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Russian President Vladimir Putin used to seem invincible. Today, he and his regime look enervated, confused, and desperate. Increasingly, both Russian and Western commentators suggest that Russia may be on the verge of deep instability, possibly even collapse.
This perceptual shift is unsurprising. Last year, Russia was basking in the glow of its annexation of Crimea and aggression in the Donbas. The economy, although stagnant, seemed stable. Putin was running circles around Western policymakers and domestic critics. His popularity was sky-high. Now it is only his popularity that remains; everything else has turned for the worse. Crimea and the Donbas are economic hellholes and huge drains on Russian resources. The war with Ukraine has stalemated. Energy prices are collapsing, and the Russian economy is in recession. Putin’s punitive economic measures against Ukraine, Turkey, and the West have only harmed the Russian economy further. Meanwhile, the country’s intervention in Syria is poised to become a quagmire.
Things are probably much worse for Russia than this cursory survey of negative trends suggests. The country is weathering three crises brought about by Putin’s rule—and Russia’s foreign-policy misadventures in Ukraine and Syria are only exacerbating them.
First, the Russian economy is in free fall. That oil and gas prices are unlikely to rise much anytime soon is bad enough. Far worse, Russia’s energy-dependent economy is unreformed, uncompetitive, and un-modernized and will remain so as long as it serves as a wealth-producing machine for Russia’s political elite. Second, Putin’s political system is disintegrating. His brand of authoritarian centralization was supposed to create a strong “power vertical” that would bring order to the administrative apparatus, rid it of corruption, and subordinate regional Russian and non-Russian elites to Moscow’s will. Instead, over-centralization has produced the opposite effect, fragmenting the bureaucracy, encouraging bureaucrats to pursue their own interests, and enabling regional elites to become increasingly insubordinate—with Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s strongman in Chechnya, being the prime example. Third, Putin himself, as the linchpin of the Russian system, has clearly passed his prime. Since his catastrophic decision to prevent Ukraine from signing an Association Agreement with the European Union in 2013, he has committed strategic blunder after strategic blunder. His formerly attractive macho image is wearing thin, and his recent attempts to promote his cult of personality by publishing a book of his quotes and a Putin calendar look laughable and desperate.
The problem for Putin—and for Russia—is that the political–economic system is resistant to change. Such a dysfunctional economy is sustainable only if it is controlled by a self-serving bureaucratic caste that places its own interests above those of the country. In turn, a deeply corrupt authoritarian system needs to have a dictator at its core, one who coordinates and balances elite interests and appetites. Putin’s innovation is to have transformed himself into a cult-like figure whose legitimacy depends on his seemingly boundless youth and vigor. Such leaders, though, eventually become victims of their own personality cult and, like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Mussolini, do not leave office voluntarily. Russia is thus trapped between the Scylla of systemic decay and the Charybdis of systemic stasis. Under such conditions, Putin will draw increasingly on Russian chauvinism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism for legitimacy.
Since none of this mess will be resolved anytime soon, Russia appears poised to enter a prolonged “time of troubles” that could range from social unrest to regime change to state collapse. It might be foolhardy to predict Russia’s future, but it is clear that the longer Putin stays in power, the worse things will be for the country. Putin, who claimed to be saving Russia, has become its worst enemy. For now, the United States, Europe, and Russia’s neighbors must prepare for the worst.
DRIVERS OF INSTABILITY
Some analysts dismiss the possibility of massive instability in Russia on the grounds that the opposition is weak, its leaders lack charisma, and Putin’s popularity is high. These factors are not as important as they are assumed to be. Most revolutions have come as a result of deep structural crises; few have been made by self-styled revolutionaries. Charismatic leaders emerge in the course of systemic instability as often as they predate it. And country-wide popularity is never as important for a movement or leader as power in the capital city and among key political and economic elites.
Imagine that the three crises noted above continue to deepen, as they in all likelihood will. In that case, nearly every sector of Russian society will get closer to rebellion. As inflation and unemployment rise and living standards fall, dissatisfaction will grow among workers and social unrest will increase. Political and economic elites, too, will grow increasingly unhappy as Russia’s three crises deepen. Their status and wealth will increasingly become vulnerable, and their willingness to countenance alternatives to Putin and his system will grow. Urban intellectuals, students, and professionals will likewise rediscover their voices and provide intellectual guidance to the forces of instability.
