Kiev, Ukraine—The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) released an assessment of possible scenarios for Russia’s collapse last week.
The report, written by visiting fellow Nikolay Petrov, concludes that the Russian political system "has no capacity to reform, and faces growing economic woes, crumbling infrastructure, and warring elites."
A combination of falling oil prices and sanctions enacted against Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine have had increasingly negative effects on the Russian economy, raising questions about the sustainability of Russian leader Vladimir Putin's regime.
Petrov identified three possible outcomes for Russia. The first is some manner of "regime change," where the current Russian political system collapses under stress from sanctions and low oil prices.
The other outcomes Petrov described as "Exit Strategies," where the Russian political system avoids collapse. A safe exit could be achieved if oil prices increase in the near term or if Russia chooses to engage constructively with the West. The other exit strategy would involve replacing Putin and restoring the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian people and international community.
Russian affairs analysts familiar with the report expressed skepticism about the exit strategies, which offer hope that Putin's rule can be drawn to a peaceful conclusion. Oil prices are not projected to rise to levels that would revive Russia’s economy, and a return to a normal relationship with the West is also unlikely. While some European figures, notably German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have called for diplomacy with Moscow, the success of negotiations is far from assured.
There are also signs that Putin is moving to strengthen his grip on power. Earlier this month, the Kremlin announced the creation of a 400,000-strong national guard, which one analyst in Moscow referred to as "a modern-day Russian version of the Waffen-SS." The army will consist of combat units from the Ministry of the Interior plus special forces and personnel from other security agencies. The army is now being moved under Putin's personal command.
The new military formation will be commanded by Putin’s former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, who has been a part of Putin's inner circle since the 1990s.
By transferring the ministry's sizeable military assets to Putin, the "unnecessary link—that of the [Interior] minister—between the commander-in-chief and the head of the National Guard is removed," wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, director of the analytical department of the Center of Political Technologies in Moscow.
The new army indicates Putin may be "fortifying his administration against the threat of a coup," according to analysis from the U.S. think tank Stratfor. "This may suggest that the Russian president doubts whether other security forces, the FSB, Interior Ministry troops or even the military would remain loyal to him in the event of a coup."
Petrov concludes that democratic reform is unlikely inside Russia in the near-term given the dismantling of civil society under Putin and the nature of the country's ruling elites.
"A year from now, the country will look different in many ways, which poses many questions both in the sphere of domestic politics and that of foreign policy," Petrov wrote. "But, as the old saying goes, Russia is a country where everything can change in five years, and nothing in 100."