The Latest Stratfor Predictions for Russia

I’m no doubt a few days late to the party in commenting on the latest Stratfor predictions for the coming decade of 2015-2025, but given they’ve made some very bold predictions about the future of Russia I’m willing to throw in my two kopecks worth. For those who haven’t read the latest report, you can see it here. For those of you who have, you’ll know that they “expect Moscow’s authority to weaken substantially, leading to the formal and informal fragmentation of Russia.” Going into further detail, they predict that “To Russia’s west, Poland, Hungary and Romania will seek to recover regions lost to the Russians at various points. They will work to bring Belarus and Ukraine into this fold. In the south, the Russians’ ability to continue controlling the North Caucasus will evaporate, and Central Asia will destabilize. In the northwest, the Karelian region will seek to rejoin Finland. In the Far East, the maritime regions more closely linked to China, Japan and the United States than to Moscow will move independently. Other areas outside of Moscow will not necessarily seek autonomy but will have it thrust upon them. This is the point: There will not be an uprising against Moscow, but Moscow’s withering ability to support and control the Russian Federation will leave a vacuum. What will exist in this vacuum will be the individual fragments of the Russian Federation.” And the final part that caught my eye was in the discussion on East Asia, where they predict that “China cannot easily turn nationalism into active aggression. China’s geography makes such actions on land difficult, if not impossible. The only exception might be an attempt to take control of Russia’s maritime interests if we are correct and Russia fragments. Here, Japan likely would challenge China.” and that “Fighting over the minor islands producing low-cost and unprofitable energy will not be the primary issue in the region. Rather, an old three-player game will emerge. Russia, the declining power, will increasingly lose the ability to protect its maritime interests. The Chinese and the Japanese will both be interested in acquiring these and in preventing each other from having them. We forecast this as the central, unsettled issue in the region as Russia declines and Sino-Japanese competition increases.” These three points are all connected, and I’ll address them in two parts.

The Collapse of Russia

The starting point of these predictions is that over the next decade, due to pressures on the economy and the ruble, the current political and economic structures of governance within Russia, and the decline in influence of central government and the security apparatus, the Russian Federation will formally and informally decline to the point of collapse, with the federation splitting into numerous smaller, independent entities. I’ll note that they don’t explicitly say the federation will split up, but when you predict that various territories will leave, including large swathes of it, you can only mean the end of the country as we know it. Based on that, I’m writing from the belief that they predict the end of Russia as we know it. It’s not a new prediction, infact it’s almost becoming a cliché that every now and then the collapse of Russia will be highly anticipated and grossly exaggerated. Whether it’s political collapse, economic collapse or demographic collapse…you name it, the books and articles have been published predicting it. Even a cursory look at history however will show this to be highly unlikely. Since the turn of the 20th century alone, Russia has faced and seen off internal revolutions, civil war, a failed socialist experiment, foreign invasion, the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic crashes, demographic challenges and various economic and political sanctions. And yet there she is, in all her glory, still standing and coming back for more. If a century of cyclical turmoil, and particularly in eras where technological capabilities were lower and the central government had less ability to unify the country through national ideals and opinions, it’s difficult to see how anyone can predict the collapse of Russia within a decade. Notwithstanding a spectacular natural disaster or a massive military defeat and forced partition, the latter of which in the past has failed to split up the core areas of the country for any meaningful length of time, Russia will still be here in a decade.

