Time to abandon western Russophobia
The West would be wise not to ignore Russia’s escalating domestic challenges. The Soviet Union was also conducting special military operations and disinformation campaigns abroad in the years preceding its collapse.
Western approaches toward Russia exhibit persistent fears about Russia’s state failure and dissolution. They are reminiscent of the profound anxieties displayed by several governments during the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Such fears constrain the creation of an effective strategy and encourage Moscow to pursue its revisionist ambitions. Crafting policy around the avoidance of particular consequences is not only inhibitive but also counter-productive by empowering the Kremlin to exploit western misgivings to its advantage.
Paradoxically, actual “Russophobia” (fear of Russia), which Kremlin propaganda attributes to Westerners seeking to destroy the country, more accurately describes a policy to preserve the current Moscow-centred state. True “Russophobes” believe that the country will become uncontrollably dangerous during an internal crisis. And if the hyper-centralised state starts to unravel, Moscow will supposedly attack its neighbours, fire its nuclear weapons against western targets, and draw the US into outright war. A more credible assessment is that the Kremlin’s foreign offensives will actually recede as the regime turns inward to ensure its own survival. Russia will be less capable of projecting its imperial agenda when its military capabilities are reduced, economic resources diminished, elite power struggles intensified, and citizens become less acquiescent.
Successive US administrations have expressed pronounced fears regarding the prospects of Russian state collapse. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, most western policymakers were apprehensive about the impact of the unravelling of the Soviet Bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union. They calculated that imperial fracture and state collapse would lead to civil wars, mass bloodshed, and unstable borders. Such fears were transmitted to national leaders in Ukraine and other states seeking to extract themselves from Moscow’s empire, but the government in Kyiv and the majority of the population did not heed the advice of a nervous US administration.
Disquiet about state fracture was subsequently projected on to the survival of the Russian Federation, especially during the two Russian-Chechen wars in the 1990s when Chechnya declared its independence. Washington supported both the Yeltsin and Putin administrations, which were perceived as ensuring domestic stability and European security, even while they perpetrated the mass slaughter of civilians in Chechnya.
Although western governments do not want Russia to be as strong as the USSR, they remain wary of Russia’s decline. Policymakers seemingly prefer a centralised authoritarian state to than a decentralised federation, as any initiatives in that direction would supposedly be too destabilising. Such an approach also revolves around a condescending and patronising view of Russia’s citizens – as incapable of establishing a post-imperial entity or post-Russian states because of their alleged slave mentality and deeply ingrained support for a strong leader. Such negative stereotypes bolster Kremlin assertions that the status quo is preferable to disruptive change.
An overarching western fear of Russia’s state rupture is due to its position as the second-largest nuclear power and its possession of the world’s biggest stockpile of biological agents. The supposition is that Russia’s leaders will be willing to commit national suicide rather than calculate how to salvage their political futures and economic fortunes regardless of the state structure. Moreover, Russia’s weapons of mass destruction are protected by the most loyal elements of the security forces and are highly unlikely to be seized by rebels and insurgents. Even in the eventuality that some states emerging from a failed Russian federation acquired control of such weapons and, crucially, the means to deploy and fire them, they would have no reason to target the very countries from which they would seek political backing, diplomatic recognition, and economic assistance. On the contrary, they are likely to favour nuclear disarmament to help gain international support, much like Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan after the Soviet dissolution.
Moscow’s expansionist failures are a consequence of periodic western assertiveness and not passivity or appeasement. Russia’s glaring international defeats under the 22-year Putin presidency have included NATO membership for Central European, Balkan, Baltic, and Scandinavian states that protects them from military attack; a build-up of NATO’s rotational forces along the Alliance’s eastern flank; massive military assistance to Ukraine in its defence against Russia’s invasion; the development of alternative European energy supplies; and the regular exposure of Kremlin disinformation campaigns targeting western democracies.
