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March 14, 2022

Bonapartism Redux ---Putin may be forced to step down by his generals like Napoleon

(This article appeared in Newsweek Japan of March 1, 2022.)

Russia has finally invaded Ukraine by force; the heart of the former Soviet "empire", Ukraine, should never be handed over to NATO.
But what would Russia think if Turkey, former Ottoman Empire, did the same to its former territory, Crimea? After World War II, self-determination of a peoples is the global norm. What Russia did to Ukraine is an anachronism.

On February 15, a prominent Russian intellectual Dmitry Trenin wrote:
"The geopolitical retreat that Russia began three decades ago has ended, and a new policy of selective expansion based on Russia's national interests has commenced."That's right. But can Russia afford that? Overdoing anything is a recipe for failure.

About 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte failed in his offensive to resist the pressure from neighboring countries and was forced by the generals under his command to step down as Emperor.

Such history may be repeated in Russia. Even if Russia dominates this time, she will be forced to keep a considerable number of troops in Ukraine to secure her rule. Russian ground forces total about 340,000 men. Of these, a significant number are not up to real battles, and many are already permanently stationed abroad. A total of slightly less than 10,000 are in bases in Tajikistan and Armenia. Belarus has so far not allowed Russian troops to be stationed in the country, but this time about 30,000 are stuck there and show no signs of leaving. And Russian troops will remain stationed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, which are zombie-like entities whose "independence" Russia endorsed as a result of its use of force in 2008, and in Moldova's Transnistria. Recently, about 2,000 Russian "peacekeeping" troops have been deployed between Armenia and Azerbaijan following the Nagorno-Karabakh war in late 2020. In Syria Russia keeps two military bases with a considerable number of troops.

It is still fresh in our minds that Russia sent about 3,000 "peacekeeping" troops to deal with riots in Kazakhstan this past January. Furthermore, in Turkmenistan, also in Central Asia, presidential elections will be held on March 12, and the current president's son, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, will most probably replace his father. Serdar is still young and lacks the support of the local clan. He can be pushed around by neighboring Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan (the Taliban), and China, which has a monopoly on natural gas purchases, and may come to the point where he asks Russia for assistance.

Russians are concentrated in northern Kazakhstan and are worried about the growing anti-Russian sentiment in the country. What happens if they declare independence and ask Russia for support? 

These burdens may well exceed the capacity of the Russian army.

And things are not all about the military. While Russia is only concerned with the European front, the Caucasus and the Central Asian region are no longer Russia's exclusive sphere of influence. In the Caucasus, Turkey signed an alliance treaty with Azerbaijan,its ethnic kin,playing a vital role in bringing the Nagorno-Karabakh War to Azerbaijan's victory over Armenia, which is Russia's formal ally.

In January Russia dispatched peacekeeping troops to Kazakhstan, but five days later Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conveyed a "warning" to Russian counterpart Lavrov to "respect the sovereignty of Kazakhstan." Probably not because of this, but the Russians began withdrawing from Kazakhstan on the same day. If China takes advantage of Russia's isolation and demands the return of the Primorsky Territory, which was taken from it during the Qing Dynasty, the game will be over for Russia.
The author's Russian friends are afraid of Russia becoming a pariah in the world because of the invasion in Ukraine. In addition, inflation may exceed 20% this year because of the Western sanctions.

In this milieu Putin will not make it in the presidential election in 2024. The siloviki, which is a conglomerate of secret police and the military constituting the backbone of the state, and have been supporting him, may force Putin to abdicate; they would need a new figurehead to protect their position and interests. This is how Putin will follow Napoleon's path. When Napoleon Bonaparte had overdone his reckless expansion, he was confronted by his own generals and got extradited to Elba Island. Could it possibly be the Northern Territories this time?