/ 21 December 2022

Prelude to an apocalyptic, dystopian scenario: Russia’s war on Ukraine

Ukraine Russia Conflict War
A Ukrainian soldier of an artillery unit fires towards Russian positions outside Bakhmut on November 8, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)

A brilliant two-part article by Irina Filatova, posted on the internet on 31 May and 1 June 2022, about Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine (launched on 24 February 2022) described this uncalled-for interventionist war as a “watershed moment” — not just for Ukraine and Russia, but for the whole world. It forms the backdrop to the commentary that follows, which paints an extremely uncertain, dystopian global scenario that may unfold in the not-too-distant future.

To paraphrase Filatova’s last paragraph as an introduction: 

If Russia eventually incorporates occupied Ukrainian territories, it will get totally ruined cities, devastated rural areas and millions of very angry people. It will also have to contend with long-lasting, low-intensity guerrilla warfare and internal subversive elements. All this was totally unnecessary. But Vladimir Putin and his sycophants must feel that Russia’s global power and importance have been reconfirmed and that this overrules all other considerations. They also believe that whatever the current challenges, Russia will survive because it’s on “the right side of history”, supported by most of the world’s population — the same “dream” that was cherished by their Soviet predecessors.

Although many different scenarios could arise from the events elaborated upon in Filatova’s article, it would be prudent to concentrate on only one possible outcome — although, admittedly, it’s quite apocalyptic. Particularly in view of the Kremlin’s ostensible endorsement of Eurasianism (propagated by Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s second-in command and carrying the new Tsar’s blessing), some ideas expounded upon in George Orwell’s futuristic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) offer extremely useful insights, but also foreshadow the possibility of a quite alarming, dystopian global future.

What would an Orwellian future be like?

The brutally aggressive approach of Russia in Ukraine meshes with Marxist-Leninist ideology — break down everything to its foundations (even rip up the foundations) and then rebuild it in your own image. But then also the disturbing references to “liquidating” (in Orwellian parlance, “vaporising”, meaning “eliminating” or “killing”), “filtrating” (separating those who are willing to be subjugated and absorbed into Russian society from those who are not, the latter facing an extremely uncertain future), and “forced labour”, a throwback to the gulags and prison camps of the Soviet Union. 

Today, Russia and China are in opportunistic collusion, both wishing to dominate separate global spheres: again, in Orwellian parlance, Russia dominates Eurasia (from Vladivostok to Lisbon, even to Dublin in Medvedev and Alexander Dugin’s “Imperialist-Eurasian minds”), while China controls East Asia — some Central Asian territories, portioned out between Beijing and Moscow. 

In addition, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is a clear template for China’s takeover of Taiwan, its aggressive military posture already blatantly showcased in early August 2022. (To this end, Putin announced in mid-August plans to establish a Nato equivalent for the Asia-Pacific region.) Africa north of the Equator, most of the Middle East and India would be so-called “disputed territories”. Oceania, which is “the West”, would encompass North, Central, South America and the Caribbean, as well as the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand), while southern Africa (which Orwell includes in Oceania), would ideologically gravitate towards Eurasia. 

Western liberal democracies would, in such a scenario, be transmuted, subverted or diluted towards more authoritarian systems (what Fareed Zakaria refers to as “the rise of illiberal democracy”). And these “political and civilisational spheres of influence” would obviously clash with each other, leading to friction and conflict — just as Samuel Huntington predicted in his The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996).

With many of Russia’s youth and intelligentsia fleeing or emigrating to “the West”, what would eventually remain in Russia (the embryo of Eurasia) would be the unthinking, submissive “proles” (again Orwell), serving as cannon fodder for Putin’s expansionist exploits. 

He and his KGB cohorts, now having morphed into the FSB (Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti), command and control an internal security force estimated to be several hundreds of thousands strong. In fact, Putin headed up the FSB before his rapid rise to the Russian presidency. 

So, absolute control is assured and would be enforced, come what may. And the timeline of Russian aggression in Ukraine and further afield, not only in its “near-abroad”, would not be two years — rather until at least 2030, and even decades beyond. Tsar Putin and his collaborator, Emperor Xi Jinping, are bent on creating their envisaged “new world order” in which the authoritarians and totalitarians would hold absolute sway. 

In his state of self-delusion, Putin conveniently forgets that the East Germans, with whom he colluded since his Dresden days as an KGB operative (spy handler and planting sleeper agents in the West), conveniently morphed from being right-wing Nazis into left-wing Communist totalitarians. 

