Mass protests in dozens of Russia’s cities against the arrest of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny may foreshadow the country’s approaching rupture. Not since gaining absolute power over 20 years ago has President Vladimir Putin faced such a confluence of crises compounded by his own domestic policy failures.
The Russian Federation, held together by the Kremlin’s power monopoly, is approaching a period of turmoil precipitated by several simultaneous crises. The economy was shrinking even before the pandemic struck and the global recession began. International financial sanctions on Russian companies involved in the war against Ukraine and the subversion of Western democracies contributed to the decline, but it is Moscow’s overreliance on revenues from energy exports and its lack of economic diversification that have precipitated an even deeper downturn.
According to projections by the International Monetary Fund, over the coming years, Russia’s GDP per capita will fall significantly, and the post-pandemic growth of Russia’s economy will only reach half of the global average. State revenues are declining, living standards are falling, income inequalities and wealth differentials are rising, social programs are diminishing, social conflicts are intensifying, and regional disquiet is mounting. The poverty rate is rising sharply, and a growing number of Russians face destitution.
The pandemic itself has significantly damaged Russia’s economy. Large budget deficits and bankruptcies in the regions were delayed by substantial subsidies from Moscow in 2020, but they will hit hard in 2021 and further aggravate public resentment.
Government responses to the pandemic especially exacerbated divisions between Moscow and the regions. Those living in the capital have much easier access to vaccines than those outside of it. Putin’s popularity nose-dived because of cutbacks in healthcare spending, unequal access to care, lockdowns that were seen as violating human rights, and insufficient economic assistance.
Russia is also failing politically as Putin seeks to cling to power through constitutional amendments that would make him president for life. The Kremlin is fearful of ordinary people and tries to tighten its grip through new centralizing measures. But given the size and diversity of the volatile Russian state, Moscow may be unable to control the spiral of unrest.
The biggest danger for the Kremlin may come not from opposition figures such as Navalny but from growing anger in many of Russia’s 85 federal subjects (including two recently seized from Ukraine). Despite Western hopes, democrats in Moscow are unlikely to transform the country into a liberal state. Instead, the regime will be most acutely challenged by regionalists, autonomists, and frustrated ethnic groups. Even though Navalny himself does not support a multinational state, protests against Navalny’s arrest may be a catalyst for a diversity of movements to proliferate.
If the current protests fail to lead to a statewide democratic breakthrough, then the only solution will be regional self-determination and a rupture of the artificial state. The regional insurrection will be based on an accumulation of grievances, including economic stagnation, government corruption, exploitation of regional resources, attacks on national language rights, unaccountable Kremlin appointments of regional governors, and threats to eliminate or merge federal units. At the core of the unrest will be a growing conviction that without Moscow’s interference and exploitation, the regions will be more capable of ensuring economic and political progress.
The government has broken the unwritten “social contract,” first devised in Soviet times, whereby the state guarantees steady material welfare in return for political passivity. Revolt is even more likely in a society in which rising expectations of material well-being over the past two decades, especially among an ambitious younger generation, have been thwarted by repeated failures in government policy.
Russia’s escalating crises do not signify that Moscow is incapable of continuing to inflict serious damage on its neighbors and international rivals. Despite its decline, Russia will continue to challenge the West by subverting its institutions through a range of low-cost tools, including disinformation, cyberwar, and the funding of extremists.
In many respects, Russia’s domestic failures make it even more dangerous as Moscow camouflages its increasing fragility through external aggression. State failure and federal rupture may convince the Kremlin that it has limited time to equalize the “playing field” by disrupting and dividing the West.
Instead of banking on containment or cooperation, the Biden administration needs to prepare for an imploding Russia that will present a multitude of challenges for Western security.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His forthcoming book is Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.