In 1969, the young Russian historian Andrei Amalrik wrote his famous essay “Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?” This happened a year after the occupation of Czechoslovakia and during Moscow’s greatest achievements in space. The Soviet Union (USSR), as the then embodiment of the Russian Empire, was shrouded in communist ideology, and looked firm and steadfast. As in the Soviet anthem, it was “unbreakable and forever united by Greater Russia.” None of the Western sovietologists could have imagined the collapse of the USSR at that point, and the slogans on the buildings of occupied Czechoslovakia boldly proclaimed “With the Soviet Union forever and never otherwise!”.
History has shown that Amalric was right and erred in his prediction for only a few years. However, if you had been told in the summer of 1989 that the occupied Central European countries would be liberated from Moscow by the end of the year and what would happen to the USSR before Christmas 1991, you would have doubts about the narrator’s mental health. People often miss the most obvious things. Professionals even more often because they mostly specialize in status quo.
Due to the inability of Western experts and politicians to predict the collapse of the USSR, a sudden new reality, the then West could not react in time and thoughtfully. The result was improvisation and tragic failures that lasted for decades. Today we see them in the form of several Russian-occupied territories in the countries of the former Soviet Union and especially the bloody war in Ukraine.
The disintegration of Russia is just as inevitable as the disintegration of the Soviet Union – and if Europe and the West are not prepared for this, its consequences will be as (or more) tragic as the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia. Missing, slow or wrong decisions by untrained Western politicians could lead to the long-term Balkanization of today’s Russia. Unlike the Balkans, its territory is 50 times larger than Yugoslavia’s and has a 6-times higher population. And with nuclear warheads.
Therefore, thinking about the future disintegration of Russia is not an entertainment or wishful thinking, as supporters of the Putin regime believe. Without understanding this scenario, we will not turn it away – and vice versa, thinking about it, we will not call it, even if we want to. There are internal reasons for this, and the question is not whether the “Russian Federation” will disintegrate; the question is when it will happen. The quotation marks used in the name of the state are not accidental, because today’s Russia is a vertically controlled and centralized empire that has nothing to do with a real federation. The title of the state itself – the classic Potemkin village – is a fiction designed for naive foreigners.
Only three forces hold the Russian Empire together: the ideology of the superpower, the security apparatus (Cheka – NKVD – KGB – FSB) and oil and gas revenues. This makes it possible to finance militarism and the repressive apparatus, and to corrupt politicians in Europe and around the world. All three forces will weaken and collapse sharply in the coming months and years as a result of Russia’s prolonged military defeat in Ukraine, Western sanctions and the rapid development of electric mobility.
Russia’s military and repressive forces are bleeding in Ukraine; Russia’s great chauvinism will fail, and a rapid drop in oil and gas sales combined with further sanctions will destroy the Kremlin economically and prevent it from further bribing political elites inside Russia and abroad. Without corruption and the carrot and stick of power, the ideology of imperial Russia will not be viable; it will degrade.
Without this, Russia will disintegrate due to natural demographic change, technological change, and climate change, but this process will be slower. However, the attack on Ukraine has radically accelerated this development. In the essay “Will the Russian Federation survive until 2031? Russia, China and the Inevitable Consequences of Climate Change” published in 2016 in the book The Last Empire, I described the collapse of Russia as the theme of the next decade. However, the Kremlin ruler decided that Russia would destroy Ukraine, so today I assess the collapse of Russia as a matter of the next 3-5 years. Of course, this is only an estimate – various subjective factors and specific decisions of specific politicians can speed it up or, vice versa, delay it a bit. However, Europe is facing the collapse of the Russian Federation.
The defeat of the Russian army in Ukraine means a significant weakening of the repressive military apparatus that keeps in chains peoples imprisoned in Russia. Only about 75% of today’s official 140 million population in Russia (the actual number may be smaller) are ethnic Russians, and their share is steadily declining. On the contrary, the number of non-Russian, especially Muslim, ethnic groups is growing. In addition, the number of 75% can be significantly inflated. Representatives of many oppressed ethnic groups often identify themselves with the Russian ethnic group because it benefits them.
This is especially true for the descendants of Ukrainians in mixed Ukrainian-Russian marriages, where Russian identification is very common, and therefore the actual number of Ukrainians living in Russia may be much higher than the official 1.4%.
Considering the lines of demarcation of Russia’s future disintegration, it is easiest to start with the territories occupied by it. First, it means the return of the occupied Crimea and Donbas to Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia, Transnistria to Moldova. There is nothing to argue about.
Equally simple is the question of the return of the Russian-occupied Kuril Islands to Japan and Karelia to Finland. There may be more discussions among Europeans about the future of occupied and annexed Königsberg and the region renamed Kaliningrad after one of the Bolshevik leaders. Neighbouring Poland and Lithuania, or even Germany, to which East Prussia belonged until 1945, could claim the area of about 15,000 sq.km and with a population of one million.
