Libya with nukes: Is the West ready for Putin to lose? 

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Close your eyes and imagine a world without Russia. 

If you’re in the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine or any of the other territories that have suffered through the centuries under Russian repression, the scenario might sound like deliverance. 

“Russia is going to disintegrate,” former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, a prominent aristocrat and longtime Václav Havel confidant, recently predicted. “Large parts of it will seek independence as soon as they can.”

The prince should be careful what he wishes for.  

While most experts say Schwarzenberg’s prediction remains unlikely, the risk that Russia explodes under pressure from its failed assault on Ukraine has nonetheless set alarm bells ringing from Berlin to Washington, as military and diplomatic strategists contemplate a postwar scenario in which the country fractures into a patchwork of warlord-controlled fiefdoms, similar to those that dominated Afghanistan in the 1990s or present-day Libya. 

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“When in history have the Russians faced a truly major defeat and their politics remained intact?” asked Peter Rough, a former official in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush who now heads the Center on Europe and Eurasia at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “I don’t see how a major military defeat could allow Putin to remain and the borders of the Russian Federation to remain what they are today.” 

Scenarios range from uprisings among Russia’s more than 20 ethnic territories sprinkled across the country’s 11 time zones to a full-scale descent into the kind of conflict and lawlessness that has gripped Libya since the fall of its dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Either would pose grave threats to regional stability, with potentially profound consequences for Europe, including further disruption of supply chains, clashes between nuclear-armed factions and new waves of refugees fleeing a destabilized Russia. 

The subject is so sensitive that the officials refuse to speak publicly about their deliberations or even acknowledge their contingency planning for fear of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin a welcome talking point and fueling Russian support for the war. (A recent event and report by the Hudson Institute on the issue prompted an angry response from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for example.)

When asked by POLITICO to discuss such scenarios during the Munich Security Conference last week, Western officials declined to address the subject on the record.

“Could it happen? For sure,” said Ivan Krastev, a political scientist and chairman of Bulgaria’s Center for Liberal Strategies who has advised a number of European leaders. Krastev stressed that disintegration “isn’t likely, but not impossible.”  

“But focusing on this option is totally counterproductive,” he added. “If you say, ‘we’re here to dismantle Russia,’ you’re making a strong argument for Putin’s narrative that the West is the aggressor.” 

In fact, the Russian president returned to that theme again Tuesday in an address to the country’s political and military establishment on the state of the country ahead of the first anniversary of his full-scale assault on Ukraine. “The elites of the West do not hide their purpose,” he said, suggesting that the U.S. and its allies aim to destroy Russia. 

On Wednesday, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went even further, saying Russia will “disappear” if it loses the war in Ukraine, which he blamed on the U.S.

“If Russia stops the special military operation without achieving victory, Russia will disappear, it will be torn to pieces,” Medvedev said in a Telegram post, using the euphemism for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


That message resonates in a country repeatedly wracked by military conflict and still traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Russia’s travails during World War I helped spark the Russian Revolution and a civil war that pitted Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks against a motley group of royalists, capitalists and other political forces known as the White Army. The war, one of the bloodiest in Russian history, included a number of pogroms targeting Jews. It ended in 1923 with the Red Army prevailing but left deep divisions in the society.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s — which saw the breaking away of countries like Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, as well as EU countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — played out more peacefully, but it’s far from certain similar agitation from the peripheries today wouldn’t be met with a more forceful response. 

The structure of the Soviet Union made its breakup relatively straightforward from a legal standpoint. In contrast, the Russian Federation is a single country with a very powerful central administration. Unlike the Soviet Union, where half of the citizens were non-Russian, 80 percent of the population of modern-day Russia identifies as Russian.

The most important factor preventing bloodshed in 1991 was that Russia didn’t object to dismantling the Soviet Union. It’s difficult to imagine that either Putin or a potential successor would idly stand by — or that a majority of the population would allow them to — if regions like Bashkortostan in the southern Urals or Siberia, Russia’s “treasure chest,” where most if its natural resources lay buried, tried to break off. 

One worry among Western planners is that if the war in Ukraine ends with the Kremlin’s defeat — as most hope — Russian soldiers will return home and carry on the fight there, helping to fuel the country’s disintegration. 

Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reassemble the Kremlin’s lost empire could end up costing Russia at least some of its territory | Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

Many of the men fighting for Russia in Ukraine come from underprivileged Russian territories including the mountains of eastern Siberia, where much of the population has ethnic and cultural ties to Mongolia, and the North Caucasus, an area of diverse ethnicity that includes Chechnya and Dagestan.

The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who played a central role in crushing the Islamist uprising in Chechnya in the early 2000s, recently said he intends to set up a private army modeled on the Wagner Group, a brutal mercenary force controlled by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

Speaking in 2011 in the North Caucasus, Putin made little secret of his distaste for the percolating independence movements there. 

“If this happens, then, at the same moment, not even an hour, but a second, there will be those who want to do the same with other territorial entities of Russia … and it will be a tragedy that will affect every citizen of Russia without exception,” he said

That suggests any move by regions to free themselves of Moscow’s control would be bloody, both between the central government and would-be secessionists and among the regions themselves. 

“New statelets would fight with one another over borders and economic assets,” Marlene Laruelle, who directs the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, wrote in a recent essay. “Moscow elites, who control a huge nuclear arsenal, would react with violence to any secessionism.”


What makes the possibility of a Russian collapse so alarming is, of course, the country’s nuclear arsenal — a strategic ace-in-the-sleeve Putin has repeatedly made mention of over the past 12 months. On Tuesday, the Russian president announced he was suspending Russia’s participation in the New START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control pact between Moscow and Washington. 

In the run-up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and its allies were far from sanguine about the nuclear threat. U.S. intelligence warned at the time that tactical nuclear weapons, possibly including so-called suitcase bombs, could end up on the terrorist black market if steps weren’t taken to secure them. 

While Washington welcomed the independence of the Baltic states, there was deep concern that parts of the Soviet nuclear arsenal could fall into the wrong hands in other corners of the empire, including Kazakhstan and Ukraine, with disastrous consequences.  

That’s less of a threat in Russia today for the simple reason that there aren’t nuclear weapons in the potential breakaway regions, according to Western analysts. 

The more worrying prospect is the outbreak of conflict between members of the Russian establishment, and a struggle for control of the armed forces. Political infighting has already broken out between the Wagner Group chief, Prigozhin, and the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff of the armed forces, Valery Gerasimov.  

On Tuesday, Prigozhin — a Putin ally whose soldiers have been fighting near the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut — accused his rivals of withholding ammunition and air transport, adding that their actions could amount to “treason.” 

A big question in any scenario of Russian disintegration is what role China would play. While instability in its resource-rich neighbor would present Beijing with a host of opportunities to fuel its voracious appetite for raw materials, from natural gas to potash, most observers believe it will not seek to redraw Russia’s borders. 

“China is going to be very careful,” Krastev said. 

Nor is there likely to be much demand by local Russian populations in Siberia or elsewhere to seek out Chinese domination. Russia’s outer regions are generally poor and rely heavily on the central administration in Moscow for money, one more reason for them to stick with the devil they know. 

What’s clear is that while the crack-up of Russia might still be a low-probability event, it’s not one that Western planners can afford to ignore. As Russia watchers debate the prospects for the country’s “decolonization,” they shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Putin’s attempt to reassemble the Kremlin’s lost empire could end up costing it at least some of its territory. 

“The tragedy of Russia is that it doesn’t know where its borders are,” Schwarzenberg, whose family fled Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1948, said. 

The danger is that this could quickly become tragic not just for Russia, but for the rest of the world too.