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Commentary | 6 June 2023

A strong Russian civil society: The key to ending the war in Ukraine?

This article summarises a debate taking place within the Russian opposition that has yet to attract much attention in the West. This summary intends to ignite conversations among Western political experts and policymakers about how best to approach relations with Russia in the event of a Ukrainian victory. This article does not intend to provide a comprehensive solution to the problems involved in creating a new healthier framework for Russia-West relations. Instead, it contains political arguments that could play a constructive role in laying the groundwork for negotiations whilst contributing towards establishing a lasting peace.

Why did the war start?

The current conflict results from an insular political culture and the closed-off nature of decision-making in Russia’s elite. The invasion of Ukraine was orchestrated by a small group of people, with excessive authority, unconstrained by any civil society institutions. In 2022, all opposition leaders were either imprisoned, murdered or forced to leave the country, further demonstrating the Russian government’s intolerance of any resistance to their authority.

One of the most significant obstacles to peace and creating a non-authoritarian Russia lies in the fact that Russia did not cultivate an autonomous, independent, internationally-minded, political culture after the fall of the USSR. The vast majority of Russian experts and speakers on foreign policy have been educated in Soviet/Russian universities or spent most of their careers in government-sponsored institutions. This restricts their ability to advocate for significant policy shifts or to propose innovative solutions outside of the established governmental paradigm.

This closed-off mindset has meant that Russian policy-makers believed conspiracy theories about Ukraine supposedly being a weak and fascist-aligned state; they expected the Ukrainian people to welcome Russian forces with open arms and never anticipated any strong Western opposition to their invasion. Fourteen months later, they find themselves in a dead-end; there is no other option to proceed but to escalate the conflict, which will inevitably lead to defeat on the battleground and a loss of legitimacy back home. Hardly anyone besides Putin benefits from a long war as this conflict, and the hope of an eventual Russian victory, is now innately connected to his own personal legitimacy.

Hardly anyone besides Putin benefits from a long war as this conflict, and the hope of an eventual Russian victory, is now innately connected to his own personal legitimacy. Alexandra Filippenko

Russian civil society – a separate actor.

While Russia and Ukraine are the only sides engaged in direct military actions, more parties are involved in this conflict in a broader sense. For instance, the participants of the “Rammstein meetings“: Belarus, NATO, and the EU, have all played some role in the conflict. However, another party involved in this war is just as interested in terminating the conflict as Ukraine and is seldom discussed in Western circles – Russian civil society and the Russian opposition.

We in the Russian opposition believe that Russia is now on the verge of a coup d’etat, or a revolution, and the chances of the current political leadership remaining in power are low. Russia will inevitably face a severe political crisis because its current leaders, in the face of a gruelling year-long conflict rather than the swift military operation that was promised, are unable to feign a sense of stability even to their most devoted supporters.

Since February 2022, the Russian authorities have introduced war-time censorship, which has forced opposition leaders to work from abroad. As a result of this, their audience has grown from hundreds of thousands to dozens of millions. These numbers demonstrate a growing demand amongst Russians for liberal-minded politicians.

In April 2023, attendees of the Russian opposition Democratic Forces Meeting in Berlin published their Declaration of Strategic Goals and Principles. Although the meeting was a huge breakthrough, it received little coverage in Western media.

We in the Russian opposition believe that Russia is now on the verge of a coup d'etat, or a revolution, and the chances of the current political leadership remaining in power are extremely low. Alexandra Filippenko

It is a positive sign for the future that the West has welcomed Russian civil society leaders. Many foreign leaders expressed support for Russian civil society. For example, a documentary about the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny won an Oscar, Memorial and Dmitry Muratov received Nobel Peace prizes, and the Munich Security Conference neglected to invite Russian officials whilst giving the floor to exiled opposition leaders.

The way forward

The number of Russians who left Russia could amount to 4-5 million people. These people are stuck between a rock and a hard place, condemned by the Russian government as “traitors” whilst lacking representation from any authority abroad. Various organisations were established to coordinate the financial, legal, and other means of support for them. Yet, unlike Belarusian leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Russian opposition leaders lack a public mandate and cannot be negotiated with as legitimate representatives.

Once the current political leadership is removed from power in Russia, these are the people who will need to build support among ordinary Russians. Public support is a crucial political resource. Thus, it is essential for these leaders (or for their representatives – if we mean those imprisoned in Russia) to establish friendly relations with Western countries so they are best placed to build popular support for a free Russia after Putin.

