BAKU – History repeats itself; first as a tragedy, second as a farce. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Russia has been subject to existential threats. From internal revolutions, rebellions, and famines to total wars fought against powerful neighbours, Russia has sustained itself through all manner of political stress. Even after the Russian state collapsed in 1917 and 1991, it quickly reassembled itself by forging new national identities through the use of ideological, ethnic, and geographic components. The modern Russian Federation, though only a remnant of the much larger Soviet Union, still ranks as a major player in its region, and should it collapse, it would have major implications for the global balance of power. So, what does history teach us about Russian power? And what would this mean if Russia collapses once more?

The weight of history

The history of 20th century Russia is a story of conflict, revolution, and constant anxiety. Above all, it is punctuated by two pivotal events: the Revolution of 1917 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though these two events took place more than seventy years apart, they share several traits that explain how Russian political power works and why it tends to break down under certain conditions. In general, the events of 1917 and 1991 both followed a three-step pattern. First was national humiliation or geopolitical setback that undermined the state’s global standing. For instance, in 1917, Russia’s international prestige was shattered when it faced defeat during World War I.

Likewise, in the 1980s, failure to secure victory in Afghanistan, the Chernobyl disaster, and the fall of the Iron Curtain all contributed to a widespread perception that the USSR was in decline. In both events, 1917 and 1991, Russia’s reputation was undermined, thus encouraging reactionary forces within. Secondly, both Russian collapses were preceded by attempts at political liberalisation, which, in both cases, had the opposite effect and allowed political criticism to proliferate. Following Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Tsar attempted to pacify revolutionary movements by issuing the October Manifesto, which granted Russian citizens rudimentary political rights and provided a state parliament “Duma”. This arrangement worked for a time, but following defeat in World War I, Russian citizens turned their political rights against the Tsar, who was forced to abdicate the throne in March 1917.

In the 1980s, the Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev also sought to liberalise national institutions. By this time, rampant corruption within the Communist Party had stagnated the Soviet economy. Through a policy of glasnost, or “openness”, Moscow hoped to break free from its inertia, but the plan backfired. As high-ranking party members were exposed for fraud and deceit, political loyalties shifted to alternative sources.

This, in turn, led to the third and final stage, where a viable political opposition took root. While in the early days of the 1917 revolution, responsibility for governance fell to a council of Duma ministers, it was not long before the superior organisational and coercive capacity of the Petrograd Soviet council allowed the Bolshevik Party to assume power. What followed was a brutal civil war for state control. As the loyalist faction splintered within and the Tsar and his family were executed, the Communist Party assumed power. The Russian Empire collapsed along geographic lines, anchoring along the mountains, woodlands, swamps, and tundra’s ranges from Eastern Europe to Central Asia to the Far East.

Comparatively, the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 occurred mainly along ethnic lines. While Moscow used the Red Army to stamp out nationalist resistance in Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the early Cold War, by the 1980s, the policy of glasnost had allowed these strains of political thoughts to rematerialise. Beginning in the Eastern Bloc, this wave of nationalism eventually spread to the Russian heartland itself, where Boris Yeltsin reinvented himself as a distinctly Russian alternative to Gorbachev. Consequently, the Soviet Union collapsed into 15 republics, leaving a remnant Russia centred along ethnic lines.

With these historical precedents in mind, modern-day Russia has fashioned its foreign and domestic policy to preserve its hold on power. Military interventions like the 2008 war with Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea demonstrate Moscow’s will to counter the rollback of its regional influence. While at home, avenues of political dissent are drowned out by a kind of simulated democracy, replete with phony opposition figures and alternative political parties. Even when a genuine opposition can break away from these constraints, Moscow will resort to intimidation as a backstop. The poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of Alexei Navalny is only the most recent example of the lengths Moscow is willing to go to prevent opposition movements from taking root. Seen in this light, the Kremlin’s decisions, some of which are questionable or controversial, are lessons learnt from history.

Paradoxes of power

Suppose Russia collapsed in the near future; it would just reassemble itself. Moscow would find ways to pull much of itself back together. The reason for this is not because Russia is an exceptional state, but because of the way its social fabric is moulded.

A collapsing Russia would be unbound by geographic and ethnic factors. There would be no natural boundaries that would allow for a neat partition of Russian territory. Apart from the Ural Mountains, the country has no major geographic boundaries within. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is the North Caucasus, which does have the geography, ethnic composition, and distinct identity to mount a successful secessionist movement. Other than that, Russia has no geographic barriers to partition.

There are also no ethnic boundaries to retreat from. Whatever ethnic minorities do exist inside Russia tend to be locked within ethnically Russian territories. This is compounded by the fact that Russia’s interior is particularly hostile to human habitation. The lack of navigable rivers places severe constraints on contact with the outside world, while the climate, characterised by mud, rain, and extreme variations in temperature, contributes to a sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped geographic space.

Should Russia collapse, it would just reassemble itself, just as it did in the previous disintegrations. Another factor in favour of Russia is its highly-centralised model of governance. Centuries of colonisation and empire-building have prevented Russia’s regional areas from exercising independent rule. Though some regions have a nominal degree of autonomy, in practice, Russia operates as a unitary state. Secessionist movements in the internal areas are, therefore, relatively weak, a fact reinforced by the large proportion of ethnic Russians that also live within these territories. Ergo, if regional separatist movements tried to break free of Moscow’s grip, they would likely be met by loyalist forces, who could buy time for the central government to reassert control.

