I don't know if George Grylls and Alexander Motyl are Russia experts or just a couple of guys with opinions and I don't know if Ukrainian Major General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of his country's military intelligence branch, knows what he's talking about or is just painting a narrative that bolsters Ukraine's prospects in its war with Russia. But this morning, all three of them were in the media pointing to a collapse of the Russian Federation... which sounds kind of far-fetched, right?
Motyl wrote a rather dense OpEd for The Hill this morning, Prepare for the disappearance of Russia, an essay on the West's "inability to imagine the unimaginable." A Rutgers political science professor specializing in Russia and Ukraine, among his dozen books are Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse and Revival of Empires and The Post Soviet Nations. "It’s 1991 again," he wrote, "and now as then, Western policymakers and analysts are terrified of confronting the two big 'what if' questions raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calamitous war with Ukraine: What if the Russian Federation is following in the Soviet Union’s footsteps and is on the verge of collapse? What if, once again, the process is driven by internal factors and there’s nothing we can do about it? The Soviet collapse was both a surprise and an annoyance for much of the West. Few government leaders expected a superpower to disappear overnight and even fewer greeted the prospect with enthusiasm."
[T]he sooner the West starts thinking about what a Russian collapse will look like, the better-- not because there is much we can do to stop it, but because it will have earth-shattering consequences for the world.
Putin believes that whatever problems arise within his realm must be the handiwork of foreign forces. Soviet leaders held similar views. In fact, the weaknesses of their states were the products of their dysfunctional political and economic systems and of policy mistakes the leaders made.
Soviet totalitarianism and central planning were good at mobilizing people and resources for mega-projects such as industrialization, collectivization, and war (while also killing millions in the process), but they failed miserably as systems of governance in modern societies. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was a conscious effort to fix the malfunctioning Soviet system-- and not to rid it of nefarious Western influences. Quite the contrary, Gorbachev understood that opening the USSR to the world could save it. The Soviet Union fell apart because Gorbachev emasculated the Communist Party, thereby destroying the linchpin of totalitarian rule and both enabling and compelling the non-Russian republics to seek salvation from a decrepit system through independence.
Putin’s fascist Russia is no less dysfunctional. The hyper-centralization of power in the hands of a possibly irrational leader with delusions of grandeur is a recipe for institutional decay, as bureaucrats attempt to survive by empire-building, compartmentalization and buck-passing, and for policy disaster. It was Putin and a small coterie of his sycophantic pals who decided to invade Ukraine, thereby dooming thousands of Russian soldiers to an early death and exposing Russia’s efforts at building a powerful military as fictional. Corruption thrives in such circumstances, while the ability to pursue imaginative policies of economic and political reform atrophies under the dead weight of a dysfunctional and corrupt bureaucracy.
If the Russian Federation falls apart, it will be due to the strains and weaknesses inherent in the system, the inability of Putin to keep its parts together and its elites happy, and the catastrophic impact on Russia of his idiotic decision to invade Ukraine with an army that was unprepared for such an adventure. Western military and economic assistance to Ukraine has strengthened Ukraine and improved its war effort, but the disintegrating processes currently affecting Russia would be taking place even if Western assistance had been minimal.
Now, as in 1991, the Russian Federation’s provinces and non-Russian autonomous republics will be forced to fend for themselves as they witness the Russian political and economic system crumble around them. There was already a “parade of sovereignties” during the dysfunctional 1990s; there will be another one in the 2020s. The Russian Federation could metamorphose into 10 or more states, only one of which would be known as Russia. That would change the face of Eurasia forever.
Stopping this process likely will not be possible. If the West were to abandon all its sanctions tomorrow, disintegration would be slowed down, but not halted. Indeed, slowing it down might be worse than letting it take its course. The longer the disintegration, the greater the cost in lives. All the West can, and must, do is prepare for a probable outcome: the disappearance of Russia as we know it.
I didn't walk about from that with a real understanding about why, specifically, the Russian Federation is disintegrating. Is it because Putin has no heir-apparent? Writing for the Times Of London today, George Grylls reports that Putin has cancer and may be losing his mind to boot. Discount for a moment that that sounds an awful lot like war propaganda and let's look at the report on the face of it. Grylls reports that 2 months ago an unidentified oligarch tied to the Kremlin claimed-- while being surreptitiously taped-- that Putin is "very ill with blood cancer." Well, I can attest that when you get certain types of lymphoma you get very ill... and can't even write a coherent blog post, let alone run a country in the middle of a war one's military was unprepared for. The oligarch said Putin has had surgery-- ok, that's what happens-- and has gone crazy (ditto).
Grylls: "He says that there is deep dissatisfaction in Moscow about the state of the economy and, appearing to speak on behalf of other oligarchs, says “we all hope” that Putin dies. 'He absolutely ruined Russia’s economy, Ukraine’s economy and many other economies-- ruined [them] absolutely,' the oligarch says. 'The problem is with his head. One crazy guy can turn the world upside down.' Ukraine’s head of military intelligence also claimed Putin was seriously ill with cancer as he suggested that a coup to remove the Russian leader was already underway... An investigation by Proyekt, an independent Russian publication, disclosed Putin’s habit of taking baths of blood from the antlers of young reindeer... The investigation also found that Putin was accompanied almost everywhere by three doctors, including an oncologist, skilled in cancer treatment... At least seven oligarchs have died recently in mysterious circumstances amid rumours of anger at Putin’s handling of the economy. Many have seen their fortunes shrink dramatically after the invasion of Ukraine. The most recent death was of Aleksandr Subbotin, a former executive at Lukoil, Russia’s second largest energy company. The official explanation was that he poisoned himself with toad venom while trying to cure a hangover." What happened to the Times Of London? Oh, yeah... I almost forgot; Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1981.
So that leaves us with Major General Kyrylo Budanov, who is pretty young (36) to be a brigadier general. His predictions were all over the British media today, even beyond the Times Of Murdoch. Sky News reported that Budanov claims the war is going so well for Ukraine that it will be over by the end of the year and that a coup to remove the seriously ill Putin is already under way. He predicted that Ukraine will gain back not just the Donbas region but also Crimea. This would certainly lead to Putin's removal.