Kamil on Nukes and Civil War in Russia
"Foreign policymakers are unwilling to have serious discussions with anyone except for basically the most liberal opposition, who just want to keep the empire intact."
Kamil Galeev is an open-source researcher, Twitter luminary, and my former grad-school classmate in Beijing. He recently joined me on ChinaTalk to discuss the current situation in the war in Ukraine and what it means for:
Prospects of nuclear war;
Elite Russian politics and Putin's future viability;
Moscow's grip on the regions.
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Putin’s Nuclear Considerations
Jordan Schneider: The prospect of nuclear escalation: what are your general thoughts? Does this idea of losing to the US versus losing to Ukraine apply at all as you think about how Putin is considering nuclear weapons?
Kamil Galeev: I think this could be rational from Putin's perspective. That doesn't mean he will necessarily make a nuclear strike, but that makes it possible in order to trigger a direct American reaction. It could be rational domestic policy-wise because you would transform the unmanageable risk of losing to Ukraine to the manageable risk of losing to the US.
Another factor to consider when we are discussing Russia’s great-power status [is that] we are always referring to its nuclear power, especially when now we’ve seen Russian conventional army is not as great as we thought before. But I think that too many journalists, analysts, [and] even politicians see it as unproblematic. They regard Russia’s nuclear status as some imminent-feature reality: grass is green, sky is blue, Russia is a nuclear power.
But the thing is, in the 1990s the Soviet machine tool industry died. Not only did production die, entire associated technological chains — numerical control production, metal-cutting instruments production, bearings production, spindles production, cross production — died. What didn't die in the 1990s died in the 2000s.
Why? Because by the end of the 1990s, those few Russian producers who could afford to buy new industrial equipment switched to imports. By the late 1990s, even before Putin came to power, Russian factories started outsourcing their production of industrial equipment. Theoretically, Putin could have done something with it when he came to power, but he pumped lots of oil revenue into the military buildup. There was no program of reviving machine tools building production. As a result, military plants spent all this money they got from Putin on buying equipment from developed countries, not from China.
The first attempts to change the situation came in the 2010s largely as a result of the Georgian War, when the Russian government first got concerned about too strong an interdependency, but the effect was very moderate. You could not rebuild and revise the entire technological chain. Even if Russia has some domestic productions now, it is mostly screwdriver assembly. The interdependency on industrial equipment is basically 100%. The continuation of Russia’s nuclear status depends on the goodwill of the West. The nuclear arsenal, nuclear delivery systems arsenal, and land arm arsenal cannot be even maintained, let alone expanded, without the continuous import of hardware and software from developed countries.
Putin cannot nuke you until you supply him with all the necessary equipment and software to maintain his nuclear arsenal.
Russian Imperialism and the War
Jordan Schneider: Kamil, you’ve got five minutes with Biden. What do you tell him?
Kamil Galeev: I would tell him that the problem with the current US strategy is not so much some technical decisions regarding involvement in this war as much as the lack of a broader vision.
Imagine a military defeat is inflicted upon Russia, which is absolutely possible by this point. What next? Much of the establishment just does not see an alternative to the current regime. The majority still presumes that Putin and his clique will hold power in Moscow. Others wish for some group of so-called liberal politicians taking power and basically regrouping the Russian system again.
I think that the solution to the current situation is not de-escalation or regime change, as many propose. It should be decolonization of Russia.
Russia is not so much a nation-state as it is basically the last European colonial empire that wasn't decolonized. Imagine if the Portuguese Empire just stayed intact and Brazil was still ruled from Lisbon. That's very close to how the Russian Empire is governed in reality. I think if the decolonization and dismantlement of the Russian Empire could be pulled into the focus now, it would be a very good thing. In order to do this, it would be necessary to talk with regional actors, interest groups, and activists. I find it very problematic — and you see it a lot of times — that foreign policymakers are unwilling to have serious discussions with anyone except for basically the most liberal opposition, who just want to keep the empire intact. It would be advantageous if they could at least listen to other perspectives that I'm afraid they're currently ignoring.
