The many uncertainties and unknowns when and how the war in Ukraine will end and what this will mean for the stability of Russia make it impossible to do solid predictions. Still, it is important to understand which scenarios might happen in the next few years and which ones are unlikely to occur. The Dutch thinktank Clingendael made an effort to prepare policymakers for what might lie ahead and constructed six scenarios for the next five years. We publish the summary of their report, that gives a lot food for thought.
by Bob Deen and Niels Drost
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is by now not only existential for Ukraine. It also seems to have become existential for Vladmir Putin’s regime itself, which equates its own security and continuity with Russia’s national security. How the war ends will be an important factor that shapes the future of the Russian Federation. The inverse is also true: whether or not the Russian regime remains stable is also a key factor that determines when and how the war ends. Russia’s future will furthermore shape the broader European security architecture – and vice versa.
To help policymakers prepare for what might lie ahead, this report draws up a model consisting of 35 variables that will together shape Russia’s future – based on an extensive literature review and scenario workshop with Dutch and international experts. It then builds on this model to construct a scenario framework for the next five years. These scenarios take into account (1) to what extent the Russian regime could change or persist, (2) to what extent this would be accompanied by large-scale instability and violence, and (3) to what extent a future Russian government would pursue confrontation or rapprochement with the West. The report then puts forward six scenarios based on these variables and presuppositions:
1. Reluctant reconciliation. After Russia has lost the war in Ukraine, various groups in the Russian elite join forces to oust Putin in a ‘palace coup’. The new president strikes a deal with the West, makes Putin and his loyalists a scapegoat, and enacts limited democratic and economic reforms
2. China’s propped-up proxy. The war grinds on for years and no end is in sight. Putin is forced to step down due to mismanagement, but the regime itself prevails and a successor eventually secures political and financial backing from Beijing. Russia becomes fully dependent on China
3. The Empire strikes back. After Western support for Ukraine dwindles, Russia decisively wins the war. Putin’s popularity surges and he is stronger in power than ever before. Russia has international partners that help it keep its economy going, while the West loses its unity.
4. Neo-Stalinist fortress Russia. Putin has made Russia a global pariah state. China, India and others abandon their tacit support and Russia is forced to become almost entirely self-sufficient. The regime continues its reign through brutal repression and propaganda.
5. The Wild East. After continued humiliation and a defeat on the battlefield, Putin’s regime loses legitimacy, withdraws from the south and east of Ukraine, and Russia begins to implode. Russia descends into organised chaos with high levels of criminality reminiscent of the early 1990s
6. Dissolution without a nuclear solution. A catastrophic military defeat leads to the implosion of the Russian Federation, after which regional warlords seize nuclear assets to deter the rump state Muscovy. While some entities are recognised by China or other powers, Muscovy remains revisionist and deeply hostile towards the West.
Although all scenarios in this report are plausible, they are not equally probable. More worryingly, there is also disagreement within the EU and NATO about which of these scenarios are preferable. While most Americans and Western Europeans tend to perceive an instable or collapsing Russia primarily as a security threat, Eastern Europeans tend to be much less risk-averse towards such a scenario – since they perceive this as a reduction of the security threat that Russia poses to them.
Regardless of the diverging views, policymakers in the EU and NATO need to consider options and steps that they can now already prepare for. Hope cannot be a policy regarding Russia’s future, so the West needs to prepare for the best, the worst, and the status quo outcomes. This means developing “no regret options”, which would be useful in any of the six scenarios even if they may primarily be based on the assumption of regime continuity. This report puts forward a set of recommendations to that effect.
To prepare for scenarios of regime continuity:
- There is a continued need for a credible deterrence, but also for containment and efforts to reduce Russia’s malign influence in the broader region.
- There would also be a clear need to monitor closely any possible emerging divisions within the foreign and security policy elite in Moscow and/or between Russia and China.
- As a long-term option, the EU could be more welcoming to Russian opposition abroad and stimulate them to present a more unified platform with an agenda for a more democratic and less revisionist Russia.
- In its strategic communication the EU could signal that there could again be a place for Russia in a renewed European security architecture – but only if and when Russia decides to again respect the multilateral rules-based order.
To prepare for scenarios of regime change:
- There should already be debates within NATO and the EU on the conditions under which the West could re-engage with a new Russian leadership.
- This discussion should include prioritizing within this list of conditions, as well as to what extent these could be linked to a potential and gradual lifting of sanctions.
- If a new regime would again respect the full range of obligations under international law and in the context of OSCE, the West should be ready to re-engage and even support reforms inside Russia – but it should not repeat the mistake of the 1990s by doing so unconditionally.
To prepare for scenarios of large-scale instability:
- The West should begin to draw up contingency plans to prevent a spill-over of instability in Russia – including a surge in cross-border flows of organized crime, refugees and weapons.
- In terms of nuclear non-proliferation, Western countries led by the United States should already now develop or update their plans on how to manage Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
- The West should also consider in advance how it would approach the possible recognition of new entities that might declare independence from the Russian Federation.
The full report can be found here