Vladislav Inozemtsev is a Russian academic and the director of the Moscow-based Center for Research on Post-Industrial Studies. In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, the veteran analyst discusses the health of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whether Russians should feel collective guilt, and predicts how the Putin regime will end.
RFE/RL: What does Putin have to show to his domestic audience after more than two months of fighting in Ukraine?
Vladislav Inozemtsev: Actually, there are some major advances, and the entire southern part of Ukraine is occupied now. And, therefore, it's a great success. Because, if one remembers 2014-15, there was a lot of talk about so-called Novorossia and Malorossia, and this land corridor to Crimea, which at that time it would have been assumed as a major success for the Russian forces. Now it's actually done and no one speaks of it as a success.
After the war ends...Russia will never be the same Russia we saw from 1991 till 2022. There'll be another country, more backward, with fewer links to the world, much more isolated, and even more conservative than it was before the war."
The problem of Mr. Putin was that the goals and the tasks of the intervention when it started were set too high and now you cannot actually declare any kind of victory, because it was said that we will de-Nazify the whole Ukraine, it will end up inside the Russian sphere of influence, be neutral and demilitarized, yet nothing like this will happen in the future.
So, of course, if you aim so high, if expectations are so high, you can't report any kind of success. This is the major problem Putin encounters now, because the whole plan had a bad design.
RFE/RL: Do you think the gains made by the Russian military are irreversible?
Inozemtsev: Oh, no, of course not. I will say this: What Mr. Putin wants to do in the coming weeks is to orchestrate some kind of referendum, or just unilateral decisions of all these occupied territories -- like the [so-called] Luhansk People's Republic and the Donetsk People's Republic and maybe the Kherson region -- to attach them to the Russian Federation, because actually [Putin] will want to make these gains irreversible. And then if and when the Ukrainian Army advances, he can claim that this is aggression against the Russian Federation, which allows him to use nuclear weapons and all means of defense.
So my point is: No, up until now, they're not irreversible at all, because the Ukrainian Army is getting stronger. And at one point, it will counterattack, and it will be a huge counteroffensive. So, therefore, the advances are not final, but Putin wants to make them final, to consolidate and justify.
RFE/RL: The Kremlin and the talking heads say, "Putin is in wonderful physical and intellectual condition." Yet he looks more as if he is about to deliver a monologue from King Lear.
Inozemtsev: Oh, I wouldn't say so. First of all, we were hearing such talk about his health even when he was prime minister, back in 2010-11, for more than 10 years now. People speculate about how bad his health is, but he's still alive and active actually.
I think any kind of peace with Putin is almost impossible. Therefore, I don't think the idea of Putin outliving the West can work out. The West should outlive Putin. This has been my idea since 2015."
So, I would say that maybe there are some points of concern…[but] to hope he will die all of a sudden is just…wishful thinking. As for his mental capacities, it's not so obvious. I would say he has been living in his own imaginary world for years. And the problem with this [Ukrainian situation] is that it was caused by the absolutely inadequate information, which he got from his aides and counselors, prior to the invasion. The Kremlin spent a lot of money, which was misused, to get informed about the mood of Ukrainian society and the readiness of the Ukrainian Army. [Putin] got absolutely false information, and then he made his decision on the basis of this information.
Now, he is trying to understand what went wrong. And he cannot, because if he accepts the idea that almost everything he knew was wrong, it would be a huge blow to his general worldview. And, therefore, now he is struggling to correct his picture of the world, and to understand what he should do next.
My vision is that the Kremlin doesn't have any kind of complete plan of what it will do [next], but the next step would be, from my point of view, annexation of territory to somehow secure the results of this period of war.
RFE/RL: You wrote, back in 2011, an article titled Rule From God, God From Rule. Has it come true? Has Putin ascended and become more than a man?
Inozemtsev: I don't know. What seems obvious is that Mr. Putin has a quite serious religious consciousness…. He definitely thinks he has some kind of mission. I wouldn't say he equals himself to God. But nevertheless, he has a mission. He definitely wants to be [seen] in the same way as ancient Russian princes and heroes.
