Prepare for Russia itself to disintegrate

ARLINGTON, VA – DECEMBER 09: Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, speaks during a briefing December 9, 2015 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Lt. Gen. Hodges briefed the media on Operation Atlantic Resolve, the Army’s ongoing support to our European Allies and partners. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Kremlin’s disastrous losses in Ukraine could result in the collapse of the Russian Federation

BEN HODGES (Lieutenant General (Retired),  former commander of US Army Europe and a senior advisor at Human Rights First)

It is becoming increasingly clear that Ukraine is going to win this war and that the Kremlin faces a historic crisis of confidence. Indeed, I now believe it is a genuine possibility that Vladimir Putin’s exposed weaknesses are so severe that we might be witnessing the beginning of the end – not only of his regime, but of the Russian Federation itself.

This vast empire encompassing more than 120 ethnic groups is on an unsustainable footing, and like that famous Hemingway quote, its collapse may be gradual at first but could quickly become a sudden, violent and uncontrollable event. If we fail to prepare for this possibility in the way that we failed to prepare for the collapse of the Soviet Union, it could introduce immense instability to our geopolitics.

I see at least three factors that could lead to the Federation’s collapse. The first is the breakdown of domestic confidence in the Russian Army, which has traditionally been at the core of the Kremlin’s legitimacy. Its humiliation in Ukraine is now almost complete, with the proud Black Sea Fleet still hiding behind Crimea, too frightened to take action against a country that doesn’t even have a navy.

And Russian men, once enticed by the military’s pay offers, are shunning recruitment en masse in the knowledge of the fate the battlefield holds for them. This has exacerbated the disproportionate recruitment of ethnic minorities from Chechnya and other nations on the edges of the Federation – the easiest groups to use as cannon fodder – which has raised grievances that won’t easily be forgotten.

If some militant Chechens were to decide to trigger another war of independence, where would Putin find the military resources to fight it now that he has dedicated so much to Ukraine? He will no doubt be aware that if such a war is won quickly and decisively by the Chechens, it could trigger a wave of similar insurgencies across the Federation.

Second, the damage suffered by the Russian economy has been too devastating to sustain a population of 144 million. The loss of energy markets, which compensated for the country’s lack of modern industries, cannot be reversed. European governments will not rely again on Nord Stream 1, having witnessed how easily it can be turned off, and are already making long-term investments in domestic energy supply.

Russia has also relied on arms exports, but which country will be interested in buying its equipment or weapons now? Such an economic crisis can be sustained for months in the misplaced hope that business will one day return – but even in Russia the well of stoicism has its limits.

This brings us to the third factor, which is the sparse nature of Russia’s population. For despite possessing 70 times the landmass of the United Kingdom, the Federation has just twice the population. These numbers make civic solidarity difficult to achieve in the best of times, but now, with the metropole in a weak position, any sense of national identity could rapidly deteriorate.

Western sanctions will force Moscow’s elites to make difficult economic trade-offs. They will inevitably bail-out the middle classes in the capital, who pose a more immediate threat to officials, to the detriment of minority populations in the constituent nations.

Seen this way, it is shocking how little discussion there has been about the potential end of the Russian Federation. We ought to be asking difficult questions now lest they be sprung on us out of nowhere.

For instance, how would this play out in a country that has considerable stockpiles of nuclear weapons and few centres of power? Who would extract the nukes? How do we avoid leakage of weapons and militants into the Baltic states? Is a major internal conflict inevitable or can the collapse be contained within a political context?

Combined, these dilemmas pose a very significant challenge for the West. Get it wrong and we could face disaster. Our failure to prepare for the last Russian collapse some 30 years ago, and the internal unrest that ensued in its aftermath, arguably led to the Putin presidency. We cannot risk being unprepared a second time. 

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