Foreword — Decline, Decay and Disintegration: Russia’s Future in the 21st Century

Russia currently faces three existential challenges that already point to its decline, decay and even disintegration in the coming decades. It has an economy oriented to the past rather than the future, one incapable of supporting a worthy standard of living for its people or even the plans of the Kremlin elite. It has a set of center-periphery relations in which Moscow increasingly views the regions and republics as burdens rather than partners, and the latter, in turn, view the center as an occupying power. And it has geopolitical ambitions which it is not in a position to support but that guarantee neither Russia nor its neighbors will be able to live in peace and prosperity in the coming decades.

Any one of those challenges would be enough to be concerned about Russia’s prospects, but their coming together and the way in which Moscow’s approach in each not only is conditioned by but exacerbates the situation in the other two represent the coming of a perfect storm—one far more severe than that which tore apart the Soviet Union a generation ago. And because this trend will have consequences not only for the peoples within the borders of the Russian Federation and its neighbors but also for the United States, the West and the world as a whole, it is critically important to focus precisely on what is going on. Namely, it will be important to recognize what would have to change in Moscow for this storm to pass with the least possible damage but also to be in a position to formulate the most thoughtful policies vis-à-vis Russia, whether or not this coming storm ultimately materializes.

In this essay, I want to address only a small part of this enormous subject, parts of which are also addressed in the contributions to this book. First, I want to survey exactly what the three challenges to Russia now are and why they are existential rather than part of the normal run-of-the-mill difficulties any country faces. Second, I want to highlight the reasons why Moscow’s approach to each at the present time is making the situation in the other two worse, even as it does little to overcome the problems that approach is supposed to solve. And third, I want to distinguish among the three outcomes in my title—decline, decay and disintegration—because, while interlinked, they are not the same and have radically different causes and consequences.

Three Existential Challenges

The three existential challenges to Russia’s future exist because Moscow has made them so. It has treated the economy not as an engine for progress and an improved standard of living for the Russian people but as a source of wealth that the elite can pillage for itself and that the Kremlin can use for its military adventurism. It has treated the regions and republics of the largest country in the world as conquered territory to be subdued rather than as partners; and the latter have responded by viewing the center as an imperial ruler rather than as the natural and accepted government of a country of which they are a part. Lastly, Moscow has adopted geopolitical goals incompatible with the economic size and well-being of the Russian people and thus that put ever more stress on the country in all sectors.

First of all, the Russian economy today is a disaster. Not only is Russia declining economically relative to other countries like China and the Europeans, but it is declining absolutely as well, something few countries can survive for long. That conclusion reflects not the impact of Western sanctions, as Putin would have people believe, but rather his decision to keep Russia as a petro-state and to use the earnings from the sale of Russia’s natural resources—like oil, natural gas and many others—as a means to enrich himself and his elite. This situation means that Russia now has the greatest imbalance between rich and poor of any country on earth; Putin and his coterie have sent abroad $1.3 trillion rather than investing it in the modernization and transformation of the economy and for the benefit of the Russian people. Indeed, average Russians have fallen further and further behind their counterparts abroad, and in all too many cases they are voting with their feet by moving to the West.

But not only has Putin impoverished the country, he has taken steps to ensure that Russia will not recover for decades. The Kremlin leader has cut the amount of money going into research and development and into education more generally, he is contributing to Russia’s demographic decline by shuttering hospitals and making access to needed medical care more difficult, and he has sponsored the clericalization of Russian education so that young Russians may be spending more time reading about the fathers of the Orthodox Church than they do on science and mathematics. Thus, the economic problems that Russia faces are not going to go away anytime soon, regardless of whether sanctions are lifted or not; they are long term—and Russians are beginning to recognize that reality.

And nowhere is that reality more obvious than in Russia’s infrastructure. Russia has fewer miles of paved highway than does the US state of Virginia. It has eliminated hundreds of air routes and even airports, leaving many parts of the country disconnected from others. And its remaining infrastructure—be it air, rail, highway or buildings—is in such sad shape that it is falling apart. Moscow has no money for or apparent interest in doing anything about it, suggesting that if individuals want change, they need to take responsibility for it on their own.

