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Why it's high time to prepare for Russia's collapse


Could Ukraine War Provoke Russia's Collapse? According to Alexander Motyl, not planning for this possibility shows a dangerous lack of imagination.

Could Ukraine War Provoke Russia's Collapse?

According to Alexander Motyl, not planning for this possibility shows a dangerous lack of imagination.

  • Is Russia threatened with collapse?

    This thesis of the US scientist Alexander Motyl caused quite a stir in January.

  • We document Motyl's full-length essay.

    The article is available in German for the first time – it was first published in

    Foreign Policy

    magazine on January 7, 2023 .

NEW BRUNSWICK - Since Russia's failed attempt to take Kyiv and install a puppet government in the early days of the Ukraine war, a defeat for the Kremlin in Ukraine has become increasingly likely.

It is therefore surprising, after almost a year of war, that politicians, decision-makers, analysts and journalists are hardly discussing the consequences of a defeat for Russia.

That's a dangerous lack of imagination given the potential for Russia's collapse and disintegration.

In fact, the combination of a failed war abroad and a fragile, overburdened system at home increases the likelihood of an implosion by the day.

Whether that's good or bad for the West, policymakers should prepare for this outcome.

Russia before collapse?

Multiple Scenarios

There are different scenarios for what could happen in Russia if the defeat in Ukraine becomes even clearer.

Most likely is a resignation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, followed by a bitter power struggle involving: far-right nationalists who want to continue the war and destroy the existing political hierarchy, authoritarian conservatives interested in preserving the system, and a resurgent semi-democracy Movement dedicated to ending the war and reforming Russia.

We don't know who will win in this scenario, but one thing is clear: the power struggle will weaken the regime and distract Russia from further war efforts.

A weakened regime coupled with a dysfunctional economy will, in turn, prompt Russians to take to the streets, perhaps even with arms.

Some of the non-Russian political entities that make up the Russian Federation may feel encouraged to call for greater self-government.

These include Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Sakha.

If Russia survives this turmoil, it is likely to become a weak satellite of China.

If it doesn't survive, the map of Eurasia will change significantly.

Wars as a Threat to States: Rich Stories of Collapses

Given Russia's vast sprawl, long history of troubled regions, and large number of non-Russian ethnic groups—all a result of centuries of imperial conquest—the crumbling of centralized control and the break-up of the federation is a scenario that deserves much more attention.

There is a rich history of state collapses after wars, revolutions, system collapses, economic crises and other epochal events.

After the disastrous march on Moscow and the subsequent defeat in the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon's empire collapsed.

In 1918, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire and the Russian Empire collapsed in military defeats.

Of course, people, decisions and political measures played a role, but in the end it was the war and the economic and social crises that came with it that plunged these states into political and often violent chaos.

Pictures of the Ukraine war: great horror and small moments of happiness

Pictures of the Ukraine war: great horror and small moments of happiness

Also consider the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Few Russians wished for or even imagined this outcome when Mikhail Gorbachev took power as leader of the Soviet Union's Communist Party in 1985.

In early 1991, a majority of Soviet citizens voted in a referendum to keep their country.

It is true that all republics, including Russia, declared sovereignty in 1990, and all but Russia declared full independence after the failed hard-line coup of 1991.

The system collapsed, however, largely because Gorbachev decided to rejuvenate the Soviet Union by abolishing its central features of totalitarianism and central planning, thereby unleashing political, social, and economic forces that would eventually become most republics forced to seek refuge from chaos in autonomy and independence.

It was


- Gorbachev's characteristic policy of economic and political restructuring - that unintentionally brought down the Soviet Union.

Putin's Russia is more fragile than the boast suggests

If today's Russia follows in these countries' footsteps and collapses, it has little to do with the will of the Russian elite or Western politics.

There are major structural forces at work.

Putin's Russia suffers from a set of mutually reinforcing tensions that have produced a state far more fragile than its boasts suggest.

These include the military, moral and economic defeat in the Ukraine war, but also the fragility and ineffectiveness of Putin's hyper-centralized political system, the collapse of his macho personality cult in the face of defeat, ill health and visible age, the gross mismanagement of Russia's petrostate economy, the rampant corruption that permeates all walks of life; and the vast ethnic and regional divisions in the world's last unteachable empire.

While few today wish for Russia's dissolution, it is not too difficult to imagine a scenario in which growing political, economic and social instability will eventually force individual entities of Russia to seek independence.

Russia and Putin weakened - a spark could suffice

When the Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov celebrated his birthday in early January with a birthday cake on which Russia was depicted in several pieces, it was of course a conspicuous provocation.

But the idea behind the image on the icing doesn't seem so far off.

In today's conditions, even a small trigger may be enough to bring the system down.

