Members' Research Service By / January 12, 2023

Russia, quo vadis? [Ten issues to watch in 2023]

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has shaken the geopolitical foundations of Europe, opening a colossal security and identity rift in the Eurasian space.

Written by Anna Caprile.

This is the seventh edition of an annual EPRS publication aimed at identifying and framing some of the key issues and policy areas that have the potential to feature prominently in public debate and on the political agenda of the European Union over the coming year.
The topics analysed encompass the 2024 European elections, budgeting in times of crises and war, lessons for public investment in the EU from the EU recovery instrument, the fiscal and monetary policy mix, climate
and socio-economic tipping points, the impact of increasing fuel prices on transport, cyber-resilience in the EU, protecting media freedom and journalists, the future of Russia, and geoeconomics in an age of empires

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has shaken the geopolitical foundations of Europe, opening a colossal security and identity rift in the Eurasian space. Its outcome will shape Europe’s and Russia’s futures, in seemingly drastically divergent directions. In 2023 and beyond, the EU will have consequential choices to make, which will determine when and how these paths converge again, no matter how difficult this might seem today.

The war seen from Moscow: An evolving narrative

The war Russia is fighting now is not the war the Kremlin prepared for. The ‘special operation’ in Ukraine, started on 24 February 2022, was planned as a necessary intervention to ‘fix’, at last, the ‘Ukrainian issue’ – a permanent source of trouble for Moscow practically since the auto-dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. As 2023 starts, nothing has gone ‘according to plan’ for the Kremlin, and the Russian army has suffered a series of humiliating defeats, to which Putin has responded by doubling down: mobilisation of 300 000 additional men, illegal annexation of 15 % of Ukrainian territory, and the less-than-subtle threat to resort to nuclear weapons. The Kremlin has changed the war narrative accordingly: it is no longer an intervention against a ‘puppet-Nazi’ government; it has become an existential fight against the ‘imperialist’ West and its attempts to ‘destroy Russia’. ‘The goal of that part of the West is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country’ were Putin’s opening words at the solemn ceremony of the illegal incorporation of the four annexed regions, on 21 September 2022, addressing the whole Russian nomenclature.

The response of the Russian public has also evolved, under brutal suppression of anti-war movements and an increasingly controlled information environment. Levada Centre opinion polls, so far considered reliable, show majority support for the Russian army, but with growing concerns and an overwhelmingly pessimistic view of the future amongst Russians who have not fled the country. Most consequently, above the noise of the Kremlin’s professional pundits, there seems to be a decisive shift amongst influential Russian intellectual elites, including those who initially condemned the invasion, towards the belief that the vital interest of the Russian state are now at stake. As a showcase, the article published in May 2022 by Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre until early 2022, and now member of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC): ‘How Russia must reinvent itself to defeat the West ‘hybrid war’: Russia’s very existence is under threat.

Russia next: The way backward?

The retreat of the Russian army from Kherson, the only Ukrainian provincial capital they controlled, and allegedly part of the Russian Federation after the illegal annexation, is a crucial moment in the war. Different military scenarios are in view, with momentous decisions ahead for all parties. Yet, no matter how the conflict evolves, the path Russia has set itself appears dramatically clear already. The Russia that will emerge from this conflict, even if it manages to obtain something that it can depict as a victory at home, will be economically, militarily, and geopolitically weaker. Economically, the cumulative effect of the unprecedented sanctions is starting to mount, decoupling Russia from international finance, foreign investment and high technology components. The exodus of highly educated professionals has moved a vibrant part of the economy away, with GDP declining 3.2 % in 2022 and a similar forecast for 2023. With the progressive decoupling of EU countries from Russian oil and gas, Putin is turning towards other markets, such as China and India, where he has less negotiation space, to preserve his main source of revenue. Militarily, Russia has so far suffered an estimated 100 000 casualties, depriving itself of its best units and revealing its extraordinary weaknesses, and consumed a large arsenal of costly weaponry, difficult to replenish under the sanctions regime. Geopolitically, Russia has achieved the opposite of the declared objectives: NATO will become larger and closer to Russian borders with the incorporation of Sweden and Finland, Ukraine’s national identity has been reinforced and its European aspirations, alongside Moldova’s and Georgia’s, have been firmly consolidated. Meanwhile, Russia is rapidly losing space in what it considered a safe sphere of influence in the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia. Internationally, Russia finds itself increasingly cornered with the status of a pariah state: self-excluded from the Council of Europe, banned from cultural and sports events, condemned and held accountable by the UN General Assembly, designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the European Parliament, following similar resolutions by several EU national parliaments. The G20 meeting in Indonesia was a resounding diplomatic blow for Russia, which will find itself increasingly dwarfed by its alleged regional partner, China. The challenges ahead for the Kremlin are multiple, mounting and feeding each other. The immobility until 2036, which Putin assured for himself with the 2020 constitutional amendments, is less sure than before, and speculation on possible scenarios multiply.

Under a first scenario, already under way now, Putin’s regime evolves into a ‘boosted’ version of itself, towards an increasingly entrenched over-authoritarian, over-centralised, semi-totalitarian regime. Ever-harder political repression and, possibly, the full application of martial law allow federal and regional governments to meet war requirements, including a new mobilisation wave. In parallel, various existing indoctrination programmes, especially addressed to young people, would be accelerated and enlarged. Internal think-tanks have already anticipated a blueprint with different development models for this scenario, under self-explanatory titles: the most promising, according to the authors, appears to be ‘USSR 2.0’; the most controversial, ‘Nation Z’. Stretching further what is already an over-centralised and over-authoritarian regime could lead, however, to paralysis in Kremlin decision-making, with fatal consequences, especially on the battlefield. This leads to a second scenario:the meltdown. An accumulation of military setbacks and crises, and a growing sense of abandonment by disenfranchised groups of population and regions, would erode both regional and economic elites’ support, as well as popular confidence in the current regime, setting it in the direction of collapse. The outcome may be very different, also depending on the situation on the battlefield. The regime could try to avoid its collapse by replacing Putin with a new figure with more political space who could re-conduct Russia out of the impasse – through a timely manoeuvre blessed by the security services, either with Putin’s consent or on grounds of alleged or real Putin health problems. 2024 presidential elections, should they not be postponed under martial law, to avoid a Belarus-type scenario, could be the chosen moment for a change of ‘roof’, keeping safe the very same power elites under an appearance of legality. Putin’s replacement may, however, prove impossible, either because too many different clashing interests would block each other, or because by that time the war would have become untenable. The meltdown could then degenerate into a period of ungovernable chaos, where the para-military actors now boosted by the Kremlin (such as Yevgueniy Prigozhin and his Wagner group, and Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen militias), would have a reigning hand. From there onwards, the space for speculation would open up widely: it could, finally, be the moment for a true regime change, perhaps around well-known opposition leaders such as Alexey Navalny. However, a power vacuum could also bring the rise of far-right movements, increasingly empowered under the war rhetoric. And it could also lead, perhaps simultaneously, to the still unlikely, but extremely dangerous, fragmentation of the Russian Federation. Some analyst already see Russia as the next failed state. Whatever scenario unfolds, it will probably emerge, at least, as a failed empire.   

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2023‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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