Putin's stalled Ukraine war could make Russia a failed state by 2033, global strategists say

Vladimir Putin wanted to reaffirm Russia as a global superpower, but his disastrous war in Ukraine and growing trouble at home could ultimately lead his country to collapse.

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Vladimir Putin walking while scratching his head

A growing number of analysts predict his stalled Ukraine invasion could be the catalyst for a wave of social and economic upheaval in Russia that could loosen Putin’s grip on power within the next decade. Nearly half of top foreign policy experts and global strategists say Russia will become a failed state or break up completely by 2033 due to economic collapse and social upheaval, according to a survey released Monday by the Atlantic Council, an independent think tank focusing on international affairs. 

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“One of the most surprising takeaways was how many respondents pointed to a potential Russian collapse over the next decade,” said the report, which was based on a survey of 167 global experts from a number of disciplines about international affairs over the next decade. “The Kremlin’s war against Ukraine could precipitate hugely consequential upheaval in a great power with the largest nuclear-weapons arsenal on the planet.”

But while some strategists said Russia’s expected collapse could mean it will transition from autocracy to a democracy, many also warned that as Russia’s status as a global power declines, the risk of Putin resorting to extreme measures including using nuclear weapons will grow.

Russian failed state

Global strategists interviewed by the Atlantic Council put Russia as the most likely state to fail within the next 10 years, well ahead of countries traditionally mired in political and economic instability including Afghanistan and Venezuela.

If Russia does become a failed state, it would also entail a personal failure for Putin, who has been the country’s most powerful politician since he assumed the presidency from Boris Yeltsin in 1999. In the more than two decades since, Putin has acted as Russia’s president or prime minister in electoral wins that have been widely considered fraudulent by the international community. In 2021, Putin signed a law that lets him run for president twice more in his lifetime, potentially keeping him in power until 2036.

Putin has spent most of his time in office rebuilding Russia’s military and, during his first decade in power from 1999 to 2008, grew the country’s economy by an average of 7% annually, largely on the back of Russia’s massive oil and gas energy empire.

But Russia’s economic growth has stagnated in the 15 years since the 2008 global financial crisis, when oil prices fell precipitously. Between 2009 and 2020, Russia’s annual growth averaged less than 1%, according to the Atlantic Council. The invasion of Ukraine and subsequent wave of sanctions may be the final straw for the country’s floundering economy.

Russia’s economy is set to enter a period of decline that could last “three to five years,” researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in December. Meanwhile, the World Bank and other international organizations predicted last year that Russia’s economy would shrink between 3.4% and 4.5% in 2022 in response to sanctions and export controls, with Russian trade in goods and services set to fall significantly. In 2023, the country’s GDP is expected to continue declining by as much as 5.6% in the worst-case scenario.

The Western world’s recent price cap on Russian oil exports may accelerate Russia’s economic decline. Energy historian Daniel Yergin wrote in December that Russia will likely turn to oil production cuts in retaliation for the price cap, but warned that such an act would backfire on Russia’s economy by reducing the country’s oil revenues. This week, Centrocredit Bank economist Yevgeny Suvorov said the price cap could prove “catastrophic” for Russia’s federal budget and economy.

A more dangerous world

But with Russia in increasingly dire straits, experts surveyed by the Atlantic Council warned Putin could be pushed into a knee-jerk military response with global consequences.

With Russia’s power waning, 14% of survey respondents said Putin could launch a nuclear weapon within the next 10 years. Among respondents who said Russia is on the way to becoming a failed state, 22% predicted Putin would use a nuclear weapon.

While Russian officials including Putin ramped up nuclear rhetoric last fall as Western nations continued to send weapons and reinforcements to Ukraine, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made clear in a statement in November that it remained committed to “preventing nuclear war” while affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The White House has so far referred to Putin’s occasional nuclear threats as “saber-rattling” and has said there is no indication Russia plans a nuclear strike.

The world’s nuclear risk is set to increase regardless of whether Putin uses nuclear weapons, however, the Atlantic Council survey found. Nearly 90% of respondents said at least one country would add military nuclear capabilities over the next decade, with 68% saying Iran will be the most likely one.

While more than half of respondents said they do not expect a nuclear weapon to be used in the next decade, many forecast a more dangerous and isolated world in the next 10 years. Nearly 60% of respondents said they expect China to attempt an invasion of Taiwan before 2033, while nationalist and populist movements are predicted to wield more political influence than democratic movements over the next decade.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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