Russia's Collapse Would Not Be to the West's Advantage
Russia's top political leaders seem to fear that the West (i.e. the US, and to a lesser degree the EU) favours crippling – or even breaking up – the Russian Federation, in a similar manner to the Soviet Union. According to this line of thinking, Russia is virtually the only major country willing to challenge the West globally, and that if Russia were to disintegrate, the West would be able to consolidate its dominance over the entire northern Eurasian landmass, exploiting its tremendous mineral wealth at the same time.
According to these nationalist voices, the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 was a US/EU-backed plot to bring Ukraine firmly into the Western camp, for the purposes of containing Russia. Moreover, this was merely the latest step in a grand plan that accelerated after the Soviet collapse in 1991, bringing most Eastern European countries into NATO and rolling back Russian influence in countries such as Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and more recently, Syria.
Although it is evident that the West seeks to contain Russia, it is unclear if it actually seeks Russia's break-up, let alone whether this is a realistic scenario.
However, let us conduct a thought experiment: let us suppose that a mixture of economic sanctions, falling oil prices, Islamist militancy, and separatist rebellions causes the Russian Federation to splinter in the 2020s. Would this actually be advantageous to the West? We think not. Here are our reasons:
Global nuclear security would be severely jeopardised: It is unclear if the remnant Russian state would be able to secure control over the entire Russian nuclear arsenal, or whether regional commanders or leaders would take charge of the weapons on their territory. If the latter were to occur in the context of a civil war within Russia, then there would be a considerable risk of a nuclear exchange on Russian soil. The greater concern for the West is that Islamist militants might acquire working nuclear weapons, which they could then use against Western (or even Chinese) cities. Needless to say, this would be an international security nightmare.
Northern Eurasia would probably become vast war zone: Russia comprises one-eighth of the world's landmass, stretching from Europe to the Arctic, and from the Caucasus through Central Asia to the Bering Strait and the Korean Peninsula. If Russia were to collapse, we would expect to see local conflicts break out in multiple titular ethnic republics and regions, leading to refugee flows, economic disruption, and ultimately, reduced prospects for economic and resource development. The Western powers struggled to end conflicts in much smaller countries such as Bosnia, Serbia (Kosovo), Afghanistan, Libya, etc. There is no reason why they would succeed in a collapsed Russia. Turkey and Iran would also attempt to expand their influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, leading to more proxy wars.
Islamist militancy would spread across Eurasia: Russia has struggled to contain Islamist militancy in the North Caucasus republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The collapse (or even severe weakening) of the Russian state would provide a tremendous boost to Islamist militants, allowing them to spread their influence in Russia's western Eurasian republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which lie adjacent to Central Asia. Central Asia itself is already at risk of Islamist militancy from Afghanistan, and more recently, Islamic State. The resulting security vacuum would pose a nightmare for the West, the rump Russian state, and China.
Oil and gas production would be severely disrupted: The extent to which Russian energy supplies would be disrupted would depend on whether Russia's collapse would be peaceful or violent, and which parts of Russia would experience conflict. Even so, we would expect at least some disruption to energy infrastructure, thus causing huge problems for Europe, and potentially China.
China would seek to annex Russian territory: In the event of Russia's collapse, there would be a strong temptation for – and little to prevent – China seizing parts of Siberia or the Russian Far East, large tracts of which were forcibly acquired by Russia from China in treaties in 1858 and 1860. Given that the US is seeking to contain China's rising influence in Asia, Chinese military intervention in Siberia would pose substantial geopolitical questions for the West. An enlarged China with newly acquired Siberian resources would not be in the US's (let alone Japan's) interests. This could prompt the US and Japan to come to Russia's defence, leading to a major regional conflagration.
Democratisation would be unlikely: There is no reason to believe that a collapse of the Russian state would lead to democratisation in its constituent parts, especially if the process of disintegration is accompanied by violence. It is more likely that many 'statelets' emerging from Russia will remain authoritarian, at least in the first instance, as local elites would wish to preserve their rule. Apart from the Baltic states, virtually every other part of the former USSR has struggled to adopt a liberal democracy or has retained an authoritarian character, even a generation after independence.
Break-Up Of Russia Would Be Far More Dangerous Than Break-Up Of USSR
Overall, while the break-up of the Soviet Union was relatively peaceful (notwithstanding tens of thousands of people killed each in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict (1991-1994), Tajikistan's civil war (1992-1997), and the wars in Chechnya (1994-1996, 1999-mid 2000s), this was to a large degree because the Kremlin let go of the USSR's constituent republics. Even so, Russia came close to civil war during the constitutional crisis of October 1993, and faced the spectre of a soft break-up after the debt default of 1998.
If the Russian Federation were to face serious centrifugal threats, we would expect the Kremlin to fight vigorously to prevent the country's break-up. Moreover, in the 1990s, radical Islamism and China were less powerful geopolitically than they are today. In the present day and in future, they are likely to feature as prominent players in any Russia collapse scenario. This would greatly complicate Western efforts to gain a strategic advantage in northern Eurasia.