Centralisation has also shaped Russia’s economic outlook. Lack of sea access and navigable waterways means that most of the Russian interior, although minerally-rich, is heavily dependent on state infrastructure to export resources to global markets. Likewise, these regions rely on government subsidies to obtain essentials like affordable food and heating. By cutting off access, Moscow would be able to lay siege to the interior – an event that would precipitate a humanitarian crisis on a scale unmatched in Russia’s post-war era.

Nor would any outside help be available. Having long understood the potential for infrastructure projects to assert geopolitical designs, Moscow has purposefully limited the link between its Asian provinces and that of the powerhouses of Asia. Given the lack of connectivity between inland Russia and the outside world, it would be difficult for any separatist movement to obtain foreign support. So, while an internal rebellion may succeed at first, geographic factors mean that, in the long term, the rebels would have to either reembrace Moscow, or be left out in the cold.

A nightmare comes true

But suppose Russia lost total control. The collapse is uncompromising, and Moscow is unable to reassert its will. What would be the worst-case scenario? Well, in all likelihood, the power void left by a Russian collapse would trigger geostrategic competition across Eurasia. Neighbouring powers, both historical and newcomers alike, would try to strip away Russia’s strategic assets.

In Eastern Europe, Poland, using NATO and EU resources at its disposal, would seek to push its influence eastward into Belarus and Ukraine. Meanwhile, Turkey would attempt to expand its influence into Crimea and the Caucasus, which would effectively turn the Black Sea into a Turkish lake. In these pursuits, Poland and Turkey would likely ally with each other. At the same time, former Soviet states locked in frozen conflicts would go all in and try to stamp out Russian-backed factions. Ukraine would go after Donbas, Moldova would seize Transnistria, Georgia would capture Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Azerbaijan would deal with Karabakh, etc. Territorial disputes would be unfrozen, and physical might would be the preferred course of action.

In the south, Iran would push its influence into the Caspian Sea in order to stave off Turkish expansionism. The Iranians have pan-Turkic anxieties due to the large population of ethnic Azeris located in the country’s north. By pushing its influence along the Caspian Sea, Iran would be looking to break Turkey’s link to Central Asia.

To the east, China would aim to covert Mongolia into a client state and expand its influence into Central Asia. Beijing would be looking to integrate former Soviet territories into its Belt and Road Initiative, thereby projecting power across Eurasia. Further north, Canada, Denmark, and the United States would consolidate their control over existing and emerging shipping lanes in the Arctic Circle. Russian military bases and outposts in the Arctic would likely be destroyed, rolling back Russian power for decades to come.

Yet, while neighbouring powers chip away at Russia, the collapse of the Russian state would have a dire effect on global stability. Perhaps the ultimate reason for concern would be the Russian nuclear arsenal. The country is estimated to have over 6,200 nuclear warheads, both stockpiled and deployed. If Russia collapsed and its chain of command splintered or broke apart, it would be nearly impossible for a single authority to secure all the Russian nuclear sites, especially not considering Russia’s immense size. Non-state actors, rogue factions, and regional warlords would seek to obtain nuclear weapons or components such as fissile materials and weapons delivery systems. Even a single unaccounted nuke would be a nightmare, and there are over 6,200 warheads to account for.

This exceptional threat would bring about an international task force to intervene on the ground. Small bands of special forces would not suffice. Entire armies would have to mobilise deep into Russia. Nobody would be looking forward to this, but there would be little choice. International forces would have to work with local powerbrokers to achieve their objectives. Ironically, the most effective means of doing this would be to prop up a new unitary government, preferably one with compelling influence over whatever remained of Russia’s security agencies. However, if mutual suspicions were to cause rifts within the international response, Beijing and Washington could end up supporting competing domestic forces within Russia. A proxy conflict would overwhelm whatever remained of the country.

Interestingly, while during the 20th century many believed the greatest danger to world peace was a powerful and monolithic Russia, the greatest danger of the 21st century would be a weak and fragmented Russia. A paradox if there ever was one.

Antony Murrell & Shirvan Neftchi

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  1. Pripyat, city founded to serve the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine – Jorge Franganillo via Flickr
  2. Moscow International Business Center – Wikipedia
  3. Pacific Fleet’s nuclear submarine Kuzbass – Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation


• ‘Revolutionary Russia, 1891 – 1991’ by Orlando Figes (Pelican, 2014)

• ‘The Next Decade’ by George Friedman (Doubleday, 2011)

• ‘Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945’ by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005) • Stephen Kotkin: ‘What everyone needs to know about Russia under Putin’ (FPRI, April 2018)

• ‘Chernobyl coverup a catalyst for ‘glasnost’’ (NBC News, April 2006)

• ‘The Duma in Russian history: How Tsar Nicholas attempted to stave off the Russian Revolution’ (ThoughtCo, January 2019)

• ‘The Siberian curse: Does Russia’s geography doom its chances for market reform?’ (Brookings Institution, September 2003)

• ‘The dormant breadbasket of the Asia-Pacific’ (The Diplomat, February 2019)

• ‘All the Kremlin’s Men’ by Mikhail Zygar (PublicAffairs, 2016)

• ‘Transporting: Russia’s rent addiction and Far Eastern infrastructure (The Diplomat, December 2017)

• Status of World Nuclear Forces by Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda (Federation of American Scientists)

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