He merely employs his propaganda rhetoric of “de-Nazification” as a smokescreen for the “Russification” of Ukraine, returning it to the vasal status that it was subjected to under the Soviet Union, if not full incorporation into his refashioned Russian empire. 

He regards as his intellectual point of reference Eurasianists such as Ivan Ilyin and Dugin, who believe that Russia’s Eurasian space is surrounded by enemies waiting for any sign of weakness to tear it apart, the first act of such dismemberment being the separation of Ukraine from Russia. 

This cannot be allowed under any circumstances as “Russians and Ukrainians are one nation”. To quote Ilyin: “The desire of part of the nation to separate from the whole is akin to the wish of a human cell to separate from the body.”  

Besides complacency in the West about Putin and Russia’s real intentions in the current conflagration, there is a staggering and paralysing naiveté about the implications of these developments for Western society, democracy and, indeed, civilisation. 

The cumbersome decision-making processes of Nato and the EU is frustrating, and then Nato must also deal with obstructionists such as Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey (Erdoğan, being Putin’s new-found “friend”, maybe even serving as the proverbial “Trojan horse” to undermine the Western alliance). 

In an interesting podcast on Global Citizen Interviews, Mel Gurtov (emeritus professor of political science at Portland State University) and Paul Marantz (emeritus professor of political science at the University of British Columbia) came across as much too soft on Putin. Since his days in Dresden, working with the East German Stasi during the 1980s, this man has evolved into something akin to the personification of pure evil — and his visions of personal grandeur might well drive large parts of Europe into a long-lasting, low-intensity military confrontation.

Warning signs going unheeded

Catherine Belton’s excellent book, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West (2020), forensically details how Putin and his cronies (his inner circle, known as the siloviki — oligarchs such as Gennady Timchenko, Igor Sechin, Arkady Rotenberg, Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and others) channelled billions of dollars through money-laundering into bank accounts in the West (even to the British financial hub, London, acquiring the infamous distinction of being labelled the “London Laundromat”). 

This was accomplished with the tacit assistance of shady Western financial and banking institutions (so-called “custodians” such as Dresdner Bank, Deutsche Bank, Danske Bank, the Bank of New York, and banks in Vienna, Geneva and Lugano) to fund the Kremlin’s operations to buy influence (in both right-wing and left-wing Western political circles), with the aim of disrupting and undermining Western societies wherever and whenever it could. 

Since his days as deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Putin also worked closely with organised criminal groups such as Tambov and Solntsevskaya to further his aim of gaining absolute control over Russian society (suppressing all dissent, even by having opponents assassinated), its media (now used exclusively for propaganda purposes) and its oligarch-controlled economy (“custodians” of an “obshchak”, a common slush fund to be used at his behest). 

To illustrate a point, just a few assassinations or attempts since Putin’s rise to the Russian presidency in 2000 need to be elaborated upon (in all these events, quite ominously, FSB officers were involved or, at least, implicated). On 17 February 2000, on a visit to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, Anatoly Sobschak (at the time, the dynamic and charismatic mayor of St Petersburg and Putin’s former boss, aspiring to become a political figure of note in Moscow) suffered a fatal heart attack. At the same time, his two closest aides also had heart attacks; everything pointing to them being poisoned. Years later it was revealed that an independent autopsy ascribed Sobschak’s death to asphyxiation; go figure.

Berezovsky, one of Putin’s siloviki oligarchs, stripped of all his assets and disowned by the newly installed president when he wouldn’t go along with his schemes, fled Russia in 2000, fearing for his life. In 2013 he died, allegedly by hanging himself, suggesting suicide, but clearly it was another inexplicable death. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist and a thorn in Putin’s flesh, was shot and killed when she was about to enter her apartment in Moscow. 

Alexander Litvinenko, who defected to the West, was poisoned with deadly polonium-210 and died in a London hospital in 2006. Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition political figure, was shot and killed on 27 February 2015 as he walked in a Moscow street. Sergey Skripal, another defector, was poisoned in the UK with the nerve agent novichok, but survived and continues to live in exile in Salisbury, England. 

Alexei Navalny, currently the most prominent opposition political figure in Russia, was poisoned with novichok when on an internal flight from campaigning in Siberia, and only survived after being treated in a German hospital. Upon his return to Moscow, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison on trumped-up charges, these usually taking the form of being guilty of tax evasion or having committed fraud. 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another siloviki who dared to resist Putin, was sentenced on similar trumped-up charges to 10 years in a Siberian prison camp, released in 2013 and now lives in exile in London. 

