As the world watches the war Russia brutally started in Ukraine, you wonder how these countries would be different if the dictator Vladimir Putin never took office. Who would take control of Russia? How would Russia’s people’s lives be different? And would the billionaires get kicked to the curb?

So how did this shady figure from the KGB become a nightmare to democracy and his people? Well, let’s step back into the 1990s. Wow, nice pants. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian economy fell with it almost overnight. Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, then sold off government-run industries that controlled natural resources, energy production and construction to a small group of billionaires.

This elite group, called the oligarchs, then held 70% of Russia’s finances. Yeah. These financial gangsters bought a nation’s economy for pennies on the dollar. While the oligarchs ran Russia into the ground, Yeltsin began searching for his heir, someone to become the next prime minister. That led him to an ex-KGB official named Vladimir Putin.

After Putin got the job, Russia waged war in Chechnya, and the brutality of that conflict gave Putin his trademark tough-guy image. The bloodthirsty public loved its new prime minister, and Yeltsin passed on the torch. But if Putin wasn’t there to answer Yeltsin’s call, who would be in charge today? While Putin’s ego rules supreme in Russia, would his country be different without him?

If Yeltsin hadn’t appointed him as successor, maybe those oligarchs would’ve fought amongst themselves for the title. And the top contender? Oil tycoon and now-exiled CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. When Putin took control, he made the oligarchs an offer they couldn’t refuse. They’d stay out of politics, and he’d stay out of their businesses.

But Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, refused to play by Putin’s rules. That attitude landed him behind bars. Too bad for him. He could’ve taken control of Russia without Putin around. So if he and his rich buddies had free rein today, what would that mean for the Russian people? When Putin took office, he doubled the pensions and public salaries.

But would the greedy mobsters do the same? Without a central figure leading these criminals by the nose, these oligarchs might have fought one another to control Russia’s assets in a battle royale for their nation’s future. Putin already used the army as a political tool against his enemies. And these madmen also used the total weight of the military against anyone who stood in their way.

Their lust for power could’ve endangered an entire country’s security and maybe the world’s. The economic sanctions brought on by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine strangled Russia’s economy. The billionaires could soon be brought down to the common people’s level. The poor are happy to see it happen, no matter the cost.

But if the upper class had run the country after the U.S.S.R.’s fall, the Russian people might have rebelled and demanded a change in government. And they may not have asked politely. Believe it or not, Yeltsin and Putin once wanted to join NATO. But neither leader would agree to leave the former Soviet republics alone. Maybe those political ambitions wouldn’t exist without Putin around, and Russia might be part of NATO today.

If Russia was pro-Western, what would it mean for global trade? When you think of Russia’s exports, your brain immediately goes to oil. Well, open up your mind because it’s a big country. Russia has the largest forest reserves on Earth. But the country only exports a fraction of what they could produce. An economic boom could’ve kickstarted Russia’s economy.

Instead of pumping all the money into the military, as happened under Putin’s orders, Russia could’ve made more infrastructure, housing and education investments. Better roads and more money for transportation could have opened up the forest reserves and created a global demand for Russian lumber. That robust economy could’ve provided opportunities for more entrepreneurs and a multi-faceted system built on more than oil and gas.

Innovation and globally-minded citizens might have had a chance to thrive if Putin had stayed out of politics. Of course, despite a failing economy and the brutal killings of innocents, most Russians support Putin and his bloodthirsty ambitions. Many citizens choose to get their news straight from state-run propaganda websites and television stations.

The older generations still have sweet, nostalgic memories of how things were back in the U.S.S.R. Maybe without Putin manipulating their minds, the Russian people could want more opportunities for themselves and their families and fewer endless wars with neighboring countries. Before their war in Ukraine, the Russian upper and lower classes were miles apart, and poverty was already overwhelming.

But now, the sanctions and economic turmoil have led to villagers fighting over necessities like sugar in grocery stores. Some people have never left their homes, let alone the country. If Putin wasn’t around and acting like a cult leader, the Russian people might have their daily needs met instead of being drained of their resources.

Instead of being treated like pawns, maybe they could be treated like people. Or maybe the people would idolize the oligarchs the same as they worship Putin. I mean, now Putin controls the oligarchs that hold power over Russia. But if their bank accounts continue shrinking, their loyalty could change overnight. Regime change could come at the end of a gun.

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