I’m a Tatar. I don't consider myself Russian. I find it very problematic that my people, and other peoples, served as taxpayers and cannon fodder for Russian imperial wars for centuries.
Civil War Risks and Elite Interests
Jordan Schneider: Kamil, who else do you want to talk to? Navalny? Igor Sechin?
Kamil Galeev: If I were to make a message to the Russian ruling class, I would say the following.
Russia is heading to a major crisis; at this point, it's obvious. A crisis is always dangerous, but it always opens some opportunities. In a sense, you could compare it with the biblical Jubilee: a debt being annulled is bad if you are a creditor, but it's very good if you are a debtor. If you are an actor who borrowed power from the current regime, then this could present you an opportunity to annul this debt and break free.
Consider Nazarbayev. He used to be a Party official governing Kazakhstan on behalf of the Communist Party. He borrowed his debts from Moscow. But when Moscow went into a major political crisis, he annulled his debt and broke free.
Another thing is that for the elites today, associating with the current regime is not a pragmatic decision for you. Most probably, it's counterproductive for you because you’re investing your reputation, name, and resources into a quickly depreciating asset. It just makes no sense to strive very hard to advance yourself within the ranks of current Russian power hierarchies, because the value of this asset is most probably going to depreciate very soon and without prior notice.
Instead, the best thing you could do is to prepare for the chaos, which will most probably happen within a year, and prepare your personal strategy for when it happens: for yourself and your family, and maybe for your seat and region. Many people are doing this right now. If you don't think about potential chaos and what you are going to do, in this case I think it's just dumb.
Jordan Schneider: How should people think about Russian elites, their relationship to Putin, and the broader decision- and policy-making apparatus within the Russian Federation?
Kamil Galeev: That's a really good question. I would say one problem we may have with the media narrative, and even academic analysis at times, is over-concentration on Putin. Indeed, Russia is a country with a huge concentration of power, but this approach of identifying Russia with Putin and equating it, or even the elite, with Putin misses a key element.
Elites exist as humans who are self-aware, self-conscious, and self-servant. They tend to pursue their own interests [and] maximize their own utility — not the one of the system or of Putin.
Very many Russian patriots are absolutely pro-war. They’re [also] complaining about where Russia spends money. Of course, Russia invested a lot of money in this war, but [there are] many objectively corrupt and extremely wasteful projects. Beautification of Moscow (including changing the pavements on the road every year, sometimes twice a year), very expensive infrastructure projects in Moscow, expensive flowers on Moscow streets, buying drones for illumination and not for war, buying robotic dog drones mostly for prestige reasons…
If Russia is pursuing a major war, maybe resources should be invested there. Indeed, if we stay on Putin’s level of rationality, this makes no sense. This makes total sense, however, if we go down. If you are some mid-level executive or official and you suspect that your country is probably going down or that your system is at huge risk, you have two options. One is to stop stealing: to try to invest everything into the survival of the system. Another option is to steal as much as you can, as long as you still can. Obviously, much of the ruling class is choosing the second option.
Jordan Schneider: How does this inhibit, constrain, or shape the decision-making landscape going forward? What does this mean for the war and the future of Russia?
Kamil Galeev: I would say the broad officialdom chose very different strategies when it came to this war. One interesting thing about Putin is that he's usually trying to avoid taking unpopular decisions, but he's delegating these to his subordinates.
A good example is quarantine. Lockdown was very, very unpopular in Russia. That's why Putin didn't declare it, but delegated it to governors: “Declare it if you deem it necessary.” Putin doesn't want to take unpopular decisions. Same goes with mobilization. He kind of declared mobilization in general, but delegated specific tasks to regional powers and governors.
Different regional actors took very different strategies regarding the conflict. Some [have been] mobilizing unironically since months ago: they recruited people, formed volunteer battalions, and sent them to Ukraine. Ramzan Kadyrov is the best-known example.
But there were a bunch of other governors who basically faked this war. The common denominator: they tend to be under 50. [They’re] younger guys who still have hope for careers. They would oblige to these decisions and wouldn't argue, but they wouldn't really do anything for all sorts of reasons.