However, let me focus more specifically on the crux of the argument in the report: “Given the organization of the federation, with revenue flowing to Moscow before being distributed directly or via regional governments, the flow of resources will also vary dramatically. This will lead to a repeat of the Soviet Union’s experience in the 1980s and Russia’s in the 1990s, in which Moscow’s ability to support the national infrastructure declined. In this case, it will cause regions to fend for themselves by forming informal and formal autonomous entities. The economic ties binding the Russian periphery to Moscow will fray.” At the outset it’s an argument based on certain ideas of how states operate. When things are going well and the centre is strong, periphery regions or minority nationality regions go with the flow, enjoying the success and wealth that association in the state brings. This argument has been used to analyse a number of countries, from the UK, to Italy, to Malaysia at the time when it included Singapore. When things aren’t going so well, those periphery and minority regions become unhappy and start doing things on their own, or even pushing for their independence. We’ve seen it recently with the Scottish independence referendum, the cycles of tensions in Italy between North and South, and the racial and economic tensions that led to Singapore’s independence from Malaysia. The problem with using this starting point to view Russia is that it doesn’t take each region as a separate entity, it doesn’t acknowledge that most regions are Russian-majority regions, and it doesn’t take note of geography. Of all the Russian regions, only a handful are not a Russian-majority. Most of them are in the Caucasus area, with the exceptions being Bashkortostan, Sakha and Tuva. Undoubtedly it’s credible to imagine the Caucasus areas being comfortable settling for independence if Russia was collapsing, but Bashkortostan and Sakha are in very unfavourable geographic locations for independence, are very comfortable with identifying as a minority race but still being Russian, and have very different interests from each other. Tuva is the only one of those three outliers with a history of tension towards Russians, and of existing outwith the Russian Federation. The second problem I have with their argument is that it specifies the periods of the 1980s and 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tensions between centre and periphery becoming more prominent. I agree that there were tensions between centre and periphery, but I think they’ve failed to learn some of the lessons on why these movements ultimately failed to succeed.

When the authority of a central government weakens or loses the ability to adequately finance the regions, those regions by necessity have to take on some level of autonomy to get day-to-day things done. Pay bills and wages, ensure the smooth running of imports and exports, secure their borders, maintain local law and order…countless number of things really. In the Russian case, the economic issue was huge. When you add in the levels of corruption that were prevalent in Russia at the time, it was devastating for many regions and citizens rightly were furious and demanding changes. What you rarely saw, outside of the Caucasus, was any movement towards independence. Some regional leaders hinted at it, in the Russian Far East this was predominantly Mikhail Nikolayev of Sakha and Yevgeny Nazdratenko of Primorskiy, but crucially they never tried to implement it. The threat of separatism was a bargaining chip, an emotional lever, a populist statement, and a way to try and pressure more finance and influence from central government. Very quickly after these pressures reached a crescendo, larger republics like Sakha and Tatarstan received further benefits in deals with the central government, and soon thereafter gave more support to the centre. Even after the financial pressures in Russia from 1997, with the drastic decline of Yeltsin, and the military failures in Chechnya, the regional alliances had a chance to achieve greater autonomy or independence. But when 1999 legislative elections arrived, the elites abandoned their support for the ‘Fatherland – All Russia’ party at a late hour (as well as a lot of good PR for Unity Russia in the media, admittedly). By 2001, they had merged with Unity Russia to form United Russia.

Why this collapse and change of heart, just when it seemed they had reached a new level of political strength? Because what the elites really wanted was not autonomy, nor independence, nor a collapse of the Russian state. They opposed the central government because it was weak and they did not consider that it would create a solid future for Russia. When the elites knew that changes had arrived in the political landscape, they saw the strength and unity they had hoped for. He gave them a vision and they believed in it. Much like the average Russian citizen, the elites generally love their country and want it to succeed. The latest Levada poll confirms some of those ideas that the strength of the government is more important than what western countries would consider democratic. Opposition politics is simply an outlet for when dialogue is needed with the government, and not as a system of changing the elites. Whether it works well or not, populations will usually go with the system that favours their national traits, and in Russia this requires more networks and strength than democracy and debate. ‘Sistema’, if you will. Ultimately, no matter the troubles Russia may face in the coming decade, as long as they have leaders at the helm with strength, determination and a vision, the Russian elites and the general population will stick together, for better or worse. Never underestimate the ability of an ethnic group to stick together in tough times.

