The disintegration of the Russian state may seem like a dramatic prediction, but that’s exactly where some experts say Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine could be heading.
- Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges says war has revealed Russian military to be ‘vulnerable’ and ‘corrupt’
- He predicts that some of the country’s smaller ethnic groups could be gearing up for an independence bid
- International Energy Agency says sanctions will cost Russia at least $1 trillion by 2030
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, believes Russia’s failure to defeat Ukraine could be the beginning of the end for the Russian Federation.
“There are centrifugal forces at work that are going to pull it apart,” he told the ABC News Daily podcast.
“I think we have to be prepared for the possibility of a breakup of the Russian Federation.”
General Hodges, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Russia had failed in its main objective: to reintegrate Ukraine into the former Russian empire.
Instead, he said he believed Vladimir Putin’s restless nine-month invasion revealed three main factors that could contribute to a complete collapse of Russia as it exists today.
The first, he said, was that Russia’s many military miscalculations had revealed its military to be “vulnerable, weak and corrupt”.
“Some of the 120 different ethnic groups and small republics that make up the Russian Federation see this is their chance. They know they are the ones paying the price,” General Hodges said.
Many of these smaller ethnic groups have been particularly hard hit by Russia’s recent efforts to draft 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine.
“I think some of them, like Dagestan, for example, maybe even Chechnya, see this as their opportunity to finally get out of Russian imperialist control,” he said.
General Hodges said the leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in particular, could be preparing for a push towards independence, despite his support for Russia in Ukraine.
“He’s a strong advocate for doing more damage in Ukraine. But if you look closely, most [Chechen] the soldiers are not really involved in most intensive combat,” he said.
“If my theory is correct, he is protecting his own abilities so he can break loose or take control inside the Kremlin.”
Matthew Sussex, a senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Center for Defense and Strategic Studies, called Russia’s disintegration a “black swan event” but said scholars often overlook how the multi-ethnic state was fragile.
For him, Vladimir Putin was the key to cohesion.
“War is really a pretty serious challenge to Putin’s authority, a much more serious challenge than he has ever faced before,” Mr Sussex said.
“Putin, for all his faults, has managed to keep Russia together. There is no guarantee that whoever succeeds him can fulfill the same role.”
The weakening of the economic situation of Russia
According to General Hodges, the second factor likely to lead to the collapse of the state is the weakening of the Russian economy, in particular its growing inability to sell energy and weapons, two of the most crucial exports. of Russia.
“No one will be interested in buying Russian weapons after seeing how much Russian equipment performs,” he said.
“And I think the Kremlin played the gas card a little too early, so that even Germany had time to make the necessary adjustments.”
An October report by the International Energy Agency suggested that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could see its share of international gas trade fall to 15% by 2030, from 30% l ‘last year.
The agency’s report said the loss of Europe as its biggest market and tougher economic sanctions would cost Russia $1 trillion in hydrocarbon export revenue by 2030.
However, Mr Sussex said Russia may have insulated itself from some of the damage inflicted by Western sanctions “partly thanks to sovereign wealth funds and partly thanks to high energy prices”.
“He found new partners and new markets in India, for example, and in Indonesia,” he said.
“So I wouldn’t necessarily be overconfident that a Russian economic collapse is on the horizon.
“Russia tends to be able to handle these things.”
The third reason the federation might collapse, according to General Hodges, is because of Russia’s vastness and relatively small population; Russia will struggle to maintain civic solidarity among many different ethnic groups across the continent and its ability to defend its borders.
“The Chinese, I think, are probably looking at Siberia and saying, ‘OK, it’s really ours’. And I don’t think the Russians will be able to stop it,” he said.
“No one is afraid of the Russian army anymore.”
The fall of Russia could have debilitating consequences
General Hodges thinks that the international community is not paying enough attention to the possibility of a collapse of the Russian Federation.
He says now is the time to ask the hard questions to learn from the mistakes made when the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
“It happened so fast, we were taken by surprise,” he said.
“A lot of people thought that [Russia would] become capitalists, they will be democratic and everything will be better, and we will never have to worry about Russian aggression again. How naive we were.”
Russia’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons are of particular concern.
“There are thousands of nuclear weapons and, of course, Iran would like to get its hands on some of those nuclear weapons.”
Mr Sussex said the nuclear threat could also come from within the state itself.
“In a breakup of Russia scenario, you could have a lot of new nuclear weapon states divided among themselves on ethnic grounds,” he said.
“It raises fears of conflict, spillover, escalation and nationalism. How do you deal with these nuclear weapons? How do you prevent some kind of small state from going rogue?”
Mr Sussex said Russia’s destabilizing effect on the world would be enormous.
“It would be extremely destabilizing because you have a permanent member of the UN Security Council, one of the most powerful countries in the world […] disappearing or being torn apart by civil strife,” he said.
“Russia may well be entering a period of fundamental de-modernization, effectively becoming North Korea.
“Increased ethnic tension and ethnic rivalry until the center can’t hold any longer and the thing starts to fragment and you get civil wars and conflicts and humanitarian disasters and so on.
“It could be tomorrow, it could be in six years. It could never happen.”
“All roads lead to Crimea”
On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered his troops to withdraw from areas of southern Ukraine, including the Russian-held city of Kherson.
A full retreat would be widely seen as a victory for the Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in August.
General Hodges predicts that this may just be the beginning, and Ukrainian soldiers will push Russian forces back to the positions they were in at the start of the war, then liberate Crimea by the middle of next year.
“All roads lead to Crimea…that’s the price,” he said.
He predicts that the next step in Ukraine’s advance will be the recapture of the city of Kherson, just north of the Crimean peninsula.
“Once you get there […] they can start using precision weapons to make airfields and seaports unusable for the Russians,” he said.
He said the destruction of the Kersh Bridge in last month’s Ukrainian attacks left Russia with few options to resupply and reinforce its forces.
“The Black Sea is a very, very difficult place for sailors to live in winter. So [Russia] will not only be able to carry a lot of equipment and supplies,” he said.
“I think that’s why I have optimism that Ukraine will do well here.”