“Exeunt Putin, or Goodbye Russia?”
Stephen J. Cimbala, Penn State Brandywine
According to a number of politicians, pundits and academic experts, the departure of Vladimir Putin from power in Russia is only a matter of time. Further, some argue that Putin’s loss of power will be followed inevitably by the demise of post-Soviet Russia and its breakup into a much smaller Russia and a number of new mini-states. The expected fall of post-Soviet Russia is predicated on several assumptions. As Russia’s petro-state economy gradually collapses, Putin will lose legitimacy and popular support, especially among Russia’s professional middle class, which will turn decisively against him. In addition, Putin’s ruling circle of kleptocrats and siloviki (people of force, including former and current holders of positions in intelligence, security and defense) will fall out among themselves and their control will disintegrate into internal political warfare. Finally, citizens and politicians in economically disadvantaged or politically restless regions of Russia will seize local powers of government and economic assets, making the “center” gradually irrelevant and its control, nonexistent.
The desire to expedite the departure of Putin is understandable1. He has scrambled the eggs of post-Cold War European stability by his annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine2. His autocratic rule is regarded as a trashing of some post-Soviet expectations for a peaceful security community from Vancouver to Vladivostok that included Russia, other post-Soviet states currently outside of Russia, and member states of the European Union and NATO. As well, Putin’s internal wars against his domestic political opposition have traduced the lines of legal and moral legitimacy, including the control of media, the prosecution and incarceration of opposition leaders, and most troubling, the accusation of complicity in the deaths of prominent Russians at home and abroad3. Critics feel that Putin’s crackdown on domestic critics and harassment of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) go hand in hand with his escalation of military adventurism and political tensions abroad. In both domestic and foreign policy, he has sought to preserve the “power vertical” in Russia at a high cost, including the economic strangulation imposed on Russia by sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Thus it is quite reasonable to welcome a post-Putin Russia as a possible door opener to Russia’s integration into the club of proto-democracies and well behaved international actors. It is quite another, however, to root for Russia’s demise as a unitary nation-state.
The collapse of post-Soviet Russia is unlikely to be as neat and fortuitous in its outcomes for the West as was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Whereas the departure of Vladimir Putin from the Russian Presidency is to be more welcomed than feared, the breakup of post-Soviet Russia is to be more feared than welcomed.
The disintegration of post-Soviet Russia will create new power vacuums in Eastern Europe, in Central Asia and in the North Caucasus region. These power vacuums could be filled by forces of political disorder, including terrorists of various political motivations, ethnic separatists, religious zealots, brigands and criminals. A collapse of political authority in these and nearby regions is not in anyone’s interest, including that of the United States and NATO.
Optimistic forecasts of Russian collapse imagine a pile-up of former autocracies and emerging democracies seeking shelter under the umbrella of western international organizations and military alliances. On the other hand, post-Soviet Russia’s collapse may not resemble the end of the former Soviet Union in 19914. Instead, it might look like the fall of the Tsar and the end of autocracy in Russia as a result of World War I, except that no Soviet Communism would be waiting in the wings. Instead of tyranny or democracy, Eastern Europe and Central Asia would be marked by political disintegration and military autarchy. And, faced with Russia’s loss of control over its own military and economy, what would its neighbors do – especially China?
And speaking of control –we should also remember that Russia is one of the world’s two largest nuclear weapons states. Together Russia and the United States account for some 93 per cent of nuclear weapons worldwide. The collapse of political authority in Russia could create a hiatus in which its nuclear forces and command systems were operating without central political control and, therefore, potentially under the de facto command and control of others – including force commanders or renegade politicians with military connections. Recall the uncertainty that obtained during the abortive coup against then Russian President Gorbachev from August 19-21, 1991. Gorbachev was held in isolation at his vacation dacha in the Crimea and, for three days, it was unclear who had effective control over the portable launch control consoles with nuclear release codes. Fortunately the situation was resolved before ambiguities of command and control were turned into enduring risks of unsanctioned authority over nuclear first use.
Further, in a situation of dispersed or ambiguous nuclear command authority, the danger is not only one of an actual firing of a nuclear weapon. Dissident officers and political allies could obtain nuclear weapons and use them for blackmail in a civil war against other factions controlling other forces. One might think that dissidents getting hold of nuclear weapons would be unable to fire them because the weapons were protected by electronic locks and the dissidents would not have access to nuclear launch codes5. This assumption would be true for U.S. weapons, at least in the short run, but U.S. officials cannot guarantee that it holds true for other nuclear forces. It might turn out that some nuclear weapons in other countries were well protected and others less so (one of our nightmares, for example, about a breakdown of political authority in Pakistan).
In short, a collapse of post-Putin Russia invites political chaos, military extremism and international anarchy across a wide swath of Europe and Central Eurasia – with a nuclear back story. Better to support the constitutionally legitimate and domestically consensual retirement of Putin to some luxury villa in the Crimea, a suitable retreat under the exigent and foreseeable circumstances.
- For expert assessments of Putin, see: Walter Laqueur, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), and Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2013) [↩]
- United States European Command, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, USAF, Commander, Theater Strategy (U.S. EUCOM, October 2015), www.eucom.mil/media-library/documents/201. See also: Andrew Tilghman, “Russian aggression a top concern in U.S. European Command’s new military strategy,” <Militarytimes.com>, January 27, 2016, in Johnson’s Russia List 2016 – #20 – January 28, 2016, firstname.lastname@example.org [↩]
- PBS Newshour, “What the Litvinenko assassination accusation means for the Kremlin,” interview with Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, and Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, January 21, 2016, in Johnson’s Russia List 2016 – #15, January 22, 2016, email@example.com [↩]
- Possible scenarios for Russian collapse are presented in George Friedman, “Putin has two years to hold Russia together,” Business Insider, interview, January 22, 2016, in Johnson’s Russia List 2016 – #17 – January 25, 2016, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Nikolai Petrov, “Russia’s Ruling Regime Must Modernize or Face Collapse,” Moscow Times, January 22, 2016, in Johnson’s Russia List 2016 – #15, January 22, 2016, email@example.com [↩]
- Nikolai Sokov, “Controlling Soviet/Russian Nuclear Weapons in Times of Instability,” Ch. 4 in Henry D. Sokolski and Bruno Tertrais, eds., Nuclear Weapons Security Crises: What Does History Teach? (Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, July 2013), pp. 87-143 [↩]