As the private armies fight it out in Ukraine and elsewhere, competing for limited resources and control, the returning disillusioned soldiers – mercenaries and outright criminals recruited to fight in Ukraine, many with PTSD – will face a reality with limited professional prospects.
Those who cannot or will not join up with some militia efforts abroad will find themselves stranded and trapped.
The expectation for chaos, mayhem, and a sharp rise in crime as a result of these unwanted men returning with weapons to a nihilistic state that does not want them portends a post-apocalyptic, dystopian reality.
Piontkovsky speaks of a major civil war among various factions, but a civil war may be too organized and optimistic a reality. A scrambling, disjointed free-for-all, with the rise of ruthless, disorganized gangs is just as likely.
Imagine the reality of the violent 1990s in Russia, but with far less hope for a stable future.
The Putin regime is likely to engage in a severe crackdown, with Russia as a state becoming even more insular and anti-Western than before, and with the security agencies becoming increasingly more – not less – involved with other intelligence agencies adversarial to the West, as well as with international organized crime and terrorist networks.
Scenario 1: controlled chaos of the private armies
There is a certain trend among Western analysts to deny the obvious, to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude towards the increasing likelihood that the stable order of the predictable authoritarian Russian past and present is now over.
With Russia’s defense unity falling apart at the seams, the various armies are looking for a quick exit strategy. The West still has an opportunity to take advantage of this movement (while it is still in the early stages), in part to save lives in Ukraine, and in part to prevent further security challenges in other parts of the globe.
The vicious cycle of mutual recrimination among these private armies is making Putin even more paranoid than before the war; this presents a great opportunity for disruptive psyops and offensive disinformation campaigns aimed at increasing distrust and further pitting these groups against one another.
Controlled chaos would further disrupt the effectiveness of attacks on Ukraine and intelligence efforts against Western targets; it would weaken both Putin and his challengers; it would eliminate potential threats early on, and splinter and weaken Russian defense resources as well as these private armies.
Scenario 2: a weakened Putin and division of power among private armies
In the event that the West fails to step in early on and use the current dynamics against Putin and the private armies, the next plausible scenario is that Putin ultimately comes to terms with the “new normal” and comes to an uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement for the sake of his own political survival.
This is the scenario of a very authoritarian Russia with limited military capabilities, and a group of several strong and growing private armies which have carved out spheres of influence in different parts of the world.
This scenario, rather than a full-fledged civil war, is the worst that can happen from the perspective of Western influence.
This is the case where Russia becomes even more impregnable for outreach and intelligence gathering, while a group of vicious sociopaths gets successfully entrenched around the world without challenging one another.
All of these actors will then have to be dealt with separately; controlled chaos is still possible, but with more stability, greater resources, and international support from their new allies and bases of operations, this will be much more complicated.
Scenario 3: a civil war breaks out
As with Iran, many of the Belt Way “insiders” have acquired the false sense of security that arises from “stable” dictatorships.
As evidenced by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, nuclear threats, and a dangerous new level of cooperation with Iran, dictators who are in power for too long become less predictable, more erratic, and more dangerous over time.
Therefore, “stable” hegemonies and aggressor states consolidating power are, in fact, a greater immediate danger to the West than weakened failed states and countries distracted by internal civil unrest and civil wars.
We are seeing that playing out now with assorted forces of the Islamic Republic conspiring to commit terrorist attacks, abduct dissidents, and assassinate foreign officials in various Western states.
A full-fledged civil war would have forced Tehran to redirect not only its resources but some of its proxies and militias active around the world towards an internal resolution.
That would have been a positive scenario for the domestic security of Western countries. A downside of the civil war is, without a doubt, a refugee crisis, and the resulting flight of potential extremists into Western states, as we have learned from the Syrian Civil War.
But the answer to that is for those states to have a more cohesive domestic security and immigration policy.
There are additional concerns that simply do not bear out. Russia and Iran both boast of significant minority populations that have long been oppressed and sacrificed in various ways.
In Iran, these minorities dominate the territories with the greatest deposits of natural resources. If they were to break away or to exercise greater autonomy of those resources, that would benefit the West.
In Russia, ethnic minorities have been largely sent into battle with Ukraine. If these minorities were to rise up against the central authorities, that would mean fewer unwilling participants in the war in Ukraine and a faster conclusion to hostilities.
In both cases, having several smaller states with weaker militaries and security apparatus is better for Western security concerns than huge hegemonies with powerful territorial control, powerful or at least large militaries, and unlimited access to natural resources.
Another concern is that it might be more difficult to make new lucrative business deals with transitional governments or with resulting smaller states. However, there is no evidence that that is the case.
Transitional authorities or new governments will need a lot of outside assistance and, as has been amply demonstrated in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world, wherever there are any deals to be made, someone will always be willing to make them.
Arrangements with new powers may be more beneficial to Westerners as they may be more open to open and transparent frameworks for cooperation.
Corrupt monopolies in authoritarian regimes mostly benefit the corrupt elites; foreign investors at best benefit temporarily before securitization of internal resources, inevitable confiscation and crackdowns.
There are times when they benefit little due to the level of bribery, mismanagement, and other complications.
Scenario 4: Kadyrov brings all the Islamists together
Another potential outcome is that Kadyrov becomes particularly strengthened as a result of the ensuing battle of wills, declares independence for Chechnya under his control, and pursues expansion into the Caucasus, and oppression of other Russian autonomous areas with significant minority populations.
Such a scenario has the benefit of weakening Russia further, though on the other hand it and will bring open political control of another corrupt anti-Western tinpot dictator who turned his population into Islamists, many of whom joined up with ISIS in the past.
This increased formal acquisition of territory and international recognition could bring up increased cooperation with other international pariahs like the Taliban, or invite jihadists and Islamists from around the world into the general vicinity, giving these networks additional bases of operations and new angles to plot against the rest of the world.
Another possible outcome is Kadyrov growing his private army into a huge paramilitary faction, creating a Sunni version of Hezbollah, available to provide operational support to Kadyrov’s own global agendas in the future or to other powers around the world (with Turkey’s Erdogan being one possible contender).
That does not bode well for international peace and security.
It would be wise for policymakers around the world to take these possibilities into consideration, to take advantage of the current opportunities, and to try to shape the future into more convenient and favorable realities.
Merely watching events unfold will inevitably lead to loss of control and make it much more difficult to intervene and disrupt security threats once the ball is in the court of a different set of players.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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