There has been much speculation on the still distant but real prospect farther down the line that any Russian failure in the war with Ukraine could provoke a revolt against President Vladimir Putin either ‘from above’ by elements within the state or elite or ‘from below’ in a revolutionary overthrow (even less likely). Such a medicine could be worse than the disease of Putin’s regime as the West has come see (and make) today’s Russia. But another scenario has not been discussed at all. In Ukraine is Russia vulnerable to the ‘Iraq- scenario’? Could Russia’s war in Ukraine spark political instability, chaos and carnage in what remains of that now war-torn country? Putin has learned many lessons correctly or incorrectly: NATO expansion was unstoppable without the use of force, Ukraine’s membership in NATO was a potential dire threat to Russian national security, and the West should not be trusted. Whether he has the proper lessons in a precise, unexaggerated form is another question. Another is whether he learned the lessons of US and NATO adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, US and NATO actions led to the expansion of Al Qa`ida and the rise of ISIS, bringing more war and hundreds of thousand more casualties beyond those inflicted as a result of the West’s defeat of Sadaam Hussein’s forces. Could Putin break Ukraine and be unable to put it back together at least for some period of time, as we saw in Iraq?
A key lesson of these tragedies is akin to Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace: the great man (or nation) theory of world history’s development is deeply flawed. No man or nation can be sure once he embarks on a Quixotian quest to determine world history or even that of particular regions or states that he can maintain control of the process once he launches it. This is particularly true of war and revolution, something both Russians and Americans have too much experience with. Has Putin fallen into the great power trap as the US did in Vietnam and Iraq and the USSR and US did in and Afghanistan by starting a major war?
This is a distinct possibility and could occur in one of several ways: (1) collapse of the Maidan regime into internecine, inter-clan civil war or at least episodic violence and contestation for the leadership by illegal means; (2) the autonomization of elements in the armed forces, National Guard, and ‘territorial defense’ and violations of any general ceasefire following the signing of some documents and the withdrawal of Russian troops behind a new ‘line of contact’; and (3) the previous point reiterated but carried out by the neofascist-controlled volunteer battalions.
Any attempt by Ukrainian President Zelenskiy to secure a peace agreement, which he sooner or later will have to do and likely from a disadvantageous negotiating position, makes more likely and a real possibility a revolt by various opposition forces in Ukraine. It is important to remember that Zelenskiy’s popularity ratings were so low on the eve of the war scare that president Joe Biden’s disastrously low ratings were a full-fledged presidential mandate by comparison. Zelenskiy’s party, Servant of the People, was mired in corruption scandal and growing divisions and virtually the entire political spectrum was opposed to the faltering Zelenskiy and his party. The war gave a mammoth boost to his rating (it has boosted Putin’s as well), but this new support is weak. What is left is the paltry support enjoyed by his new and thereby institutionally weak party. It was for this and other reasons that Zelenskiy used the war to again ban political parties – this time eleven of them. All of them were centrist and socialist parties, and Zelenskiy left the neofascist and ultranationalist parties untouched as he did the moderate nationalist parties that sit with his own in the Rada, with the caveat that almost all of those ‘moderate’ nationalist parties include radical nationalist elements. This is hints at the first threat to Zelenskiy should he sue for peace.
The first force that threatens Zelenskiy’s rule is the ultra-nationalist and neofascist parties, organizations, and paramilitary structures such as ‘Svoboda’, Praviy Sektor (Right Sector), its Volunteer Ukrainain Korpus (DUK), the National Korpus, C-14, and many others. Assuming that a substantial number of these groups’ members are still alive and healthy and that these groups can maintain resources and organizational effectiveness before a peace deal is reached, they are very likely to attempt in some way to subvert any agreement with the Russians. One need only remember events on 20-21 February 2014 to understand this probability. I have in mind the scuttling of the agreement signed by soon to be overthrown president Viktor Yanukovych and the leading Maidan opposition parties as a result of the false flag snipers’ terrorist attack carried out by the Maidan’s neofascist element targeting both police and demonstrators, which sparked the ‘revolution of dignity’ against Yanukovych, who was falsely accused of ordering the massacre. The neofascists managed to kick over the playng tableonce,a and they could o it again.
