The Russian Federation as we know it today is a multi-ethnic state that looms over Eurasia, just as its predecessors have for the last few centuries. It is the largest nation on Earth, spanning 6.602 million square miles. One hundred forty four million people call Russia their home. Russians are protected by a powerful military of 2.9 million personnel ready to defend their homeland. Russian stability is built on an economy with a GDP of 1.659 trillion USD, and in addition, Russia has a large sphere of influence and many loyal allies whose support it could rely on in the event of conflict. However, even with all of its apparent might, Russia is not as stable as it seems.
In the next 20 to 40 years, the Russian Federation may collapse in a similar manner to its predecessors, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union; the primary factors for this impending collapse are Putin’s age, the lack of a competent heir, youth opposition, growing minority separatism, economic decline, and underdevelopment. But to understand the impact of these factors, it is necessary to understand some context about the current state of Russia.
For the last 29 years, Russia has been ruled by the party “United Russia,” which is largely controlled by ex-Soviet officials. Russia’s second President (and de-facto dictator), Vladimir Putin, maintains power through corruption and an iron fist. His power is mostly derived from the support of the armed forces and the secret police. Putin, who is a former KGB agent himself, uses the armed forces and secret police to crack down on any form of opposition. In other words, Putin rules Russia in a totalitarian way, assuring that he stays in power.
No matter what he does, however, Putin cannot stop the natural process of aging, even if he can hide it. Thus, it is evident that Putin, who is 69 years old, will not be in power forever, and someone will have to take his place. This realization prompts a question: Who will be Putin’s successor? All of Putin’s top party members are ex-Soviet officials that are also quite elderly. This obstacle makes it difficult for Putin to train a successor who can rule for a long time and maintain power. Additionally, United Russia is a big-tent party, which means that it has no coherent ideology. As a result, many of the politicians in United Russia have differing political views. Putin is an autocrat and favors those who support him and his style of totalitarianism. Therefore, he does not care about the ideological factions and only about the politicians who support him. When he leaves office, the ideological factions will squabble over who gets to control United Russia. Such infighting could eventually lead to the dissolution of United Russia itself, leading to more instability at a national level.
Putin’s current situation is similar to that of Soviet Premier Khrushchev. During the beginning of Khrushchev’s rule, the Soviet Union was stable and at the apex of its power, and Khrushchev was extremely popular. However, Khrushchev’s popularity declined after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which he lost the ability to use Cuba as a strategic missile base. Eventually, Khrushchev was forced to resign and an “Era of Stagnation” began. Khrushchev had not designated a successor, so the most powerful Soviet politicians argued over who got to take power. Therefore, it became difficult for Soviet leadership to make any decisive action. The end of Putin’s tenure will have similar consequences, and Russia will stagnate, decline, and eventually collapse.
Even though Putin’s government tries to silence all opposition, the youth of Russia have still been able to set up many powerful opposition parties with a great deal of popular support. Opposition parties with similar ideals have already formed large anti-Putin coalitions. Most of these opposition parties/coalitions draw support from the younger generation of Russians, who were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many young Russians starkly disagree with Putin’s autocratic Soviet-style of governing, and would rather have a liberal or radical socialist government. In recent years, mass anti-Putin organized protests have become increasingly frequent. As the younger generation becomes more politically prominent, the older generation will inevitably decline, along with United Russia’s power. Unless true democratic elections are allowed, the opposition will grow in power until they are able to overthrow the ruling government in some sort of coup or other violent struggle. If the leading opposition favors European integration (joining the EU, Schengen Area, Eurozone, NATO, etc.), Western nations may intervene and assist the opposition. Eventually, a Western-oriented party will most likely come to power and establish a Western-style democracy, slowly rebuilding the country with foreign aid. However, Russia may not emerge from this turmoil in one piece.
Russia is a multi-ethnic state with over 150 ethnicities. Many of these ethnicities live in remote locations, such as Siberia and the Caucasus region. As a result, their lifestyles and culture are quite different from that of Russians. Historically, the homelands of these non-Russians were not part of Russia at all. Many of these indigenous peoples were conquered by Russia after the year 1500. Since then, they have been ruled by Russians with little to no local representation (although some regions have been given autonomy in modern times). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many countries that had been under Moscow's grip for centuries finally gained independence. However, others, such as Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karelia, Sakha, and Buryatia, never got independence and are still fighting for it to this day. Many of these ethnic non-Russians are favorable towards Putin because he gives them some degree of autonomy. However, it is unlikely that future governments will grant these non-Russians the same degree of self-rule as Putin’s government because most Russian parties view local autonomy as proto-separatism, whereas Putin views it as a way to ensure stability. If their autonomy is threatened or revoked, non-Russians will demand independence, and may eventually result to violence if ignored. On top of this, some of these non-Russian ethnicities share more cultural links with the people of neighboring countries than they do with Russians, and there are irredentist movements in these neighboring countries that seek to annex territories of Russia that are culturally similar to those countries. For example, a popular irredentist movement in Finland seeks to unite neighboring Karelia, whose indigenous people are closely related to the Finns, with Finland. These independence movements will have a high chance of succeeding in the future if Russia is divided and unstable. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the country was beginning to adopt a policy of “Glasnost” or “Openness” towards the outside world. Such rapid social change triggered internal unrest, and many non-Russians within the Soviet Union pushed for its dissolution. If similar changes were to occur in modern Russia, it would give the remaining non-Russians a chance to finally gain independence after centuries of Russian imperialism and oppression. If Russia is to destabilize as described above, mass separatism will grow, and many nations will inevitably fight for their ancient right of sovereignty.
Since the early 2010s, the Russian economy has stagnated and begun to decline. With its declining population, Russia has struggled to keep up with the rest of the world. Under Putin’s hybrid economic policy, Russia’s economy began to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, after decades of a strict command economy, it has been very difficult for Russia to transition from a command economy to a market economy. On top of this difficulty, Russia has experienced a great deal of economic instability. During the 2008 Recession, the Russian economy suffered greatly; in 2009 alone, the Russian GDP shrank by a whopping 7.9%. Just as Russia’s economy was beginning to recover, the Russian Ruble collapsed in 2014 due to inflation, creating a financial crisis. Both of these crises crippled the Russian economy. It has been difficult for Russia to recover from these crises because its largest export, crude oil, declined by 50%. Even though it has been financially damaged, Russia maintains a very large military and police budget, leaving very little money for development and welfare. Russia frequently uses its military and secret police to meddle in foreign affairs, especially those in the Middle East. When intervening in foreign conflicts, Russia usually takes a position counter to that of NATO. Thus, it has gained a bad reputation among Western nations, who try to punish Russia for its political actions by isolating it economically, further damaging the Russian economy. Even after all of this, the Russian government refuses to lower military spending. The reason for this is that the Russian military is loyal to Putin, who thinks that the military is a necessary component in a powerful nation. Eventually, the Russian public will realize that the government is incapable of satisfying their needs and will drift towards opposition parties, further weakening United Russia’s grasp on power.
In order to survive the 21st century, Russia will have to address and resolve all of these problems that threaten to tear it apart. If it does not, Russia will inevitably collapse, turning the largest nation of Earth into one of the most unstable. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself declared that the collapse and division of the Russian Federation “will be a tragedy that will affect every citizen of Russia without exception.”
*Note: This article focuses on the possibility of Russia collapsing; its purpose is not to argue that such a thing will definitely happen. Rather, its purpose is to compare its current state to that of the late Soviet Union and justify that Russia must reform itself; if it does not do so, Russia may suffer horrible consequences, a collapse among them.*