↵Read all the papers in this series.

About Russia in Decline


This project is an attempt to envision what the pathways animating Russia’s decline could look like; identify the forces, attitudes, and ideas driving them; and describe the possible contingencies that could emerge along the pathways to a range of possible alternative destinations. It seeks to reveal how potential downside scenarios might unfold, the dynamics that could power them, the critical uncertainties whose resolution might push scenarios in different directions, and the possible wildcards that might radically, rapidly, and unpredictably alter the shape and movement of the competitive landscape, as well as the motivations and strategies of different actors.

The project’s analyses and products will appear on this Jamestown Foundation website. The papers by Russian experts are the first such postings. We further envision compiling these materials in a single volume, as well as several smaller, focused analyses on particular aspects of Russia’s decline, with appropriate contextual analysis and synthetic assessment. The final volume will be published by The Jamestown Foundation.

The Project

The French historian Alain Besancon observed long ago that understanding the USSR required us “to remain mentally in a universe whose coordinates bears no relationship to our own.” The same holds true for post-Soviet Russia. If we do not appreciate the mentality that animates and informs the actions of the Russian state, and the distinctive peculiarities of the state itself, we must forever be surprised or confounded by its behavior. Taking the Russian state for what it is, then, rather than what one would like it to be, is the precondition for appreciating the risks it may pose to itself, American, Western, and even global security in the years and decades ahead.

For a decade or more, Russia has sought to be viewed and treated as an ambitious power on the rise. The ambitions of Moscow’s ruling circles have been of course real enough—but the perception of Russia itself on the rise is, or has been, largely an illusion. It has now become increasingly clear that the underpinnings of Russian power are unraveling, and the Kremlin’s aggressive, increasingly risk-tolerant international posture and domestic performance are actually hastening the moment of truth when Russia is revealed as a power in serious decline.

This project sets out to investigate alternative futures for Russia posed not by its ascent, but rather by a Russia in decline. Paradoxical as it may sound, a weakening, decaying or even failing Russian state will still possess the capability (and may very well also possess the desire) to threaten Western interests and global stability profoundly.

A sobering assessment of Russia cannot discount the theoretical possibility that Russia may eventually arrive at a condition political scientists would call “state failure,” with collapsed institutions, a moribund economy, politics subordinated to civil unrest, a disintegrated military, and a fragmented territory—some parts of which having pushed away on their own while others are pulled into the orbits of nearby competitors. The precise timing and circumstances under which Russia is revealed (both abroad and no less importantly at home) to have “failed” cannot be foretold, although failure itself could prove to be the least threatening outcome of a faltering power in decline. The decline while it occurs, on the other hand, could well amount to a period of brief but tremendous danger. This project does not propose to consider the end point itself, critical though it may prove to be—but instead, what happens “along the way.”

The “along the way” scenarios offer a rich menu of possibilities of plausible downside scenarios that will challenge U.S. diplomacy and security planning. The menu includes Russia remaining for an extended period the “sick man of Europe and Eurasia,” to drift and decay of a fully intact state, to partnering with other aggrieved regional actors, to breakup with only a few lethal instruments of coercion still working. In these scenarios, Russia need not to have “failed” to be highly dangerous. In all, it will possess powerful capabilities to influence events beyond its borders, wherever these borders may be; and to exercise its significant military power in ways that cannot be forecast with confidence. Its actions may be triggered suddenly in response to immediate contingencies or perceived slights, or launched in total surprise.

Assumptions and Methods

We have a fairly good understanding of powerful drivers that have already begun to alter Russia’s strategic DNA. What we lack is a sense of how Russians themselves evaluate the strength and importance of these drivers and assess their consequences.

The project employs methods and approaches familiar to practitioners of alternative futures analysis, but is unique in its reliance on the observations and analysis of Russians themselves, from both within and outside of the Russian Federation. These Russian experts experience the forces of decline directly or are sufficiently proximate to understand organically and intimately the attitudes, forces, justifications, and dynamics that influence worldviews, shape opinions, and power decision making. The goal is to avoid “mirror-imaging” Russia’s problems. That is, the project seeks to avoid concluding that Russia’s pathologies and the psychological response of Russians to these pathologies are familiar to Western analysts and that their outcomes or consequences are likely to be similar.

