War, Imperialism, and Defeat. Will the Ukrainian Invasion be the beginning of the end for Putin?

Kay Mann

Posted October 19, 2022

Russians fleeing in the aftermath of Putin’s draft (original image here)

REPORTS OF THE reaction of the Russian populace to Putin’s “partial mobilization” suggest that the regime crisis provoked by the invasion of Ukraine has substantially increased, bringing the war to the center of Russian social and political life. Battlefield defeats, the effects of the sanctions, and the reaction of those who are “voting with their feet” reveal the deep rot of the regime. Wide social media reporting about the war has countered the jingoist propaganda spread on the tightly controlled state mass media. No manipulation of notions of patriotism or claims that the invasion of Ukraine is about removing “Nazis” seem to resonate with much of the population. Given this crisis, can Putin’s regime last and if not, what would replace it?

The “partial mobilization” of course, is anything but partial. It aims at rounding up broad swathes of the male population (up until 60 years of age) and some categories of women as well. The process hardly resembles the orderly recruiting of large numbers of draft-age men that modern states have perfected. 

More than two hundred thousand men immediately fled the country by land and air, often within hours of the decree and without definite plans. Many of these refugees are reportedly convinced that they will never be able to return to their homes, jobs and loved ones. The arbitrariness and disarray of the draft resembles the “dragooning” of young men rounded up by royal troop “press gangs” in taverns in eighteenth century Europe. More recent echoes include today’s ICE raids against immigrants in U.S. workplaces (itself a visible manifestation of system rot). 

The Putin draft is the opposite of the enthusiastic response of the French revolution’s military draft, the wildly popular “levée en masse,” called by the revolutionary government in the mid-1790s to confront the armies of counterrevolutionary Europe. Nor is this the grim but energetic response of the peoples of the USSR to the Nazi invasion in 1941. 

Putin’s draft and the wide resistance to it brings the war and its contradictions home in ways more evident perhaps than have the international sanctions. Belying the image of a well-trained and well-equipped modern army with grandiose ambitions, reports of rusty rifles issued to hastily and poorly trained troops recall the disastrous mobilizations of the bloody military engagements in World War I. 

Divided regime elites are often indicative of an imminent fall of a regime. There are increasing signs that voices within the regime oppose the war and are increasingly willing to express that opposition. Television journalist Maria Ovsyannikova’s heroic protest on live television, and   antiwar notes sounded by several elected officials, may be expected to find a broader echo as  draft resistance and stunning military setbacks reverberate throughout wider and wider sections of the population.

International Isolation, Personal Isolation

Putin, who had been considered a shrewd strategist, seems to be misreading his level of international support and failing to divide the NATO and imperialist powers. Finnish, Swedish and most recently Ukrainian applications to NATO underscore the degree to which Putin has not only failed to divide “the west,” but given NATO a pretext to expand closer to Russia’s border. 

Tacit and tepid support from China and Turkey and the far less influential Iranian regime seem to be evaporating. These miscalculations may be partially attributable to Putin’s reported personal isolation resulting from an acute fear of Covid-19 exposure. Like many other dictators, he also surrounds himself with yes-men and women. This suggests a curious similarity to the isolation of Czar Nicholas II during World War I, as the marginal charlatan Rasputin became his chief advisor (or Saddam Hussein’s fatal decision to invade Kuwait in 1990). 

While imperialist plunder can prop up regimes, successful anti-colonial struggles can help topple one.  Charles De Gaulle’s government discovered this in 1962 when the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) won independence from France in 1962 after a bitter eight-year armed struggle.  

Antiwar protests in Russia have been quickly and brutally suppressed by police methods reminiscent of the Czar’s Okhrana or Stalin’s NVKD. Putin is himself a product of the NKVD’s successor, the KGB. But the rapid fall of the Stalinist governments in Romania and East Germany from the pressure of enormous mass unarmed demonstrations in 1989 should dispel illusions that massive repressive power and modern police state methods can permanently insulate an unpopular government from overthrow. 

The elements for a potential overthrow of the Putin regime therefore seem to be in place. These include: 

  • Battlefield defeats in an unpopular war, 
  • growing antiwar sentiment provoked by those defeats, 
  • mass draft resistance, 
  • the beginning of divisions within the regime, 
  • increasing threat of a full scale economic crisis, and 
  • international isolation. 

But nothing is certain. Alongside examples of rapid swells of mass opposition leading to sudden regime falls such as in East Germany and Romania, are cases of unpopular regimes in similar situations like the Pinochet regime in Chile, and more recently those in Burma and Thailand that remained in power in spite of their deep unpopularity. 

What would follow the fall of Putin’s government? Historical precedent and the particularities of the current situation suggest several possible scenarios. 

It is quite likely that some individual or faction currently in the military, government or among the economic “oligarchs” would be the first to succeed a fallen Putin. A new government based on these would most certainly continue the neoliberal policies of post-Soviet governments up to and including Putin’s. 

But any successor government that hoped to retain power would have to take immediate steps to end the war crisis, pointing to a Russian ceasefire and withdrawal. Continuing to prosecute the war, given the deep demoralization and defeats on the ground, would most likely be a non-starter.

Given the absence of basic political rights and meaningful public political opposition parties,  the Russian working class would likely have a far greater hand in bringing down the Putin dictatorship than in choosing its successor. The lack of the basic political rights of freedom of speech, press, and assembly has divided oppositional forces and pushed them underground.

The fall of Putin’s government would unleash or reinvigorate separatist, national liberation struggles and stimulate working class organization. But a revolutionary socialist outcome is unrealistic in the short term. 

A necessary ingredient in successful revolutions is the presence of a revolutionary leadership with a mass audience that can offer a strategy to take power. The absence of basic democratic rights under Putin and decades of Stalinist dictatorship has distorted Marxism and the socialist project. While there are revolutionary socialist voices and groups in the Russian federation, these are as yet small with limited influence, and operate under sharp restrictions. 

Three decades of neoliberal misery visited on the peoples of the ex-Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe will certainly weaken the political and ideological appeal of neoliberal capitalism. This can open the door to the reception of socialist programs. 

The fall of Putin through some of sort of coup would bring the anti-Stalinist uprisings of the 1990s full circle. It would be the first of the neoliberal governments that succeeded the Stalinist regimes to fall under extra-systemic means, outside of formal legal Parliamentary processes, however sham — and would signal a substantially changed international political environment. 

Kay Mann, Milwaukee, October 9. 2022