A failed war with Ukraine that would reveal the weakness of Putin and his state could very well be the spark that ignites the frayed framework of Russia's institutions.

Of course, sparks are unpredictable, and Russia could weather the current crisis and survive as it is, whether under Putin or a successor.

But even if this is the case, the country will be severely weakened as a state and any structural tensions will remain.

Putin could even build on that.

In his 2023 New Year's address, he pointed out what a potential threat the war could pose to Russia's independence - something

History teaches us that while empire collapse is often messy for the collapsing countries, the outcome is not always bad for their neighbors or the rest of the world.

Alexander J.Motyl

But if the spark were to ignite, would a likely Russian collapse be bound to be destabilizing and violent, perhaps to the point of civil war?

Historian Marlene Laruelle, director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, agrees.

"A collapse would result in several civil wars," she says, as "new mini-states would fight each other over borders and economic assets."

Meanwhile, Moscow's elites would "react violently to any attempt at secession."

Similarly, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argues that "the dissolution of Russia or the destruction of its ability to conduct strategic politics could turn its 11-time-zone territory into a contested vacuum."

Russian groups could fight each other and use violence, while outside powers could try to use force to enforce their claims.

"All of these dangers would be compounded by the thousands of nuclear weapons," writes Kissinger.

It is best not to "make Russia powerless through war" but to involve it in a "peace process" whose details and enforceability are still unclear.

Russia in the Ukraine war: the fall of empires was not always negative

Laruelle's and Kissinger's prophecies are worst-case scenarios that should be treated with great caution.

History teaches us that while empire collapse is often messy for the collapsing countries, the outcome is not always bad for their neighbors or the rest of the world.

The fall of Napoleon ushered in an era of relative peace in Europe.

After the collapse of Austria-Hungary, there were initially fights, also between Poles and Ukrainians, but the situation stabilized after a few years.

Even the collapse of the Soviet Union was remarkably peaceful—most likely because the newly independent former Soviet republics and the newly sovereign European satellite states all had recognized borders, functioning administrations, and elites of their own prepared to

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to horrific fighting between Turks and Greeks, the collapse of the Russian Empire led to conflicts from the Baltic to the Pacific, and the collapse of the German Empire in 1918 arguably led directly to World War II.

Which of these paths might be taken if Russia collapses?

No one - including Laruelle and Kissinger - knows this, and the history of empires shows that both relatively peaceful transitions and violent conflicts are possible.

There is not much Putin and the West can do: Russia's probable drama is already unfolding

Pessimists point to the likelihood that a rump Russia would wage wars with all breakaway states.

Optimists would counter that after a defeat in Ukraine, Russian forces will be weakened and unable to fight on multiple fronts.

Pessimists might argue that new non-Russian states in the North Caucasus or elsewhere would fight each other - while optimists would say that the non-Russian countries have administrative borders, established regional governments and ample economic resources (now being diverted from Moscow). , which would allow them to avoid conflicts with their neighbors.

Optimists might say that compared to the genocidal war Russia is waging,

can't get any worse.

Pessimists would counter that things could get much worse, pointing to Russia's nuclear arsenal.

The only point on which pessimists and optimists agree is that a rump Russia would be a likely candidate for civil war, not least because of the existence of large and well-armed private armies.

The bottom line is, it doesn't matter if you're an optimist or a pessimist - we can only watch the drama of Russia's probable collapse unfold.

Neither Western politicians nor Putin himself can do much to stop this development.

That's because Russia is already beset by deep-seated institutional crises, exacerbated by the man who left Russia fragile and unstable and who planted the likely spark for its downfall: Putin.

Putin's empire near the end?

Russia's neighbors would be the key to peace

But that doesn't mean the West should sit idly by and watch Russia's decline.

It is imperative to prepare for a possible decay.

Laruelle and Kissinger's unlikely worst-case scenarios are designed to get policymakers to hope for the best, expect the worst, keep their cool and prepare for eventualities.

They should avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, such as trying to help an apparently dying Soviet Union survive and prioritizing the needs of Russia over those of its neighbors.

The countries on Russia's borders - from the Baltic states to Central Asia - if they manage to remain stable and form a sort of barrier belt will be the key to containing any instability within Russia.

They will also play a key role in helping the newly independent successor states of the Russian Federation to stabilize and behave in moderation.

In this light, continued strong Western support for Ukraine – and eventually for a free Belarus and key countries like Kazakhstan – is the best guarantee that aftershocks will be minimized when Putin's empire comes to an end.

By Alexander J Motyl

Alexander J. Motyl

is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University Newark.

This article was first published in English in the magazine "" on January 7, 2023 - as part of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to the readers of the IPPEN.MEDIA portals.

* is an offer from IPPEN.MEDIA.


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Source: merkur

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