All opposition simply had to be crushed, and it has been, as described in Marc Bennett’s I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition (2016). The latest victim was Ravil Maganov, chairman of Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil company, who allegedly fell to his death from the sixth-floor window of a Moscow hospital on 1 September 2022. Maganov had prevailed on Putin as early as March 2022 to stop the invasion of Ukraine, clearly crossing swords with the Kremlin — something that could not be tolerated.       

Putin is the perfect characterisation of the dictum, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. To quote Christian Michel, one of Putin’s early advisers, who later atoned: “The dark forces never give up. The French Revolution, the Soviet one, all the others, appear first as a liberating struggle. But they soon morph into military dictatorship. The early heroes look like idiots, the thugs show their true faces, and the cycle (which isn’t what revolution means) is complete.”   

Vladimir Lenin’s maxim, “You probe with bayonets; if you find mush (meaning fleshy or soft tissue), you push; if you find steel, you withdraw”, finds classic expression in Putin’s approach towards the West. Even before his 2005 Annual Address to the Nation, in which he lamented the break-up of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, there were several such “probes”. 

Already in early February 2000, the first such probe was his brutal suppression of dissent in the “breakaway republic” of Chechnya; his military forces levelled Grozny to the ground, providing an initial hint of his “scorched-earth” approach. Then in 2005 he supported pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, thus beginning his long-haul Ukraine operation almost imperceptibly. 

To quote journalist Catherine Belton: “Of all the former Soviet republics, Moscow [meaning Putin] had always felt the loss of Ukraine following the Soviet collapse most keenly, as if it were a phantom limb of an empire that Russia [meaning Putin] believed was still attached.” 

The last thing Putin needed was for Ukraine to turn to the West. At stake was his plan for the first step in the resurrection of the Russian empire, a so-called “common economic space” between Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. This was why he rushed to the aid of Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020 and Kazakhstan’s Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in January 2022 when they faced massive internal resistance, threatening the continuation of their rule — in the latter case, he even sent in military forces to bolster the Kazakh regime. 

In the 2008 war with Georgia there was effective occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, under the pretext that these regions were primarily Russian-speaking — the same pretext employed in Luhansk and Donetsk in late-February 2022, when Ukraine was invaded in the so-called “special military operation”. 

It’s a brutal, scorched-earth war of attrition, and Putin is still waging it more than nine months later. The West was caught napping: the deployment of 150 000 troops on Russia’s borders with Ukraine and Belarus and the removal by bus of 700 000 so-called Russian-speakers from the east of Ukraine should have been clear and obvious warning signals that an invasion of the country was imminent. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 was another, even more unambiguous probe. 

In all these cases, the West (the EU and Nato countries) did nothing, besides imposing “limited sanctions” on the Kremlin — in Putin’s view this indicated soft tissue, ready to be probed by the bayonet. No wonder Putin started thinking that Russia’s “near-abroad” was up for the taking, and he launched his ill-advised war on Ukraine. 

Now he is patiently waiting for the Western alliance to fracture (Hungary being the first outlier), to start suffering from sanctions fatigue (holding Europe to ransom, especially Germany and Italy, by weaponising energy flows), which aggravate political and economic problems at home.

Putin wants to create chaos and disruption by manipulating the flow of gas in the Nord Stream pipelines, and by blocking grain and maize exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea harbours, which may create food shortages and even famine in many countries. 

A recent UN-Turkey-brokered agreement between Russia and Ukraine will allow some exports of grain from the harbours of Odessa and Chormomorsk through the Black Sea, the Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara, on to the Mediterranean Sea and international markets.

In the current situation, the only option for the West is to institute and enforce total sanctions on Russia, as well as freezing Putin and the Kremlin out of all interactions with Western countries, to totally isolate him from the international stage.

Is history repeating itself?

To paraphrase Gurtov and Marantz, Putin sees himself as “a great leader and empire builder”, his legacy being a worthy successor to Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Empress Catherine the Great (1729-96). He has visions of empire, taking back and reinforcing Russia’s entitlement to great power status. 

Analysts point out that since becoming president of Russia in 2000, Putin became an ardent student of Russian history. It is, therefore, quite instructive to juxtapose his rule against that of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, rather than comparing it to that of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, from which one could postulate a Putinist template. 

