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The future of Russia – divergent scenarios for 2020-50

Published on August 20, 2012 by: in: Politics

Forecasts concerning the future of Russia are widely divergent which is alarming and should receive our immediate attention.

On one hand, there are forecasts concerning the possibility of the Russian Federation’s territorial breakdown – as it was foreseen by a CIA report[1] – on the other hand, some people, like Sachs who is an outstanding economist, forecast that Russia belongs to the emerging group of new superpowers (BRIC). From obvious reasons, any strategic scenario concerning the geopolitical situation of Poland and Central Europe has to take into account the development of circumstances in Russia and the anticipated policies of Moscow. As you can see, there is a lot to consider.

The indicators for pessimistic forecasts regarding Russia are quite obvious. Demographic data is most frequently cited in the first place. The fact that the size of the population has reduced (from 148,6 million in 1993 to 141,9 million in 2010) is not the only problem. The other significant issues relate to the population’s quick ageing, low life expectancy and deteriorating health. Territorial and demographic issues are also complex, for instance the actual depopulation of the areas to the east of the Urals and the increase in the percentage of the non-Russian population, consisting mostly of Muslims.

The second indicator for pessimistic forecasts concerns the raw material-oriented Russian economy. Raw material resources in Russia seem to be huge, but their export relies mainly on oil and gas sales. However, at current levels of extraction, Russia will have enough oil for just another 17 years. Russia is also a gas magnate, but the costs of gas extraction are constantly rising, and the whole gas infrastructure requires higher levels of expenditure.

The other key factors that may weaken the Russian economy are the worldwide development of new technologies in the energy industry (solar energy etc.) and the possibility of extracting gas from bituminous slates. This kind of progress would deprive Moscow of one of Putin’s strong political asset.

The final pessimistic indicator for Russia’s future concerns the low potential for modernisation. Demography has a strong impact on the workforce which is systematically dropping. Furthermore, education is deteriorating which, among others, is linked to demography. Finally, there are no indicators predicting that Russia may expect, in foreseeable future, some leaders who would be ready to introduce significant reforms. [2] It has to be underlined, though, that Putin’s government has been treated by some observers as fairly reformatory, and it is supposed to (it has already started to) bring Russia back to its imperial position in the foreseeable future of 20 to 30 years.

It is also worth comparing the size of the Russian economy to the economies of the EU, USA and China. The EU and the US are each worth around $14 billion; China is close to $10 billion while the Russian economy is worth only around $2 billion of national income. Russia belongs to the BRIC but it is the least dynamic economy in this group and has by far fewer opportunities for progress than the economies of China, India or Brazil.

Pessimistic forecasts for Russia may be seen in Poland and all of Central Europe as salvation from Eastern expansion, when maintaining the traditional way of looking at the geopolitics of the region. Russia’s assumed economic downturn, in the historical context, would have to be seen as a positive event.

However, it is worth considering whether the weakening of Russia as a geopolitical power also would result in the weakening of Russia towards Poland and Central Europe. Generalised views regarding a weaker Russia may turn out to be “wishful thinking”, just like the exaggerated view of Russia as a threat is an expression of some traditional fears.

It is also essential to consider whether the pessimistic forecasts for Russia are likely to materialise at all, and if they do, what impact that would have on Poland. Do more positive forecasts for Russia go hand in hand with the deterioration of Poland’s geopolitical situation?

The best way to discuss these issues, is to examine various and different scenarios about Russia’s future and their possible consequences for Poland. Such an analysis is far from any hypothesis and helps to understand the tendencies that have already started to emerge.  The remarks (short scenarios) I listed below may be only an introduction to a more in-depth analysis.

picture: Colin Kinner

(I)  the Russian Federation’s territorial breakdown and the emergence of the Russian national state

Russia, as a result of growing difficulties with the administration of such a vast territory and the lack of appropriate investment, slowly starts to give up its colonial inheritance in areas situated to the east of the Urals and in Caucasus.  Population inhabiting the area east to the Urals would gradually migrate to the native Russian areas. A heated debate would arouse in Russia regarding Russian identity, with a majority of voices supporting the view that it is necessary to transform Russia in accordance with the Western model. The followers of such a view would be in argument with both the supporters of imperial ideas as wells as extreme nationalistic groups. Paradoxically, the supporters of the Russian national state would be able to argue that, if Russia does not get rid of her “colonies”, Moscow, as a result of migration, will change into a mega multicultural metropolis that would lack any Russian character.