Further, the project digs deeply into original Russian sources from thousands of digital sources that produce reflections of and on Russia’s decline as a powerful state, coherent nation, and stable society. It then tests key findings—and augments them—in small workshops featuring the Russian analysts and experts. Finally, the project leaders will introduce the findings of both analysis of sources in the digital space and the workshops with key Russians to a multidisciplinary group of largely Western analysts—e.g., political scientists, historians, economists, demographers, sociologists, psychologists, futurists—at a concluding workshop. The objective is to tease out their analyses of Russia’s unique condition and the attitudes of Russians, culminating in the development of several possible alternative futures of Russia, the shape and dynamics along the pathways into those futures, and the kind of contingencies and planning challenges each is likely to pose to Western strategists and planners.

Analyses by Russians

As stated above, the project takes as its a priori assumption that Russia is in a state in decline. It also assumes that Russia’s leadership knows that Russia’s window of competitive advantage is narrow, and that the window is closing rapidly, causing the leadership to take increasingly greater risks to remain in the game while employing a variety of precarious strategies and tactics to remain competitive. This Russia must of necessity play its cards with greater abandon, letting the risks and attendant missteps mount while embracing chancy, and in all likelihood precipitate, behaviors with high probabilities of failure. Despite the seeming international confidence of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin—and the strange new fear and respect his government has been accorded abroad—the continuing expansion of Russian regional and global influence is manifestly unsustainable.

The elements of Russia’s national unraveling—and thus, the unraveling of Russia’s sources of state power—are first addressed in this project in a series of in-depth papers by Russian experts, who explore the decline of Russia from their fields of expertise and perspectives—e.g. economics, sociology, military, legal, demography. These are posted and downloadable from this site.

Themes on which these papers, and the whole of the project focus include:

• Severe and intractable demographic constraints, including an ongoing and inescapable long-term labor force contraction; a seemingly irresolvable public health crisis; profound and rapid population aging where “greying” starts early; and other serious dysfunctions in the realm of human resources

• Ethnic imbalances favoring “population replacement” by non-Russians, especially indigenous Muslim peoples, which is progressively and in some ways fundamentally changing the complexion of Russia’s overall population, especially its younger cohorts, and its institutions (e.g., the military)

• One-commodity economy—hydrocarbons—whose volatile global price keeps Russia at the precipice of economic crisis, while the state’s dependence on energy prices for public finances deepens the “resource curse”

• An underdeveloped “middle class”

• A seemingly unstoppable brain drain, with many of the brightest of its younger generation opting to participate in the global economy from countries beyond Russia

• Degradation of “knowledge production” capabilities, caused by the collapse of both elite and mass education and the exodus of skilled talent with scarce opportunity in a Russia held down by rampant corruption

• Brittle political system, with few safety valves for dissent, succession planning, and an entrenched stake-holding political elite

· Central power’s diminished authority over more assertive regions

• Rapacious leadership, which takes every opportunity to harvest the state’s wealth for personal gain, while parking its profits abroad

• Military decline (notwithstanding its “successful” adventures in the near abroad), and the loss of the technical ability and resources to produce the next generation of weaponry

· Dwindling space for development of civil society due to curtailment of individual rights, rising censorship, anti-Western propaganda, and revisionist history

This is an almost classic depiction of a waning power.

Pathways to Decline

Not all participants in the project to date agree on the causes or severity of Russia’s decline, but all accept that decline is undeniable, and most assert that it is “irreversible.”

The pathways along the downward trajectory of decline are likely to exhibit a number of conditions that will challenge Western planners and responders:

· Profound surprise is likely to be a notable feature of Russian behavior, as it chooses big chances over incremental efforts to “up bets.”

· Strong popular support for Russian leadership and its willingness to take chances is likely to be more powerful than the opposition to it and indeed may grow, although some internal political opposition may emerge to mitigate Russia’s more adventuresome risk taking.

· Downside scenarios for Russia could be triggered by internal or external events, and the interaction of internal forces with outside events and activities. This is likely to be the case, for example, as Russia seeks support for its risky actions from others beyond Russia who share its antipathy toward the West.

· Russia is likely to seek new supporters for its risk-taking from amongst state and, particularly, non-state actors who share Russia’s risk-taking mentality and antipathy toward the West while bringing to these relationships high mobility and geographic reach. Terrorists of different kinds fit this bill.

↵Read all the papers in this series.


Author Bios

Russian Analysts

Pavel Baev

Pavel Baev is a Research Director and Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). He is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, and a senior research associate at the Institut Francaise des Relations Internationales (IFRI, Paris). Dr. Baev specializes in Russian military reform, Russia’s conflict management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and energy interests in Russia’s foreign and security policies, as well as Russia’s relations with Europe and NATO. His articles on the Russian military posture, Russian-European relations, and peacekeeping and conflict management in Europe have appeared in numerous publications. He has a weekly column in Eurasia Daily Monitor and is the author of the blog, Arctic Politics and Russia’s Ambitions.