The fate of Russia’s Far East will also be interesting. Much of today’s Khabarovsk and Amur regions belonged to China until 1860, and it can be assumed that China can make legal claims to them. In the 1960s, Mao Zedong spoke about the entire territory from Baikal to Sakhalin as historically Chinese, so it cannot be ruled out. China has every reason to be interested in the lands, waters and forests beyond the Amur and Ussuri.
The disintegration of the rest of Russia will be a more complex process. Even with formally only 25% of non-Russian nations among Russia’s 140 million population, the emancipatory efforts of many nations cannot be stopped without police oppression and corruption of ethnic elites at the expense of money from oil and gas sales. In many parts of Russia, Russians are now officially an ethnic minority – for example, throughout the North Caucasus, including Chechnya and Dagestan, as well as in Kalmykia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Yakutia, Tuva, and Chukotka.
I believe that Europe and the West must clearly support the national and emancipatory aspirations of the peoples inhabiting these territories, support democratic referendums on them, recognize the sovereignty of at least the largest emerging entities, and support state-building activities in them. If in Tatarstan or Bashkortostan it is difficult to doubt their economic viability, then in areas with smaller populations – for example, in the North Caucasus – it would be appropriate to consider the federal structure of several smaller groups and territories. The Balkans teach us that this can be very difficult.
Initially, large areas remain inhabited mainly by Russians. It is a relatively large population in the European part of Russia, but to the north and east there are large and sparsely populated areas inhabited by two hundred small ethnic groups, such as the northern peoples, mixed with Russian immigrants sent by Moscow at various times.
There is a reason to doubt that Russians living in St. Petersburg, the Urals, Siberia, or the Far East will want to remain under the rule of a genuinely hated Moscow that is perceived by both the Urals and Siberians as a voracious parasite. Thus, Russia can be divided into several smaller Russian-speaking states. For example, it could be the West Siberian Republic with its capital Novosibirsk, the Ural Republic with its capital Ekaterinburg, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the North-Western Republic with its capital in St. Petersburg and, of course, Moscow, within Moscow and the surrounding area. At the same time, this list is far from exhaustive; there are more than 10 cities in Russia with a population of millions, many of which may seriously seek to create their own republic.
From the geopolitical point of view, it is necessary to think in time about the future of actually uninhabited areas of Russia’s north – the entire coast from the borders of Norway and Finland to the coast of Alaska in the east and adjacent islands in the Arctic Ocean. Only 2 million people live north of the Arctic Circle in Russia, almost half of them in the Murmansk region. Neither these islands nor the coast have ever been inhabited by Russians, and they are part of Russia only because the Russians claimed them. In fact, for example, the first Europeans on the Novaya Zemlya Island were the Dutch, and sailors from Austria-Hungary and Norway were involved in the Franz Josef Land. Not to mention the Norwegian Svalbard, known as Spitsbergen. Russia has never been able to colonize or use these territories, as well as the Northern Lands, the Novosibirsk Islands or Wrangel Island, other than as military bases. As part of the necessary demilitarization of Russia, all these islands and coasts must come under the care of the EU or the United States.
Finally, we cannot forget about the endless sparsely populated areas in the north of the Far East – the Chukotka, Kamchatka and Magadan region. If China expands to the north and annexes the territory from Lake Baikal to Sakhalin, it would be wise for the United States to assume patronage over the three regions and both banks of the Bering Strait. It makes no sense to consider the political independence of these entities. In Chukotka, within an area of 750 thousand sq. km, live less than 50 thousand people; Kamchatka within an area of 470 thousand sq. km is inhabited by about 300 thousand, and the Magadan region, with an area of 300 thousand sq. km, has a population of 140,000. These territories can function only under the care and support of a strong state power – the United States or China. They will have to choose.
In conclusion, there is another really interesting area – between the eastern borders of Ukraine and the Caspian Sea, consisting of three administrative units of modern Russia – the Rostov region, the sparsely populated Kalmykia (270,000 inhabitants) and the Astrakhan region (1,000,000 inhabitants) in lower reaches of the Volga river at its confluence with the Caspian Sea. Independent existence of this territory is unlikely, but as an autonomous region of Ukraine it could prosper. In any case, the direct approach of the EU, which Ukraine will inevitably join, to the Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan’s borders would make geopolitical sense.
The disintegration of Russia will lead to great challenges, risks and opportunities. Europe and the West can fail again, as they did after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this case, the post-Russian space will face Balkanization – a long period of poverty and violence. Or, the West can act prudently, quickly, pragmatically and sensitively, and give the peoples of Russia and the Russians themselves a chance for a dignified future in freedom and, at the very least, relative prosperity.