Second, Putin has overseen the destruction of Russia’s halting moves toward federalism. While Russia continues to be called “the Russian Federation,” it is now more centralized than the Soviet Union was at the end. Moscow takes all the money from taxes and income away from the regions and then gives back what it cares to, often as little as two percent of the total in the case of Tatarstan. At the same time, it shifts ever more unfunded liabilities onto the regions and republics in the form of demands that they somehow come up with money to pay for what Moscow will not. But the situation is even more dire than that: Moscow has a vested interest in promoting the impoverishment of most federal subjects in the expectation that they will line up against the so-called donor subjects because without Moscow’s power, they would not obtain anything like what they need. That has already outraged the few remaining donor republics, where leaders recognize that Moscow is behaving like an occupier rather than a central government. Moreover, it is beginning to anger the recipients, who see that Moscow is not giving them a fair shake either.

Consequently, both the center and the periphery view Russia less as a country than as an empire. The word is even increasingly in common use and is now the name of an important portal, AfterEmpire. As Ronald Reagan proved in the case of the USSR, once a country is identified as an empire, people will begin to talk about the need for decolonization—asking not whether that should happen, but when.

And third, Putin has adopted a geopolitical position that Russia cannot long afford, however much “hurrah patriotism” it may generate in the short term and how much his bluster and aggressiveness are mistaken for strength. Except for its nuclear arsenal—and this is a big exception—Russia today is a regional power. It can push around its neighbors because power is relative not absolute; but even those neighbors can and will resist. Putin certainly wanted to take Georgia, but he failed; and he wanted to take far more of Ukraine and failed there as well. Aggressiveness breeds not submission but new commitments to resist. The Ukrainian military today is far better positioned to defeat a new round of Russian aggression than it was in 2014.

The Kremlin’s desire for Western recognition of a Russian droit de regard over the former Soviet space may be attractive to some in the West who are tired of taking responsibilities abroad and want to turn inward. But even if the West does so—and far from all of its most important members are prepared to go that far—the countries in this region are not going to roll over and play dead for Moscow. They will fight, and Russia does not now have the forces to defeat them. It is struggling to fill its draft quotas; its military is having its lights turned off in key bases because Moscow has not paid the electric bill; even the reliability of its weapons is now in question, with corrupt heads of defense industries substituting cheap imitations in place of needed specialized metals in Russia’s rockets. That is not the picture of a country with a military that can project power for long with any success, even if some in the West are prepared to allow it to try.

Some might see Putin’s intervention in Syria as an exception to this conclusion and an indication that Moscow does have the ability to project power. But a closer examination even of that campaign suggests otherwise: On the one hand, Moscow had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find enough troops to put on the ground—it used Chechens, even though Russian commanders would have preferred not to—and displayed its own weakness in this area by the ships it sent. Its aircraft carrier did enter the Mediterranean—but only in the company of a tug boat prepared to pull it back into port. And on the other, Putin’s approach to the projection of power underscored his weakness. He was able to bomb a city back to the Stone Age—but only because he had no positive message and made no effort to come up with one to extend his reach.

Indeed, it is Russia’s weakness and not its strength that has prompted Putin to try to weaken NATO from within. His forces are not in a position to defeat the Western alliance, and he knows it. What should be obvious is that in any conflict with Russia, NATO would win unless it decides not to fight.

Re-Enforcing Disasters

Each of these challenges is severe, but all are made more serious not only because they are coming together at the same time but because the challenges in one area inform what Moscow is doing in the other two, often in ways that make all three much worse. Three examples are instructive: First and perhaps most obviously, Moscow’s failure to move to a modern IT economy means that it lacks the resources to field a world-class military and thus dictates the kind of bravado to hide what it is not doing in the economy. Second, its failure to develop infrastructure means that many parts of Russia are less connected with the other domestic regions and Moscow than they are with foreign countries. This pattern reduces the importance of the center and leads ever more people to ask whether they could do better if they were legally even further away from it. And third, Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions means that it cannot address the problems in the other sectors: the regions and republics have to be starved to feed Crimea, as protesters in ever more of them are pointing out.

