As the new year begins, both Ukraine and Russia are making steady progress. The difference is that, while Ukraine is slowly, and more or less surely, adopting a raft of systemic reforms that will make it a normal Western market democracy, Russia is becoming a failed state. If current trends continue, as they probably will, Russia may even disappear.
That’s not just my conclusion. It’s Dmitri Trenin’s, and Trenin is the director of the prestigious Carnegie Moscow Center and a distinguished Russian analyst who, unlike his former colleague, the anti-Putin firebrand Lilia Shevtsova, has often expressed a soft-line interpretation of the Putin regime and its intentions.
In a recently published commentary, however, Trenin takes off his gloves and compares Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the czarist regime on the eve of World War I. If, writes Trenin, Russia doesn’t develop a new foreign policy and embark on serious internal reform, “the Russian state could share the fate of the Romanov regime in World War I.”
That is, Russia could collapse. In effect, Trenin is comparing Putin to Romanov Russia’s last czar, the hapless Nicholas II, and arguing that he has failed—completely.
The political conflict between Russia and the United States is fundamental. There may be moments when tension eases and cooperation is possible, but there are no obvious options for strategic compromise. Moreover, Russia has entered a phase of mutual estrangement with a large part of Europe; and it has, for the foreseeable future, acquired a hostile Ukraine on its border, whose new foundation for nation-building is based on hostility to Russia. Finally, Russia has been sucked into the permanent theater of conflict that is the Middle East. …
In its recent history, Russia has sought to embrace one of two competing overarching foreign policy concepts—but both have shattered. … Both concepts—we can call them Plan A and Plan B—came into jeopardy in the first half of the 2010s, and were ultimately torpedoed by the Ukraine crisis.
So what should Russia do?
The key strategic objective must be to develop a new Russian foreign policy concept—a kind of Plan C. This concept should be based on a balanced understanding of both Russia’s need for self-sufficiency and its necessary engagement with the rest of the world.…
Yet all this is not the main thing.… Russians should turn their minds back to 1914, when amid a clash of world powers the old Russian regime came crashing down. If it wants to escape the fate the reform-averse Romanovs endured in World War I, the current ruling elite needs to prioritize domestic change and carry out a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s institutions….
Russia’s current political and economic order, if it persists, will sooner or later doom it to a tragic failure as a state.
And there you have it. Unless it changes fundamentally, Russia will fail as a state. Which is to say that Putin has, within a few short years, managed to transform a stable polity into a failing state. How? Above all, by means of an ill-advised, criminal invasion of Ukraine. What was supposed to be a quick, glorious, little war has become a disaster—for Russia. Give the man another year or two and his current grade of C will, as Russia collapses and chaos envelopes its unfortunate population, become an F.
Trenin is being coy when he says that “Russia” got itself into trouble. Although Russia may fail as a state, it’s Putin, the man Steven Lee Myers calls the “new tsar,” who has failed as a leader and pushed Russia to the brink of disaster.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could be a worse leader than deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Yet Russia’s leader has done just that.