The reaction from the American defense establishment to news that Russian submarines have been operating off the U.S. coast has been fairly nonchalant, bordering on smug. The submarine operation is widely seen as a rather feeble show of strength by the Russian military after a series of embarrassments over botched missile tests and undistinguished conduct during last year’s war with Georgia.
Russia’s weakness – military, political, and economic – is fast becoming conventional wisdom in Washington. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal before his trip to Georgia and Ukraine, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden even suggested that a weakened Russia might work to the advantage of the United States. His words, of course, were primarily meant to reassure the skittish leaders in Tblisi and Kiev, who fear that a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations might lead Washington to abandon them. Whether he was speaking for President Barack Obama or not, Biden also sent an unequivocal signal to the Kremlin that it should not take any “reset” for granted and that the White House will not be intimidated by Russian aggression.
But before the new administration gets too comfortable, it’s worth examining whether a weakened Russia is really in anyone’s interest. In fact, an unstable Russia might prove far more dangerous. For the sake of argument, we present the following not-so-unlikely scenario in which Russia undergoes a series of political and economic upheavals. Consider it less a prediction than a worst-case course of events for how Russian weakness could mean trouble.
It is 2011. The ongoing global financial crisis has proven far more damaging to the Russian economy than predicted, and the Russian ruling elite’s once unshakeable optimism for a quick recovery is long gone. Russian companies are going bankrupt in droves, and there are massive layoffs. As a result, a rising number of protests are reported all over the country. Due to unpaid salaries and massive unemployment, ordinary people lose their inhibitions and openly challenge the government. Public outrage is mostly directed at President Dmitry Medvedev and liberal members of the government. In a desperate attempt to quell riots, troops are deployed to regions with the most unrest.
Things quickly get out of hand. In the city of Omsk, troops open fire on unarmed rioters, killing nine. The Omsk incident deals a decisive blow to Medvedev, who is forced out of office by powerful Kremlin clans that fear the imminent collapse of the Russian state. Appearing emotionally shaken, the president delivers a terse resignation speech in a televised address on Dec. 15, 2011.
Once again assuming the presidency, Vladimir Putin declares a national revitalization program involving a wide range of measures intended to prop up the ailing economy. Thanks to a massive spending spree, the state is able to generate new jobs and the welfare safety net is given a significant boost. Putin manages to temporarily placate the impoverished segments of the population. Yet, the state’s coffers soon run dry, and it is widely assumed that the recent improvement in the Russian economy will be short-lived.
Meanwhile, civil wars rage in the North Caucasus republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. A military buildup in the region does not resolve the situation, and attacks on government buildings and federal troops occur daily. In an attempt to rally people behind the regime and take their minds off the worsening economic malaise, a desperate Putin stokes aggressive nationalism, accusing unspecified foreign governments of instigating violence in the North Caucasus in order to dismember Russia. The Georgian government, still under the rule of President Mikheil Saakashvili, is accused of providing a staging ground for terrorists en route to the North Caucasus. Saakashvili vehemently rejects such accusations and blames massive social distress in Russia for the rising tide of violence.
In 2012, Putin faces reelection. Press freedoms are curtailed even further, and the right to protest is suspended temporarily. The Communist Party, until now the only significant opposition in the Russian parliament, is banned, and a number of opposition figures end up in prison. By now, the Kremlin and its spin doctors have managed to eradicate any semblance of free competition in the country, and the presidential elections are seen internationally as a farce. Putin faces two virtually unknown and uninspiring local politicians and is reelected by a landslide.
In early 2014, hostilities between Russia and Georgia reach a tipping point. A string of bombings at Russian military bases, including those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are attributed to the Georgian secret service by the Russian media. In a speech to the U.N. Security Council, the Russian foreign minister issues a 24-hour ultimatum for Saakashvili to leave the country and allow Russian peacekeepers to enter Georgia. The Georgian government refuses, prompting a full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia. Although Russian forces eventually prevail, the Western-trained and equipped Georgian army inflicts massive causalities on the invaders. Saakashvili flees to Turkey.
In response to the Russian invasion, Washington imposes partial economic sanctions on Moscow. Azerbaijan and Finland demand quick admission to NATO. At the same time, the United States and Poland deploy troops to the Baltic countries to face an increasingly belligerent Russia.
After an accident over Estonia in which a Russian fighter jet – violating that country’s airspace – collides with a Polish F-16, NATO and Russia accept that it is time to negotiate – or risk massive bloodshed. Knowing full well that its obsolete army is no match for NATO’s conventional forces, Moscow is forced to sue for peace. With the promise of hefty economic aid from the European Union, the Kremlin decides to withdraw from Georgia.
The political fallout from the Georgian fiasco has tremendous political repercussions at home. The military and security forces, as well as Putin himself, are widely discredited. Russian business elites, including the oligarchs who not long ago stood firmly behind Putin, push for change.
In 2018, Putin decides not to run again. A rather dull technocrat, bankrolled by a group of powerful oligarchs, succeeds him. Nevertheless, the Russian economy is still reeling from its long roller-coaster ride. The central government has been shaken to its core and exercises little control over vast swaths of Russian territory, where personal fiefdoms have sprung up. The volatile situation in the violent Northern Caucasus, which remains a ticking time bomb, threatens the territorial integrity of the Russian state itself. There is no hope of an effective reset button, and the future for Russia remains anything but bright.
Russia’s weakness has proved to be the world’s crisis.
Donald K. Bandler, a member of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors, served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton, senior director for Europe in the National Security Council, counselor for the 1999 NATO Summit, and U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus. Jakub Kulhanek is currently a graduate student with the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown University and a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs in the Czech Republic. This essay appeared in ForeignPolicy.com as “Fear of a Weak Russia.”