[There are] people who I suspect of trying to sabotage the war in general.
The head of this party would be Sergey Sobyanin, the head of Moscow. This guy tried to launch a new lockdown. You see it very clearly when you look at Covid statistics in Russia: there were a bunch of governors in whose regions, and not in the neighboring ones, cases increased, and lockdown measures increased. I think that at least a bunch of factions within Russian elites wanted to sabotage the war by imposing a new lockdown. They failed.
The fourth group, which you also see very clearly, is people who are preparing for a civil war. It's pretty obvious in Russia that a group of decision makers within the ruling class do not invest available resources into military victory in Ukraine. Instead, they’re preparing for a situation when Russia gets into chaos.
The most characteristic picture of Putin’s regime basically until this year was extreme concentration of civility power in Moscow. In the pre-Putin era, it was different. For example, in the Soviet Union police and investigators were answerable to regional communist leaders, not directly to Moscow. If I were the Party Secretary of Omsk, I would [also] be governor of Omsk Police and all these internal security forces would be answerable directly to me. I could even influence the KGB. Civilian and military powers were not very clearly divided, and that largely continues into the 1990s.
It absolutely stopped when Putin came to power. One big reason for Putin’s centralization was to strip regional actors of any power over people with guns. Civilian power was not only strictly separated from military power, but also from law enforcement. At the time Putin came to power, police and security forces were often answerable to governors formally or informally. Putin stopped this: if you are governor, you have no power at all over police, FSB, investigators, National Guard, etc. This year, he stripped the last governors of Russia (except for Kadyrov, of course) of their own bodyguards, and imposed National Guards instead.
This year was a complete U-turn. Why? Partially because Putin is very dependent on public opinion. It led, in practice, to delegation of the marches of mobilization and recruitment (of military and paramilitary) to all sorts of regional and non-state actors.
If, in the beginning of this year, almost all armed people in Russia were included in formalized bureaucratic structures directly answerable to Moscow, now it's not really the case.
Now you have a number of what is called “private military companies” — which may or may not be private — who on paper do not exist at all and are not regulated by any laws of procedures, and who much of the war in Ukraine is delegated to.
Consider Wagner Group. It does not exist according to Russian law. It in fact comprises a state within a state: it has everything from infantry to air defense and fighter jets. It's difficult to give a quantitative estimate, but it seems that a lot of Russian air force action in Ukraine is not [from] the Russian army; it's Wagner Group. Wagner Group is just the best known. There are a bunch of these groups.
Furthermore, Putin basically commanded governors to form volunteer battalions in their own regions, arm them, equip them at their own expense, and send them to Ukraine. Trajectories have diverged. Some regions couldn't really do this because they have no money. For example, the head of Chuvashia formed battalions because Putin told him so, but he couldn't arm them and didn't even pay them because Chuvashia has no money.
Some regions, indeed, form these battalions and send them to Ukraine; Chechnya is the best example. But a number of regions, which I'm not going to specify, formed battalions, armed them, equipped them, and didn't send them anywhere. They still are in their home regions, armed as protective training, These are not ethnic republics: they are regions perceived as ethnically majority-Russian. At this point it seems that some of these actors are basically preparing for chaos.
If chaos starts, it's better to have your own armed man in your home region.
The View from the Provinces
Jordan Schneider: This leads us into the question of the Russian population and the impact mobilization is having on lives, public opinion, and the future of Russia. What does the view look like from below?
Kamil Galeev: Hundreds of thousands of Russians escaped from Russia to neighboring countries, mostly Kazakhstan and Georgia, straight after mobilization was declared. Some Westerners presume that all these people are anti-Putin, anti-imperialist, and anti-Russian war. That's not the case. Some of the refugees have strongly imperialist and Putinist views: it's very common, for example, [to see] Russian refugees come to Kazakhstan and tell Kazakhs that Kazakhstan should be Russia. Many support Donbas and Crimea being Russian.
Why do they run? Because they don't want to die in battle themselves. The line between those who escape and those who comply [with] mobilization is not wholehearted acceptance of Putin and the Kremlin’s agenda. It's about how optimistic you are about your own life; how much you value it, even.
