Opinion of Juraj Mesik, the expert of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, for Evropeiska pravda (European Truth – Ukrainian online newspaper)
In 1969, young Russian historian Andrey Amalrik wrote the famous essay “Will the Soviet Union survive beyond 1984?” This happened a year after the occupation of Czechoslovakia and at the time of Moscow’s greatest achievements in space.
The USSR, as the incarnation of the Russian Empire at the time, was shrouded in communist ideology and seemed to be strong and stable. None of the Western Soviet scholars could have anticipated the USSR collapse at the time, and the slogans on the buildings of occupied Czechoslovakia boldly proclaimed “Together with the Soviet Union forever and ever!”
History proved Amalrik had the point. Though, he didn’t get the year right. However, if you learned back in summer 1989 that occupied countries of Central Europe would be liberated from Moscow oppression until the end of the year and what would happen to the USSR before Christmas 1991, you would question the author’s mental health.
People often miss the most obvious things. And experts miss even more so, because they mostly specialize in the status quo.
Because Western experts and politicians failed to predict the USSR collapse and the sudden emergence of the new reality, the Western world at the time was unable to react in an agile and meaningful manner. The result was unsuccessful improvisations and tragic failures that had a decade-long impact. Today we observe these consequences in a number of Russian occupied territories in the countries of the former Soviet Union and especially the bloody war in Ukraine.
Russia’s disintegration is just as inevitable, and if Europe and the West will not be well-prepared for this, its consequences could be the same or even more tragic.
Lack of decisions, or retarded or wrong decisions by unprepared Western politicians could lead to the long-term balkanization of today’s Russia. Unlike the Balkans, its territory is 50 times larger than Yugoslavia and its population is six times bigger. And they are equipped with nuclear warheads.
That is why analyzing Russia’s eventual disintegration is not intellectual entertainment or wishful thinking, as supporters of the Putin regime believe.
Without contemplating this scenario, we will not avert it, and vice versa, thinking about it, we will not call it, even if we want to. There are hidden internal reasons for this, and the question is not whether the “Russian Federation” will disintegrate, but when it will happen.
The quotation marks used in the name of the state are intentional, because today’s Russia is a vertically controlled and centralized empire that has nothing to do with a real federation. The very name of the state is a classic Potemkin village, a fiction designed for naive foreigners.
There are only three forces that hold the Russian Empire together: the ideology of the superpower, the security machinery (Cheka – NKVD – KGB – FSB), and oil and gas revenues. The latter makes it possible to finance militarism, the repressive machinery as well as to corrupt politicians in Europe and around the globe.
All three forces are going to 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 be deadly. 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 corrupt stick-and-carrot leverage, the ideology of imperial Russia will not last long and is going to deteriorate.
In 2016, in my essay “Will the Russian Federation survive beyond 2031? Russia, China, and the inevitable consequences of climate change” I described Russia’s collapse as the subject matter for the next decade.
However, the attack on Ukraine accelerated these developments exponentially, meaning that Russia’s collapse is a matter of the next 3-5 years.
This is by all means just a preliminary estimate. There could be different subjective factors and specific decisions by specific politicians that could speed up the process or, vice versa, produce some delays. However, Europe is going to witness the collapse of the Russian Federation.
The defeat of the Russian army in Ukraine means a significant weakening of the repressive military machinery that keeps Russia’s subservient nations in chains. According to official data, out of 140 million of Russia’s population (the actual number may be smaller) only about 75 percent are ethnic Russians, and their share is declining steadily.
On the other hand, the number of non-Russians, especially Muslim ethnicities, is growing. In addition, the figure of 75 percent can be significantly overestimated. Representatives of many oppressed ethnic groups often identify themselves as Russian ethnic groups because they benefit from this choice.
Probably there is no need to explain this to Slovaks. It will be enough to mention the “hungarianness” of Hungary’s ethnic Slovaks in the 19th century or the surprisingly low number of Romas in Slovak censuses. The same applies to Russia and, apparently due to the prolonged russification practices, it could be much more widespread.
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 percent.
Considering the demarcation lines of Russia’s future disintegration, the easiest entry point is to start with the territories occupied by it. First of all, it means the return of the occupied Crimea and Donbas to Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia, and Transnistria to Moldova. There is nothing to argue about.
The issue of the return of the Russia-occupied Kuril Islands to Japan and Karelia to Finland is equally straightforward. There could be more debates among the Europeans around the future of the occupied and annexed Königsberg.
The destiny of the Russian Far East can be interesting; much of today’s Khabarovsk and Amur regions belonged to China before 1860, so it is reasonable to assume that this country may have legitimate claims to get these territories back.
The disintegration of the rest of Russia will be an even more complicated process. Even if officially there is “only” 25 percent of non-Russian nations among Russia’s 140 million people, the liberatory efforts of these nations cannot be restrained without police and military oppression and corruption of ethnic elites using the money from oil and gas sales.
After all, there are reasons to doubt that Russians living in St. Petersburg, at the Ural, Siberia, or the Far East will be willing to remain under a genuinely hated Moscow rule that is perceived by both Urals and Siberians as an insatiable parasite. Therefore Russia could split into several smaller Russian-speaking states.
However, what is really important is this: the West needs to start analyzing the possible scenarios of Russia’s collapse right now.
This is essential because such a breakup will reveal great challenges, both risks and opportunities. The risks are that Europe and the Western world may fail again, as they did after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In this case, the post-Russian space will face balkanization, meaning a long period of poverty and violence.
Alternatively, the Western world can act in a prudent, prompt, pragmatic and sensitive way and give the nations of Russia and the Russians themselves a chance of a decent future in freedom and, at least, some relative prosperity.
However, they have to be well prepared to move on with this scenario. And this requires Europe, at the very least, to lift the “internal taboo” around discussions of possible Russia’s disintegration.