But what matters is not just the limitations that actions in one sector impose on Moscow’s freedom of action in another: also of importance are the specific choices the Kremlin makes about what to do in one sector because of what it is doing in another. Putin holds on to the raw-material exporting model not simply because it enriches him and his cronies. He is doing so because he fears that any modernization would imply not only greater democratization but great decentralization—two things he opposes. If Russia were to modernize, the regions and republics would have more power, and the country would have to be freer for innovation to occur. Not wanting those things, Putin thus backs something that is undercutting his position regarding all three of the challenges.

Moreover, because Putin does not have a positive message to deliver to Russians or the world beyond the impressions made by his country’s use of brute force, he lacks the soft power that most governments have not only for their own population but also for neighboring countries. He chooses force first and foremost, having failed to recognize that that is often alienating even if it may intimidate for a while. And because he lacks the resources to fulfill his geopolitical goals, he is conducting a policy that is undercutting his ability to continue to rely on his increasingly out-of-date rustbelt and extractive industry economy or to provide enough resources to the regions and republics to keep them in line.

At some point then, this congeries of challenges will confront Putin with the problem that no leader wants to face: he may, as a result of his own policies, lack the resources to hold things together because there will not even be enough money to pay for the forces of coercion to hold them in thrall when he has nothing else to offer.

Decline, Decay and Disintegration Are Three Distinct Things

One of the most difficult factors about discussing the future of Russia is that the country’s decline, its decay and its possible disintegration are three different things. And yet, those who try to present Putin’s Russia as a kind of success story often avoid taking criticism of their claims seriously by treating these three outcomes as one and the same. They are not, and readers of this volume should keep that in mind on every page.

Russia is already in decline both relatively and—more significantly—absolutely. Any debate about that is a waste of time. With each passing decade, the country has less economic clout, less military power, and less influence in the world than it did not only because of what Moscow has done and not done but because of what other governments and countries have. China, for example, has grown dramatically faster than Russia over the last 25 years, dwarfing what was once a superpower. Productivity in Russia is now a tiny fraction of productivity in Western countries. And in both hard and soft power, Russia is weaker than it has been since the years following the Crimean War in the 19th century: it even had more influence in the 1990s because of the hopes so many had that it would escape from the horrors of its past more completely than it did.

Decay is another matter because measuring it is more difficult. There is no question, however, that Russia is decaying demographically, economically and politically. Its key institutions are being dragged back to the past or gutted in such a way that Russia today is far more a pre-modern polity than many can imagine. It is, in large measure, a Potemkin village: those who think that Moscow is representative of the rest of Russia deceive themselves, since this is a country where to go 100 kilometers beyond the ring road is to retreat 100 years. But the biggest decay is a moral one. Some notions that many had assumed were unthinkable in principle—including the open flouting of international law and the use of lies as the main instrument of political life—are thinkable again. Furthermore, there has been a return of such ugly phenomena of the past as openly anti-Semitic remarks made by government officials. And in at least one prominent case, the official who used such contemptible language was not disciplined but sent abroad to represent Russia in Europe. It is impossible, for me at least, not to conclude that all this represents decay and that Russia is thus decaying.

Given the centrality in Putin’s mind of avoiding another 1991, the issue of the possible disintegration of the Russian Federation is the most difficult of all to treat. Many are prepared to declare, as Putin does, that he has made the disintegration of the country impossible—and thus on that measure, his rule has been a success. But there is a far greater reason why many cannot focus adequately on the possibility that the Russian Federation will fall to pieces: the coming demise of that country, which this author believes is almost inevitable, will not look like the collapse of 1991 and will not be nearly as neat, quick or relatively non-violent. Instead, it will be less about ethnic challenges from the quarter of the population that is not ethnic Russian; rather, the triggers will be about regionalism and the fact that Moscow now is as hostile to regionalism as to nationalism.

