"Russia without Putin!" was the cry of Muscovites who turned out to protest against Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency for a third term in December 2011. Crowds 100,000 strong chanted their opposition on Moscow’s Academician Sakharov Prospect — as symbolically named a venue as you could wish for — as riot police stood calmly by. There was anger in the crowd. But there was hope, too, not least because the massive protest was officially sanctioned. One after another, prominent opposition politicians such as Ilya Yashin, Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny denounced Putin from a...

“Russia without Putin!” was the cry of Muscovites who turned out to protest against Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency for a third term in December 2011. Crowds 100,000 strong chanted their opposition on Moscow’s Academician Sakharov Prospect — as symbolically named a venue as you could wish for — as riot police stood calmly by. There was anger in the crowd. But there was hope, too, not least because the massive protest was officially sanctioned. One after another, prominent opposition politicians such as Ilya Yashin, Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny denounced Putin from a stage provided by the city authorities.

Today the memory of those protests seems to belong to a different age of Russia. Yashin and Navalny are in jail. Nemtsov was shot dead. Since the beginning of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, street protests by a single person, let alone 100,000, have become illegal. Since February 24, some 16,000 people have been arrested for protesting — including one woman near Red Square who was detained for holding up a piece of paper reading “Two Words” (implying Net Voine — No War), and another for brandishing a paper that was completely blank.

Russia’s liberal opposition has been completely crushed. But in the country’s new wartime reality the liberals’ main slogan has also come to raise more questions than answers. What would “Russia without Putin” actually look like? If not Putin, then who?

The grim reality is that Putin’s most dangerous potential opposition today comes not from the pro-western liberals but from the nationalist right. Before the annexation of Crimea in 2014, ultra-nationalist ideologues such as Alexander Dugin (whose daughter Dasha was killed by a car bomb in Moscow last month), Christian-fundamentalist TV station-owning billionaire Konstantin Malofeev and paramilitary imperialist and former FSB officer Igor Strelkov were on the fringes of Russian politics. After Crimea, Putin not only brought these orthodox ultra-nationalists inside the Kremlin’s ideological big tent but actively began to model its own propaganda message on their toxic brand of imperial nostalgia.

But there was one problem with riding the ultra-nationalist tiger. While the spin doctors who ran the Kremlin’s ideology and media empire had an essentially cynical, postmodern and consumerist attitude to ideology, the people they had recruited actually believed the message. More, many of these Christian ultra-nationalists were unafraid to bite the hand that fed them and denounce their masters for unpatriotic corruption.

“Putin and his circle have recently taken steps which I believe will almost inevitably lead to the collapse of the system,” Strelkov, who had served as the minister of defense of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told the Guardian as far back as 2016: “We don’t know yet how, and we don’t know when, but we are certain it will collapse, and more likely sooner than later.” Strelkov — who openly boasted about executing his own soldiers for looting — had been instrumental in toppling Ukrainian authority in a series of towns across the Donbas in 2014. And he openly boasted, too, about doing the same in Russia. “We do not plan to launch a revolution to depose Vladimir Putin,” he warned darkly. “Having taken part in five wars, I know very well what it is like when authority and social infrastructure collapse in big cities. Nobody wants that, including me. But unfortunately, it could be inevitable.”

Even Navalny, often described in the western media as Russia’s leading opposition figure, clearly recognized that the Kremlin was far more afraid of ultra-nationalists than they were of him. “The Kremlin is very scared of nationalists, because they use the same imperial rhetoric as Putin does, but they can do it much better than him,” he said before his 2020 poisoning.

During the build-up to the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin turned to the ultra-nationalist paramilitary organizations to boost its forces. Chief among them was the Wagner private military company. Its founder, GRU special forces lieutenant colonel Dmitry Utkin, earned the call sign “Wagner” because of his passion for the Third Reich. Photographs published last year showed him sporting a Waffen-SS collar tab and Reichsadler eagle tattoos on his neck and chest. According to a report in May by Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, leaked by Der Spiegel, numerous other Russian right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis are fighting in Ukraine too. Among them are the Wagner Group contingent Rusich, whose co-founder Alexei Milchakov is infamous for social media videos of himself chopping the head off a puppy. “I’m not going to go deep and say I’m a nationalist, a patriot, an imperialist and so forth,” Milchakov said in a December 2020 video. “I’ll say it outright: I’m a Nazi.” Another is the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist group that was designated a “global terrorist organization” by the United States two years ago. In July the Wagner Group was authorized to recruit prisoners from Russian jails, offering reprieves in exchange for military service.

