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Time to focus not just on Putin’s Russia, but what will follow

As Vladimir Putin’s Russia slides into totalitarianism, and hopes that having failed to outfight Ukraine, it can outlast it, not only is the challenge for the United Kingdom (UK) changing, but also the opportunities it presents.

Putin is digging in, now admitting that his war may be ‘a lengthy process’. The intention is to try and signal that Russia is in it for the long haul, hoping to outlast Ukraine’s will to resist and the desire and capacity of free and open nations to support it. This is, to be blunt, a strategy founded on desperation. Despite some hints of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in free and open nations, key supporters of Kyiv’s such as the UK, United States (US) and Poland – three of the biggest providers of military aid to date – appear determined. More to the point, the terrible hardships being imposed on Ukrainians only seem to be strengthening their resolve. Putin has, though, no plausible alternative strategy beyond capitulation: he believes this may work because he has to.

In the process, Russia is being turned into a warfighting state in which every aspect of society is meant to be mobilised in support of the campaign in Ukraine, from the economy to the media. The room for any kind of opposition or meaningful civil society is shrinking and at a terrifying speed, and a strident new strain of official propaganda seeks to present Putin’s war as an existential struggle for Russia’s survival.

That stridency, though, betrays the regime’s fundamental insecurity and its growing awareness that this is not a popular war. Its own internal polling has shown a majority favouring peace talks, and for every unhappy reservist it managed to mobilise in September and October, 2-3 young men fled the country. Russians are switching off state television, and turning to other sources of news.

This evolving situation poses the UK with dilemmas, but also new opportunities to use its particular position to exert some leverage on the conflict.

Fundamentally, of course, it needs to maintain its own support for Ukraine. Its military assistance has been invaluable, including the distinctive and highly successful Operation Interflex training mission, which is also a source of ‘khaki soft power’. Financial assistance to keep the Ukrainian economy operating will also continue to be a necessity. Of course, this is not without political cost: while the British people continue to be very supportive of Ukraine’s struggle, these are not times in which the £2.3 billion envisaged as the minimum level of military aid alone for Ukraine in 2023 could not be used usefully for other purposes.

London must also use its example and aligning power to help maintain the wider unity of free and open nations across the board. Given that a central element of Putin’s political strategy is to identify and widen potential fault lines within free and open nations, it will be more important than ever to try and avoid the kind of national grandstanding and freelancing – such as recent backtracking on Germany’s defence spending commitments by Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, or the ill-timed suggestion by Emmanuel Macron, the French President, that Moscow should expect ‘security guarantees’ – that gives the Kremlin any comfort.

The costs of the war for Russia mean that while it is still impossible to know when Putin himself will leave office, it is impossible to see ‘Putinism’ as a model of Russia surviving him. 

Overall, the UK must do what it can to demonstrate to Putin that easy assumptions about the free world’s unwillingness to accept costs and inability to sustain effort – which, to be fair, have so often been true in the past – are misplaced. So long as free and open nations give Putin excuses to convince himself that there is hope just over the horizon that this support for Ukraine will falter, then he has no reason to contemplate any kind of concessions, let alone abandoning his brutal war. 

There are also options for Britain on Putin’s home front, too. The growing alienation of the Russian public and, indeed, much of the elite is a crucial vulnerability. It offers opportunities not only to generate jeopardy for the regime at home, but also to undermine Putin’s xenophobic narratives to do what is possible to ensure a positive relationship with an eventual post-Putin Russia.

Just as the Kremlin considers the British amongst its most subtle and dangerous foes, and portrays them as especially ‘Russophobic’, so too is there a strong current of Anglophilia in Russian culture. Although the Kremlin is doing everything it can to prevent this (itself a sign of how worried it is), from blocking access to the BBC’s websites to paring the embassy in Moscow to the bone, there needs to be a redoubled effort to mobilise the UK’s cultural power, particularly fighting propaganda with accurate reporting (even when that may be uncomfortable for Britain). 

His Majesty’s Government’s renewed commitment to, in the words of Tom Tugendhat, the British Security Minister, ‘closing Londongrad’ by cracking down on kleptocrat dirty money is an excellent move, but could be twinned with further moves to support those brave Russian activists who continue to work for a liberal, democratic and above all peaceful post-Putin nation. 

Although the scandalous British investment-based ‘golden visa’ scheme was finally terminated in February, since it has been operating, more Russian millionaires and their families than genuine political asylum-seekers had been let into the UK. Without in any way undermining its welcome to Ukrainians fleeing the war, Britain can also gather to itself Russians with integrity and courage opposed to the current brutal regime, and give them the space and even support to further their political activity at home.

Indeed, in the spirit of killing two birds with one stone, with the Russian-language opposition television station Dozhd currently being forced to suspend its operations in Latvia, perhaps the UK would be a fitting haven?

Ultimately, Britain needs to both maintain its support for Ukraine while also beginning to think and plan for a post-Putin Russia. The costs of the war for Russia – the destruction of its much-vaunted military, the decline of its economy, the delegitimation of the regime, the erosion of its international standing – mean that while it is still impossible to know when Putin himself will leave office, it is impossible to see ‘Putinism’ as a model of Russia surviving him. 

This is the perfect opportunity for the UK to use its aligning power and status to drive wider policy debates. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West had devoted much thought to how to win the Cold War, and next to nothing about how to win the subsequent peace. The result was a period of half-hearted and often contradictory policies which helped doom an emerging Russian democracy and contribute to the rise of a nationalist revanchist like Putin. It behoves us not to repeat the same mistake, because while it will ultimately be for the Russians to define their new state, what we do will help define its trajectory.

Dr Mark Galeotti is Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Director of Mayak Intelligence Ltd.

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