The number of Russians who left Russia could amount to 4-5 million people. These people are stuck between a rock and a hard place, condemned by the Russian government as “traitors” whilst lacking representation from any authority abroad. Alexandra Filippenko

Western leaders can help Russian opposition leaders conduct a political campaign to gain support from the Russian electorate. It is impossible to measure the actual views of the public due to wartime censorship in Russia today. However, it would be just as wrong to presume that the majority of Russians support the war as to think that the majority is against it. Russian sociologists agree on the following estimates: there are no more than 15-17% of pro-war so-called “patriots”, and at least 20% of pro-western liberal-minded Russians (inside and outside Russia). Moreover, at least 50-60% of Russians could be convinced that supporting the current political leadership is unwise.

These people are unsatisfied with the current situation, but their discontent has not been transformed into anti-war political action for many reasons. Many of them fear increasing domestic repression. Others have been misguided by the anti-west propaganda, on account of how successful the Russian government has been in controlling the narrative and internal debate surrounding the conflict.

As is traditional in Russian political culture, they continue to associate Putin with stability, and many of them lack any understanding of what a future without him might look like. Conveying a vision of an alternative future is a much-needed job for the opposition leaders and their external supporters.

Conveying a vision of an alternative future is a much-needed job for the opposition leaders and their external supporters. Alexandra Filippenko

The Russian public

To understand the Russian public and how best to construct the idea of a post-Putin Russia, the general public can be categorised into six different groups, which all require different approaches and strategies to move forward with a vision of a free and democratic Russia:

  1. Oligarchs. These are the individuals who have benefited the most from Putin’s regime. Even though they lack direct influence on Putin, they could be influential on the lower levels of government. They face unprecedented sanctions but were never offered a means of avoiding them in return for withdrawing support for Putin and his regime. A clear exit strategy could motivate them to act against him.
  2. Government service members. Many understand that senior government figures will likely face criminal charges in international courts, but their prosecution seems unlikely. There are hundreds of thousands of them working in multiple government agencies, even foreign embassies. They must be convinced that the West would support any pivots made towards an anti-war position.
  3. Russians abroad. Many in this group can be considered privileged emigres. Still, they are nonetheless important voices in any debate on what a post-Putin Russia looks like. Western leaders should look to support them and aid Russian opposition leaders in engaging with them where they can. Banking sanctions have made it difficult for Russians to withdraw their assets. Moreover, crossing the border has become a challenge, with significant travel and visa restrictions compelling thousands of those who oppose the war to stay in the country and keep their heads down in fear of persecution.
  4. The general Russian public. This group is exposed to unprecedented propaganda and repression. Since the beginning of the war, the Russian government has blocked access to hundreds of thousands of websites. Few people understand how VPN technology works, and most services are blocked. However, it is worth noting that last spring, several VPN providers made their services free for Russians, offering an excellent opportunity to connect with them. Although, it must also be said that the Russian authorities have since started to block VPNs.
  5. Patriotic Russians who would find military defeat humiliating. With mutually beneficial guarantees, their concerns could be satisfied via new conventional and nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the West. Nuclear demilitarisation, expressed by some Western speakers, is a far-fetched idea because any attempt to deprive Russia of atomic weapons could trigger unexpected actions. Besides, it would break the global arms control regime and inspire other nuclear powers to increase their nuclear potential. Nuclear weapons have indeed played a role in avoiding a significant escalation, such as other nations deploying troops etc, but they have also allowed Russia’s leaders to construct an authoritarian, illiberal and undemocratic state. Russia’s nuclear arsenal has given the political elite a sense of invulnerability and the means of resistance to international pressure. Consequently, the Russian authorities expected no retaliation from NATO for their actions besides lukewarm statements against the war.
  6. Finally, there are people who constitute the conformist majority, who have never considered the idea of questioning authority. The long-term strategy of engaging with them should be through a campaign of political education explaining the concept and value of human rights and liberal democracy. A lengthy and difficult process that the Russian political elite didn’t engage in after the fall of the Soviet Union, contributing to the sorry situation that Russia and Ukraine find themselves in today.

The “Beautiful Russia of the Future“, to use the slogan coined by Alexei Navalny during his presidential campaign, remains a possibility and represents the ideal endgame for Russia, Ukraine and the West. Following political reforms with the support of the West, Russia can and will become a reliable partner.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Evgeny Feldman