Another element is Rada deputy and former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who heads the ‘European Solidarty’ party and has good relations with certain ultranationalist and nationalist elements such as the Maidan regime’s first ‘acting’ president Oleksandr Turchynov and former Ukrainian Security Council Chairman and Rada Speaker Andriy Parubiy, who organized the 20 February 2014 snipers’ attack as well as the 2 May 2014 Odessa immolation terrorist attack along with Praviy Sektor. When the war started Poroshenko immediately set up his own war room or board. Zelenskiy remains wary of Poroshenko, who has been charged with treason and was forced to attend pre-arraignment hearings as the war scare mounted. Ukrainian media reports indicate that Poroshenko ordered his own television channels at the beginning of the war to raise the theme of Zelenskiy’s treason for negotiating with the Russians. In turn, Zelenskiy ordered that all television stations broadcast the same schedule of programs, establishing full government control over Ukrainian television (https://strana.news/news/382577-pochemu-vse-kanaly-objazali-translirovat-edinyj-marafon-novostej.html; https://strana.news/news/382526-vojna-v-ukraine-zelenskij-vvel-reshenie-snbo-ob-informatsionnoj-politike.html; and https://strana.news/news/382602-nikolaj-knjazhitskij-v-partii-poroshenko-nehativno-otreahirovali-na-edinyj-telemarafon.html). Moreover, Poroshenko remains on good terms with many ultranationalists and neofascists (Turchynov defended Poroshenko against Zelenskiy’s charges of treason at a rally outside the courthouse where arraignment hearings were being held) and can buy off others.
Zelenskiy has entered earnestly into talks with Russia and has stated numerous times in recent weeks that he is already agreed in principle to abandoning Ukraine’s attempt to become a NATO member, a key pre-war and post-war Putin demand. Now Kiev has drafted a formal treaty on Ukrainian neutrality, national security and sovereignty guarantees, and non-nuclear status and a ban on foreign troops or military infrastructure on Ukrainian territory (https://strana.news/news/382594-zelenskij-zajavil-chto-hotov-k-perehovoram-s-putinym.html). The neofascist-ultranationalist threat is one reason Zelenskiy has been unable to honor its Minsk 2 obligations and more recently to agree to meet Russian demands for ‘denazification’, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the DNR/LNR independence, and demilitarization—all of which are opposed by the radicals.
Many apologists for Ukrainian neofascism have tried to downplay its influence. The influential far right in Ukraine has already several times demonstrated against any agreement with Moscow under the Minsk 2 process. Zelenskiy is first and foremost a propaganda and communications expert, an ability garnered from his years in entertainment. However, he has not been able to get around the ‘ultras’, despite his recent statement that Russian forces after four weeks of war had not been able to find any neofascists in Ukraine. Russian media demonstrate quite the opposite. (Here I must reiterate that all three sides in this war are lying, producing fakes, and telling only the side of the story that puts itself in a bad light and the other side in a negative one. There is little to no difference Western, Russian, and Ukrainian media in this regard).
Zelenskiy has in the past been quite capable of finding them himself. Early in his presidency, he traveled to the main base of the neofascists of Azov in order to convince them to cease their opposition to his efforts to come to a Donbass peace agreement with Moscow, leading to mutual recriminations and neofascist threats against the president (https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/im-not-a-loser-zelensky-clashes-with-veterans-over-donbas-disengagement.html and https://www.unian.info/war/10732674-i-m-not-some-loser-zelensky-to-volunteer-during-visit-to-disengagement-area.html). More recently, he managed to find one and award him the ‘Hero of Ukraine’ medal. The awardee is infamous for his membership in the notoriously radical Right Sector and its armed wing, the Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UDA), led by Dmitro Yarosh, who is also an advisor to the chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces. Said awardee acknowledged in a New York Times interview that he routinely violates the Donbass ceasefire agreement under Minsk 2 and that he has a dog who will “eat the bones of Russian children” (https://gordonhahn.com/2022/01/02/zelenskiys-theater-of-simulacra-update-2/). So Zelenskiy knows precisely who and where the neofascists are, and they know precisely where and who he is: not one of them.
