers of the post-communist Russian constitution drew inspiration from Western charters. No more shielding Russian citizens from the West: censorship was abolished, borders open, foreign travel unlimited and foreign trade no longer the exclusive domain of the state.”

Yeltsin created a warped oligarchic capitalism, a proto-democracy, a nascent civil society, and he failed to instill rule of law. To many Russians, it was a disorienting time. Ms. Lipman wrote, “Not unexpectedly, the emulation of the West failed to deliver Western living standards. The first post-Soviet decade brought political turmoil, the collapse of the accustomed safety net, deep insecurity and profound disillusionment.”

Mr. Putin exploited that disenchantment — describing all the 1990s as chaos — while riding a rising tide of prosperity, lifted by oil exports, in the years that followed. He sidelined the oligarchs of the Yeltsin years and subordinated them to his will, while enriching his own cronies. Gradually, he stamped out the tender shoots of democracy. They’re now completely gone. Mr. Petrov said last year the conditions needed to achieve democratic change “are not present in today’s Russia.”

The United States and Europe, major players in promoting democracy during the 1990s, must prepare for what comes next in Russia with clear eyes. There won’t be a stampede for Western values. The American tool kit of the post-Soviet period won’t necessarily be useful. It is imperative to start thinking now about how to reach a society that is chastened and hardened by the past two decades.

Keeping channels open to the Russian people will be vital no matter who comes to power. Ideally, after the war and after Mr. Putin, Mr. Navalny will be free of shackles and a leading voice in anchoring Russia in a democratic system. This outcome is worthy of our hope. But it would also be prudent to expect Russia to take other paths, perhaps steered by another singular strongman. The country might be humbled by defeat in war, but that will not necessarily make it exuberant about freedom.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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