Such groups may be small and marginal but they have been armed by the Russian military and ideologically empowered by near-hysterical levels of state propaganda. “Orthodox warriors — do your work!” was Kremlin propagandist-in-chief Vladimir Solovyov’s reaction to news of the Bucha massacre in April. Since news broke last week of Ukrainian forces storming through Russian defenses in Kharkiv province and retaking 6,000 square kilometers of territory, the levels of hysteria have only grown. “There is still civilian infrastructure left in Ukraine?” RT head Margarita Simonyan asked sarcastically after Russian rockets battered power stations in retaliation for the Kharkiv breakthrough.

With hatred for Ukraine whipped to such levels, the reaction to every defeat by Kyiv’s forces both on the extreme right and in the Kremlin media has been the same: an aggressive search for traitors. “I directly accuse [defense minister] Sergei Shoigu of, at minimum, criminal negligence,” Strelkov posted on his Telegram channel in May. “I have no grounds to accuse him of treason, but I would suspect it.” Russian commanders had been “shamefully indecisive,” railed Alexander Sladkov, a military correspondent for state TV. Even Solovyov has vented furiously over the “shameful” time it took for weapon supplies to reach the Russian military in Ukraine.

For the Kremlin, the search for scapegoats and traitors should be a deeply worrying warning sign of the future. As long as the Russian army steamroller was grinding on through Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, and Kremlin officials were busy making preparations for referendums in the occupied territories in June and July, Putin could have plausibly declared victory. But last week, with the collapse of the Kharkiv front, the war turned a corner. “The vector has changed,” said the daughter of one of Putin’s close associates, who herself is a senior media executive. “The people are still oblivious; they gobble up the propaganda. But everyone who is paying attention feels it. Putin is not a winner any more.’

Putin is not about to lose the war any minute now: Ukrainians have so far taken back less than 6 percent of the territory they have lost since 2014. Nor is he about to become the scapegoat for anything. His image as Russia’s good czar, built up over twenty years of relentless propaganda, means that he will be the last to be blamed by his people. But the question now arises of how he will lose it eventually. Will it be in the form of a slow, attritional stalemate that ends in a truce allowing Putin to stay in power — or a fast and humiliating collapse that could shake his regime to its core?

In part, the outcome is in the hands of the West, with whose arms the Ukrainians are almost exclusively fighting. But many in the West are not so sure that Russia without Putin is a good idea. Keeping an odious regime in power for fear of something even more unstable and dangerous has a long history in western diplomacy. The US strongly desired to preserve the Soviet Union — as evidenced by George H.W. Bush’s notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech in 1991 — for fear of a patchwork of failed nuclear-armed states that might replace it.

And France’s Emmanuel Macron has a “strong fear of a Weimar [Republic]-like situation” if Putin were to fall as a result of the Ukraine war, says a senior European statesman who has spoken to the French president regularly during the crisis. That fear is at the root of Macron’s controversial insistence that “Putin must not be humiliated” in any future peace settlement — and that the EU must not follow the policy of “the most war-mongering types” in Europe since this would “risk extending the conflict and closing off communications [with Putin] completely.” Macron’s position naturally infuriated the Ukrainians — and the Poles and Balts, whom he had implicitly accused of being fauteurs de guerre, or “warmongers.”

Like the collapse of the USSR, the political ramifications of the Ukraine war may be out of the West’s hands. But what’s for sure is that a humiliating defeat will be seen not only by the orthodox ultra-nationalists but by most Russians as a colossal failure by the whole political elite. They will be angry. And that elite will try to defend itself. How will the men at the top of the Kremlin keep the ultra-nationalists in check, and out of power? By making concessions to the West, releasing political prisoners, paying reparations to Ukraine and all the other humiliations that will be demanded of Russia as the price of removing sanctions and reaching a peace deal? Or by installing someone even more aggressively nationalist than Putin himself, who can attempt to continue to ride the tiger for fear of being devoured by it?

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.