Various Regions Will Secede or be Absorbed by Other States

The second quote I picked out from the report was the suggestion that Central and Eastern European states will attempt, in the face of a Russian collapse, to take back territories they feel were historically theirs. In addition to this, the Caucasus will go it alone, Karelia will try to join Finland, the Central Asian states will destabilise, and a number of the Far Eastern regions will join together in an independent state. The third quote I feel is a continuation of this, wherein Japan and China both see the Russian collapse as an opportunity to absorb some areas of the Russian Far East, presumably the Amur and Primorsky regions for China, and the Kuril Islands for Japan. Some of these suggestions I feel are actually more credible, but only if you can stretch your imagination and believe that the extremely unlikely first premise comes to pass. Nevertheless, I’ll address some of them. I won’t discuss Central and Eastern European thoughts on reclaiming territory as it’s not my region of expertise, and neither are the Caucasus, Central Asia or Karelia. You can make up your own mind on those, though in short I think that Karelia isn’t very likely whereas the others might be. The Far Eastern ones are more interesting. I’ve accumulated what I would consider, at a minimum, a decent knowledge of the history and present of places like Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. I’ve followed the evolution of events from their starting development to modern attempts at development and economic growth with Asian countries. In my view, the level of support for independence here is extremely low. Even when I’ve played devil’s advocate and brought up periods like the Far Eastern Republic in conversation, people either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want to see it happen again. There are no opinion polls showing a critical mass or even a significant minority of support for it. I’m sure there are a few patriots out there, but I’m not finding them. Going by that, and the fact that even regional elites have ceased all talk of independence since the populist days of Nazdratenko, I consider it extremely unlikely that a voluntary independence movement would form here.

If it was somehow enforced by a Russian collapse outwith their control, I would also find it hard to imagine that they would happily be absorbed by China or Japan. There are still a lot of military units out this way that would feel the same, and I doubt China are going to sacrifice countless soldiers to make it happen. Although the population of the Russian Far East is also relatively small, you would be absorbing an unhappy population of a few million people who don’t speak Mandarin, have no cultural connections to China, and require massive spending to bring their regions up to scratch. There are just too many political and economic risks involved, with surrounding Asian countries all likely seeing it as Chinese aggression. As for Japan and the Kuril Islands, that’s more realistic, though I still can’t see it happening by force. For one, there’s the aforementioned military units the Russian Far East has to raise as a defence, combined with the limited ability of Japan to conduct an independent attack. Secondly, they would no doubt need the approval of the USA to make such a move, and I think even they would be reluctant to do it. There are too many possibilities for it to stretch into a larger war with China, or other nations who would be left with the principle of complaining about the Crimean accession to Russia and being faced with a similar movement by Japan with the Kuril Islands. On the other hand, I could see the diplomatic route as viable. If Sakhalin had to go it alone, there may well be enough of a financial incentive to give the islands to Japan in exchange for economic and diplomatic support, with the concept of inviolable Russian soil already having been lost. This is the only viable change I could see coming about in the unrealistic scenario, and I still think it’s not a certainty.

Summary

In short, I see the Stratfor predictions on Russia as starting from an unrealistic base, possibly an overtly biased one, which makes me see it as unlikely that the events will come to pass. I don’t know the underlying theories or analysis that make them think that these events will happen, but I’ve offered up my own thoughts based on analysis and personal opinion. The later parts of their predictions at least have a bit more realism, but are still unlikely in my view, and so I can’t recommend taking them as realistic. If you feel differently or have other views, feel free to leave a comment below. But if Russia collapses within a decade, I’ll eat my kilt.

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Looking East from Moscow and Yekaterinburg

The last time I travelled to Russia was six years ago, during which I spent nine months abroad as part of my time at university. My first experience of the country was daunting, arriving into a jam-packed airport at the same time as several other flights, waiting in a massive queue to hand in my migration card form, and waiting another lifetime at passport control, before heading into a sea of people beyond the arrival gates. I was not looking forward to a repeat performance, but to my surprise, it was a completely different story this time. There were no other flights, there was no need to fill in the migration card myself, and after waiting a couple of minutes in line for passport control, I passed through the gates, received my migration card, and stepped into a virtually empty arrivals area. Sure, a few taxi drivers were touting aggressively for a fare, but in a matter of minutes I was heading into the sun-kissed city on the express train to Paveletsky station. If the airport can keep up that kind of standard in future, there will surely be more repeat visitors to the country.