This requires some elaboration. Ivan the Terrible (1530-84) was Grand Duke of Moscow (Muscovy) and in 1547 was the first proclaimed tsar of Russia. The title tsar (czar) was derived from the Latin title Caesar, translating into emperor. In his reign he created an empire that included non-Slavic territories, and he engaged in prolonged, costly and disastrous wars, overextending the state’s resources, which brought Muscovy to the verge of economic collapse. 

Ivan embarked on a programme of reforms, the main object of which was to create, and promote the interests of, a class of gentry (an oligarchy) who occupied their landed estates solely as compensation for service to the state, and who would owe everything (in its totality) to the sovereign. 

He established territories that would be administered separately from the rest of the state and put under his direct control (his private domain, a state within a state), their revenues assigned to the maintenance of his court and household, which consisted of only carefully selected sycophantic minions and bureaucrats. 

He attempted to create a highly centralised state and destroy the economic strength and political power of the then existing elite, in the process replacing trained statesmen and administrators with hirelings and cronies. 

Eventually the struggle and the reign of terror that Ivan initiated through his several thousand-strong personal bodyguards, the oprichniki, proved far more dangerous to the stability of the state than the perceived dangers that it was designed to suppress. When he died in 1584, the state that he wanted to reclaim from its makers was in ruins. 

The entire episode of the oprichniki, who trampled with impunity on everyone beyond Ivan’s immediate circle, left a bloody imprint on the tsar’s reign, causing doubts about his mental stability and leaving the impression of a morbidly suspicious and vindictive ruler.

Fast forward from the 1500s to the 2000s: Ivan’s oprichnina (territories controlled and taxed on the tsar’s behalf) and oprichniki (military forces suppressing dissent through terror) became Putin’s siloviki (oligarchs controlling billions of dollars on the new tsar’s behalf) and a repressive security apparatus propping up his regime, consisting of the FSB and the massively resourced Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del (MVD). Also, Ivan was a devoted supporter of the Orthodox Church, and Putin had no qualms about converting from atheism to Russian Orthodoxy to bolster his image. This historical evolution now sees church, military, state and leader as a single entity.

To return to Tsar Putin himself. He is showing clear signs of delusion by enhancing falsehoods and conspiracy theories, becoming more and more tenacious, zealous and resolute in his actions. What makes him so dangerous is the brittleness of his sense of worth. 

Any slight or criticism is experienced as a humiliation and degradation. To cope with the resultant hollow and empty feeling, he will react with narcissist rage. He’s unable to take responsibility for any error, mistake or failing, and his default reaction is to blame others and attack the perceived source of his humiliation. 

Putin’s mantra is that he may formulate his own definition of what democracy really means, and that autocracy can be described as the “will of the Russian people”. So compromised by years of abuse of power, he and his security/bureaucratic apparatus must cling to power at any cost, even if it means bringing down Russia with them. 

The personality cult built around him and his whole personality make-up (of which vanity, or a grandiose sense of self, is but one characteristic) argues against any compromise. 

The man is the epitome of arrogance: observe the body language, the smug facial expression, the strutting approach to the podium, right arm swinging, left arm hanging flaccidly at his side. It is also not within Putin’s psyche to relinquish power: he suffers from what is known as a “bureaucratic-compulsive syndrome”.

He has become more and more dogmatic (self-righteous and impervious to correction), inflexible (thick-skinned and vengeful), and paranoid (increasingly suspicious). Leaders with this syndrome are also noted for their officious, high-handed bearing; intrusive, meddlesome interpersonal conduct; unimaginative, closed-minded cognitive style; and grim, imperturbable mood. 

Putin is the master of deception and duplicity. Indeed, he “has not a single redeeming defect” — as Benjamin Disraeli so aptly said of William Gladstone many years ago. Leaders with perspicacity see through Putin, but many others are taken in by his controlling demeanour. 

Is there an endgame?

Tsar Putin will push as far as he can to recreate the old Soviet empire, under the pretext that Russia’s security interests should be paramount. The immediate goal of his Ukrainian war was to solidify his control over the Donbas (Luhansk and Donetsk) before taking on the rest of the country. That is why he belatedly appointed General Aleksander Dvornikov, dubbed as the “butcher of Aleppo and Grozny”, as supreme commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. 

Putin sees the war as a battle with the West: first destroy the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and then undermine, subvert and splinter EU and Nato unity, creating a new European security architecture favouring Russia. 

