Photo: Delfi (R.Achmedovo nuotr.)

Photo: Delfi (R.Achmedovo nuotr.)

«There’s a greater chance the Russian Federation will fall apart.» Edward Lucas

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Edward Lucas is a British journalist, the author of journal publications and two books analysing the economic and political life of Russia in the early 2000s. He is a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and an aspiring Liberal Democrat member of the U.K. Parliament. Lviv Now asked the expert how the perception of Russia has changed in the West and why the chances of the Russian Federation’s collapse have increased.

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On January 31, the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum was held in the European Parliament. There, the representatives of the regions and indigenous peoples of Russia, together with international experts, discussed the prospects for the new states’ independence. This was the fifth meeting within the framework of the Forum, but the first one at such a high level, which confirms the transition of conversations about Russia’s disintegration from marginal to mainstream discussions. Edward Lucas is a traditional speaker of these forums.

During the Brussels meeting, you said that the West made a huge mistake back in 1989-1991, and you were stunned by the lack of strategic vision of Russia. In your opinion, what were the reasons behind this lack of strategic vision?

I’d start with ignorance, and this is the result of «uncurtaining». Many people in the West had a vague idea of the countries on the other side of the old east-west wide. And the one country we did know was Russia, we took it seriously. At least, we thought we knew about it.

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The ignorance then led to arrogance. We thought we knew why we’d won the Cold War, that it was us, that it was better. Maybe, we should criticise it. There’s also naivety. We didn’t understand the threat that Russian imperialism posed. And on top of that was greed. We made a huge amount of money from dealing with Russia in terms of cheap oil, gas and coal, and also selling to this large market. Finally, there were capsule cavities when things were going wrong. We didn’t want to admit that we were wrong, it was embarrassing. And all that things combined for over 30 years, to the point when we have hundreds of thousands of people dead, millions of people traumatized, and there’s a bill of a trillion dollars and it’s still getting worse. 

You have been a participant in this Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum. Do you see any changes among western politicians, experts, and society regarding their approach toward Russia today?

Yes, it’s clearly changing both on the rhetorical and practical levels. On the practical level, we see an enhancement of the [NATO’s] presence in the Baltic states, in Poland. We see Sweden, Finland nearly joined NATO. We see a big increase in defence spending in many countries. We also observe a big rhetorical shift when Germany talks about the Zeitenwende, and President Steinmeyer says the age of illusions is over. I surely see it all as welcome but it is still too little and very late. 

Do you see the possibility of Russia’s dissolution, and would the West accept this idea?

I think that whatever happens in Russia, whether the West accepts it or not, is always too relevant. I mean derailments in Russia tend to happen [no matter] whatever we think, and often when we try to intervene, the opposite happens. So I would not put these two things together. I do think that there’s a greater chance than before of the Russian Federation falling apart, although it’s not inevitable. I think it’s possible that it be re-established on a more equal basis. Also, we have a kind of really hard-line regime, centralizing power even further. But certainly, one of the options is either disintegration or, if put more broadly – disorder. And it worries me a lot that the West doesn’t have any strategy for dealing with these many unpleasant, worst contingencies. I think for the countries next to Russia, the disorder is not the worst outcome. The worst outcome would be a strong imperialist Russia. 

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Indeed, now we have the option of this disorganized, chaotic collapse of the Russian Federation, which can result in really terrific consequences, or we can make a strategy and do it in an organized and systemic way. What would be the first steps to convince the people of the Russian republics to start talks, thinking about the disintegration of the Russian Federation?

I think we should be careful about giving ourselves too much of a role in this. What happens in Russia will happen in Russia and the main people who decide it would be the Russian people, or the people ruling Russia. And there’s an enormous range of possibilities. I think it’s worse to ask what we can do to help the captive nations of the Russian Federation, some of which are in a near-grave condition of linguistic and ethnic extinction, and others are much stronger. But we should be clear we don’t like Russian imperialism whether it’s at home or abroad. And where we can support people in defending their languages and cultures, we should do so. But we should be humble in our approach because most things we’ve done in the past either have not worked at all or had the opposite effect. 

But do you believe, on the other hand, that if it’s not the collapse of the Russian Federation, if it’s not keeping Russia as a big empire state, there’s the third option of having democracy in Russia? This is what the liberal Russian opposition is talking about. Do you believe that Russia within its current borders can become a liberal democratic state?

I think it’s possible but quite unlikely. The chances for liberal democracy in Russia are gravely undermined by the war and the militaristic, xenophobic, imperialist rhetoric that’s come along with that. It was possible before February 2022 to argue that there was a developing Russian middle class which was small and liberal-looking. If this middle class grew bigger, the Kremlin regime would look even more outdated. I think as Russia takes steps back to its imperialist past, the room for political, social and economic autonomy in the system is lessened. And that means that the chances for democracy are worse. I think it’s more likely that we get a kind of fake democracy with a hard-line regime pushing Putin that way, but then putting someone plausible and more liberal-minded as a front guy. The aim would be to persuade the West that Russia has changed and launched reforms in this relation. And given past experience, I fear many people in the West would seize this, even on the basis of wishful thinking. There’s no real thought-through factual basis for believing it. 

