This article is the second of three essays on the possible collapse of Putin’s Russia. The first is here.
Assessments of the likelihood of a systemic Russian crisis often exaggerate or mischaracterize several factors. For instance, thanks to the scrupulous research and analysis of Mark Adomanis, there is no longer any informed basis for the oft-repeated assertion that Russia faces medium-term demographic disaster. However, even if a steep decline in overall population is not in the cards, Russia does confront more subtle demographic challenges that are unlikely to prove catastrophic in isolation, but will complicate the task of resolving other problems.
If ethnic Russians emigrate or die off without generating the 2.1 offspring statistically required for replacement, and their places are taken by more prolific North Caucasus peoples or non-Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union, there will be no net change in the country’s population. However, while this demographic dynamic would mitigate any overall labor shortage, it would aggravate the shortage of skilled labor, as immigrant laborers can hardly replace well-educated and -trained Russian workers who retire or leave the country. Moreover, immigrants from Azerbaijan or Kyrgyzstan cannot readily fill the expected shortfall in Russian army recruits, nor are they likely to share the “Russian World” perspective that increasingly animates the Kremlin’s policies. In the past, the territorial expansion of Russia received a demographic boost from the settlement of ethnic Russians in far-flung regions of the empire. In Moscow’s current strategy to re-gather post-Soviet lands, however, demography will be a weakness rather than a strength.
Similarly, predictions of the Russian Federation splintering apart like the Soviet Union are highly dubious. It is hard to imagine the ethnically Russian regions of the Federation demanding independence—or even accepting it if it landed in their laps. Russians in the Urals, Siberia, or the Far East may well lobby for greater decentralization in any post-Putin dispensation, but such agitation would hardly constitute a call for separate states. Non-Russian peoples, who might theoretically harbor a greater interest in separatism, are for the most part few in number, scattered over wide areas, located in the interior of Russia, or well integrated into Russian society. The vast majority of Russian territory is thus unlikely ever to see the emergence of anything like a Mordvinian or Chukchi National Liberation Front.
The glaring exception to this rule is the North Caucasus, where separatism rooted in both nationalism and religion is already a serious problem. In the event of a systemic crisis in Russia, any weakening of central control or—perhaps even more importantly—a drastic diminution of subsidies would probably ignite both militant separatism and a general settling of scores in the North Caucasus. The outbreak of internecine strife in the region, the creation of a further haven for ISIS, and the opening of a new front in the effort to restore the Caliphate are among the scariest consequences of the potential collapse of Putin’s Russia.
By contrast, the dangers to Russian stability emanating from the post-Soviet space have, if anything, been under-appreciated. It has been customary to think of the “near abroad” more in terms of Russian opportunities (either for reintegration or irredentist mischief-making, depending on one’s point of view) than vulnerabilities. As far as Moscow is concerned, virtually any part of the former Soviet Bloc, or even any place inhabited by Orthodox Christians, is a candidate for inclusion in the Russian World or the Eurasian Union—whether they want to be included or not. The post-Soviet neighborhood thus looms large in Moscow’s strategic thinking, and for this very reason entails a particularly insidious risk.
Unfortunately for Moscow, the grander concept of the Eurasian Union as a geopolitical heavyweight (as opposed to a narrowly focused arrangement for mutual economic benefit) appears to have limited appeal beyond ethnic Russians. If there is any groundswell of enthusiasm for Eurasianism among Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors, it certainly hasn’t registered on any political Richter scale. Elites in these countries are busy (re)constructing their own nation-states, reviving their own historical memories and narratives, and grappling with their own parochial problems. They are happy to accept whatever benefits (mutual or otherwise) that may come from association with Russia, but they are jealous of their sovereignty and not particularly interested in Russia’s wider geopolitical aspirations.
If Eurasianism and the Russian World haven’t exactly captured the imagination of non-Russian elites in the post-Soviet space so far, the situation, from Moscow’s perspective, is only going to get worse as successive generations that never knew the Soviet Union come of age. People brought up as patriotic citizens of their own nation-states, educated in their native languages and steeped in their own traditions, cannot help but view Russia as “other”—quite possibly benevolent and even admirable, but nevertheless foreign. Such people may welcome opportunities to cooperate with their mighty neighbor, but Russia’s concerns and ambitions will not be theirs. However, Putin’s vision for Russia as a great power and major player in a multi-polar world depends crucially on Russia reasserting leadership—not to say control—over as much of the post-Soviet space as possible. If “natural” reintegration tendencies prove to be weaker than the Kremlin seems to assume, there will be a strong temptation to “help” the process along whenever and however possible.
While the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine have grabbed the headlines, it is worth noting that Moscow has so far been rather circumspect about actual military intervention. Russia has relied as much as possible on local proxies, and has sent in troops openly only where it could leverage ethnic conflicts or count on a fair level of support from Russian or Russophone locals. Affected populations who opposed Russian intervention have largely been forced out, like most of the Georgians of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the 1.7 million Ukrainian IDPs from the Donbas (but not—at least so far—the Crimean Tatars), leaving Russian forces with a more receptive environment. Russia has not attempted to seize large swathes of territory where the hostility of the local population would require a harsh occupying regime and could engender partisan warfare. This consideration undoubtedly explains Putin’s reticence, notwithstanding the pleas of Russian national chauvinists, to invade Ukraine openly in 2014 to reverse the fiasco of Moscow’s Novorossiya gambit.