The war experience is likely to make neofascist, ultranationalist, and nationalist forces in Ukraine even more extremist, and some moderates will likely be radicalized into extremists. This happens in any war, and Ukraine will be no different. This makes radical opposition to Zelenskiy in the event he negotiates with Putin all the more likely. How can they undermine any agreement or negotiations about to lead to one? There are numerous options: attacks on Russian troops during any temporary ceasefire or a permanent one arranged under any peace agreement as Russian troops withdraw, false flag terrorists attacks ala Maidan 20 February 2014, assassination of Zelenskiy or members of his closest team, assassination of members of Kiev’s negotiating team (this may have already occurred once https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/member-of-ukrainian-peace-negotiation-team-dead-report), and other methods. The threat of chaos after such an event or several is something that both the Russians and Ukrainians will have to prepare for ahead of time and will likely require joint efforts.
Another danger is that even if Zelenskiy can overcome opposition to an agreement with Moscow, he could have great difficulty in enforcing it. ‘Minsk 3’ could be no different from Minsk 2, with post-war angst and indiscipline in the ranks leading to strategic differences and power struggles. Consequently, some autonomization of elements in the armed forces, National Guard, and ‘territorial defense’ and violations of any general ceasefire could break out following the signing of some documents and the withdrawal of Russian troops behind a new ‘line of contact.’ Remember many of the neofascist-controlled volunteer battalions or ‘natsbaty’, including Azov, were incorporated into the army and National Guard with great difficulty.
Moreover, not all such battalions were so incorporated, including Yarosh’s and Praviy Sektor’s Ukrainian Volunteer army, and numerous smaller groups who volunteered with the Russian invasion. Thus, the the previous point about persistent ceasefire violations applies particularly to the neofascist-controlled volunteer battalions, who, as noted above, could also pose a threat to the Maidan regime’s unity, even survival. A caveat is that at least for some time the foreign invader is likely to have consolidated the Ukrainian polity to some extent. But whether this consolidation will last long enough and suffice to overcome ideologically driven strategic disagreements and the ubiquitous lust for power is difficult to weigh.
In short, in order to claim a victory and withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine needs Zelenskiy. This is why I regard as disinformation all the Western and Ukrainian claims of Russian assassination teams sent to hunt for the Ukrainian president’s head. Without and possibly even with Zelenskiy, the Maidan regime could be facing rocky times should the outcome of the war be impossible to portray as a victory to Ukraine’s influential neofascist, ultras, and nationalists. In this way, any denazification of the Ukrainian polity and regime — again not to be overstated but clearly significant — that can be achieved by Russian forces in terms of attriting remaining extremists such as Andrey Biletskiy and his Azov or Dmitro Yarosh, Praviy Sektor, and DUK can serve the stability of both the peace and Ukraine in the post-war period.
Another problem that provides an opening to these confounding potentialities is the long timeframe that may be required for Ukraine to fulfill its obligations, opening up another way in which any agreement could devolve into another Minsk 2. As Zelenskiy noted in a recent interview and at which Russia’s chief negotiator alluded in his comments on March 29 during peace talks in Turkey, Ukraine’s neutrality, military isolation, new security status will require changes to the constitution and perhaps a referendum. The latter especially would drag out the interim period between a signed agreement on Ukraine’s military status, on the one hand, and fulfillment of Kiev’s obligations and thus a Russian troop withdrawal, on the other. This will lead the window open for Ukrainian opposition forces, radical and otherwise, to stir up trouble for the Zelenskiy administration and the Russians. The latter will need to work in concert, thereby provoking charges of ‘zrada’ or treason from the neo-Nazis, ultras, and others.
This opens up another possibility: state failure combined with a Western-backed insurgency that prevents Russian forces from leaving and thus creating a regime-debilitating quagmire for Putin. Ukrainian regular and special forces and likely irregulars, including the neofascist-led ‘nats-battalions’ were receiving CIA training long before the war (https://news.yahoo.com/cia-trained-ukrainian-paramilitaries-may-take-central-role-if-russia-invades-185258008.html). Putin may have been set up — having been drawn into a trap by the February 18th escalation (Russia’s so-called ‘Ukraine’s planned invasion of Donbass’?), Zelenskiy’s not so vailed threat to attempt to acquire nuclear weapons (or a dirty bomb), the heavy Western sanctions, and mounting NATO involvement in and military supplies to Kiev. Here the Iraq scenario morphs into an Afghan scenario, and Putin is brought down by forces of chaos he unleashed and the West nurtured to be used against him.
In sum, there is a long and mine-filled road to how before the Russo-Ukrainian war is behind us. Indeed, there is a real possibility that we will be talking of first, second, and third Russo-Ukrainian wars, with all the risk to international security and stability in Ukraine and Russia that entails.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored four well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.