As this process accelerates, both economic difficulties and the push for independence by the Uralian provinces increase. Such a course of events may be caused by attempts at internally contrary, inconsistent and shy reforms regarding the decentralisation of power. At some point, in the second half of the 2020s, Moscow would be dominated by views that all attempts to maintain such a vast territory bring bigger losses than profits.

Russia, as a national state with a population of approximately 50 million, applies for EU membership at around 2050.[3]

(II)          The Russian Federation comes under Chinese influence. China becomes the advocate of the Federation’s territorial integrity

This may happen despite Chinese claims for Manchuria. Chinese investments are becoming dominant and the export of Russian oil and gas is directed mainly to China. Russian nationalistic rhetoric primarily opposes Islam but also the West to some extent. It has a clear vision of Russia becoming an Euro-Asian civilisation (e.g. similarly to the thoughts of Russian historian Gumilev.) Russian nationalists would not notice a growing dependency on Beijing, they would emphasise that, in their view, a Chinese-Russian alliance pitched against America and Europe, and underline their secured position against the West. The alliance with China would also seem to protect Russia against dangers from the South, meaning Islam.

The mythology of the Euro-Asian power may lead Russians to fail to notice the relative weakness of their own country. Such a situation may be comfortable for China, since it does not endanger the Chinese élites with talks about democratisation. The West is in fact deprived of political influence on the vast Russian territory, which provides substantial geopolitical benefits for Beijing.

(III)       Russia weakens seriously but is supported by many parties, since every important world player (China, EU, USA and constantly growing in strength, Turkey) fears Moscow to come under the influence of their opponents

In this scenario, Russia subtly endeavours to maintain a precarious balance. Everyone fears that Moscow will come under foreign influence. Americans fear that Moscow will be influenced by Beijing. The Chinese, on the contrary, fear that Russian political vacuum will be filled by the EU and the USA. What is more, everyone will fear the unknown effects of the territorial breakdown process of the Russian Federation. Paradoxically, the integrity of the Russian Federation will be seen as a stabilising factor for world politics. Moscow will cleverly benefit from the situation by trying to regain its influence in Ukraine and Belarus. It will be also more powerful in blackmailing the EU and, most of all, technologically underdeveloped Central Europe using energy supply as a weapon.

It would be like a never ending dance on a rope, since Russia will be unable to regain an equal position with EU. However, Russian policy could realise its interests to some extent with smaller partners (meaning some Central European countries), especially with those which are dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.

It is also worth mentioning, that the scenario of a new Euro-Asian superpower (in spite of the fact it does not recognise the growing influence of China) seem to be close to Putin’s plans.

(IV)        Russia regains its empire’s position due to high oil and gas prices

This scenario seems to be the closest to the current policy of the Kremlin.

Such scenario will be the more likely, the more seriously the USA and the EU weaken. In the case of the USA’s weakening, firstly it may experience a growth in isolationist tendencies, secondly it may turn towards the Pacific (which is already happening to some extent). Similarly, the EU may be unable to run a common foreign policy and particular European countries may start to cooperate with Russia in order to improve their economies.

Moscow, deprived of strong pressure from the West, would establish cooperation with China in Central Asia. It would also cooperate with the BRIC. With such a scenario we should assume that Moscow would be striving to rebuild its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe (Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova) and even strive to partially regain its influence in Central Europe.

Such scenario may be linked to certain modernisation attempts. The issue of a growing percentage of the non-Russian population would be tackled with a general Russian citizenship and suppression of great Russia chauvinism. Moscow would try hard to control the Siberian economy by using all excess in foreign trade to invest in this area. [4]

Also, in this case one may notice the attempts to realise this scenario by the Kremlin even today, and it is a scenario similar to the concept of a Euro-Asian superpower.

(V)           Moscow “modernises” and keeps its current position of the second class superpower in global politics

The modernisation is undertaken with, and based on, the cooperation with the West which supports and attracts Russia, leaving (growing in strength) China behind. The Russian elites come to the conclusion that ideas like the “Shanghai group” may only result in Russia’s dependency from China. Russia, slowly but consistently, starts to introduce democratic reforms and opens, especially to the east of the Urals, to more and more western investments. The EU cooperates with Russia, not only for economic benefits, but also because of geopolitical reasons (blockade of Chinese influence). German and French investors, supported by their governments, benefit from such cooperation the most.