Many people who support Putin's agenda value their own life. Their current socioeconomic perspectives are good; they hope for a better future. They run away because they don't want to die. Many people, who may not even wholeheartedly support this agenda, have basically given up on their own life. In the provinces it's very, very common. It's mostly about your socioeconomic situation currently and how you estimate your socioeconomic prospects in the future.
This war is very uncharacteristic in a sense: in the past, the mobilized were not really paid anything. In WWI, WWII, and of course all the preceding tsars’ wars, the majority of private soldiers were not compensated or compensated very, very little. The war was not lucrative for the broader masses: it could be lucrative for officers, but not for the file and rank. In this war, for the first time in Russian history, common soldiers are really being paid. In a small town, you could be earning 30,000 rubles per month, but on the front line you could easily earn 200,000 or 300,000 rubles per month. That's not a lot from a Moscow perspective, but that's a lot from a small-town perspective.
Another thing is compensations for death. They are, from provincial perspectives, exorbitant: a lot of people got 7 million rubles when their family member died — about $100,000. It's really a lot for the Russian provinces, and in some smaller towns it changed the real estate market and created businesses.
Pskov, for example, is a really poor Russian region bordering Estonia that hosts VDV, the airborne troopers. The troops suffered heavy casualties in Ukraine. Some local girls married one VDV guy after another, because they're dying quickly enough that you can get several compensations in a few months.
It’s a combination of two factors: poverty, and lots of troops dying very, very quickly. That's maybe what many Westerners don't understand:
For the poor Russian countryside, it's absolutely a monetary incentive.
For this reason, many actually were enthusiastic about it. But in a sense it's a Ponzi scheme: the Russian government compensated lavishly the families of the first dozens of thousand killed in action, incentivizing the rest to comply with this mobilization, but it cannot continue indefinitely. I think those families that now are enthusiastic about their family members being sent into Ukraine are going to be cheated mostly. They’re not going to get the financial compensations they were hoping for.
Jordan Schneider: What does this mean for social stability?
Kamil Galeev: Until late September, you could avoid mobilization simply by not going to war. Now it is becoming compulsory. I think per se, it is actually increasing social stability because it is a means of terror. The population becomes more submissive because you want to avoid it at all costs possible. A few months ago, if you go to a demonstration, most probably you risk up to a month in jail (at least for the first two times you’re arrested). Now, you risk being mobilized.
Another thing is that forced mobilization could be a good way to change and “correct” the ethnic balance in the country. Mobilization is very, very uneven from region to region. In Moscow, a relatively small share of the population is being mobilized. But in small Arctic villages in North Yakutia or Sakhalin, or often Siberian regions like Krasnoyarsk Krai, they're literally mobilizing all available males in the village.
It could be a way to use colonial resources in a war for another colony, and also “correct” the ethnic balance.
Scenarios for the Future of Russia
Jordan Schneider: And how about into the medium term?
Kamil Galeev: When this all started, I saw three variants for the future of Russia. One would be Putin keeping power: I called it the “North Korea” scenario mostly for the Western audience to understand. But actually, I meant more like Donbas. The same practices of statecraft and policymaking that were first designed and used in Donbas are now being scaled up into Russia proper: militarization, state ownership of economy, using the bulk of the male population as cannon fodder, and eliminating the last remnants of the rule of law. As long as Putin stays in power, Russia will go [down] this track. Technically it's possible: I don't see why this factor alone would undermine Putin's power.
Second scenario: imperial reboot. Some faction of Putin's ruling class decides to de-escalate the situation by giving power to the liberal opposition of Moscow: Navalny, his comrades, and so on. That is possible and could potentially deescalate the situation; maybe, if not [lifting all] sanctions, at least moderating the sanctions regime. But since March and April, I see this scenario as far less probable. I think this could happen; I just don't think these guys would be able to hold power.
