NISS Director Oleksandr Bohomolov on the Collapse of the Russian Empire, the Russian-Ukrainian War and Armed Conflicts in the World: an Interview with Apostrophe

The number of conflicts worldwide increased significantly in 2022. Most of the hot spots, which had been smoldering since the last century, flared up, and new ones caught on fire. There is continuous talk about the danger of slipping into World War Three. What is the reason for this growing instability, and what is Russia’s role in it?

– There is a growing number of seemingly distinct wars, conflicts, tensions, or political crises globally and locally around us. They affect us directly or indirectly. The amalgamation and apparent complication of these conflicts (both real and potential, such as the one between China and Taiwan) is frightening. However, if you apply a qualitative approach, and not a quantitative one, then many of these events fall into certain sequences or patterns. In fact, they are instances of processes that are not so numerous and whose dynamics are simpler, no matter how threatening their consequences might be. People naturally talk about the past in terms of history. What is interesting is that people also imagine the future in terms of historical analogies. Hence, the specter of World War Two haunts us as if it is still not over (which is true in a sense). It is against this backdrop that the specter of World War Three arises. I would propose a different explanatory framework instead: many of the contemporary events – seemingly remote in space and time – are actually connected and part of a single process that will enter the history books one day as the decline of the last Eurasian empire.  

The empire, which rebooted itself in the course of the post-revolutionary events of the 1920s and 1930s and which can be called the "Russian Empire 2.0", is now finally declining for good. Its leaders and subjects, who proved unable to find for themselves a new way of social and political existence appropriate for the current time, are trying to step in the same river not even twice, but thrice. They are willing to turn the clock back and build a kind of "Empire 3.0". Yet, these poor attempts and the fact that the main means of their implementation is the excessive use of violence are in themselves a symptom of degeneration and ultimate decline. Russia’s war against Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Russia’s aggression in Syria, and conflicts between its former colonies, such as Azerbaijan and Armenia or Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (in which the former imperial center failed to act as an effective mediator), the long-term tension in Transnistria – these are all phases of the decline of the great Eurasian empire of the 18th-20th centuries. Historically, it is known that all empires pacified the territories they captured. That is, the absence of direct conflicts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Moldovans and Transnistrians, Russians and Ukrainians during the Soviet period was a consequence of the power of the imperial project not only in the military-political, but also in the cultural and economic dimensions. Consequently, the emergence and exacerbation of contradictions is precisely a symptom of the empire’s failure and decline. Therefore, what superficially looks like a number of unrelated conflicts and wars are actually instances of a single historical process – the final disintegration of the second edition of the Russian Empire, known as the "Soviet Union", and which contained the potential for further disintegration from the very beginning. Unions are not eternal.

As for events further afield, such as China's policy towards Taiwan, we observe the reverse process there. The People's Republic of China is also trying to spread its influence around the world, and the question of reclaiming ‘historical’ Chinese territories, the so called Greater China, comes up within this framework. In other words, there are two simultaneous processes: the strengthening of China and the weakening and decline of the Russian Empire. These are two powers that used to compete with each other, but now their trajectories intersect and they even try to team up as partners. But while their tracks have crossed they are in fact moving in opposite directions. The lack of direct Chinese support, which Putin apparently counted on, appears to be a reflection of this contradictory situation. On the one hand, China feels the closeness of its current interests with Russia – against the background of competitive relations with the West, primarily with the USA; but from a historical perspective, it is clear that their paths will diverge. China has time on its side while Russia does not.

 – What’s your forecast for the next year, how will it all play out - the smoldering conflicts and the decline of the Eurasian empire?

– Developments of this kind – be it the assumption of independence or the demise of a large political entity – are actually not instantaneous, although they are later marked with a specific date in the calendar. They are extended in time, painful to live through and consume a lot of resources and efforts, including human lives. It is currently difficult to predict the exact time when, in fact, the history of the Russian Empire will run its course, but the process of its demise has been speeded up through their own misconceived policies), as is evidenced by both external and internal developments. It will definitely end with an implosion of some sort. And while it is difficult to put a date on it, it will likely happen within a medium term perspective.

