The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Aiming to control Ukraine, Russia risks quagmire of foreign regime change

Moscow may be underestimating the difficulty of securing a nation with foreign-imposed regime change, according to scholars who have studied such scenarios

Pro-Russian troops in uniforms without insignia gather on March 1 near the separatist-controlled settlement of Buhas in eastern Ukraine. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have shown that the Kremlin’s plans for its military campaign were flawed at best. Its assumptions about what comes after may be equally unsound.

Minutes after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his military campaign against Ukraine, the political theater to usher in a puppet leadership appeared to get underway.

On his Telegram channel, an exiled former Ukrainian parliamentarian allied with Russia announced he had returned to Ukraine and began positioning himself as a leader who could sweep in and replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Friends! As I promised you, we’re taking action! The operation to denazify Ukraine has started,” Oleg Tsaryov wrote on the messaging service. “I’m in Ukraine. Kyiv will be free from fascists!”

After more than a day of fighting, Tsaryov promised his followers, “We’re already close.”

But two days later, as the Russian military faced unexpectedly fierce resistance, Tsaryov was addressing his messages to those who “for some reason have begun to lose heart,” promising that “everything has just begun.”

If the Kremlin believes ushering in someone like Tsaryov — seen as a traitor by a huge swath of Ukrainians — will provide an easy path to indirect rule of the country, or big parts of it, Moscow may be underestimating the difficulty of securing a nation with foreign-imposed regime change, according to scholars who have studied such scenarios.

The war in Ukraine isn’t working out the way Russia intended

Russia executed similar plays in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, elevating fringe pro-Russian elites to control territories ripped from Kyiv’s control. But the scenario this time around is entirely different, with Ukrainians across many cities viewing Russia as an aggressive invader. Moscow would be attempting to impose control on Ukrainian cities just recently destroyed and occupied by its forces, and seething with hostile populations — a far different proposition.

“Even if you are able to grab Zelensky and say, ‘Okay, we have so and so, who is going to ride in on the back of our tank and take over,’ that is just the beginning,” said Alexander B. Downes, a political science professor at George Washington University. “This is what regime changers don’t look at. They focus on the short-term.”

Historically, when an external power tries to impose a leader with an opposed ideology or ethnicity on a resistant population — as the Soviet Union did in Poland and Hungary after World War II or the United States did in Iran in 1953 — the common way to retain control afterward is to rely heavily on brutality and repression, said Downes. But even that may work only in the short- to medium-term, he said, because it is costly and involves an extended occupation, which Moscow may not have envisioned in Ukraine.

Ukrainians, backed by Western weapons and funding, have signaled that they are prepared to wage an insurgency in what could turn into a grinding and protracted conflict that would increase the costs for Moscow to retain control.

“There is not going to be a Vichy Ukraine,” said John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, referring to the regime in southern France that collaborated with Nazi Germany. “There may be an effort to create it but the Ukrainians are not going to go gently into the good night. They are going to fight like hell.”

In his writings and speeches, Putin has presented Ukrainians as brother people who have been taken hostage by Western nations in a plot to destroy Russia and now must be freed. That misreading — complete with its underestimation of Ukraine’s sense of nationhood — may have led the Kremlin to assume Ukrainians would embrace a new Russian-backed leader with minimal resistance.

“I think the biggest obstacle to Russia is the fact that Ukraine is a real nation and it has tens, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who are willing to lay down their lives in defense of Ukraine,” said Mitchell Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Orenstein said even if Russia manages to capture all the major cities in Ukraine and install a puppet government, “that government would have a very, very difficult time controlling the territory.”

In just 72 hours, Europe overhauled its entire post-Cold War relationship with Russia

Foreign-imposed regime change generally does not improve relations between the intervening country and the target nation and often makes them worse or sparks a civil war, according to research published by Downes and Boston College political science professor Lindsey O’Rourke.

Nearly two-thirds of leaders installed in overt foreign regime changes are either assassinated, swept out in revolutions or violently overthrown, their research has shown, including Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala, Laurent-Désiré Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the shah of Iran.

O’Rourke said any new authorities have a huge motivation to round up and eliminate any remnants of the previous regime and its supporters — an incentive Russia would have in this case if it proceeds with an occupation.

“They would have good intelligence and the means to oppress,” O’Rourke said. “It sort of paints a scary picture.”

Tsaryov is part of a small cadre of Ukrainians who have spent much of the past decade in exile or political obsolescence deepening their ties with Russia.

The former factory owner from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro served as a member of parliament for Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Then, in 2014, a pro-European uprising in Kyiv forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia and ushered in a Western-leaning government. Tsaryov emerged as an opponent of the protest movement, promoting a staunch pro-Russian position.

While attempting to run for president in 2014, Tsaryov was beaten up by a crowd in Kyiv, prompting him to pull out of the race. Ukrainian authorities accused him with violating the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. He fled into exile.

In mid-February, the Financial Times, citing a Western intelligence official, reported that U.S. spies believed the Kremlin might try to install Tsaryov as Ukraine’s new leader. Tsaryov dismissed the report in later interviews. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.

The suggestion that Tsaryov could assume power was dismissed as laughable among many Ukrainians. In a 2014 interview with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Tsaryov admitted to being the “most hated man in Ukraine after Putin” but noted, “You see, people respect those who fall and then rise.”

In January, the British government revealed similar intelligence about another Russian plot to install a different Ukrainian politician, Yevhen Murayev, also widely dismissed as an unlikely leader by Ukrainians. Murayev denied the allegations and called them absurd.

The United States in recent weeks informed the United Nations it had credible information about Russia compiling lists of Ukrainians “to be killed or sent to camps” following a military occupation.

Ukrainian tycoon Viktor Medvedchuk, who counts Putin as the godfather of his daughter and runs a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, is often see as the obvious choice for a Kremlin-installed leader — or if not him, someone else from his party. Medvedchuk had been under house arrest in Ukraine facing treason charges, but Ukraine’s general prosecutor said in a television interview that during the invasion, Medvedchuk may have escaped.

Any of Russia’s chosen leaders would face an unsympathetic population in much of Ukraine.

In a Feb. 5-13 telephone survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 58 percent of Ukrainians said they were prepared to take up arms or participate in civil resistance activities in response to a Russian invasion. In a December survey by the same organization, 67 percent of those surveyed said they wanted Ukraine to join the European Union and 59 percent said they wanted the country to join NATO.

Putin could attempt to overcome that resistance by applying the same brutal force he did in Chechnya in the early 2000s, or do something even worse, Herbst said.

“To me the big question is: Is Putin willing to go full barbarian on Ukraine or full Strangelove on nuclear stuff? That is question one,” Herbst said. “And question two is: Will the military apparatus carry out such instructions?”