A third scenario that is becoming more and more probable every day is national divorce. It's basically Russia breaking up into smaller states. I don't think it would happen immediately and in one iteration, but rather in a number of iterations; first de facto and only then formally. It is highly likely that at some point, the federal center just loses control over a number of regions for a number of reasons. The first reason is that power is always mythological. Any military defeats, to a great or less extent, harm the imperial myth, but they harm to different degrees. Military defeat to America is certainly less shameful, and it could be a manageable shame. For example, the defeat of the Russian Empire in the Crimean War, predominantly to Britain and France, was manageable shame; the Russian Empire survived it. But the defeat of Russian Empire to Japan in the early 20th century was unmanageable shame. The Russian Empire never really recovered. I think that military defeat to the US could have been potentially manageable to Putin because it would be some honorable lost cause: we lost to the overwhelming enemy, and now we could regroup and try again in the future. Military defeat by Ukraine would be totally unmanageable.
I don't think Russia’s political or imperial system is going to survive it, because the whole prestige and allure of Moscow would be too destroyed by that. Qing China could lose wars to the British and French without critical damage to the system, but the defeat to Japan was absolutely unmanageable. If Russia loses to Ukraine, I think it probably would trigger the start of the system's total disruption.
Another factor to consider is [the] monopoly of Moscow’s formalized bureaucratic structures on violence. Russia now has plenty of private armies. It’s poetic in a sense: all these wars are not waged for foreign-policy considerations, but for domestic-policy considerations. Most probably, when Putin was making the decision to invade Ukraine, he wanted to export Russia’s internal chaos abroad and to stabilize the situation in Russia this way.
Chaos exported outwards would now be imported inwards.
When all these people return from Ukraine to Russia, it would be a huge problem even if Moscow’s structures of power kept total control over them. In a situation when Russia already has a number of private armies, this problem could be unmanageable — especially if Moscow suffers a defeat.
Talking Russia on Twitter
Jordan Schneider: Kamil, as a non-native English speaker you have written tweet threads that have been seen by half the planet and have 350,000 Twitter followers over the past six months. What has the experience of talking about the war in Ukraine, Russia, and Russian history on American social media taught you?
Kamil Galeev: I don't think that being a non-native speaker is a major obstacle here. American English is barbarian Latin. Regarding Twitter, I found it very important to deliver my perspective and interpretation to broader international audiences because I think that the narrative about Russia is being presented suboptimally. In fact, it is being controlled by a very narrow group of people, mostly of Moscow’s establishment (even St. Petersburg is much less represented), and by Western media, analysts, and researchers who [rely on] their acquaintances, friends, and connections.
Many great beats in media, politics, and civil society have no coverage at all because the rest of the country has zero representation. This system, which is absolutely insane and unfair, is being reinforced by too many of the Western media establishment. When I made some statements, for example, about being very concerned with Navalny movements adhering to Russian nationalist and imperial agendas —and [making] a prognosis that should they come to power, they will start a crusade against minorities — too many Americans were just surprised by that. They called this perspective interesting and unheard of. It's not unheard of at all; it's very common. Many minorities, especially in the Caucasus, are very anxious about these guys coming to power. It's just that in the West, nobody’s heard about it because these people have no representation.
Jordan Schneider: What would you ask folks to do to support your work? Ukraine more generally?
Kamil Galeev: Very soon, I'll be launching two initiatives. One is announcing my research company. We'll come with a first paper, which I consider breakthrough, but I'm just making a teaser right now.
Another thing: ethnic minorities in Russia are being mobilized disproportionately. Many of them are escaping. Some of them have a way to escape: for example, Mongol peoples (including Buryats, Kalmyks, Tuvans, etc.) can escape to Mongolia because it accepts them. Many other minorities do not really have many initiatives of support. People of the Volga and Ural regions — that includes Turkic peoples such as Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash, and Nogais, and the Mari and Udmurt peoples — are mostly poor and rural. They're especially targeted during this mobilization.
I'm preparing another initiative of helping them to relocate to other countries. If someone was interested in supporting this initiative, I would be highly grateful. We would focus basically on draftable-age males. If we could save many people from being forcibly sent to war, I would see it as a good thing.
Outro music is a Tatar folk song:
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