Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Real Threat Facing Russia Not Disintegration but a Slide into Chaos, Kustaryov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 13 – Russia isn’t likely to fall apart anytime soon, Aleksandr Kustaryov says; the more immediate threat is that it will slip into chaos, a condition that could “last for a long time” and that is what Russians and indeed others should be worried about, far more than any loss of territory.

            In the current issue of “Neprikosnoveny zapas,” the Russian analyst returns to an issue he has often addressed in the past. This article is available at For his earlier comments, see the discussion at

            Provocatively entitling his article “What is Interfering with the Disintegration of Russia?” Kustaryov says most people for their own interests are looking in the wrong direction. In his view, “Russia is not threatened by a loss of territory” as a result of the actions of other states or of strong secessionist movements based either on ethnicity or territory.

            But that does not mean that the country is out of the woods, he continues, because there “remains yet another variant: the traditional center weakens and loses control over the periphery,” something that has happened before and is likely to happen again precisely because of the crisis management style of Russian governance.

            “Any order,” Kustaryov says, “degenerates and sooner or later experiences an existential crisis.” It may escape that” either by restoring the previous order, replacing it with something new, or ceasing to exist altogether.  But as this happens, new centers of political power emerge often far from the old capital.

            Often, he continues, “these are armed cliques and charismatic military leaders --- or warlords” – and perhaps in expectation that such people will emerge on the territory of what is now the Russian Federation he “risks proposing the neologism, ‘voenlords’” which he suggests will have their own armed units and “in essence be bands of racketeers.”

            “What is the probability of such a scenario in Russia?” Kustaryov asks rhetorically.  Higher than many might think, given not only that it has happened before several times but perhaps even more because Russian rulers have used crises as a way of seeking to manage the state and on occasion lost control of the process they have set in motion.

            That happened in 1905-1922 and it happened again in 1991. In the latter case, the entire system was replaced; in the latter, the disintegration of the country was relatively peaceful and easy because borders and institutions were ready in advance.  But the fact that both events were provoked by government action is something that should be taken seriously, Kustaryov says.

            Russian rulers not only feel that crises will be inevitable but that they are necessary to the survival of the regime.  “The Kremlin, unguided by any theory but by instinct and 200 yers of experience, is inclined” to the notion that crises have the great advantage of allowing the leaders to show why they are necessary and thus legitimate.
            Unfortunately for them, Kustaryov says, “as the experience of the last two crises has shown, this ‘trick’ can get out of control,” especially “if the Kremlin turns out to be weaker than it thinks.”  In that event, “the probability of such a scenario is very great,” and the dangers this time around enormous.

            Lacking a reserve elite or legitimate successors, “the country really could land in the position in which Europe found itself after the fall  of Rome, China in the first half of the 20th century, and the Near East is in now; that is, in the state of deep geopolitical reconstruction” in which there will “spontaneously arise [new] centers of force.”

            How long this process will last and how it will end is “impossible” to predict. Some Russians do see this but they fail to understand that such a development in the end may be less a catastrophe than they imagine. That is because their views about their own country are on the one hand out of date and on the other reflect what other large countries even now think.

            “Above all else,” Kustaryov argues, “Russian consciousness cannot get accustomed to the transformation of Russian from a super power into a regional geopolitical hegemon” because “it seems to the majority of Russians that this is happening only with regard to Russia.” And they feel “incomplete” and threatened as a result.

            They fear that they are losing their geopolitical status of “’a great power’” at a time when no one else is not understanding that many peoples, “together with their elites and counter-elites are accustomed to live in a world where ‘the great’ determine the order … and they simply cannot imagine how such an order will be arranged in a world of midgets.”

            The popular aesthetic is that big is good and beautiful, and the greatest fear among peoples is the unknown.  “This fear restrains the global political establishment from the liberalization of international law” and prompts them to try to main the status quo, “that is, the doctrine of state sovereignty with all its normative connotations.”

            But the disintegration of large states combined with the freer flow of goods, services, capital and people among them is the dominant trend in the world. He cites American experts to the effect that “until the end of the 19th century, the area of states up grew but then declined” (D.A.  Lake and A. O’Mahoney, “Size and Patterns of Interstate Conflict,” in M. Kahler and B. Walter, eds., Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization (San Diego, 2006), p. 134).

            And Kustaryov suggests that “the disintegration of geopolitical giants may perhaps be a manifestation of evolutionary success.” Unfortunately, if that is true, the trend has been slowed down in recent decades and that isn’t a good thing for anyone, including for the population of the Russian Federation whatever it think.

            In the future, he argues, this trend is likely to “sharply accelerate” because it will be seen that small countries will be more flexible and thus more adaptable to changes in the international environment. And he concludes that there is “reason to suppose” that Russia may be among those affected by this trend and in ways both positive and negative.

            Given the lack of “more or less demarcated real and not nominal by ethnicity geopolitical spaces in its borders and what is even more important because of the absence of more or less matured agents of separatism,” however, this process toward a good end may take a very long time and Russia will suffer during the transition.

            In short, he says, Russia “is threatened not so much by disintegration but by a delay in its coming. The real danger for the historical place of Russianness is not its geopolitical disintegration but that it will have to pass through a state of chaos which may last a long time in order to get there.

            That “and not the loss of territory” is what Russians should really be worried about now, Kustaryov says.

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