To fully undermine the Kremlin’s imperial agenda, western policymakers must also take advantage of Russia’s internal vulnerabilities. The war in Ukraine has highlighted that Moscow’s current state is not as strong as the Kremlin wants the West to believe. In the midst of its offensive against Ukraine, Russia faces deepening domestic problems on several critical fronts: economic, demographic, social, regional, ethnic, and political, as detailed in the present author’s new book. Russia’s failure has been exacerbated by stark socio-economic inequalities, an inability to ensure economic growth, demographic decline including a decreasing number of ethnic Russians, widening disparities between Moscow and its diverse national republics and regions, a precarious political pyramid based on personalism and clientelism, deepening distrust of government institutions, and increasing public alienation from a corrupt and self-serving ruling elite.
Western governments have the opportunity to capitalise on Russia’s vulnerabilities by planning for a prolonged period of internal instability that will culminate in the emergence of new political entities. Political pluralism, regional devolution, and genuine federalism must be openly encouraged. Even if Russia does not transform into a stable democracy the aim would be to neutralise its imperial pretensions through state entropy. If a democratic transformation scenario becomes increasingly improbable because of Kremlin resistance, Washington should prepare for a “rupture scenario.” Although “Russophobes” will argue that this is too provocative, the regime’s survival is based on stoking fear regardless of actual western policy. Kremlin conspiracy myths can be better neutralised by openly declaring support for democracy and federalism in Russia as well as the rights of republics and regions to determine their sovereignty and statehood. This can also help embolden citizens and demonstrate that they are not isolated on the world stage.
When federalism and pluralism fail to materialise in the midst of economic decline, prolonged military losses in Ukraine, and regime infighting, the separatist scenario will gain traction. The formation of new states from failed empires is a process visible throughout history when loyalty to the existing state dissipates and new forms of sovereignty are widely supported. Some national republics where the number of ethnic Russians is shrinking can seek full emancipation and statehood, including in the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga regions. In addition, several predominantly Russian-ethnic regions in Siberia, the Urals, and the Far East will also benefit from sovereignty and control over local resources such as fossil fuels, metals, and precious minerals that Moscow now exploits like a colonial empire.
The US should work closely with its NATO allies in pursuing a unified approach to Russia’s rupture. Germany, France, and some other European countries will no doubt urge caution. However, hesitation will neither stymie disintegrative developments inside Russia nor prepare Europe for post-imperial conditions. Several Central European and Scandinavian allies, together with the United Kingdom and Russia’s immediate neighbours are likely to support a bolder western strategy in which NATO prepares contingencies for both the dangers and the opportunities that Russia’s fragmentation will present. To begin with, Russia’s European neighbours must be provided with upgraded security in terms of military support and weapons systems to shield themselves from any destabilising scenarios that Moscow may attempt to generate. Russia’s offensive capabilities, which are already being crippled in Ukraine, will further deteriorate when the defensive capabilities of US allies and partners are strengthened.
Western countries must also conduct an informational offensive by widely disseminating a narrative of the real grievances that Russia’s citizens have against the current state. This extensive list includes regime corruption, economic stagnation, international isolation, military incompetence, deception over war casualties, environmental disasters, resource theft in rich regions, and the suppression of ethnic and regional identities. In addition, an anti-grievance narrative should be encouraged. Rather than enabling the regime to inculcate a victimhood complex, citizens need to reclaim their individual and social rights to build a more positive future. An extensive information campaign using all available channels to break through state censorship can be pursued, especially as the war against Ukraine has mobilised a global anti-Kremlin army on social media networks.
It is worth remembering that only a few years before its collapse, the Soviet Union was engaged in numerous foreign military escapades, controlled half of Europe, and trumpeted its economic superiority over the West, while disguising its growing existential crisis. Exploiting Russia’s structural weaknesses and policy failures will undermine Moscow’s ability to wage imperialist wars. Ignoring the escalating domestic problems that are likely to lead to Russia’s fracture will prove more damaging to western interests than preparing to manage their international repercussions. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the unravelling of the Soviet Union should serve as poignant lessons that geopolitical revolutions occur regardless of Kremlin disinformation or the West’s belief in a permanent status quo. Instead of fearing the future, western policymakers should be exhilarated by the prospect of historic challenges that will herald a new era of geopolitics.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His book, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, has just been published. A Ukrainian translation will be available from arc.ua Kyiv in October.
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