A Bleak Outlook on the Future of the Russian Federation

The 22nd Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16, 2022. (Image via Prime Minister’s Office of India)

Reeling from a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv, the Russian Federation faces an uncertain future. Even as doors to European expansion permanently close, and internal protests and struggles amidst ethnic Russian minorities continue to foment, alliances across the Caucasus and Central Asia stall and strategic partnerships between Russia and China begin to weaken.

Even as Russia and its allies pledge increased cooperation, a recent and rapid escalation of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, reminiscent of clashes in 2020, has once again underscored the hegemonic nature of CSTO, an alliance that only seeks to formalize Russia’s sphere of influence.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, and the fundamental failure of CSTO

In 2020, clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh led to Russian peacekeepers agreeing to stay until 2025, despite Armenian pleas for wider support from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an alliance of many pro-Russian neighbor-states in Eurasia. Despite being intended as a reaction to NATO, the alliance has several internal disputes, including ongoing local ethnic conflicts between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both member states.

Early in January, political unrest in Kazakhstan prompted several factions to take their chances at power, seeking to wrest the nation from Russia’s sphere of influence. Some looked to China, while others saw Westernization as the best guarantee of their autonomy. At the time, Putin was worried that a breakaway from Kazakhstan could become a drain on his resources and potentially delay his invasion plans. A mixture of self-interest and Russian pressure had President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev call for Russia to intervene in the framework of CSTO. Russian soldiers assisted in quelling any potential insurrectionists, sending troops to the capital and several key cities, and Tokayev sought to curtail the personality cult of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned in 2019 after leading Kazakhstan as a dictatorship since the nation’s inception.

However, the Russian failure in Ukraine quickly allowed Tokayev to start breaking away from the Russian sphere of influence, with Kazakhstan refusing to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent and condemning the invasion as a whole. Given Kazakhstan’s distance from the West, it has instead turned primarily to China, whose informal alliance with Russia has been tipped in Beijing’s favor, with Putin forced to acknowledge Xi’s deep concerns about the war’s effect on the international order. Moreover, Xi visited Kazakhstan, making very clear in publicized statements China’s intention to safeguard Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. Amidst an increasingly grim outlook that, regardless of conclusions in Ukraine, locks Russia’s territorial ambitions in Europe, competition between Russia, China, and Iran will likely increase in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Nonetheless, Russia has not only refused to provide for Armenia in line with its CSTO obligations but also withdrew peacekeeping forces for use in their invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, despite Russia’s obligations to Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan signed a treaty characterized as at the ‘level of an alliance’ by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev only hours before the start of the invasion of Ukraine. In the context of Western aid for Ukraine, Armenia’s plight has been seriously hampered by its ineffective CSTO membership, making them a pariah state despite its precarious position facing a potential Russian annexation.

With Armenia’s officials now openly calling CSTO useless, and later-disproven rumors that Kazakhstan was ready to leave CSTO, the organization has veritably failed. NATO, as it exists, is meant to provide for collective security and interoperability. Despite the U.S.’ huge contribution, nations share equal determination and responsibility in NATO’s approach to conflicts, which is decided by mutual agreement. CSTO very clearly has become a mere formalization of Russia’s sphere of influence, serving to protect regimes, not people.

China’s Central Asian ambitions and Russia’s resource-rich, sparsely populated Far East

The disastrous defeat in Kharkiv has brung ridicule and laughter from Chinese netizens, who previously supported the war in Ukraine. Some referenced the Amur region, which China considers Russia took in an ‘unequal treaty’ during the Convention of Peking. Chinese immigrants have long been pouring across the border into Russia’s sparsely populated Far East, mimicking Russia’s 2014 strategies of resettlement in Donetsk and Luhansk. Though the two countries remain strategic allies as long as the United States is involved, a Russian pivot from Europe and a Chinese pivot from the Pacific could quickly see both nations clash diplomatically.

In the past, the United States could not recognize the severity of the Sino-Soviet split, unaware of the tense nature of the border clashes in 1969 that were subdued largely due to Ho Chi Minh’s funeral in September of that year. In the age of the internet and the U.S.’ ‘third neighbor’ policy towards Mongolia, both the U.S. and Russia/China are aware that any serious tension will be picked up by American intelligence.