At the same time, the state's relationship with the [Russian Orthodox Church] is not bilateral. It's like a chain of command coming from the Kremlin downwards. The patriarch and priests are considered state employees and nothing more. So, I wouldn't say that Putin needs the church too much for legitimizing his actions.
RFE/RL: Is it Putin's war or Russia's war that we are seeing today in Ukraine?
Inozemtsev: This is an important question. I wouldn't distinguish between these [things] because many people insist that Russia is something and Putin is absolutely different -- that Germany is forever, that Hitlers come and go. I would say that, today, the idea that Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin is quite reasonable. And so, therefore, I would say that it's more a Russian war than Putin's war.
RFE/RL: Do you think then that there should be Russian collective guilt?
Inozemtsev: Absolutely. One-hundred percent.
RFE/RL: Putin has high approval ratings. But even though that might be the case, Eastern Europe has a history of dictators with sky-high ratings ending very badly. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had 95 percent support just before he was taken outside and shot.
Inozemtsev: I would say that when one talks about Putin's approval ratings, one should be very cautious. It's not because of miscalculations. It's quite a different thing, because in Russia, the ideology, or doctrine now in place and developed by Putinists, actually asks from the people not so much to do something in support of Putin, but just to stay calm and not criticize him.
[Putin] will die in office with 99 percent probability or maybe he'll be dismissed by an internal coup. In both cases, after Putin departs, the conflict inside the Russian elite will intensify dramatically. The system will ruin itself."
Actually, the most important thing for Putin is not the support, it's apathy -- the capacity to do nothing -- from the major part of the population…. So I would say that this 80 or 70 percent who support Putin, it is quite enough for them to say, "We have nothing against [you]," and so, therefore, this support will never turn into real, active support if something goes wrong. So if, for example, there is a coup, a civil war…I doubt anyone will stand behind Mr. Putin. So 80 percent of people saying that they support him, it doesn't mean they will take up arms and volunteer to fight in the Donbas.
RFE/RL: You already mentioned the immediate steps Russia or the Kremlin might take. There is an expert consensus in the West that Putin has braced himself for a prolonged conflict and he will be betting on the fact that he can outlast the West in terms of commitment -- that sooner or later the West will be fed up with helping Ukraine. In the end, according to the analysis, the West will either abandon Kyiv or pressure it into a disadvantageous settlement or some kind of cease-fire. Can you see such a scenario happening?
Inozemtsev: I would say no. It was very probable before the invasion, and it seems that the West actually would like to press Ukraine into some kind of compromise. And this was what they did. The Biden administration postponed a lot of decisions about military aid and financial aid to Ukraine. And if Putin were a better diplomat -- or rather if he were a diplomat at all, because he's not -- then maybe Russia could achieve these kinds of results and history could go in either direction.
But now I think the West decided that it's too much. And there is not much space and not much room for maneuver. Because what can the West do? The West can advise Ukraine to give up one-third of its territory? Now everyone can see that this won't happen, it won't help, because in 2014, Russia took Crimea…then the next year Putin took part of Donbas. Now they take three more regions. And if there is a cease-fire, a peace treaty, it doesn't mean that four years from now, Putin won't make an attempt to capture Kyiv again.
So now I think any kind of peace with Putin is almost impossible. Therefore, I don't think the idea of Putin outliving the West can work out. The West should outlive Putin. This has been my idea since 2015. They shouldn't seek any kind of active conflict. They should just stay firm on the limits, which Putin reached already. Because, in five, 10, 15 years, the regime will crumble, because it's a very personalistic regime, and it cannot survive or outlive Mr. Putin himself physically.
RFE/RL: You really think so?
Inozemtsev: Yes, I'm absolutely sure. It will be a war of all against all if Putin disappears, and the regime will crumble soon.
RFE/RL: No designated successor scenario? You don't see that happening?
