Today, Russia continues its war of conquest in order to regain its former glory and international might following the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet, while the war in Ukraine continues, it’s important to remember that this war is but one chapter in the fall of the Russian Empire. Russia now repeats the same tragic path as taken by Rome and many others whose sun has set on their empires. Yet, Rome, Mongolia, China, and many other empires did not fall in a day or with the signing of a single document but rather fell into an inexorable descent into obsolescence as their treasuries were drained and rivals rose both within and outside the empire.
For many in Russia, being an empire is not a choice but a necessity. It is deeply believed that if the strong hand of Moscow is not keeping a tight grip on its territories, the country will fragment apart and descend into civil war. There is a degree of truth to that as the natural resources of the country are plundered to benefit the elite in Moscow and St. Petersburg while Siberia, the Russian Far East, Dagestan, and many other territories continue to live in near medieval times. This has caused a building resentment and is now ever more fueled as their young men are sent to the slaughter in Ukraine while their oil wealth is spent on a few more yachts in Malta or apartments in London.
The war in Ukraine has now accelerated the downfall of Russia. Rather than falling into the hands of the Siloviki elite for more plunder and their own aggrandizement, Ukraine has exposed Russia to be far weaker than anyone in the world expected. Both Russia’s enemies and its allies thought Russia to be the successor to the Soviet Union and the colossal military might it enjoyed, yet the war has shown how dysfunctional both the Russian military and government are in the grand scheme of things. Ukraine is slowly winning and the world is now forced to ponder what a Russian defeat will entail. As each month passes, more and more stress is building within Russia as the casualties mount and the treasury empties with no end in sight.
This war has taken on a life of its own and for Putin, there is no off switch. Yet he is beginning to learn that he cannot extricate himself and freeze the conflict as he could with Georgia in 2008 or Crimea in 2014. As the attacker decides when a war will start, so does the defender decide when it will end. Ukraine, now armed with Western technology along with a veteran army and a clear mandate from its people, will not allow Russia or Putin to dictate the course of the war, which given its current trajectory I believe will see all Russian forces expelled from Ukraine by the middle or end of next year.
Now, a note of caution is in order here. Just because an empire is in decline does not mean it is not dangerous. Russia most certainly is, especially considering its large nuclear arsenal which is the one area that Russia has not neglected, seeing it as the only guarantee against an invasion from the West or increasingly China, who no doubt eyes Russia’s natural resources with envy and as a means for its own economic independence.
Yet, much of Russia’s conventional military is being destroyed in Ukraine and will leave Russia with only enough forces to keep the country from fracturing apart. Prigozhin demonstrated what it would require to take over the country; a private army that does not answer to Putin’s cronies in the Kremlin and there are several of those. What loyal troops are left will be needed to keep Russia together as the internal forces mount and threaten to fracture the country as oligarchs, rebels, and ethnic minorities all seek to assert their will as the Putin regime falls into obscurity.