The first signs are: the fragmentation of the military and political leadership, which we see on the battle ground. There is effectively no real central command. The Wagner Group, the Kadyrovites, other less famed mercenary groups appear on the scene. And while these entities are supposed to be subordinated to the Ministry of Defense, they compete and sometimes even fight with each another. Moreover, the Russian Ministry of Defense itself and the General Staff are in an institutional crisis to the degree that the minister has already created his own PMC. That is, there is a communication gap at the decision-making level even amidst the highest military and political leadership, while the latter does not fully understand military affairs and tries to turn warfare into a political show. It often lacks accurate information about what is happening on the front. This results in inadequate actions and unjustified losses on the battlefield. These things are on the surface, but similar developments are also going on deep inside, in the Russian rear: look at all these ongoing fires and explosions in multiple localities. Disintegration and loss of control - in physics they call entropy.

Although it is still hard to predict what’s going to happen in specific areas or domains, the trajectory is increasingly clear. It will not be possible to wind back the clock (which is essentially all what the "grand strategy" of the Russian leadership is about and the true purpose of this war), to reverse the rivers’ flow, so to say, as the Soviet proposed to do back in the old days. Or to take another analogy: it is like reversing an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. The repercussions from these irrational attempts will be severe. And it is imperative for us to try out best to survive for we are the ones, who are affected directly. We are playing a balancing act on the brink of the abyss, or rather a whirlpool and must somehow hold back in order not to be sucked into it.

The very near future is rather obvious. In the course of 2023, I believe, Russia will reach the culmination of its resources in the kinetic dimension and exhaust them to the extent that the futility of further warfare will become clear to everyone. This is already obvious to many; but the Russian political leadership and the topmost layer of the Russian elite, particularly, Putin and his entourage – cannot accept it yet. Their destiny, their political identity, their overall understanding of the future and the present of their country radically diverge from reality, which is becoming more and more visible. And a conflict with reality usually leads to a point where further existence becomes impossible. When and in what manner it will happen is hard to predict, but it will definitely happen. And our task is to survive in this vortex.

– Alright, the processes related to Russia are more or less clear. But what about the events which are not so obviously connected with it?  The Balkans are not at ease, there is no end to turbulence in Iran, and North Korea is bothering its neighbors again. Will these trends intensify?

– Some of these tangential plots are indirectly related to what has already been said – they have their own internal dynamics and nature of course, but they are also dependent on the grand saga of the collapse of the Russian Empire. Regarding the Balkans, this point, I believe, needs no further explanation. Iran’s motivations are a little different, given the post-colonial legacy, its aspiration for independence from any Western influence, which had been the driving force behind the so called Islamic revolution. It led them to seek a totally new supposed native system of governance, which eventually turned out to have all the flaws of the old Middle Eastern regimes. As with the Russian Federation, regional expansion has become a key preoccupation for Iran. Russia and Iran are getting closer and closer and their cooperation is increasing. There are many similarities in the political ambitions, behavior and developmental trajectories of these two states each within its region – Russia in Eurasia, and Iran mainly in the Middle East. These are two underempires. Same as Russia, Iran is also trying to build its spheres of influence and to intervene in all conflicts in its own region: it is fighting directly and through proxies in Syria, it has significantly contributed to the current tense situation in Iraq, is fueling war in Yemen, significantly influenced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continues to threaten Saudi Arabia.

The North Korean problem is a legacy of the Cold War era. The continued existence of this regime is, as it were, a projection of China’s power. North Korea is essentially a convenient satellite that enables China to do things it is unable or unwilling to do directly. In this manner, North Korea will exist for a long time to come. And for as long as China is powerful, this issue is unlikely to be resolved. Unlike Russia, China is on an upward trajectory, with all its ambitions. However, the Celestial Empire has the same governance problems as the Russian Federation, resulting from the strengthening of authoritarianism, and sooner or later China may face the same dire fate. But this is not an unavoidable future. For China has far stronger resource base and potential for maneuver, evolution and change.