“Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.”

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known by his alias, “Lenin”) 1870 – 1924

Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky
Young guns. Pictured from left: Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky

The old Soviet Union may have collapsed, but Bolshevism left its mark

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and all the seismic events around it - including the collapse of governments throughout the former Warsaw Pact countries - passed off with relatively little bloodshed. Yes, there was violence and political turmoil, including the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania and a full-blown coup attempt in Moscow, but these were mercifully brief.

The notable and horrifying exception was Yugoslavia, where the collapse of the communist government led to bloody, internecine chaos as the country was torn apart on ethnic and religious lines over several years. As a man still in my 20’s I served in the Former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, and witnessed how quickly a civilized society, which had so much cultural similarity to my own, could descend into violence and destruction. We are all only ever separated from those dark forces by a paper thin barrier; and that realization shocked me.

Despite the blood and tear soaked warnings of Yugoslavia, the collapse of communism and the world’s second largest super-power, engendered a feeling amongst many that liberal democracy had won; and that humanity had found the only really acceptable way to run itself. What the impressively erudite historian and thinker Francis Fukuyama described as “the end of history”.

The Bolshevik Highjack of the Russian Revolution

Watching the dreadful events unfold in Ukraine, I hear commentators saying Fukuyama may be right, and that the global revulsion of Russia’s invasion will be a reinforcement to liberal democracy. However, what I find troubling about President Putin’s motivations is that they are powered by ideas that are not new, and precede the end of the Soviet Union; in fact his ideas share most with the origins of the Soviet Union. President Putin is the natural inheritor of political predecessors of a century before who would have entirely understood, and empathized, with his thinking.

Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades highjacked the Russian Revolution from more “mainstream” communists in a coup in 1917 and made the Soviet Union a regime of iron rule by the minority, banning other communist factions in the process. The takeover was precarious, and the Great War was still raging. Russia was near military and economic collapse, and under considerable pressure to extricate Russia from the War Lenin agreed to end hostilities with Germany and its allies at the treaty of Brest-Litovsk; a treaty that ceded the Baltic States to Germany, acknowledged the independence of Finland, effectively gave Belarus and Ukraine to the Austrian sphere, and Georgia to the Ottoman Turks.

Having removed the newly created Soviet Union from the War with Germany and its allies, the Bolsheviks fought a civil war for several more years. The British even sent troops to Eastern Russia to support the assorted coalition of “White Russians” resisting communism, in an effort to remove the Bolsheviks and have Russia rejoin the War effort.

Signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, 1917 - Russia’s “Versailles”

The Red Army gained the upper hand by the beginning of the 1920’s. Lenin, the great opportunist died in 1924 after a series of strokes. His decline was not politically well managed, and he was succeeded by the rough but charismatic Georgian revolutionary Stalin; a man that Lenin himself had already identified as entirely unsuitable to the post of General Secretary due to his “rudeness”.

Trotsky, the senior Bolshevik who had seemed the likely successor to Lenin, found himself at odds with Stalin’s “socialism in one country” philosophy. Stalin exiled the troublesome Trotsky in 1929 and his contribution was expunged from the official history of Bolshevism. In exile Trotsky was eventually given asylum by Mexico, and in 1940 at the age of 60 - when one would have thought he posed less of a threat - he was assassinated.

Stalin writing at his desk
Stalin in thoughtful pose

The Genetics of Putin’s Russia are Bolshevik

So why am I recounting those distant events in the context of modern “post history” and ostensibly democratic Russia? It is because Putin’s Russia is powered by ideas that are distinctly Bolshevik:

  • the victory of “socialism in one country” as an idea swiftly abandoned the main tenets of communism: the priority of the Bolsheviks was - and remains - the dominance of Russia and its contiguous empire,

  • Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic States hold an emotional grip on the Russian political psyche: giving those regions up to Austria and Turkey at Brest-Litovsk was only done under severe duress, albeit the Soviet Union subsequently reabsorbed them, and they retain an emotional and historical significance for Russia,

  • the Soviet Union was pressurized and assaulted by Great Powers from its inception: the humiliating compromises of Brest-Litovsk required to extract Russia from the War, and foreign support to White forces in 1918-19 engendered a political sensitivity - bordering on paranoia - to any hint of hostility or interference from external powers; Nazi Germany’s betrayal and invasion in 1942 was a mere confirmation,

  • Bolshevism has a powerful political inclination to have only one person in absolute charge: however wrong their decisions might occasionally seem to their comrades,

  • The habits of Bolshevism mean that political declines are not well managed: transitions of power tend to involve internal coups or chaotic power-struggles.

Bolshevism, Russia and Ukraine

So, particularly in light of the span of time between the 1917 Bolshevik coup and now, and the great events of WWII, the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union what can this tell us about what might happen next?  There are a few points worth reminding ourselves about the Bolshevik mentality and what we see in Putin’s foreign policy:

Like the Bolsheviks Putin uses violence to secure Russia’s borders: Putin has at least been consistent: Russian troops blasted Grozny flat in order to prevent Chechnya seceding from the Russian Federation in 1999/2000; Russia invaded Georgia and annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008; it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014; destroyed Aleppo and other towns in Northern Syria in order to prop-up Al Assad in 2016, and has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to remove its government in 2022.

Political assassination is an often-used tool:  Putin’s regime attempted to assassinate Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko after he stood against a pro-Russian candidate in 2004, successfully assassinated outspoken former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko by poisoning him with polonium in London in 2006, and the GRU attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal another former spy in Salisbury with the nerve agent Novichok in 2018, killing an innocent bystander, and hospitalizing Skripal and his daughter in the process.  One would have to assume that amongst Putin’s high current priorities is the assassination of Ukraine’s President Zelensky.  The Putin era, like the original Bolshevik period, has been all about old business and unsettled scores.