Inozemtsev: No, that's impossible. [The] designated successor scenario with [former President and Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev was successful because Putin was in place. And, of course, he can put someone in charge and stand aside for some five to 10 years, but I doubt Putin wants to put someone in charge and be on the sidelines.
So, therefore, he will die in office with 99 percent probability or maybe he'll be dismissed by an internal coup. In both cases, after Putin departs, the conflict inside the Russian elite will intensify dramatically. The system will ruin itself.
RFE/RL: Is it possible that he doesn't think about tomorrow's Russia? You said he sees himself as having a historic mission, but there were emperors and conquerors from history whose empire crumbled before their bodies were even cold. What is Putin's objective here?
I think [Putin] will be quite happy [if the history books] will say he was someone who...restored order, who added some new territories, who was a fierce opponent of the West, who made Russia [get off] its knees.... But when he died, within six months, the country was [in ruins]."
Inozemtsev: I don't think he has any huge objectives. He just owns a country like a private possession. He wants to rule it as long as he can. He doesn't want to have any kind of destabilization. He, at least until February 24 [when Russia invaded Ukraine], was obsessed with self-enrichment, this kind of nouveau riche lifestyle…. And all these ideas about taking Crimea or the Donbas were definitely oriented toward the domestic audience.
Because Crimea was taken in 2014, when Putin's approval ratings were quite low after 2012. And he returned to the Kremlin and restored [his approval ratings]. And this was actually the major plan behind this operation I believe. His idea is just to perpetuate his rule. And many, as you said, conquerors and emperors were glorified even after their empires crumbled, such as Alexander the Great. [For Putin,] it's about himself, it's not about creating a state that will last for 1,000 years. He is very realistic, and that's it.
RFE/RL: If history is written by the winners, what will they write about Putin?
Inozemtsev: I think he'll be quite happy [if the history books] will say he was someone who came to power in Russia, who restored order, who added some new territories, who was a fierce opponent of the West, who made Russia [get off] its knees, and he was very successful. But when he died, within six months, the country was [in ruins].
So he was great because he could manage this and his successors, they were weak and couldn't surpass him. It's like when people in Russia now say [former Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev was a very good leader and [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev was very bad, because in one case you have this Brezhnev doctrine on limited sovereignty for Central European powers, the huge advance in sovereign influence in the world, quite peaceful surroundings, and then you have, once again, a catastrophic crash of the country. The popularity of Brezhnev is very high in Russia. It's the same case -- you were successful and your successors destroyed the country. So [for Putin], it's very good to be in this kind of position.
RFE/RL: When the war ends, do you see Russia being reintroduced back into the world order?
Inozemtsev: I think Russia is going to become a very isolated country and its imperial identity will be either lost or rethought. It's a huge challenge, both mentally, ideologically, economically, and geopolitically. So after the war ends -- and it doesn't depend how it ends -- Russia will never be the same Russia we saw from 1991 till 2022. There'll be another country, more backward, with fewer links to the world, much more isolated, and even more conservative than it was before the war.
Russia will become a power which looks only backwards. It wants to go back. It's what I call an un-contemporary country, and it will accelerate its return to the Middle Ages.
RFE/RL: Will it become more dangerous as a result?
Inozemtsev: Not necessarily. It might be more dangerous, or worse in propaganda, but definitely, if Russia loses this war, either Putin or another ruler of Russia might be even more aggressive in his or her rhetoric. But it will not be so aggressive in [reality]. They won't launch another war if this one is lost.
RFE/RL: And if Russia wins this war?
Inozemtsev: How can one win this? What does winning this war even mean?
RFE/RL: It's a good question. What would constitute victory for Russia?
Inozemtsev: I can't see any chance of this. So they can pretend they are victorious, for example, by annexing some areas of Ukraine, but at the same time Ukraine will become a member of the European Union, maybe even a member of NATO. This eastern wall of NATO/Ukraine will become much stronger. NATO will expand to Sweden and Finland. So Putin and his puppet regimes, like the one in Belarus, will become much weaker. So one might present it as a victory, but it's not a victory.