Russia’s Dual Challenge: Aggression and State Rupture
Without economic modernization and diversification in combination with democratization, decentralization, and genuine federalism, Russia will slide toward an existential crisis.
Moscow presents a dual challenge for the West: its neo-imperial ambitions, as evident in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the looming prospect of Russia’s state rupture. While much has been written about Moscow’s expansionism, less attention has been paid to the shaky pillars of the Russian Federation. The two factors are closely related, as the Kremlin will become more aggressive internationally to disguise its internal fissures. Escalating internal problems have convinced Moscow that a bolder and riskier foreign policy strategy can bring domestic benefits by mobilizing citizens around “fortress Russia” and silencing dissent. However, this will boomerang against the regime if the war in Ukraine is prolonged, costly, and heavily sanctioned. Both re-imperialization and fragmentation will confront the Western alliance with critical policy decisions in deterring and defending itself from Russia’s attacks while simultaneously managing Russia’s demise as a single state.
The Kremlin has pursued a policy of imperial restoration by partitioning states along its borders, undercutting U.S. influence in Europe, and undermining the NATO alliance. President Vladimir Putin has bemoaned the expiration of the Soviet Union not only as a disaster but also as the demise of “historical Russia.” This reveals a deeply rooted conviction that the multi-national construct was simply a disguise for a Russian imperium. Kremlin officials continue to believe in global empires and assert that the world should be organized on a “multipolar” basis with small countries orbiting around powerful centers. The Kremlin views its “pole of power” as consisting of Eurasia, or the northern Eurasian landmass, and as much of Europe as possible, especially those regions that were part of the Russian sphere in the Soviet or even Tsarist periods.
Unlike other imperial states that discarded and liberated themselves from their overseas empires, Russia needs liberation from itself. Russia became an empire before Russians became a nation and before Russia could evolve into a nation-state. As an empire, Russia focused on its territorial size and largely neglected nation-building. It expanded contiguously by incorporating numerous ethnic groups whose national identities could not be fully assimilated and Russified. Even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the territory lost by Moscow was smaller than that surrendered by Western empires following decolonization.
Despite assertive rhetoric and actions, Putin has failed to transform Russia into a major “pole of power” or a genuine source of political, economic, and cultural attraction for neighboring states. Invasions of neighbors and threats against Western countries are not signs of strength but frustration in cowering them into submission. Instead of successful empire-building, the Putin regime has truncated parts of neighboring countries but failed to gain international legitimacy for its acquisitions. In addition, unlike voluntary unions, state conquests intensify the economic and security burdens on the center with only short-term domestic benefits of patriotic mobilization.
The Russian Federation is also a failed state. It was constructed as the successor to the defunct Soviet Union but confronts crippling challenges to its own survival. In the last three decades, attempts to transform Russia into a nation-state, a civic-state, or a stable imperial-state have proved futile. The federation is based on brittle historical and ideological foundations and has failed to generate a unified national identity. Instead, there is a persistent struggle over Russia’s future between nationalists, imperialists, centralists, liberals, and federalists through brewing confrontations between Moscow and the country’s diverse regions and ethnic republics. State officials appear to be cognizant of the oncoming dangers. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has compared Russia to the former Yugoslav Federation, complaining about external pressures in combination with internal threats that could divide the country along nationality, class, and religious lines and result in disintegration. It is Moscow’s policies of hyper-centralization, regional exploitation, economic mismanagement, deepening repression, and manipulation of Russian ethnonationalism that could drive the country toward a violent implosion instead of the relatively peaceful rupture witnessed during the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
In a recent video conference, Putin rejected a proposal to let Russian regions secede if they no longer want to be part of the state. He warned of a repeat of the bloody wars in a collapsing Yugoslavia during the 1990s and revealed that there were 2,000 territorial claims nationwide that should be treated “very seriously, as they could divide up Russia. Putin’s admission indicates that the country’s domestic conditions are deteriorating on economic, demographic, social, regional, ethnic, and political fronts.