However, Moscow is running out of congenial places to invade. Once again, demography is not working in Russia’s favor. The mass emigration of Russians and Russophones since 1991 from Central Asia and the Caucasus has decimated the potential base of support for any kind of Russian-World scenario in these regions. For example, the number of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan fell by 28 percent just between 1989 and 1999, and in Azerbaijan the Russian population plunged by about 70 percent between 1989 and 2009. (Ironically, the Russian population has generally held up better in Ukraine and the Baltic States—precisely where Moscow perennially complains of supposed discrimination and mistreatment.) A sizable Russophone population remains in northern Kazakhstan, where Russian-speakers comprise a majority in many districts. If aging Kazakh President Nazarbayev should be followed by a more overtly nationalistic successor, the Kremlin should have little difficulty contriving a mortal danger to the Russian population there, and “polite green men” might feasibly attract a level of local support on a par with that in the Donbas. Another place where a Russian military intervention might secure at least passive acceptance would be Belarus—most likely in the context of an interregnum or succession struggle, and packaged as a preemption of some dastardly NATO provocation.
Incidentally, it is safe to assume that leaders in both Kazakhstan and Belarus are aware of these vulnerabilities, and have been taking steps, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to prepare for a similar eventuality. Moscow can hardly hope to strengthen relations with these countries, heretofore among Russia’s closest partners, if they perceive themselves to be standing in the Russian World’s crosshairs.
Aside from these somewhat promising possibilities, Russia has few options for well-received intervention in the former Soviet space. Among other things, Moscow has smiled indulgently upon Gagauz separatism in Moldova, openly supported a local warlord in Georgia’s Ajara region, and fitfully encouraged a separate Ruthenian national identity in Ukraine’s Zakarpattya Oblast. These projects have not amounted to much, in large measure because the territories in question are distant from Russia, and Moscow’s physical access to them is limited. If only there were something like a Roki Tunnel to Zakarpattya….
Elsewhere, Russian interventions could expect a frosty reception, which is no doubt why there haven’t been more of them. While solicitous of opportunities to enhance its influence in the post-Soviet space, Moscow has hardly been indiscriminate about deploying its forces—for example, it judiciously declined to send troops when ethnic conflict broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. In many parts of the former Soviet Union (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan come readily to mind), the inexplicable lack of appeal of Eurasianism and the Russian World is more likely to engender resignation than any rush to intervene on Moscow’s part—especially where Euro-Atlantic integration is not an option.
Quite another matter is the possibility of Russian intervention in the near abroad not as a calculated choice, but as a panicked reaction to unfolding events.
The collapse of the USSR was accompanied by a widespread expectation of justice and prosperity—a conviction, or at least a fervent hope, that Soviet socialism would give way fairly quickly and painlessly to something like a Scandinavian welfare state. These expectations were crushingly disappointed—not because of over-promising by the West, but due to underperformance by post-Soviet governing elites. The misrule of the past quarter-century has built up an enormous reservoir of dissatisfaction. If in Russia this ire is channeled above all into resentment at the country’s diminished size and status, elsewhere in the post-Soviet space it is directed principally at callous and corrupt national leaders and oligarchs. Russia thus faces an inherently unstable and potentially explosive situation along much of its periphery, precisely in the states Moscow aspires to weld together into a resurrected Eurasian superpower. Under the circumstances, “color” revolutions are not just a possibility, they are virtually unavoidable—regardless of anything the West might say or do by way of promoting democratization or the development of civil society. Moreover, it is probably only a matter of time before a mass disturbance rooted in Islam breaks out in one or more of the traditionally Muslim former Soviet republics. A political transition, such as the one now taking place in Uzbekistan following the death of Islam Karimov, is likely to be a time of particular vulnerability for these states.
The socio-economic situation is deteriorating even further as Russia’s neighbors suffer the trickle-down consequences of Russia’s own economic downturn and prospective stagnation. The decline in transfer payments from guest workers in Russia, the battering of national currencies, and likely reductions in Russian subsidies will further destabilize countries that were barely getting by even when Russia was prospering.
So, quite apart from places where Moscow has carefully laid the groundwork for “spontaneous” pro-Russian manifestations and timely Russian intervention in their support, the Kremlin can expect to be confronted at very little notice with eruptions of popular indignation almost anywhere in the post-Soviet space. These outbursts need not be overtly anti-Russian, but their nationalistic/Islamic and anti-oligarchic tenor will hardly incline their followers toward Eurasianism, nor endear them to the Kremlin. How will Moscow react to popular uprisings that topple entrenched post-Soviet regimes, especially if somewhere Islamic radicals manage to seize power?
