Managing Russia's dissolution

Russia’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine and its persistent subversion of Western states demonstrates that Washington and Brussels have failed to restrain Moscow’s imperial ambitions.

Engagement, criticism and limited sanctions have simply reinforced Kremlin perceptions that the West is weak and predictable. To curtail Moscow’s neo-imperialism a new strategy is needed, one that nourishes Russia’s decline and manages the international consequences of its dissolution. 

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Russia is more fragile than it appears, and the West is stronger than it is portrayed. Under the regime of Vladimir Putin, which will soon enter its third decade, the country has transitioned from an emerging democracy to an unstable authoritarianism.

Although Moscow has failed to modernize its economy to be globally competitive, the Kremlin excels in one domain — disinformation — through which it portrays the country as a rising power on a level with the U.S. 

In reality, Russia is a declining state that disguises its internal infirmities with external offensives. Russia’s economy is stagnating. According to World Bank statistics for 2017, Russia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita ranks 62nd in the world.

Even the defense budget is shrinking and barely reaches a tenth of the U.S. Through a combination of low fossil fuel prices, infrastructural decay, pervasive corruption and Western financial sanctions, state revenues are declining, living standards are falling, social conflicts are intensifying and regional disquiet is mounting. 

Although economic performance alone is insufficient to measure susceptibility to collapse, rising social, ethnic and regional pressures indicate that Russia is heading toward fragmentation.

Russia has failed to develop into a nation state with a strong ethnic or civic identity. It remains an imperial construct due to its Tsarist and Soviet heritage.

The unwieldy Russian Federation consists of 85 “federal subjects,” of which 22 are republics representing non-Russian ethnicities, including the North Caucasus and Middle Volga, and numerous regions with distinct identities that feel increasingly estranged from Moscow.

Instead of pursuing decentralization to accommodate regional aspirations, the Kremlin is downgrading their autonomy. This is evident in the new language law designed to promote "Russification" and plans to merge and eliminate several regions.

Pressure is mounting across the country, with growing anger at local governors appointed by the Kremlin and resentment that Moscow appropriates their resources. Indeed, regions such as Sakha and Magadan in the far east, with their substantial mineral wealth, could be successful states without Moscow’s exploitation. 

Emerging states will benefit from forging closer economic and political contacts with neighboring countries rather than depending on Moscow, whose federal budget is drastically shrinking. Collapsing infrastructure means that residents of Siberia and Russia’s far east will become even more separated from the center, thus encouraging demands for secession and sovereignty.  

Given Russia’s ailments, an assertive Western approach would be more effective than reactive defense. Washington needs to return to core principles that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union by supporting democratization, pluralism, minority rights, genuine federalism, decentralization and regional self-determination among Russia’s disparate regions and ethnic groups.

While Moscow seeks to divide the West and fracture the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by backing nationalist and separatist parties in Europe, Washington should promote regional and ethnic self-determination inside the Russian Federation. This would send a strong signal that the West is fully capable of reacting to Moscow’s subversion.

The rationale for dissolution should be logically framed: In order to survive, Russia needs a federal democracy and a robust economy; with no democratization on the horizon and economic conditions deteriorating, the federal structure will become increasingly ungovernable.

To manage the process of dissolution and lessen the likelihood of conflict that spills over state borders, the West needs to establish links with Russia’s diverse regions and promote their peaceful transition toward statehood.

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NATO should prepare contingencies for both the dangers and the opportunities that Russia’s fragmentation will present. In particular, Moscow’s European neighbors must be provided with sufficient security to shield themselves from the most destabilizing scenarios while preparations are made for engaging with emerging post-Russia entities.

Some regions could join countries such as Finland, Ukraine, China and Japan, from whom Moscow has forcefully appropriated territories in the past. Other republics in the North Caucasus, Middle Volga, Siberia and the far east could become fully independent states and forge relations with China, Japan, the U.S. and Europe. 

Neglecting Russia’s dissolution may prove more damaging to Western interests than making preparations to manage its international repercussions. To avoid sudden geopolitical jolts and possible military confrontations, Washington needs to monitor and encourage a peaceful rupture and establish links with emerging entities.

The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union should serve as a lesson that far-reaching transformations occur regardless of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns or the West’s shortsighted adherence to a transient status quo. 

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is "Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks," (Jamestown, 2016).