What Might This War Do to Russia?

This is the third installment of a trilogy of texts from a historian’s perspective about the possibility of democratic change in Russia. In the first,  I pointed out that Russia doesn’t have much of a democratic tradition in its political culture and that there have only been a few moments of potential transition to democracy, each of which was aborted. In the second  I pointed out that we shouldn’t be spellbound by historical determinism, that instead we need to realize that change, even in Russia, is ever possible. In this third text, I want to reflect on the possibility of the present Russian war against Ukraine as a possible catalyst for democratic change.

War, historically, always brings change in its evil wake. As a general rule of thumb, winning wars does less to spur democratic ferment than losing wars. Thatcherism in the UK was buoyed up by victory over Argentina in the Falklands War of 1982. Argentina’s defeat, on the other hand, resulted in the collapse of its dictatorship and the institution of free, democratic elections.

America and the Soviet Union emerged as global hegemons after winning World War II, and both the USA and the USSR used the victory to fuel national pride. America dominated global capitalism and the Soviet Union expanded a solid sphere of influence across all of East Central Europe.

Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were defeated in that war, occupied, and reconstructed as democracies. I rather doubt that we will see something as dramatic as this after the Russia-Ukraine war, since Russia will not be occupied by any of the democratic powers that are currently supporting Ukraine without boots on the ground. Still, I am reluctant to exclude any possibility.

America emerged from defeat in the Vietnam War with a “syndrome” that restrained it from too much military interference in the affairs of the rest of the world until 2001. In the latter year the US, feeling recovered from the Vietnam syndrome, launched a war against Afghanistan. Two years later it made war against Iraq. The results of both of these quagmire conflicts was the reemergence of a strong strain of isolationism in US political culture. Of course, this isolationism was also one of the factors contributing to the rise of President Donald Trump, who has consistently undermined democratic values in his own country.

But let us return to the particular case of Russia. From the middle of the seventeenh to the middle of the nineteenth century, Russia conducted wars to expand its borders, becoming formally an empire at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In this period of its rise, Russia acquired territory from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, namely the majority of what today constitutes Ukraine and Belarus. It conquered the northern littoral of the Black Sea, including Crimea, that had once been the lands of the Nogay and Crimean Tatars. It took Finland from Sweden and Bessarabia from Moldavia. It also, at great expense, waged war in the Caucasus, adding Georgia, Chechnya, and other regions to its conglomeration. In the early nineteenth century Russia was strong enough to defeat Napoleon and intervene in the Habsburg monarchy to crush the revolution of 1848-49. It was one of the pillars of European reaction.

But then things started to sputter. Britain, France, and Germany underwent their industrial revolution and became strong capitalist economies. Russia was the least industrialized of the major European powers and the least modernized in every respect. The costly wars in the Caucasus had emptied the treasury, and Russia could not afford the kind of almost universal public education that became characteristic of Western Europe.

The Crimean war of 1854-56 pitted Russia against the Ottoman empire, Sardinia, Britain, and France. Although the war was fought entirely on the soil of the Russian state, Russia was roundly defeated. Realizing in the aftermath that the country needed to change, the tsar and his ministers instituted important democratic changes, including the abolition of serfdom and the introduction of local government (the zemstvos).

But this was not enough to salvage the country. Russia could still defeat the even less developed Ottoman empire in the war of 1877-78. However, it was defeated by a more modernized Japan in 1904-05. This led to the first major moment of potential democratic transition: the Russian revolution of 1905. The autocracy was able to recover from this a few years later, but the next war – World War I – sealed its fate. Unlike its Western allies and unlike its German and Austrian opponents, Russia did not have an educated soldiery. Nor did it have the economic muscle and infrastructure to pursue total war. Once again it was defeated, and once again there was an opportunity – again aborted – to establish a new, democratic regime.

As indicated above, victory in World War II did nothing to make the former Russian empire, now the USSR, democratic. Victory rather boosted the confidence of the Stalinist regime.

The last major moment of democratic transition in Russia/USSR was the Gorbachev reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Again, the country had fallen way behind the West economically. It had remained a conservative dictatorship, stifling technological innovation and the flow of information. Gorbachev’s recipe for saving the USSR was reconstruction (perestroika) combined with openness (glasnost’), i.e., the reform of the political system and the end of censorship. These reforms were initially greeted with enthusiasm by the Soviet populace. I was in Soviet Ukraine in 1989 when the first partially free elections to the Supreme Soviet were held. Televisions were set up in public spaces, and citizens abandoned their workplaces to gather around the TV sets in awe, listening to the debates and speeches.

There were many factors leading to the Gorbachev reforms, but for this essay it is important to note that one of them was the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Almost as soon as freedom of assembly was permitted, mothers of soldiers came out on the streets calling for an end to a war which had lasted nearly a decade. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers also called for an end to the cruel hazing of new recruits (dedovshchina).

Putin has consolidated his hold on the mind of many Russians by a series of military victories: the second Chechen war of 1999-2000, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the invasion of Crimea in 2014, and the intervention in Syria in 2015.

But the large-scale invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022 has not been going well for Russia. There is no need to rehearse here all the setbacks Russian forces are enduring. They are featured in all news outlets not subject to Putin’s censorship.

There are many reasons why Ukraine needs to defeat Russia in the current war. But one of them is that only ignominious defeat, accompanied by economic hardship, has a chance of producing the unrest and dissatisfaction with the dictatorship that could allow a democratic regeneration of Russia.