Ukraine War Presages Russia’s Inevitable Collapse – Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, rose to prominence after a 1987 speech he delivered at the plenary meeting of the Central Communist Party of the Soviet Union leaked. In the speech, Yeltsin who at the time was the head of Moscow’s communist party lambasted the slow pace of reform and asked to resign. While Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev castigated him for political immaturity, Yeltsin captured a moment and found himself a symbol of the public’s aspirations. He soon found himself chair of Russia’s Supreme Soviet and, once the Soviet Union dissolved, president of Russia.
Unfortunately, Yeltsin was a drunk. He guided Russia through the tumultuous 1990s, but came to symbolize its weakness. Russia’s GDP plummeted as all the former Soviet republics regrouped. The relatively low price of oil through much of the decade compounded the perfect economic storm. In hindsight, however, Yeltsin did much right: He planted the seeds of a democratic system with checks and balances. The Duma, Russia’s parliament, mattered—at least more than it does now. Yeltsin presided over a chaotic system, but a system nonetheless.
Putin, however, is no Yeltsin. He was a former KGB apparatchik who lamented the Soviet Union’s collapse, disdained democracy, and sought to concentrate all power in his own hands. He created crises—including false flag Chechen operations—in order to justify power grabs. Over subsequent decades, he unraveled all that Yeltsin had done.
Today, the ruble stops with Putin. He is the only personality in Russia that matters. He cut off at the knees anyone competent rising through the Russian system to ensure no upstart could threaten him. In effect, he has become Russia’s new tsar.
Here’s the problem: While every democratic wakes up each morning knowing when his or her term will end; every dictator wakes up knowing that today could be his last. Whereas Yeltsin left Putin a structure on which to operate and build, Putin will leave no system on which a successor—even if he appoints one—can operate. When Putin dies, Russia will descend into chaos.
In November 2020, I visited Nagorno-Karabakh, a region contested by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. At the time, Armenians were in a national depression; Azerbaijan was celebrating its victory after the Kremlin’s imposition of terms on Armenia just weeks before which saw Armenians lose half of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts. Privately, however, Armenians voiced the reality: Nagorno-Karabakh’s loss was a setback but not the story’s end. Armenia might be down, but it would not be out. When Putin died, Russia’s peacekeepers inevitably would return to Russia against the backdrop of the chaos that would inevitably follow. After all, for Russians, Moscow is the prize, not Stepanakert. The same will be true with the other territories Russia occupies: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, and perhaps even the Kurils.
A scramble for not only Moscow but also Russia is inevitable. Putin consolidated not only power, but also cash, property, and other assets. Today, he is among the richest men on earth. Even if Putin appoints a successor, the temptation among every military commander and FSB (the post-Soviet KGB) general will be to try his or her luck. Russia will collapse into chaos.
The Ukraine crisis will catalyze the process. Russian forces were unable to control the Chechen capital Grozny without leveling it. The idea that they can easily occupy the far larger Kyiv (Kiev), therefore, is the product more of Putin’s arrogance than reality. Putin may very well turn to the Grozny plan and destroy Kyiv, but in such a case he will only ruin the very assets he seeks to loot and from which he hopes to profit in the future. In essence, he is akin to a gambler convinced to gamble on a sure thing, only to throw a tantrum and shoot the horse on which he placed his bet.
A question for Ukrainians and the international community will be how to handle post-Putin Russia. Ukrainians inevitably will demand both the return of their territory and reparations. Many will oppose them citing the onerous post-World War I conditions that humiliated Germany and contributed to its efforts to seek revenge just over two decades later.
While some American realists say that the fault in the Ukraine crisis was a lack of generosity toward Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russian intellectual and opposition figure Garry Kasparov showed the falseness of this argument in his 2015 book, Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. Simply put, Putin’s rise shows that the problem of the post-Cold War world was too much generosity, not its lack.
It is in the interest of the free world and essential to the stability of the post-World War II liberal order for Russia to collapse. When the country collapses post-Putin, the first order of business will be for the international community or friendly Russian forces to secure its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons before an unstable autocrat might. Pakistan is not the only nuclear power whose collapse for which the United States must plan.
The West—and East—must also recognize the devils we do not know may be as bad as the one who now threatens the free world. The only solution is to put Russia’s fascist nationalists in a hole from which they cannot re-emerge. Perhaps the problem with Germany post-World War I was not reparations, but its continued unity. Whereas Germans shared a common ethnicity, Russia is as much a multiethnic state as the Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic empire. Crushing Russians with cash reparations post-Putin would empower the most retrograde nationalists as the reparations against Germany provided manna for Adolph Hitler.
This does not mean the United States should respond with generosity. Ukraine and Georgia should instead receive land beyond what Russian forces seized from them. Not only should Ukraine and Belarus be free, but so too should Chechnya, Daghestan, Karelia, Siberia, Tatarstan, and Tuva.
Just as Putin today seeks to signal the establishment of democracy on his borders will result in the diminishment of its territory and sovereignty, it is time to show autocrats from Putin to Xi Jinping to Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Mohamed Farmaajo that their own efforts to expand borders by force will backfire and will cement their legacy as national destruction rather than aggrandizement. It is essential to make Russia pay.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and co-editor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).