When autocrat Putin started his war of nihilation against Ukraine, we were shocked, but prepared. Sanctions were implemented within a few days.
Now we are facing a surprise, we are not prepared for. Possibly nobody thought on 24 February 2022 that Ukraine could prevail and perhaps even chase out all of the Russian troops from its territory, including Crimea and Donbas, in reaction to Putin’s aggression.
The incredible bravery and cleverness of the Ukrainian army and Ukrainian citizens, organising very efficiently in a decentralised way the resistance on many levels, creates a new opportunity: A full-fledged Ukrainian success can change the Russian Federation for the better, to the benefit of all of us. But to this end, we need to be prepared and determined.
Unfortunately, some Western politicians and experts became mental hostages of Putin, after more than two decades of Putin’s rule. They lost the imagination of what Russia without Putin could look like and what positive transformations are possible. Implicitly, many Western observers got caught in Putin’s ideology that the Russian society would not be ready and able to become an open and liberal society with a beneficial competition for the best ideas.
With this obsession with Putin, many oversee the importance of a full victory of Ukraine over Russian troops as the key element of a transformation of the Russian society. On the day Ukrainian troops chase the last Russian soldiers out of Ukraine (in its borders prior to the Russian occupation of Crimea), a reshuffling of power in Moscow will start. If we are well prepared, this moment will allow Russia to change its trajectory in a new, better, direction.
Unfortunately, too many are detracted by the threats of a nuclear war, should Ukraine chase the Russian troops out of their country. Obviously, President Putin will use the nuclear threat as long as he is in office. But with Putin’s performance at the parade in Moscow on 9th May 2022, this threat turned hollow. He appeared as a sick man, entirely detached from the realities of his citizens, and visibly lacking any inspiration and charisma to lead. He has no appeal anymore to anyone.
He is no longer the man for whom others were ready to literally burn their future by pressing the buttons to launch a nuclear war. In contrast, there is an increasing number of Russians who hope in private for a defeat of Russia in Ukraine as the only chance to get rid of the autocratic ruler. The day Ukraine regains full control of its territory, Putin and his entourage will be put accountable for this huge disaster by the economic, administrative and military elites. Putin will have to step down one or another way. This moment will be a window of opportunities within the Russian society to change the course of the country for the better. After the traumatic experience with the centralised power of Putin the elites will seek decentralisation of power.
This moment needs to be used to inspire the Russians for a better future for their country. Therefore, we should prepare on different levels. I want to leave the elaboration of a quick response programme to experts. However, in my view the following two points are important to emphasize.
Firstly, we should prepare a consensus that the tough sanctions now implemented will be lifted only in exchange for full freedom of speech and media in Russia. Freedom of expression is important to enable a constructive dialogue within the Russian society about the future development of the country.
Secondly, given the painful experiences with the highly centralised ruling of President Putin the Russian elites will have also a personal self-interest in the decentralisation of power to avoid the next Putin evolving. Unknown to most Western politicians and experts, Russian municipalities and cities have almost no self-governance rights. Their mayors and local councils have little to decide about. This absence of local self-governance is conducive to a centralised, authoritarian ruling of the country: The presidential administration can interfere in any minor local affair if they wish to, ensuring that even at the very local level everyone can feel that the Russian president controls everything and everyone.
In this context, Ukraine can offer the Russian Federation the experience of its very successful decentralization process. In the course of this recent reform, real local self-governance at the level of municipalities was established in a voluntary process. The new municipalities get a substantial share of the Personal Income Tax to finance local public services. Fiscally less dependent on central governments, these new municipalities became strongholds of local democracy where the former Homo Sovieticus transformed quickly into a real citizen with a sense of agency replacing the feudalistic dependency on an almighty czar.
Such a reform implemented in Russia would transform Putin’s aggressive empire into a down-to-earth, people-oriented state. Mayors and local councils, endowed with constitutional rights and fiscal privileges, and accountable to their local voters, will be able to resist attempts of the Kremlin to re-centralise power. Russia would become more similar to the Scandinavian states, Ukraine or Switzerland. Not by incidence all these states with strong municipalities and cities are the opposite of imperialistic states, with happy citizens which want their taxes invested into excellent schools and hospitals, and not into atrocities against people in other countries.
Some observers, still caught in the Putin narrative of the eternally submissive Russian people, will argue that those Russians will not embrace any local self-government. The same argument was raised in Ukraine when the decentralisation reform started in 2015. These worries proved wrong. The first new local self-government was registered in the part of Ukraine that was longest under the rule of the Soviet Union, settlements close to Russia, in Luhansk Oblast. Taking decisions into their own hands and deciding local affairs with peers, taking eye to eye, is something appealing to all human beings. The Russians won’t be an exception. They will happily embrace a “Ukrainisation” of Russia, alias the creation of real local self-governance.
The more, an “Ukrainisation” of Russian cities and municipalities, will lead to immediate improvements of life of common Russian citizens. Taxes paid into the budgets of the municipalities will be efficiently invested into local schools and hospitals. Such a Russia that will be more oriented to the needs of its citizens will also become a constructive partner on the big issue we all are facing – global warming. The global food crisis, Putin is currently triggering, leaves us unfortunately with no doubt that he would also use the consequences of global warming to blackmail democratic countries. A Russia of powerful municipalities will be a very constructive partner in coping with global warming, as this affects also the well-being of their citizens.
To recall, a full-fledged victory of Ukraine will provide all of us, including the many Russians in and outside the country who dream of a modern Russia a unique chance to break down this vicious circle of neo-colonialist imperialism and get all Russians a better life. If we miss this chance, Russia will degrade into a Chinese province, and conflict, war and other Russian aggressions will haunt Europe for the decades to come. In this context, it is entirely irrational to fear the victory of Ukrainian troops over Russia. Ukraine’s victory, combined with us preparing for it, will provide the chance to Russians to turn their country into a much better place to live. We owe not only to the Ukrainians but also to the Russians all support, military and economic to ensure that Ukraine chases all Russian troops out of the country.