Russia’s officials display high anxiety about state disintegration through a repetition of Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at reforming communism in the late 1980s. Paradoxically, such fears will continue to preclude the economic and political reforms that are necessary to prevent a systemic collapse. Putin and his security services, Kremlin-tied oligarchs, corrupt officials, and the privileged class of civil servants are not prepared to endanger their power and purses by pursuing reforms that would give citizens a choice through democratic elections. On the other hand, without economic modernization and diversification in combination with democratization, decentralization, and genuine federalism, Russia will slide toward an existential crisis.
Russia’s state failure is exacerbated by a hazardous confluence of factors, including an inability to ensure consistent economic growth, stark socio-economic inequalities, growing demographic defects, widening disparities between Moscow and the federal subjects, a precarious political pyramid based on personalism and clientelism, deepening distrust of government institutions and policies, increasing public alienation from a corrupt ruling elite, and a growing disbelief in state propaganda. More comprehensive repression to stifle opposition and maintain state integrity in deteriorating economic conditions driven by more effective Western sanctions will raise the prospects for elite power struggles and public revolts.
Russia has displayed prolonged economic decay with short-term cycles of recovery. Russia is the world’s sixth-largest economy but is increasingly dwarfed by the United States, China, and the European Union. It only generates 3 percent of global GDP compared to about 16 percent by the United States and 18 percent by China. Economic performance alone does not determine strategic ambitions or short-term capabilities, but it will impact domestic conditions as the regime overstretches and miscalculates its potential. As a major exporter of crude oil and natural gas, together with assorted minerals and metals, the Russian economy’s performance remains highly sensitive to significant swings in world commodity prices, and the prospect of a Western energy embargo. In 2020, Russia’s economy shrank by about 3 percent during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although growth was restored during the second half of 2021, future projections highlighted deep-rooted structural weaknesses even before the imposition of financial sanctions that will see the growth rate plummet.
Although the Russian Federation does not face outright “demographic collapse,” negative population trends will undermine the country’s stability. These include a steadily shrinking ethnic Russian population, especially in the majority of the twenty-two ethnic republics; growing population disparities between inner Russia and Moscow’s Siberian, Arctic, and Far Eastern possessions; stark population differences between large metropolises and smaller cities, towns, and villages; reductions in the working labor pool; a steadily aging population; consistently high mortality rates and low birth rates; the high outflow of well-educated laborers; and declining health care and other social services that shorten lifespans and undermine economic growth.
Russia’s population has steadily declined from the 147.4 million recorded in the last Soviet census of 1989 to 142.9 million according to the 2010 census. The numbers subsequently increased because of the migration of ethnic Russians from neighboring states, but the pool of newcomers has dwindled. Low birth rates in the 1990s ensured a smaller number of women of childbearing age in the current decade and this negative loop will continue into the foreseeable future. Regularly published data indicates that the population continues to fall. According to the State Statistical Service, Rosstat, Russia’s population stood at 146.24 million in January 2021, down from 146.75 million the previous year—a fifteen-year record of decline. Rosstat also predicted that deaths will continue to outnumber live births over the next fifteen years and in one worst-case scenario, the population would fall to 134.2 million during that time.
Russia is an economically, socially, and regionally fragmented country, consisting of a few developed cities and micro-regions and a vast impoverished and disconnected hinterland. Collapsing transportation links, including air and rail connections, between regional capitals and smaller towns are isolating many regions from the rest of the country. The population of Siberia, the High North, and the Pacific region continues to decline. An estimated 40 million people in smaller cities and towns are especially neglected by the government and face acute poverty.
Regional restlessness is based on an accumulation of grievances, including economic stagnation, official corruption, state exploitation of regional resources, inadequate social services, and the absence of authentic federalism, local democracy, regionalist parties, or governmental accountability. The Kremlin views the country’s regions both as exploitable resources and also as liabilities that need to be suppressed to prevent fragmentation. Throughout its imperial history, Russia’s rulers have harbored a neurotic fear not only of enemies outside the empire’s borders but also of the subject peoples within them. Because economic modernization would not only require democratization but far-reaching decentralization, regional autonomy is viewed as a threat to the autocratic center and the continuity of the state