With more systemic chaos and elite stasis, patriotically-minded elements within the armed forces (army, militia, and secret police) will search for alternatives to Putin and his ruinous system of rule. And soldiers and mercenaries now fighting in Ukraine and Syria may return home and promote radical views throughout the country. Outside Russia, the Russian Federation’s 21 non-Russian republics will assert their authority.
For 18 years, Putin could defuse discontent by the three means all elites use to stay in power. He bought popular support with the windfalls from rising energy prices. He strengthened the forces of coercion and repressed discontent. And, by projecting manliness and vigor and promising to remake Russia in his own image, he created ideological incentives to support him and his regime. Thanks to his mistakes and the system’s decay, however, Putin no longer has the material resources he once possessed and his image has been greatly tarnished. And thanks to Russia’s transformation into a rogue state incapable of defeating Ukraine and increasingly mired in the Middle East, the vision of renewed Russian greatness is losing its appeal. As a result, Putin now relies almost exclusively on the forces of coercion to stay in power and sustain his regime. He thus depends on their willingness to go along with his rule. And Putin, whose regime recently adopted legislation permitting the secret police to shoot protestors, knows it.
FORCING THE FORCES
Relying on the armed forces could be a dangerous bet. For one, they might be unwilling to employ coercion if they face large numbers of protestors drawn from the general population. This is true for all repressive regimes, which tend to emphasize the elite nature of policing and deploy officers far away from their homes. Given Putin’s popularity and the relatively greater difficulty of organizing mass protests in the Russian provinces, the greatest likelihood of such a scenario playing out is in Moscow, which witnessed mass demonstrations in 2011–12, and in the non-Russian regions such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Yakutia, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, where ethnic solidarity could override orders to use coercion. If women and workers participate in such disturbances, coercive forces would be least inclined to follow orders and shoot.
At present, such a revolution looks improbable; but in mid-2004 and mid-2013, no one was predicting the Orange Revolution or the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine. Such revolutions, as Putin probably realizes, are intrinsically unpredictable, because they are the product of inchoate forces of discontent, dissatisfaction, anger, radicalization, and hope. Even so, given the dysfunctionality of the political–economic system and its incapacity to change, the chances of such disturbances will increase with every year. The protests are likely to be sparked by a sudden, unexpected event that outrages people and propels them into the streets. That shock could be anything, from an embarrassing televised slip-up by Putin to an act of brutality by the police to a tragic fire. No one ever predicts such shocks, but, as systems decay, they become more likely.
Another scenario would be if the armed forces are unable to stop elite anti-regime forces from plotting a palace coup or promoting independence in the non-Russian regions. Although Putin has constructed a form of authoritarianism that resembles the regimes of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, Russia’s forces of coercion are not yet, as in Stalin’s times, a state within the state capable of monitoring all elite behavior. The loyalty or neutrality of Russia’s elites cannot therefore be entirely assured. Russian elites know that, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian businessman-turned-opposition figure who incurred Putin’s ire and several years imprisonment for fraud, they could be punished for stepping out of line, but they also know that, in times of troubles, the Kremlin needs them as much as, if not more, than they need the Kremlin.
How likely is a palace coup or regional separatism? Soviet and Russian history is replete with examples. After Stalin’s death, his successors killed his secret police chief, Lavrentii Beria, in 1953. In 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in a coup. In 1998–99, Putin came to power as the result of a coup-like deal with elites and then President Boris Yeltsin. As to the non-Russians, they made claims on sovereignty every time the state was in crisis—during the Revolution of 1917–21, during the German occupation of 1941–43, and during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in 1987–91. Elite loyalty depends on Putin’s ability to pay them off. Just as political and economic elites flocked to Putin during the years of plenty, between 1998 and 2013, so too, will they be tempted to abandon him during the coming years of scarcity. Meanwhile, non-Russian elites—and especially those in oil-rich Tatarstan and diamond-rich Yakutia—may be the first to loosen their ties to Moscow, because they may have nationalist ambitions, and are farther from the center and thus less susceptible to threats. Once elites see that they can get away with criticizing the regime, things will reach a tipping point and anti-Putin bandwagoning could take place. Some may even plot against Putin and try to have him forcibly removed or killed.
