In his Next 100 Years, George Friedman predicts a Russia that actively breaks up into separate regions by the end of the 2020s.  It’s undeniable that Russia is under strain – demographically less than impressive, geographically quite unwieldy, and politically slipping into the kind of dysfunction that killed the czar and undid the Soviets.  But are such forces powerful enough to reshape the map?  Friedman certainly thinks so.  Let’s lay out his theory.

Prediction #1: Russian development will do what it’s always done – trade productive development for great power status

Russia’s vast size, and the accompanying security problems, have created a rather unique paranoia among the Russian elite.  The obsession with foreign conspiracy combined with an desire for an outsized military force are the natural result.  Russia’s so vast because so much of it is unwanted – for obvious enough reasons.  This lack of appeal has translated into a huge country that is mostly underpopulated, with its most pleasant portions in the west being the most dense.  Russia can’t be seen as weak because such a thing has historically invited invasion – and unlike China, which has swallowed up invaders in its sea of people again and again, Russians can’t be so confident their culture or nation would survive an attack.

So Russia’s security needs have always come before economic or social development.  The czars built a vast empire but neglected their people, believing the only threat that mattered came from outside.  The Soviets did the same thing – and you’ve seen the result.

Plus even under good security circumstances, Russia’s geography makes development quite a bit harder

Russia has all the ingredients to make a decent middle income economy, but that’s never been the ambition of Russia leaders.  They want a superpower or something close to it; after all, what better way to ward off challengers?

But besides Russia’s cold, hard-to-live-in Siberian regions, which themselves are tough enough to turn into productive territory, Russia also lacks a natural network of rivers that allow rapid and cheap transportation from one end to the other.  The Trans-Siberian Railway is an attempt to make up for this.

Of all Russia’s rivers, only the Don is naturally useful.  It’s big and empties into the Black Sea to connect to the world’s oceans, but unfortunately doesn’t come up to the big industrial regions around Moscow or carry any of the many natural resources from Siberia.  (The other major river, the Volga, empties into the Caspian Sea, which is about as useful, trade wise, as dumping into the desert.  While a canal connects the two rivers, it still hasn’t made it any easier or cheaper to bring resources to the west from the Far East).

Worse, the rivers freeze in winter – something China and America’s major trade rivers don’t do.

Then there’s the resource curse.  Russia’s got loads of oil and gas, but has become too dependent on them to balance its books and invest in economic development.  Rather than spur productivity, this easy cash just makes Russia less able to create, innovate, and research – the ingredients of a sustainable economy.  Plus, its subject to the whims of the world market – low oil prices were one reason the Soviets had a rough 80s.

Prediction #2: Russia’s elite won’t resist the temptation to challenge Uncle Sam

Friedman predicts that this psychology will lead Russia to a second, mini-Cold War with the United States.  There are signs of it here and there in the headlines even now.  In this thinking, in order to be secure, Russia must appear secure.  The way to appear secure is to act as confident as it was in its Soviet heyday.

Alas, this won’t work.  The United States has natural advantages that make it powerful.  It’s population is not crashing.  The Mississippi is a useful, all-natural, ice-free highway for its trade network.  Most of it can produce productive farmland and blockading takes more naval power than any one nation currently has.  Russia has none of them advantages; when it starts its arms race, it will doom itself to a future where it will be unable to balance its budget and will eventually suffer yet another crash.

How hard of a landing could it be?  

Friedman thinks it will result in the end of the Russian state as we know it.  The most frayed bits are already apparent; from the Caucasus a variety of new nations could emerge.  Could we go so far and imagine a split Far East, or perhaps one swallowed up by China?  Could we see an independent Siberia and a variety of new ethnic republics rising from the ruins?

It’s hard to imagine because, well, Russia will still have nukes

Even broke Russia in the 1990s managed to keep its nuclear arsenal gassed and ready.  Another economic collapse is likely if Russia does challenge the U.S. again, but that doesn’t mean the borders have to change.  Russia can keep outsiders from interfering the way they did after World War I because they have the nuke card to play – and the Russian state will still have access to overwhelming firepower to crush would-be republics as brutally as they like.  The world would be horrified, but powerless.  Russia would still have a veto on the Security Council to stop any resolutions and the nuclear weapons to ward off anyone who thinks of ignoring the UN.

The Soviet Union might too have saved itself if, in 1989, it had started shooting its way out of its problems rather than negotiating.

Prediction #3 – Russia will still be around in 2050

For Russia, the best circumstances will be surviving the next two decades as a great power and being integrated into the world security system – say by joining NATO or something like it.  But worst case scenarios include civil strife and fighting within Russia’s decaying nation.  It’s possible things turn around, as nothing lasts forever.  It’s hard to see a world where Moscow, still protected by its nuclear arms, allows regions to slip away, the way it did in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Although anything’s possible

And Russia’s days might be numbered.

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