The invasion of Ukraine illustrates the combination of opportunism and desperation that drives Russian policy in the post-Soviet space, as well as the mixed outcomes that Moscow might anticipate from military intervention there.
Far from being the Kremlin’s puppet, Ukraine’s unlamented ex-President Yanukovych was too busy plundering his country to give much thought to lofty abstractions like the Russian World. Putin made little effort to hide his contempt for the uncouth street criminal running Ukraine, and throughout Yanukovych’s tenure Russia gouged its southern neighbor on gas prices and promoted pipeline initiatives to bypass Ukraine and deprive it of transit revenues. For his part, Yanukovych pursued, in his characteristically dishonest, self-interested fashion, European rather than Eurasian integration—not to bring prosperity or better governance to his people, but in the hope of being the proverbial calf that nurses from two cows. Thus, Moscow was confronted by a Ukraine slipping out of its orbit, notwithstanding an ostensibly pro-Russian president. Even the Kremlin’s $3 billion bribe to call off the signing of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement in 2013 signaled only a temporary halt to the drift, not its reversal.
Yanukovych abruptly fled Kyiv when it became evident that thousands of Ukrainians were prepared to lay down their lives to depose him, but no one was willing to risk their lives to defend him. His flight presented Russia with both a challenge and an opportunity. Moscow had the perfectly viable option of trying to reconstitute a loyalist, “legitimate” Yanukovych-led government in southern and eastern Ukraine to counter the Maidan. However, as useless as Yanukovych had been to the Kremlin in most respects, he had obligingly allowed Russia to infiltrate and compromise Ukraine’s military and security forces. So, rather than heading up a Russian-backed government in Simferopol or Donetsk to struggle against the “fascist junta” in Kyiv for control of the country, Yanukovych was bundled off to a comfortable oblivion in the leafy suburbs of Moscow. The Kremlin decided instead to exploit a possibly unique opportunity and gambled on seeing how much of Ukraine it could bring under direct Russian control.
Ironically, it was Russia’s initial easy success in the Crimea that led to the wild miscalculation of the Novorossiya project. Assuming it could replicate the Crimea operation across the entire south and east of Ukraine, Moscow instead found itself spread too thin and enjoying minimal local support. Even in the Donbas, which was about 40 percent ethnic Russian and nearly 100 percent Russophone, Moscow’s agents and proxies were trounced so badly by the hapless Ukrainian army that Russia had to send in its own regular forces just to salvage a rump separatist entity.
Even victory has come at a steep price for Russia, and in two important aspects, the difference between the success in Crimea and the failure of Novorossiya is less than meets the eye. First, with the Crimea and the Donbas, Russia has added two more line items to its motley collection of toxic assets, all of which will require heavy subsidization from Moscow for the foreseeable future, and possibly in perpetuity. Second, most Ukrainians are now thoroughly alienated from their northern neighbor and want nothing to do with any Russian World. The Kremlin, for its part, appears convinced that Russia can somehow still compel where it has failed to attract, and is doubling down on the policies that have already produced an unprecedented crisis in relations between two traditionally friendly peoples. Moscow’s shrill anti-Ukrainian rhetoric and the continuing war in the Donbas will have the utterly predictable effect of deepening Ukrainian bitterness and making reconciliation ever more problematic.
Given the Kremlin’s policy of willfully antagonizing the Ukrainians (and the Georgians before them), how will Moscow deal with the upheavals bound to shake the near abroad in coming years? Will the Kremlin contrive to expand the Russian World at its neighbors’ expense? If so, how many more devastated, depopulated regions like the Donbas can Moscow afford to subsidize? Recognizing that its policy of hostility and targeted coercion has failed to bring Ukraine into line, will Russia throw restraint to the wind and initiate a wider invasion—a course suggested by the Crimea shooting incident and Russia’s military buildup this August? Or, while still bogged down in the Donbas, will Russia confront one or more popular uprisings elsewhere in the post-Soviet space? How often might the Kremlin feel tempted to introduce troops to exploit an opportunity, or feel compelled to send in forces to head off a geopolitical setback? And at what point might these military interventions, both contrived and unanticipated, overwhelm the resources the Kremlin can devote to them?
Putin’s Russia can probably handle a lengthy period of low energy prices, and can no doubt muddle through for a long time with an unreformed economy—assuming at least the continuation of intelligent macroeconomic policies. It can survive prolonged tension with the West, and even a quasi-Cold War involving military build-ups and long-running sanctions. It can endure the likely failure of its Eurasian reintegration project, the growing estrangement of post-Soviet neighbors, and potential upheavals in the near abroad of an orange or green (Islamic) hue. However, it remains an open question how well, or how long, Moscow can manage all of these processes simultaneously—which is the most likely prospect for Russia over the coming decade. The near abroad presents at least as much risk and vulnerability as opportunity for Russia. Lured by the siren song of Eurasia and the Russian World, the Kremlin risks dashing an already battered Russian ship of state against the rocks of imperial overstretch.