Bringing Russia to Its Knees

William Courtney and Philip Wasielewski | 04 May 2024
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Russia's President Vladimir Putin rants that the West seeks to “dismember and plunder” his country. He is not the first Kremlin leader to allege imagined perfidy. In World War II, Stalin suspected the Allies of delaying a second front so the Nazis could finish off the USSR. Early in the Reagan era, a deluded Kremlin feared the United States might launch a nuclear first strike.

Today, Putin's paranoia and evil intent is so great that last month he ridiculed U.S. warnings of an imminent terrorist attack. Days later ISIS-K killed over 100 people at a concert in Moscow. As recently as 2019, Russia relied on U.S. intelligence to disrupt an Islamist terrorist attack planned for St. Petersburg. Putin thanked the United States. Since then, perhaps facing greater pressures, Putin seems to have become more defensive.

By accusing the West of plotting against Russia, the Kremlin likely hopes to distract Russian citizens from its own flawed actions. But the true damage to Russia has been self-inflicted.

What might be key elements of an imagined Western attempt to bring Russia to its knees?

Trick Russia into Invading Its Largest Neighbor

Western influencers might deceive the Kremlin into thinking that Ukraine was run by Nazis, that Russian forces would win a quick victory, that Ukrainian turncoats could help them seize power, and that a decadent West would abandon a divided and corrupt Ukraine.

Stir Internal Unrest

Sly influencers might persuade right-wing circles and pro-war bloggers to scorn the incompetence of Russian generals and provoke Russian military leaders into launching premature, ill-prepared offensives. Messaging media, such as Telegram channels, might be manipulated to heighten discontent of soldiers' mothers and anti-war activists. This could induce them to call for sons to be sent home, and to condemn Russia's “human wave” attacks and the shooting of those who refuse to fight.

By accusing the West of plotting against Russia, the Kremlin hopes to distract Russians from its own flawed actions. But the true damage to Russia has been self-inflicted.

Weaken Russia's Economy

Cunning Western influencers might seek ruin for Russia's economy. They could encourage the Kremlin to sideline liberal economists whose globalist policies spark economic growth but have left Russia vulnerable to punishing Western sanctions. The influencers might persuade Putin to elevate those who favor state control over the economy, by nationalizing prosperous private firms and turning them over to the Kremlin, which may help bankroll Putin's toadies. Lucrative state contracts, such as for construction of the Kerch Strait bridge, would reward them. These statists may urge the Kremlin to adopt populist self-sufficiency policies, even though they deny Russia the benefits of international trade and investment. As a bonus for the work of the Western influencers, a weakened economy isolated from rich Europe would make Russia even more of a Chinese vassal.

Loosen Putin's Grip on Power

Exploiting wartime corrosion of Putin's grip on power and the shock of the Prigozhin rebellion, quiet influencers might urge Kremlin leaders to heighten repression and create martyrs. This could spur public unrest and undermine Putin's authority, or even lead to regime change. Color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine might point the way.

Worsen Russia's Demography

The war on Ukraine has accentuated the decline in Russia's demographic pool, by a million or so young males. Life expectancy of Russian men has fallen to 64 years, akin to that in Eritrea and Rwanda. Western influencers might beseech the Kremlin to increase harassment of war opponents and Central Asian migrant workers and impose new controls to impede talented Russians from joining the wave of emigrants.

All the effects described above are already happening, but not because of some fictitious Western offensive. If the Kremlin wants to finger the party responsible for these harmful steps, it need only look in a mirror.

The West professes not to seek regime change in Russia. It may not have to. The West might best further this goal by doing more of what it already does—help Ukraine expel Russian aggressors, strengthen Western alliances, foster global prosperity, and promote respect in Russia for human rights and political liberties.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at RAND and a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. 

Phillip Wasielewski is a senior fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He previously served as a paramilitary case officer with a 31-year career in the CIA's Directorate of Operations.

This article was originally published on Rand. 
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.