He is a risk taker: his approach might well include re-establishing a sphere of influence, domination, even subjugation, of the “near-abroad” — bringing former Communist-ruled Eastern European countries back under Russian tutelage. Inevitably, that would bring Russia into conflict with the EU and Nato — Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has declared that there would be dire consequences for the Kremlin and Putin if only one inch of Nato territory is violated. It remains to be seen whether the Western alliance, over the months and years ahead, will have the testicular fortitude to oppose and push back far enough against such clear aggression, should that come to pass.

As the war rages on, a durable solution or settlement to the Ukrainian crisis seems more and more out of reach. The Ukrainians will not accept any possible future solidified ceasefire line, excising large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine from the main rump of the country — barring the whole country eventually falling into Russian hands. 

As the fruits of his Ukrainian adventure, Putin must be able to declare victory. In the back of his mind must be the fate suffered by Nikita Khrushchev, who was deposed barely a year after US president John F Kennedy forced him to withdraw Russian missiles from Cuba in 1963. 

In the present scenario there is no politburo to oust Putin, barring an extremely unlikely “palace revolution”. And not since the days of Josef Stalin has a Russian leader been shielded from any ill-intent by so many sycophantic underlings and security agencies. 

However, should the tide of the war on Ukraine turn against him, replicating the humiliating Russian exit from Afghanistan in 1989, his fortunes might slowly start to change, despite his cunning manoeuvring to secure his position in the presidency to at least 2036. 

Putin won’t be interested in a face-saving exit from Ukraine, but will rather continue to pile more pressure on the West. Any Russian withdrawal (highly unlikely at this stage) would, most probably, exclude territories now occupied, especially Donbas, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 

Because of the advantage of territorial proximity, low-intensity warfare would, therefore, continue in these Russian-occupied territories, resulting in a stalemate extending over many years, even decades. 

Should the whole of southern Ukraine bordering the Black Sea come under Russian control, it would not be inconceivable that Putin’s next target will be Moldova, using the Russian-speaking area of Transnistria as a pretext for invasion, then perhaps on to the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). 

Russian forces do not desist from using the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia, in the south of Ukraine as a shield to launch massive missile attacks on targets in the area — much like terrorists use civilians as human shields to ward off any military action against them — putting the whole of Western Europe at risk of causing a Chernobyl-style nuclear disaster. 

And, at one stage Putin, fretting about Western military assistance for Ukraine stalling the advance of his invasion forces, even issued a thinly veiled threat of using tactical nuclear weapons in his bogged down military campaign. 

In today’s Russia, Putin is not constrained by a political party (his United Russia party is in full control of the Duma, a purely rubber-stamp institution) or structures like a Central Committee or a Politburo as in the times of the old Soviet Union. 

One must agree with Yale historian Timothy Schneider that Russia is now a highly authoritarian, dictatorial, fascist regime, where all power is centralised in the Kremlin, built on a personality cult, with de facto one-person rule, absolute media control (used exclusively for propaganda purposes), paranoid and given to conspiracy theories, as well as having grandiose aspirations and ambitions of re-creating an imperial past.

The liberal and social democracies of the West are under threat, confronted by assertive totalitarian or authoritarian forces — Tsar Putin’s Russia, Emperor Xi’s China, and their cohorts, including South Africa. The governing ANC in South Africa should heed the warning of writer and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim; silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” So, will the West be able to withstand this onslaught? Only time will tell.

Finally, the question must be posed whether Russia’s war on Ukraine is part of a developing dystopian international scenario, in which most (if not all) liberal-democratic, socioeconomic and political systems in “the West” are replaced by, or infiltrated, subverted amd perverted into, varying forms of relatively benign authoritarian or totalitarian systems?

This is a scenario in which Eurasia has transmuted into, soaked up and perfected all the totalitarian tendencies and proclivities described in Orwell’s depiction of Oceania, dominated by an aggressive, expansionist, “Imperialist-Tsarist-Putinist” Russia pitted against the West, something foreseen in the warning in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, locked in a perpetual civilisational, antagonistic, existential military stand-off. Will the global community of the 21st century witness such an apocalyptic, doomsday scenario in the not-too-distant future? 

Dr Denis Venter is a former chief researcher in politics and international relations and former executive director of the Africa Institute of South Africa in Pretoria. He was Nelson Mandela chair professor of the African Studies Centre at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.