However, Moscow, aware of its political identity, does not give up its own interests, increases its sphere of influence and tries to attract the countries of Eastern and Central Europe.

(VI)          The Russian Federation breaks up in a gradual but peaceful manner and its particular territories get under their neighbours’ influence.

The slow process of Russia’s decline may cause a gradual loss of Moscow’s control over particular areas. Such a development occurred to some extent at the end of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Particular regions may gain independence when they realise, that their interests are different from Moscow’s interests. They may also develop a different identity based on native ethnic populations e.g. in Yakutia or shaping a new awareness of Russian-Siberians.

It is difficult to imagine such a scenario to come to life without at least partial democratisation of the power structures. Certain types of democratic reforms may directly provoke such a course of events.

It has to be emphasised, however, that so far these processes were stopped at the end of the 90s when a centralised power structure was restored in Russia.

(VII)    The Russian Federation’s breakdown causes the “Balkanisation” of a vast territory. This in turn causes global tensions in world politics.

The course of events for such a scenario is the least predictable. At the same time, it is quite probable, since such vast territory with a huge amount of natural resources cannot be left unclaimed. Furthermore, it does not seem likely, that in the case of the Federation’s accelerated breakdown, it will come down to local elites (meaning not Russian) to control the situation in particular regions.

This alarming scenario may be linked to growing conflicts and wars in Asia

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It is worth noticing that all these scenarios do not mutually exclude each other and it may happen, that one may come into the other. The realisation of the scenario of Russia in unstable balance (III) may transform into the development of events described in scenario (V) “Modernised Moscow” as wells as go into the scenario of Chinese dependency or even the scenario of the Russian native state (I). The scenario of Russia in unstable balance resembles the most current state; however, many observers as well as present Russian elites would deny that this balance is so unstable. Moscow’s dependency to Beijing is not seen as significant today. [5]

Another point to consider while reflecting on such scenarios applies to the time scales involved. It seems that the general macro-indicators (e.g. demography, human’s capital) predict more pessimistic scenarios for Russia. Even if they come true, it does not mean that in the short run, Moscow is not going to achieve considerable political successes. Russia is a country powerful enough to be able to fulfil many of its central government’s projects (including regaining its influence in certain areas), even while losing its strength.

This reflection is, as it seems, crucial for Polish political plans. Warsaw may only have a minimal (if not nonexistent) impact on Moscow’s actions in strategic matters. Also, it is difficult for Warsaw to shape Polish-Russian relations according to its own intentions. Moscow, as required, may “deteriorate” or “improve” those relations and manipulate them in its own way. Polish waiting and to some extent passive attitude seem to be the most appropriate. It does not exclude, of course, various actions and even Polish initiative, however, it is important that it does not go into excessive activism and avoids giving in to illusions.[6] Finally, such attitude does not exclude economic cooperation in many different areas. It appears that even only seemingly good relations are something desirable, especially if Poland would like to play a more active role in the eastern neighbourhood.

Translation: Anna Martinsen


[1] In 2004 CIA foresaw that the Russian Federation would disintegrate into 6-7 territorial units. The issue of the Federation’s territorial differences and even its breakdown is still a hot topic, even in Russian publications, see http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/natalia-zubarevich/four-russias-rethinking-post-soviet-map (accessed 20/04/12)

[2] Nocholas Eberstadt, The Dying Bear FA Nov/Dec 2011

[3] According to demographical estimates in 2050 the whole population of Russian Federation will come to approximately 100 million.

[5] Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, La Russie entre deux mondes, Paris 2011.

[6] From this point of view the Polish-Russian group tackling difficult matters is a perfect political tool that allows monitoring the state of mutual relations.

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About Kazimierz Woycicki

Graduate of Philosophy faculty at the University of Lublin and of Political Science and History faculty in Germany as the Adenauer Foundation's scholar, PhD at the University of Wrocław. Between 1986 and 1987 journalist of BBC, between 1990 and 1993 editor-in-chief of Życie Warszawy, between 1996 and 1999 president of the Polish Institute in Dusseldorf and between 2000 and 2004 in Leipzig. Currently sernior fellow in the International Relations Centre in Warsaw and academic at the University of Warsaw.

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