The third scenario is that coercion might prove inadequate to quell discontent if the opposition resorts to violence and the armed forces are too weak to respond. Armies that lose wars or experience battlefield humiliation are prone to such weaknesses. The Russian army is currently involved in two wars—in Ukraine and in Syria. Additional incursions, in the Baltic States or in Central Asia, may also be in the offing, as Putin tries to sow disarray within NATO and protect Russia from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Despite Russia’s formidable advantages, the Russian war against Ukraine has ended, thus far, in the annexation of two economically destitute regions, Crimea and the eastern Donbas, with little hope of rapid recovery. More important, Moscow’s New Russia project, which aimed at annexing all of Ukraine’s southeast, has failed. In sum, despite several tactical victories, the Russian armed forces have suffered defeat.
Victory in Syria appears equally distant, even as the prospect of additional involvement grows. Sooner or later, Russia’s humiliated and defeated soldiers and mercenaries will come home, and their anger is likely to be directed against the regime that sent them into losing fights. Domestic police and armed forces are unlikely to crack down on discontent soldiers. Complicating matters is the growing likelihood of renewed terrorism in Russia. Chechnya could easily blow up if Kadyrov is replaced in a local palace coup or assassinated by the Russian secret service, which reputedly detests him. Much of the north Caucasus is already in a state of half-open rebellion. Russia’s Syrian adventure and its open alliance against Sunnis may not only exacerbate tensions with Russia’s Sunni population, but also provoke ISIS to engage in terror in Russia proper.
How likely is it that armed forces might prove inadequate to quell discontent? The First Chechen War of 1994–96 demonstrates that the Russian armed forces can be defeated. The Ukrainian War demonstrates that the Russian army and mercenaries can be held at bay by a significantly weaker force. The series of terrorist actions that befell Russia in the early years of Putin’s rule show that Russia is vulnerable to violent assaults. It is impossible to say just when anti-regime violence might break out, but the likelihood that it will grows as the political–economic system decays, and as mass disturbances and elite discontent rise.
AFTER THE STORM
Russia is on the edge of a perfect storm, as destabilizing forces converge. Under conditions such as these, mass disturbances are highly probable. Revolutions, palace coups, and violence will be increasingly likely. The result could be the collapse of the regime or the break-up of the state. Whatever the scenario, Putin is unlikely to survive.
What should the West and Russia’s neighbors do? They cannot stop Putin and they cannot prevent Russia’s disintegration, just as they could not prevent the USSR’s disintegration. The best option is containing the damage that results from mass instability. In particular, they will have to worry about mass refugee flows, the spillover of violence, and the problem of loose nukes. The non-Russian states will be able to deal with the first two issues only by strengthening their own state borders, armies, police forces, and administrative apparatuses. The West must view them (Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, in particular) as allies or client states whose stability and security are vital to the stability and security of the West. After that, the West should support a stable pro-Western democracy in what remains of post-Putin Russia. Western policymakers will be tempted to support the Russian armed forces, especially after mass instability breaks out. That would be counterproductive: In a lost cause, supporting the forces of coercion will only prolong the fighting, bloodshed, and instability and thereby increase the likelihood that loose nukes will fall into the wrong hands.
Sooner or later, Russia’s time of troubles will end. After the dust settles, a smaller and weaker Russia and a host of newly independent non-Russian regions-turned-states might make for a more stable world, at least inasmuch as Putin’s Russia, which has become a major threat to world peace, will have disappeared and rump Russia may finally abandon the imperial aspirations that enabled Putin to come to power.
Whatever the outcome, the best immediate guarantee of stability and security in the post-Putin, post-Soviet space will be Russia’s current non-Russian neighbors, in particular, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. If they are strong, much of the damage will be contained. If they become weak, the damage will spread to the West. The best time to strengthen them is now—before the deluge.