Putin’s Russia does not care about military or civilian casualties – including their own - in achieving their aims:  The military of the Russian Federation are surprisingly akin to their Red Army forebears in a number of respects: commanders are not free to say what they actually think to the Kremlin, initiative is not encouraged nor rewarded at any level, logistics are typically overstretched, procurement is not just inefficient but prone to corruption, and it still relies on destruction rather than precision to succeed.  The net effect is that the Russian military only has two plays in its book: roll in unopposed or with minimal resistance (like Georgia or Crimea) or hammer everything and everyone flat (like Syria or Chechnya, and increasingly, Ukraine). Russia may have already suffered more than 10% casualties in its assault - so may the Ukrainian military in defense, with civilian casualties in addition. The reality of the bland sounding percentages are that entire front-line combat units will have been denuded to the point they practically cease to exist, and equates to tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians killed and wounded in a matter of less than a month. These are terrifying statistics reminiscent of Europe in the mid-20th Century not the 21st.

After more than 20 years of Putin’s new Bolshevism, a change in leadership is unlikely to substantially alter the Russian State’s Bolshevik instincts: Putin may have made a serious miscalculation over Ukraine; it remains to be seen whether he survives the full consequences politically, and whether it leads to a Kremlin coup.  However, short of a full-scale revolution in Russia it is hard to see the successors of Putin not also inheriting the core of the Bolshevik approach.  Western countries – notably Germany – are massively increasing their defense spending to accommodate the new reality of (i) a more reluctant USA in terms of its willingness to underwrite all of NATO, (ii) a demonstrably aggressive Russia, and (iii) a China – sympathetic to Moscow - that is growing in confidence and military capability.

Putin retains the Bolshevik habit of resorting to any tactic to achieve political ends, so assumes everyone else is equally untrustworthy.  It seems very likely that President Putin genuinely believed that Zelensky’s unpopular government (which let’s remind ourselves only had a 23% approval rating before the Russian invasion) was corrupt, intended to do Russia harm and that Russian troops would be able to swiftly replace his government with one sympathetic to Moscow, or destroy Ukraine as an independent country altogether.  It is also very likely that Putin sees all the actions of the US and NATO as motivated by a hatred of and desire to undermine Russia; Russia interferes with Western elections, sponsors cyber-attacks on the West’s infrastructure, poisons its dissidents, imprisons its opposition and assumes similar levels of subterfuge are used against it; and to the extent they aren’t used Putin interprets it as a sign of weakness. In the new geopolitical environment there is capacity for a serious mistake to be made by both Putin and NATO as a result of their perpetual misunderstanding and mistrust of each other.

Options and end-game

There are no particularly good outcomes from here; more troops and civilians will die and more cities and infrastructure will be destroyed in Ukraine.  And the security situation in Europe, and globally, will have deteriorated significantly. 

Either Putin will succeed in his aim of destroying the government of Ukraine and be left with a counterinsurgency or expanded civil war, or he will be forced to retreat from most of Ukraine with its government intact and content himself with annexing the areas of the Donbas in the East that Russian forces have already taken; a civil war has been bubbling there for nearly 8 years and both sides need that resolved. 

The latter – i.e. a Ukrainian military “victory” sufficient to cause Russia to agree a peace - is not impossible: Russia has committed 190,000 or so troops to its assault of a vast country, while the Ukrainian military is significantly larger than that.  Estimates of the size of Ukraine’s military vary, but assume that it has 200,000 trained personnel available, plus an army of volunteer militia.  Ukraine is also supplied with man-portable antiaircraft missiles, very simple to use anti-tank weapons and UAVs, which provide a force multiplying effect.  Military planning typically assumes that for an assault to be successful the attacker needs 3x the troops of the defender: that ratio goes up to 5x for an enemy that is well prepared and dug in, and maybe 8x for an assault on a city, where complex street fighting is involved.  This implies Russia would need an invading force of 1,000,000 troops - or be prepared to use chemical, biological or tactical nuclear weapons against cities - to be confident. At least from the desktop perspective, Russia simply does not have the fighting power to overwhelm all of Ukraine or even take and hold Kyiv. 

It seems unlikely that Russian public or political opinion would then turn against Putin sufficient to bring about his downfall.  If there is any Kremlin unease at the actions of Putin he still has a number of tools to preserve his position (purges are another Bolshevik favorite).  Unless illness carries him off prematurely – like Lenin his notorious Bolshevik predecessor – Putin could remain in power for some time.

Even if Russian troops withdraw as part of a compromise peace deal, Putin can claim his victory if Ukraine more formally confirms its current intention not to join NATO, and accepts the permanent annexation of the Donbas and Crimea. That would leave a bruised and lesser Ukraine facing a bloodied but more dangerous Russia in a Finland-like standoff.

Putin’s Russia has recast geopolitical reality. Invasion and conquest is a - costly but viable - tool once again at the disposal of totalitarian and/or nationalist countries seeking to redraw disputed borders. It was notable that in the United Nations vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine held on 2 March 2022, both China (a single party communist state) and India (the world’s largest democracy) abstained. Those are the two most populous countries in the world. Other abstainers included countries with close ties to China, particularly in Africa but also Pakistan, or close ties with Russia, particularly in Central Asia. Most of these countries have disputed borders, in some cases where military skirmishes have already taken place; notably China with Taiwan, and some of its border with India, India with China and Pakistan. Those all involve unresolved business.

Western cultural, economic and military power, and the paternalistic liberal democratic model that seemed so dominant for many decades after WWII, is being replaced with an Orwellian multi-polar world, where liberal doesn’t necessarily mean democratic, and democracy doesn’t always guarantee liberality.

History may be back with a flourish.

Yours,

Duncan

Further Reading