There are three reasons why regionalism is neglected by those who study politics in the Russian Federation. First, most have overlearned the lessons of 1991 and conclude that any future challenge to the center will be based on non-Russian nationalism rather than anything else. After all, that was the case 25 years ago. Second, all too many have accepted an idea promoted by the Soviets and supported by many now that all nations in the Russian Federation, including the Great Russians, are homogeneous and are not subject to any other divisions. And third, because regionalism is about federalism in the first instance rather than about independence as a primary goal, it has been neglected as a social and political force.

It is long past time to overcome these obstacles to an adequate understanding of the situation in Russia today. First of all, as many are coming to understand, the events of 1991 were about regions and not just nations. Many ethnic Russians in the non-Russian countries supported nationalist goals only because the sclerotic leadership in Moscow was not prepared to yield power to them and those they lived among on any other basis. And many ethnic Russians across the Russian Federation had regional agendas that took the form of things like the Siberian Agreement, the Urals Republic, and so on. It is significant that the Russian government was more worried about what the success of these movements would lead to than it was about the independence of the non-Russian countries; it worked hard to destroy the regionalist projects not only to maintain the much-ballyhooed “territorial integrity” of the Russian Federation but to destroy any chance that Russia could become a federation.

Second, the notion that each nation in the former Soviet space is homogeneous is nonsense. None are. All vary enormously and none varies internally as much as does the one Moscow designates as the Great Russians. The Kremlin and its supporters, however, can never really acknowledge that fact because if they did, they would set the stage for two things they fear most of all. On the one hand, they would then have to acknowledge the possibility of the rise of other identities, many—such as the Siberian, the Novgorodian or the Koenigsberger—far stronger than the one they are associated with. The central authorities would thus risk facing national movements from within what they cannot admit is an incompletely formed common Russian nation, civic or ethnic. And on the other, if they did recognize the diversity, they would have to take steps to deal with it. Lacking the power to homogenize the nation they seem to think is already homogeneous, Moscow would have to make the kinds of concessions that would lead to decentralization and the genuine federalism that the Russian constitution calls for but that the Kremlin has never supported.

And third, if one looks across the world today, one can see that regionalist challenges are far more common than national secessionist ones; and only where the central authorities are unwilling to meet regionalist demands do national secessionist groups emerge. Few regional movements want secession: they simply want to be able to make decisions about their own lives on the basis of their knowledge of what local conditions are like. If they have that opportunity, which involves devolution of decision-making and taxation powers and the holding of genuine competitive elections involving parties of all kinds, they will not shift to the more radical position.

As Russia heads into 2017, the anniversary of two revolutions, it faces a situation in which groups lumped together under the rubric of the Russian nation as well as people and regions considered homogeneous across its 11 time zones are becoming ever more assertive, even as the Kremlin becomes ever more centralist and restrictive. That creates a new kind of scissors’ crisis, one that opens the way to a revolutionary situation. In that situation, the center cannot hope to keep all the powers it now has without slipping ever further behind the rest of the world; and the regions are thus a revolutionary force. They can transform Russia without changing its borders if the center is clever, but disintegration is likely if the center is not. As such, regionalism is set to replace the role of nationalism in the next Russian revolution and to tear that country apart in a more complicated and likely violent way—the result of Putin’s mistaken approach to the three challenges his country now faces.

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Despite all this, might it be possible for Russia to enter the 22nd century with a flourishing economy, strong regions and republics, and at peace with itself and the world? Yes, of course. But that would require the coming to power of a Russian elite that viewed the people as a partner rather than a resource, and regions and republics as the basis for the strength of the country rather than secessionist challenges. Furthermore, it would require the pursuit of peace and prosperity of the whole rather than the enrichment and power of a narrow group around the Kremlin. And such an elite would have to learn the lesson of 1991: No matter how much force the center has and no matter how large its nuclear arsenal, it is powerless against economic change and the aspirations of the people. Unfortunately for Russia and the world, the prospects for the rise of such an elite in Moscow are far more improbable than any of the scenarios described herein.