The war in Ukraine and subsequent escalations in Central Asia have also threatened the Belt and Road initiative. China has recently pushed for a new railway in Uzbekistan, bypassing Russian routes. Given Russia’s disadvantaged riverways, train freight remains the only option for large-scale transport of resources in Russia. Russia’s railway system is likely to be crucial to their mobilization efforts, which early estimates have shown may reach one million conscripts.

The longterm disadvantages of a rentier-state economy

Though Russia’s economy somewhat initially weathered the crippling effect of sanctions, they lack the fabrication industries required to produce electronics. Even over the brief Taiwanese strait crisis, when Nancy Pelosi visited the island, companies began moving some assets from China, choosing countries like neighboring Vietnam to avoid a nasty pullout in the wake of a Chinese war of aggression. These economic concerns were not significant before the war in Ukraine: Europe’s growing rejection of Russian energy indicates a potentially crippling scenario if the West pulls out of the Chinese market.

Though no uncertainty should exist in regards to the catastrophic effect on the economies of Europe and North America should such sanctions occur, Europe’s willingness to do so for Russia and recent homegrown initiatives like the CHIPS and Science Act in the United States hint the West may be preparing for the possibility of an end to China as an economic partner.

The effect of the war on Russia’s technology sectors has been significant: Russia is now relying on Iranian drones to carry the brunt of their air operations over the southern Ukrainian region and is sourcing munitions from North Korea. China has been hesitant to provide Russia with materiel, and despite Russia’s vast reserves of natural resources with which it can trade, it finds few partners in the field of advanced technology capable of competing with the U.S.

Even with foreign assistance, Putin’s announcement regarding mobilization has had massive effects on the Russian economy, with the Russian stock market plunging. Anti-mobilization protests in Russia’s ethnic minority regions have continued as more videos of men-turned-conscripts emerge, with students being taken out of classes, loaded onto busses, and sent to training camps in preparation for war. Some sources claim Russia’s training programs will last two weeks, while others claim that some conscripts are being sent without any training at all. Mobilization protests have increased unrest in regions like Dagestan, Yakutia, and even Chechnya.

Crimea, Finland, and the end of Russia’s feasible European ambitions

Irregardless of whether Russia can maintain gains in Ukraine or is forced back to the border, Russia’s potential routes for expansion in Europe have been barred. The loss of Crimea, coupled with Finnish accession to NATO, will close off the Atlantic to the Russian navy, forcing more competition into the Arctic if it wishes to maintain a significant naval presence. Given increased cooperation among the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom) gap and the destruction of many Russian ships by Ukraine, a nation with no navy, the deterrent of the Russian navy has been compromised. Russia must instead turn to the Arctic, a zone that has been increasingly contested by the U.S. and Canada.

The Russian Empire (and the later Soviet Union) was able to maintain relevance via its massive population and the taking of geographic ‘chokepoints’ across Europe and Asia. Given Ukrainian attacks deep in the peninsula and statements from Western nations viewing Crimea as a valid target for liberation by Ukrainian forces, Russia may be forced to resort to shows of strength using nuclear weapons or large-scale escalations it may not be willing to risk in the face of crumbling global support.

With the loss of Crimea, Russia could focus on the Caucasus first to minimize short-term competition with China. But as Russia inevitably turns to Central Asia to prevent Kazakhstan and over states from completely breaking away from the Russian sphere of influence, Russia and China’s ambitions and security concerns will continue to run opposed.

Moscow must also answer to its own people, dissatisfied with the harsh reality of failure in Ukraine. With growing contempt for Putin’s actions amongst even nationalist Russians, as well as younger generations wishing for social and political change, the current regime stands as the last of Russia’s old guard. The shrinking Russian male population, of which a low estimate of 200,000 have fled since the invasion and subsequent mobilization, means Russia will be unable to maintain its status as the world’s foremost military competitor to the United States. Faced with a crumbling economy and living conditions, a Russian identity is likely to weather the coming decades, but the survival of the Russian Federation as a political institution is becoming untenable in an increasingly liberal world.


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