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No Matter What Happens with the Russo-Ukrainian War, China Wins

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Following the "Post-Putin Russia" simulation, Wikistrat interviewed Russia expert Keir Giles to discuss the potential implications in the case of Putin’s death on Russia’s foreign and domestic policy. According to Giles, Each potential outcome to Russia's war against Ukraine brings its own specific benefits for China.

Keir Giles is a Senior Consulting Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

How could Putin's death impact Russia's decision to continue the war in Ukraine? And in general, on Russia's foreign policy? For most of Putin's rule it has been clear that his sudden demise would not bring about radical change in Russian foreign or domestic policy – because Putin was implementing rather than inventing the guiding principles of Russian state policy that have been consistent over centuries. Any replacement from his inner circle would have been likely to continue the same course.

That situation has now changed, as a result of the damage done to Russia's armed forces and its economy following the invasion of Ukraine. There can be little doubt that even if Putin's close colleagues support the attack on Ukraine, they will have recognized the severe damage that continuing the war is doing to Russian power and statehood.

They may therefore be faced with a choice – preserving the Putinist system that until now has guaranteed their power, wealth, and personal safety, or instead putting Russia as a country first and placing their bets on change. The key factor is whether any successor to Putin places value on a functioning relationship with international partners, or whether he believes as Putin does, that "Russia against the world" is a viable and sustainable foreign policy choice. In case Putin is replaced after his death by a more hawkish leader, what impact will it have on Russia's relations with the West? And with China? One of the distinguishing features of Russian state behavior is that no matter how bad things seem, there is always scope for them to get worse. It might be hard to imagine how a successor to Putin might be more, rather than less, hawkish – but long-term Russia watchers will be familiar with the views of Putin's coterie of fellow former intelligence officers, many of whom are even more detached from reality than Putin is and consequently even more hostile to the outside world and to Russia's own population – and advocating even more strongly for forceful solutions to imaginary challenges to Moscow.

In a way, this might even be beneficial for the West's responses to Russia, by leaving less and less room for major European states to persist in their state of denial about the true nature of the Russian state and the kind of relationship it is possible to have with Moscow. China, however, might eventually be forced to step forward from its back-seat observation of the current conflict if it perceived that Russia's disruptive influence in the international order began to impinge on China's own political or economic interests. China has been happy to reap the benefits of Russia's bull-in-a-china shop approach to resolving disputes, but this is unlikely to persist if it begins to interfere with the economic relationships that China relies on for its own prosperity. In a post Putin scenario, if the war in Ukraine concludes with Russia withdrawing peacefully from Ukraine, as part of a peace agreement (but maintaining control over Crimea), how would that impact its relations with China? Each potential outcome to Russia's war against Ukraine brings its own specific benefits for China. An early peace means a return to stability and predictability, and the "partnership" relationship with Russia (in reality, steadily growing Chinese economic dominance) that China has been content to ride so far. On the other hand, continuation of the war, and with it, continuing weakening of Russia's economic and military power, brings closer the eventual day when China can embark on its own reckoning with Russia and — just as Russia is attempting to do now — correct the "historical mistakes" that laid down current international borders. In case Russia "loses the war" and is forced to withdraw from Ukraine (an Afghan scenario), how could that impact its domestic political situation? Lost wars have a tendency to precipitate domestic political change in Russia, and for good reason. Failure, economic disaster, and the return of a defeated and angry army have traditionally combined either to make the need for reform impossible to resist further, or to lead to revolt and insurrection from below. But in addition, the defeat of Russia's ambition through failure of its current war of imperial reconquest could be the first step along the long and difficult road to Russia becoming a "normal country" – one that no longer sees it as its right to govern over the territories of other nations far beyond its national borders, or finds it necessary to control its own population through repression.

That generational process is one that many hoped would begin with the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. But it became clear over the decades since, that Russia needs more evidence of change both in the world around it and in Russia's own power if it is to begin the psychological adjustment to the current century. Clear and unarguable defeat in Ukraine could provide that evidence. Could Putin's death lead to internal instability and potential civil unrest? How could such a situation impact its relations with the West? China? There can be little doubt that Vladimir Putin will have given serious thought to who will succeed him, even if that thought is motivated more by preserving his fortune for his family than by preserving the future of Russia. But it is unlikely that he will have shared those thoughts beyond his very closest and most trusted associates since publicly revealing the identity of the chosen successor would precipitate precisely the kind of infighting among the leadership elite that Putin would want to avoid in order to keep his system stable and functional.

The potential for broader civil unrest depends on whether plotting and infighting for the succession remains a palace intrigue or would spill over beyond the walls of the Kremlin. If it does, Russia's situation as always could be highly volatile – with large numbers of heavily armed organizations each loyal to specific centers of interest within the current leadership.

In June 2022, Wikistrat ran an interactive simulation exploring the various implications that post-Putin Russia would have for both the country and its foreign policy. To learn more about it, click here.

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