Anton Barbashin

Anton Barbashin is a political analyst, managing editor and member of the editorial board at Intersection Project. He is also an analyst at the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding in Warsaw, and a former researcher with the Center for Postindustrial Studies in Moscow. His publications have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The American Interest, The National Interest, The Diplomat and The Moscow Times, among others.

Pavel Felgenhauer

Pavel Felgenhauer is a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist for Novaya Gazeta as well as a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He served as senior research officer in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, from where he received his Ph.D. Dr. Felgenhauer has published widely on Russian foreign and defense policies, military doctrine, arms trade and the military-industrial complex. He comments regularly in local and international media on Russia’s defense-related problems. Dr. Felgenhauer is also a weekly contributor to The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Vladislav Inozemtsev

Vladislav Inozemtsev is a Russian economist and professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He is founder (in 1996) and director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies, a Russian think tank. Currently, he is the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Dr. Inozemtsev is the author of over 600 printed works published in Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States; including 15 monographs, four of which have been translated into English.

Vladimir Pastukhov

Vladimir Pastukhov holds a doctorate in political science and is a visiting fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. In the 1990s, he was a fellow at the Institute for Comparative Political Sciences and the Institute of Latin America (both under the Russian Academy of Sciences). He served as counsel to the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, as well as to the State Duma and the Moscow City Mayor’s Office. He is the author of several books and over 200 scholarly articles on constitutional law and political science. Dr. Pastukhov is also one of the authors of the report, Constitutional Crisis in Russia and How to Resolve It, by the Institute of Modern Russia.

Irina Pavlova

Irina Pavlova is a historian and political analyst with a doctorate in history. She is a former senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the author of several books, including The Mechanism of Power and the Establishment of Stalin’s Socialism (2001, in Russian) and Stalinism: The Formation of Mechanism of Power (1993, in Russian). Her articles on Soviet history have appeared in the journals Voprosy istorii, Otechestvennaia istoriia, EKO, Gumanitarnye nauki v Sibiri and Russian Studies in History. She was also a columnist for graniru.org and rufabula.com (2006–2014) and has been a commentator for Voice of America’s Russian Service. Dr. Pavlova has taught at Tufts and the University of Virginia and worked at the Davis Center at Harvard University. Currently, she writes a blog on Russian Politics at ivpavlova.blogspot.com.

Nikolay Petrov

Nikolay Petrov is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and is chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Society and Regions Program. Dr. Petrov worked at the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences from 1982 to 2006. He served as chief organizer of the Analysis and Forecast Division in the Supreme Soviet (1991–1992); advisor and analyst for the Russian Presidential Administration (1994–1995); and scholar at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1993–1994) and at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (1994). From 1996 until 2000, Dr. Petrov worked at the Carnegie Moscow Center as a senior consultant and scholar-in-residence. He earned his Ph.D. from Moscow State University.

Andrei Piontkovsky

Andrei Piontkovsky is a Russian scientist, political writer and analyst. He is a member of PEN International and a regular political commentator for the BBC World Service and Radio Liberty, on which has been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. Dr. Piontkovsky is also the author of several books on the Putin presidency, including Another Look Into Putin’s Soul and Russian Identity. He holds a doctorate in mathematics from Moscow State University and is a member of the American Mathematical Society.

Alexander Sungurov

Alexander Sungurov is Professor and Head of Applied Political Science in the Department of Political Science at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is also President of the St. Petersburg Center of Humanities and Political Science Strategy; an expert on human rights for the Council of Europe; and Vice President of the Russian Association for Political Science (RAPS). He has participated actively for support of the Ombudsman Institute in Russia’s regions as well as for civic initiatives for the prevention of corruption. Dr. Sungurov is the author of four books and numerous articles on the development of Russia’s new democracy institutes and civil society.

Evgeny Vodichev is a science policy analyst, historian of science, and human geographer. He holds a doctorate in history from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Vodichev has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin; a visiting professor at Georgetown University; an IREX exchange scholar; short-term fellow at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies; and a research fellow at the Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata, India. He has also consulted on monitoring and evaluation projects for the European Commission in Brussels. Dr. Vodichev is currently a professor at Novosibirsk State Technical and Tomsk State National Research universities; and Chief Researcher and a Head of the Expert Team at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Siberian Branch. He has published 15 books (individual and co-authorship) and more than 200 papers released in Russia, the United States, Germany, India, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere.