My trip on this occasion is of course partly about just travelling, relaxing and seeing a few sights, but I also made the time to talk to some of the people I met about their thoughts and ideas of the Russian Far East. The questions weren’t detailed or conducted interview-style, just a few minutes each on the topic. The sample size is quite small, twelve people in total, a fairly even split of male and female, and most of them in the 18-30 age-ranges, so I would stress that the opinions I’ve heard should not be considered as definitive or necessarily representative of the entire population. However it’s still interesting to hear what people think of Russia’s eastern lands, even if, as you will see, the results are maybe to be expected. In addition, I’ve left out the names of the respondents. The main limitation in going further was my language ability; whilst I can get through the day and talk for hours about simple things, I’ve not yet reached the stage where I can talk or understand in detail about complicated topics. It’s one of my main priorities for the rest of the year, and hopefully next time I’m in Russia I can provide more detailed observations than on this occasion.

The first couple I spoke to were of a mixed-marriage, the guy from western Russia and the woman from Italy. They had visited the east a year ago, heading as far as Lake Baikal and Ulan-Ude during the summer-time. They had enjoyed the visit, and inspired a desire to see a few more cities in the country, but their knowledge of the east did not spread any further than the trip. They confessed to knowing little about the region, and the only events they could recall were the recent deal with China and the Amur floods of last year. They had vague recollections that the region was being developed, but had no idea of the cost, and when I asked if they would consider living in the eastern regions the answer was a definite no. They were happy near Moscow, with a preference to move a bit further away from the city and nearer the surrounding countryside. Adding something extra to their salary would not make any difference in their choice.

The second couple I had the chance to speak with were both natives to Moscow, their families mostly from the region too, and both had finished university in recent years. As with the first couple their knowledge of the region was limited. The woman had a classmate from Sakhalin and had heard of the great nature there, as well as in Kamchatka. She said she wouldn’t be against going to see the region one day, but expressed regret that the cost was far too high, and with a baby on the way, it was unlikely it would ever happen in the years to come. They both expressed a desire to remain in Moscow, to live and work there, and no amount of extra money would change that. Once again the floods of last year were something they knew about, and they remembered the numerous appeals for donations on TV. The gas deals with China were fresh in the news, though they admitted they only listened to the headlines of the deal. The only other major events they could recall were spending on the APEC 2012 conference, and there being reports of poor construction standards on the roads.

The third couple I spoke with had a more eastern-oriented background; although the man was from the Moscow regions, the woman was born in Yakutsk, spending her early years there. She’s an ethnic Russian, and had moved to Moscow with family when she was still a child. At this point I expected to hear some more detailed opinions on the region, but as it turns out the woman had absolutely zero interest in the city anymore. She had little desire to go back, and only did so once every several years around New Years’ time to visit older relatives. Particularly interesting was how deep the desire not to go back was, with their intention to live and raise children in Moscow. The woman had heard they wanted to develop the east, and knew about the various mineral and hydrocarbon reserves in Yakutia, but did not know much about the details. Outside of Yakutsk their knowledge was even more limited.

As well as talking to couples I spoke with some single people in the city, firstly with a girl who had moved to Moscow from Tatarstan. She knew there was talk of developing the east, but as with the others she had little idea about the details and expenditure. Her interest was firmly in the west, being very happy living in Moscow and occasionally visiting relatives back home, as well as a love of the New York area after spending some time working there. When asked whether she would consider moving east if the job and money were right, she responded with a laugh and a firm ‘nyet’, unless moving east carried her all the way back to New York. The second single person was from the Moscow regions, in his late-20s and what could be considered as a more liberal representative of the city, with one eye firmly on Europe. He was comfortable talking about events in Moscow and Russian elite politics, but when it came to the east he also had little idea of what was going on in that region. He was aware of the development, but was surprised by the amount of money being spent, albeit he was happier for the money to head east than to the Caucasus. As with all the previous respondents mentioned, he found it highly unlikely that he would move to the region, even for a better or higher-paid job. His preference was Moscow or the UK, and even a holiday east seemed time-consuming, expensive and not particularly interesting.

