Defeat but do not dismantle Russia16 Nov 2022 - 14:17
“Russia’s industry is in tatters”, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen proudly announced under applause in her speech before the European Parliament on 14 September 2022.1 She then vowed that EU sanctions on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine were here to stay: “Putin will fail, Europe will prevail.” Yet, will Europe prevail if Vladimir Putin fails?
According to Western experts, the Russian Federation is doomed to collapse.2 In fact, the West seems to look forward to this development with anticipation.3 While calling for Russia’s disintegration is alluring in light of the atrocities committed by Russian troops on Ukrainian territories, it is blind to geopolitical realities.
Without a doubt, Russia needs to be defeated and return the illegally annexed regions to Ukraine. At the same time however, the West needs to recognise Russia’s role as a security guarantor in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In short, while Russia needs to be driven out of Ukraine, the West must prevent Russia’s collapse in order to preserve its capacity to serve as a geopolitical stabiliser.
Since the 1990s, many countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia are looking to Russia to manage regional security threats
For decades, Russia served as a security guarantor in Central Asia and the Caucasus by expanding its military influence after the fall of the Soviet Union. At present, Russia operates at least twenty military bases – including in Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Tajikistan – and is the dominant leader of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance in Eurasia.
Since the 1990s, many countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia are looking to Russia to manage regional security threats such as regional destabilisation, ‘government gone mafia’ power structures, unresolved border conflicts and the rise of radical Islam. Russia regularly supplies weapons and military support to its allies. For example, after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 2021, the Russian-led CSTO launched numerous military exercises near the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border to warrant Tajik protection.4 Suffice it to say that a catastrophic military failure of Russia following the war in Ukraine quickly loses its appeal once you extend your view beyond the Russian-Ukrainian battlefield.
China’s infiltration of the Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia has already begun
If Russia were to completely disintegrate, it would lose its capability of ensuring security within Central Asia, reshuffling the power dynamics in and far beyond the region. In light of Putin’s current annexation mania, it is hard to imagine, but Russia itself would become vulnerable to territorial aspirations of external actors.
Parts of Russian territories in the far east, for instance, might be claimed by China. While this remains a hypothetical risk thus far, China’s infiltration of the Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia has already begun. Nations like Afghanistan and Kazakhstan used to be considered under the Russian sphere of influence5 , but lately Beijing increasingly sees this region as its own backyard. After meeting Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in September 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China would not tolerate any encroachments on Kazakhstan’s territory and pledged to resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.6
In recent years, the relationship between China and the West has become increasingly confrontational. Chinese infiltration of the Russian sphere of influence could propel the EU’s systemic rival a little too close to home. While it seems counterintuitive, a stable Russia might be what saves the West from entering a new Cold War with China.
The European Union has neither the resources nor the interest to replace Russia as a security guarantor in Central Asia
It took a war in Ukraine for the West to wake up to its overdependence on Russian gas. Now is the time to realise that the West depends on Russia just as much for geopolitical stability. The European Union has neither the resources nor the interest to replace Russia as a security guarantor in Central Asia and the United States just left the region in August of 2021, when it withdrew from Afghanistan.
Instead of invoking the fall of Russia, the West needs to harmonise its military support of Ukraine to ensure Russia’s defeat and retreat. At the same time, Western policies should keep the diplomatic channels open and pave the way towards a stable regime change in Russia. The only desirable outcome of the conflict is that the relationship between Russia and China is tarnished, and that Russia emerges situationally defeated but still functional and willing to realign with the West.
By now, no sane policymaker should call for the collapse of the Russian Federation. While Von der Leyen may have only expressed her commitment to Putin’s – and not Russia’s – downfall, it is naive to propagate that the two can be separated.
Russia’s strategic mistakes and the violence in Ukraine are causing Central Asian nations to question Moscow's protector status
Russian aggression against Ukraine poses a significant threat to global peace and stability that needs to be warded off resolutely. At the same time, however, Russia’s stabilising role in other regions cannot be ignored since the danger of Russia’s financial and military disintegration is no longer an abstract eventuality.
Russia’s strategic mistakes and the violence in Ukraine are causing Central Asian nations to question Moscow's protector status. In fact, the presidents of Central Asian nations met in July to discuss how to uphold future security in the region considering Putin’s failure to intervene in Kazakhstan (January 2022) and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (June 2022).7 Russian assets are tied up in Ukraine, leaving conflicts in the region open to escalation.
Thus, if the West does not want China to take over Russia’s role in Central Asia and threaten Western liberalism, Russia’s military defeat should be strictly confined to its war in Ukraine. If we do not want to seal the deal on our own demise, we should aim for a transition of power within Russia, replacing Putin with a more Western-leaning president, and prevent the dissolution of the Russian State.
This column was the winning contribution of our student column competition and was written by Charlotte Reich. Charlotte completed her bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Economics at the University of Mannheim, including a semester abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in International Relations and Diplomacy (MIRD) at Leiden University and is particularly interested in international affairs and geopolitics.
- 1European Commission, ‘2022 State of the Union Address by President von der Leyen’, 14 September 2022.
- 2Taras Kuzio, ‘Putin’s Russian Empire is collapsing like its Soviet predecessor’, Atlantic Council, 17 September 2022.
- 3Sergej Sumlenny, ‘Russia’s Collapse? Good News for Everyone’, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), 25 October 2022.
- 4‘Russian-Led CSTO Stages More Counterterrorism Drills On Tajik-Afghan Border’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 23 October 2022.
- 5Morena Skalamera, ‘Russia’s Lasting Influence in Central Asia’, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 19 November 2017.
- 6Joanna Lillis, ‘China warns against meddling in Kazakhstan ahead of Putin meeting’, Eurasianet, 14 September 2022.
- 7Elnur Alimova, ‘Central Asian Leaders Meet Amid Russia's 'Declining Role' In Region’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 20 July 2022.