By George Friedman
Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, said in an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets that the United States was trying to weaken Russia in order to gain access to its mineral resources. He added that the “disintegration of the Russian Federation is not ruled out” by the United States. “This will open access to the richest resources for the United States, which believes that Russia possesses them undeservedly.”
Coming from a senior Russian official and former head of the Russian intelligence service close to President Vladimir Putin, this statement has to be taken seriously. This is not because the statement is true, nor even that Patrushev believes it’s true, but because it gives us a sense of how the Russians are framing the ongoing confrontations with the United States and in turn, the reasons for Russia’s problems. The United States is being framed as an existential threat to Russia’s survival because of conscious, intentional U.S. strategies. As the Russian economy disastrously declines and real wages plunge, explaining the country’s troubles as the result of the malignant intentions of an outside power shifts the blame from a failure of the Russian government to an American plot. The Russian government becomes the victim and the protector of the Russian people, who in turn are expected to rally behind the Kremlin.
Putin has recently made several statements praising Josef Stalin. Stalin had miscalculated the Nazis’ intentions and signed a treaty with them in 1939, only to then face a German invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Stalin used the invasion to create a bond between himself, the Soviet state and the Soviet people. Whatever questions the public might have had about Stalin’s wisdom in being so unprepared for the invasion became unimportant. Germany threatened the Soviet public, the state protected them and only Comrade Stalin could keep the state and the people together. There is a link between Putin’s slow resurrection of Stalin and the idea that the United States is plotting Russia’s destruction.
The reality of Russia’s dire economic situation and the sense of embattlement the Kremlin is creating are two different things. To begin with, the Russian explanation for the American strategy is a desire to control Russian resources. The problem with this theory is that the United States is itself mineral rich, and the development of American energy technology dealt with whatever oil shortages existed. Most of the minerals the U.S. lacks are readily available in the Western hemisphere.
If the United States did need minerals, the idea that it would look for them in a massively destabilized Russia is far fetched. Accessing, extracting and shipping the minerals would present political, military and logistical nightmares. In the past, Germany and Japan have each considered accessing Russia by various means to alleviate mineral shortages. The United States has never entertained the notion because it either already has the minerals or can easily find them elsewhere much more cheaply.
The United States, in fact, would not like to see the disintegration of the Russian Federation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it collapsed largely into orderly parts, with Russia as the successor state. If Russia were to collapse, there would be no order. Russia borders Scandinavia, the European Peninsula, Turkey and China. The United States gains little advantage from chaos and might be drawn into situations that could spiral out of control.
Also, Russia has several thousand nuclear weapons and missiles. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington and Moscow worked to transfer all nuclear weapons in former Soviet territory into the control of a responsible state. The thought of loose nuclear weapons and missiles in Tajikistan or other former Soviet republics was an American nightmare. If Russia disintegrated, it could lose control of these nuclear weapons, posing an existential threat to the United States and to other countries. The idea that the United States would risk this level of chaos in order to secure control of Russian minerals runs counter to all strategic or geopolitical thinking.
The problem is not that the United States is plotting the disintegration of the Russian Federation. The problem is that the Russian Federation is moving toward disintegration on its own. The single greatest failure of post-Cold War Russia was not using oil revenues to underwrite, possibly with outside investment, a robust and diversified economy. Putin wanted to do this, but the complexity of the Russian political system resulted in the diversion of revenue from a drastic modernization drive to creating a stable coalition to maintain the status quo. Political reality blocked economic necessity, as has frequently happened in the Russian system.
The Russians could not control the price of oil – the foundation of the Russian economy. When the China bubble burst and Europe entered a long-term crisis, expectation of growth in demand for oil evaporated. At the same time, due to irrationally high prices and new technology, oil surged into the market. The outcome was the collapse in oil prices and eventually the realization that these prices might represent the new normal. Russia funds much of its national budget and regional governments through oil revenues. There is a growing funding problem as resources dry up, and the regions’ umbilical cords to Moscow are disintegrating.
Money cannot hold Russia together because it is disappearing. What can hold Russia together is a belief. That belief is that the United States wants to destroy the Russian Federation out of envy and that only the Russian state can protect Russians, even if it can’t pay its bills. And finally, only Putin can hold the state and the people together. For this to work the United States must become the threat.
This strategy can work for a while, but it suffers from defective parallels. The Germans wanted Russian resources, they invaded Russia and they behaved in such a monstrous fashion that even Stalin looked like a savior. The Americans don’t want Russian resources, they won’t invade Russia and they will not savage the Russian people. The Putin government can construct the threat around America, but the German threat materialized fairly quickly. After a while, the American threat will dissipate in Russian minds and they will focus instead on their own government.
But here is the disturbing part. The United States does not want to invade Russia and can’t. However, it is interested in reducing Russia’s buffer (the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine) to contain Moscow. As Russia creates the American threat scenario, the United States will become more adamant about holding on to most of the buffer states. The Russians must paint this as preparation for war, and the more the Russians raise the temperature, the more Americans will increase their presence. It will be a race of sorts.
The Russians will increase weapons procurement, as they already have and as they did during the 1980s. Increasing defense spending while the economy is sputtering because of erratic energy prices is also what the Soviets did in the 1980s. The result was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our model expects the Russian Federation to collapse from these pressures. It is not because the U.S. is planning this, but because the Soviet Union’s fundamental contradictions inevitably recurred in the Russian Federation. A mineral-based economy, rapid development of the military and the failure to create a sustainable economy have combined to destroy it before.
We believe that this will happen again to the Russians over the course of this decade. Right now, there are indicators that Moscow is reaching out to the West to formulate short-term accommodations, but over the coming years the Russians will have domestic and geopolitical reasons to challenge the status quo, at the very least in Ukraine. The Russians defeated Napoleon. They held in World War I for three years and defeated Germany in World War II, despite economic failures. If Patrushev is to be taken seriously, and he is a very serious man, Russia is trying to hold the regime together by painting the Americans as if they were the French or Germans. The U.S. is neither, but its interests in the buffer states will be interpreted that way. And that is the danger. Not miscalculation, but the fact that desperate men calculate differently.