Perhaps the most interesting set of respondents was on the train from Moscow to Yekaterinburg. I didn’t take the much-feted platzkart option, having done it several times before, and on the previous occasion having enjoyed the atmosphere of a train full of young army conscripts living it up on the 25-hour ride from St. Petersburg to Murmansk…it was definitely kupe this time! It provided less people to talk to, but I had a lot more time to talk to them individually. One of the other passengers in my cabin was a middle-aged surgeon from Kazan, who had experience of living in other countries and travelling to a few cities. He knew of Sakhalin, having visited a friend there, and he spoke warmly of the nature and scenery you can find when you move beyond Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. He was interested in seeing Kamchatka one day, but admitted it was unlikely since he had to work, his relatives were all in Western Russia, and he was at the stage of his life where he enjoyed the quiet life, which he said also meant he was unlikely to ever consider moving to the eastern cities. He knew about the development of the region without having heard many details, but believed it was ultimately fruitless and that the region was unlikely to benefit much, as was usually the case with grand initiatives. As an added bonus he was eager to talk about Scottish independence, and couldn’t understand why Scottish people would want to leave something like the United Kingdom. It was an interesting discussion, but I’ll leave that for another day.

The other passenger in my cabin was an older woman, curious about other countries despite never having travelled, and born and raised in Yekaterinburg before heading to Moscow after university for a work assignment. Her answers ranged from the Far East to the Urals, but she was very bitter about the situation in the country with regards to wages and social benefits such as healthcare, particularly when she was asking about what older people received in the UK. She said that buying train tickets to visit her relatives in Yekaterinburg every now and then was far too much for someone like herself who was making a basic wage in Moscow, so even imagining going to the Far East was just crazy. She loved her home-region, but felt it needed development as much as the east did. As with the surgeon, she mentioned how trying to develop the Far East, and even researching it as I do, was a dead-end and would lead to nothing. She confessed that she didn’t have much knowledge of the region, but from the rare piece of news she had heard it was not a place she would have moved to even as a youngster. Overall it was interesting that the two older people I spoke to on the train had more knowledge and opinions of the east, or regional development in general, than any of the younger people in Moscow. It’s often said that the capital lives in a bubble, and my conversations seemed to reinforce that stereotype, even for those who had previously lived or travelled to the region.

Finally I spoke with two people in Yekaterinburg about the east, with hope that residents of a very proud region would know a bit more about events around the country than those in Moscow. Unfortunately that was not the case, as both had very limited knowledge of the east. The first did not know much more than the names of some cities, though expressed a love of the ocean. I asked if she was referring to the Pacific Ocean, but alas no, it was the Atlantic Ocean after having worked in the USA. Her interest was definitively about preferring to go back to the USA rather than moving to the Russian Far East. The final person I spoke to had a more interesting background, with ties to the region through her mixed Tatar and Mari heritage, a local girl whose father had lived in a small town in Primorsky Krai called Olga. She said he sometimes spoke about his life there, but the stories were short, and the overwhelming impression she got was that it was a place for soldiers and the navy. Given the time-frame involved, her father living there decades ago during the Soviet era and early days of the post-Soviet Russia, this is only to be expected. However once more she did not know much about the region beyond those stories, and had never visited. Whilst she had no desire to move to Moscow, Europe or the USA, she loved the Urals area, and would stay there as long as her relatives did. Holidays were a possibility, but cost, time and distance were once again raised as an issue.

Overall I think there was a clear pattern to responses, with zero interest in relocating to the region, limited or no knowledge of the development plans in the east, limited interest in taking even a holiday there, and any interest restricted with the distances, time and costs involved in getting there and back. It’s perhaps no help that the region rarely features on the national or regional news outside of the east unless there is a catastrophe or energy deal, and it’s viewed as almost a faraway country at times. If the Russian government is serious about developing the region and encouraging skilled workers to relocate there, particularly the married ones when you consider that Russians commonly settle down relatively early and meet their future husbands and wives during their university years, then it will need to utilise far more of its new-found soft power abilities on its own internal projects. Without serious internal initiatives to raise awareness of the region, all the energy deals, mineral extractions and infrastructure development won’t change the demographic and workforce issues that are ever-present.

My next stop is in Yakutsk where I’ll spend five days exploring the city, and where I’ll be taking advantage of the trip to talk to more people; it should be really interesting to hear how people in the northern parts of the Russian Far East think about developments, and in particular if there’s any difference in opinion within the city between ethnic Yakuts and ethnic Russians.