We have another important actor in the world arena which is namely China. What do you think China is to do? Because now that Russia is significantly weakened, China may try to take it under control. I mean not occupation physically, but at least control [over] far eastern regions of Russia that are full of natural resources which would inevitably result in strengthening of China. Do you foresee this scenario?

It’s a fascinating question, we just don’t know how the Chinese really would react to this eventuality. On the one hand, China doesn’t like disorder, on the other hand – this would be a huge opportunity. So I think it would be one of the many issues for the West how do we do with the Russian disintegration and the opportunity it presents to China, and how far we want China to take advantage of this opportunity, and so far we try to constrain Chinese expansionism. I don’t pretend to offer any answer to this, it’s just a difficult and important question, and we need to start working on it right now.

Let’s presume that this process of Russian disintegration is likely to start. Which regions of Russia are likely to become pioneers here? We have Ichkeria which is, on the one hand, de-jure occupied by the Russian Federation, but on the other hand, it’s under strong control of the representative of Putin – Kadyrov. Maybe, there are some other regions. In your opinion: where, if it starts, may the disintegration of the Russian Federation begin?

I’d be very cautious about any predictions here, but I would say that Ichkeria, or, under its current rule, the «Republic of Kadyrov» is already not really part of the Russian Federation. The Russian Constitution doesn’t apply there. They use the ruble, but in other respects, it’s not really part of Russia. I would say there’s already a sign of disintegration in the other places of the North Caucasus where there’s a similar lack of central control. I think that the question for the Russian central authorities is how far this matters, and whether they can tolerate it. Chechnya is already having sort of a special status. And Chechnya also has the advantage of being contiguous with the outside world, as they’re having an international border with Georgia. This is not the case for places such as Tatarstan which are in a sense better controlled by the state but also more isolated. So I’m very cautious about making predictions here. I think in all these countries, their linguistic, ethnic, and national consciousness is being heavily affected by Russophobia. And I didn’t see any of them being in a pre-revolutionary stage of the kind we saw in Lithuania or Ukraine in the late 80s – early 90s. I think it’s more likely that we’ll have some kind of decay or disintegration, or disorder, maybe, based on economic interests or kind of warfare among the different mafia groups who have an interest in the way Russia is run, rather than only lines on the map.

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Indeed, we can achieve this win-win scenario, if in the result of Russian disintegration, both the West wins, because Russia will not constitute a geopolitical threat to Europe and to the entire West, and it will have a possibility to engage in trade and economic relations with the newly independent states. In the same way, it could be a win scenario for the new republics, because instead of paying huge rents to Moscow, to sustain the corrupt Putin regime, to pay money for all these imperialistic wars, they would be able to allocate this money for their own development. Do you think that this would be the case to convince the Russian republics of possible independence?

Yes, it’s possible. There’s no doubt that Putin’s regime’s business model rests on the extraction, collection and distribution of rent. These are both natural resources rent and bureaucratic rent which is another word for bribes. And that model is vulnerable to the loss of the monopoly of force. On the other hand, if you have your natural resources in terms of, say, diamonds – then it’s possible to imagine an independent Sakha. Perhaps, it’s exporting its diamonds by flying a plane once a month. And it’s much harder if you have oil fields or gas fields. It’s not enough to install control over the oil and gas, you’ve got to have control over the export routes. We see it in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government]. The difficulty the KRG is having is monetizing its oil and gas reserves. So I think I have no confident prediction of how this will happen, but I think that currently, this model is unstable. 

One more question is about nuclear weapons, because it’s probably one of the major concerns of the West, and they are very natural concerns. What will happen to the nuclear weapons in case of Russian disintegration? On the one hand, nuclear weapons are still a threat to the entire world if Russia remains as it is. Or on the other hand, we don’t know what will happen to nuclear weapons in case of the Russian collapse. What’s your prediction and what are the ways to eliminate the threat of nuclear war in case of the Russian disintegration scenario?

I think that nuclear weapons are just one part of the nuclear weapons system. It’s possible that a missile salvo or warheads in the storage bank might be on the territory of the part of the Russian Federation that isn’t under central control. On their end, it’s not particularly useful because they need platforms for the delivery of these weapons, as well as guidance systems and targeting, and the whole nuclear complex that is behind in the nuclear weapons state. So I think it’s more dangerous, in case the core loses nukes, the idea that the terrorists may get nuclear warheads, either by stealing or buying them. And we did see some evidence of that threat in the early 90s. The Soviet nuclear weapons sometimes go straight with other nuclear devices, such as these small nuclear batteries that you use for power generation, one of which appeared in Georgia. But it’s rather like Putin’s threat of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war. It sounds more frightening at the first hand, and we have to think carefully about what things we are actually frightened of if this would happen. So we need to keep our nuclear dialogue with the Russian Federation. We talked to the Soviet Union about strategic stability, and we should continue to talk to the Russian Federation. This is not a matter of political preferences, this is a matter of the bleak reality that we need to talk to the regime. And we should bear in mind that the Kremlin has just as much interest as we do in maintaining control over its nuclear stockpiles.

By Taras Byk

Translated by Vitalii Holich

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