Denis Volkov is a sociologist and analyst at the Levada Center, an independent polling organization and think tank based in Moscow. He has authored several publications on civil society, protest and political attitudes in Russia. Mr. Volkov is also a frequent commentator in the media, and has presented at conferences and roundtables on Russia around the world. He received his M.A. in Political Science from the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and the University of Manchester.

Western Analysts

Harley Balzer

Harley Balzer retired in June 2016 from his full-time positions in the Department of Government, School of Foreign Service and Department of History at Georgetown University. In 1982–1983 he served as a Congressional Fellow, with responsibilities including helping to secure passage of what is now known as Title VIII of the State Department appropriation. In 1992–1993 he served as Executive Director of the International Science Foundation, and subsequently worked with the MacArthur Foundation and Carnegie Corporation to design the Basic Research and Higher Education Program for Russia.

Ilan Berman

Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, in Washington, DC. An expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation, he has consulted for both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, and provided assistance on foreign policy and national security issues to a range of governmental agencies and congressional offices. Mr. Berman is a member of the Associated Faculty at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, and serves as the Editor of The Journal of International Security Affairs. A frequent writer and commentator, he has written for the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Washington Post and USA Today, among many other publications. He is also the editor of three books.

Stephen Blank

Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a frequent contributor to Jamestown publications, including Eurasia Daily Monitor and China Brief. From 1989 to 2013, he was a Professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.

Paul A. Goble

Paul A. Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious issues in Eurasia and currently blogs at windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com. Prior to retiring from the US government in 2004, he worked in the intelligence community, the State Department and US international broadcasting. Since retiring, he has taught in Estonia at the University of Tartu and Audentes University in Tallinn, at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku, and the Institute of World Politics in Washington. The editor of eight volumes on ethnic and religious issues, he is the author of more than a 100 articles and chapters and more than 1,000 op-eds in US and European publications.  He has been decorated by the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for his work in promoting the restoration of Baltic independence.

Marlene Laruelle

Marlene Laruelle is Research Professor of International Affairs and Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. She explores contemporary political, social and cultural changes in Russia and Central Asia through the prism of ideologies and nationalism. She has published three single-authored monographs, and two co-authored monographs, and has edited several collective volumes. She is the editor in chief of Central Asian Affairs and a member of the executive editorial board of Demokratizatsiya. The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization. She has been Principal Investigator of several grants on Russian nationalism and political elites, on Russia’s strategies in the Arctic, and on Central Asia’s domestic and foreign policies. As director of the Central Asia Program, she oversees about 30 events a year, monthly publications, and works on several programs of visiting fellows from Central Asia.

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Project Leaders

The Hon. S. Enders Wimbush

S. Enders Wimbush is Distinguished Senior Fellow, The Jamestown Foundation, and Partner, StrateVarious LLC. From 2011 to 2012, he served as Senior Director, Foreign Policy and Civil Society, at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Before joining the German Marshall Fund, Mr. Wimbush served as Senior Vice President of the Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C. He spent many years in the private sector with Booz Allen Hamilton and Science Applications International, directing analyses of future security environments for both government and corporate clients. Mr. Wimbush served as a member of the United States Broadcasting Board of Governors during 2010–2012, and during 1987–1993 as Director of Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany. Mr. Wimbush founded and directed the Society for Central Asian Studies in Oxford, England from 1980 to 1987. Before this, from 1976 until 1980, he served as analyst of Soviet affairs at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. Mr. Wimbush completed graduate work at the University of Chicago and, as a Fulbright Fellow, at Moscow State University. He is the author, co-author or editor of seven books and numerous articles in professional and popular media, as well as dozens of policy studies. His ideas have appeared frequently in professional, policy and popular media, includingThe Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor, Journal of Commerce, National Interest, Survival, Global Affairs, and The Weekly Standard.

Elizabeth Portale

Elizabeth Portale is a Partner at StrateVarious LLC and for this project serves as Senior Project Associate at The Jamestown Foundation. In her consulting work, she focuses on projects and programs in policy, foreign affairs, strategy and media, including co-directing a large study on U.S.-funded media. Formerly Vice President and Chief of Staff at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, she has nearly twenty years of operational and managerial experience in international media in Munich, Prague and Washington, D.C. Earlier, she was an editor at the RFE/RL Research Report, a weekly publication analyzing the rapid changes taking place in the former Soviet Union; and on the editorial staff at The New Yorker. Ms. Portale holds an MBA from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a BA from Princeton University.