Which would you rather confront: A strong Russia or a weak Russia?
For many in the West, the answer seems obvious. Vladimir Putin's regime opposes our interests, and his nation is a corrupt and sprawling military powerhouse. The weaker the better, right?
Wrong. If Putin's Russia is becoming the preeminent problem in European affairs, it's essential to remember that Russia's great internal weakness is, in a nettlesome way, its greatest weapon. No Western leader can outwardly root for a strongman in Moscow. But the West knows how to manage that kind of adversary. When it comes to a Russia on the brink of collapse, our track record is disastrous. And this time, the margin for error is even narrower than in the past.
Perhaps that is why some of the West's keenest observers are offering the gravest of warnings against escalating the quasi-war in Ukraine. Speaking at London's Kings College, former MI6 chief John Sawers declared that prudence should prevail precisely because the stakes of our conflict with Russia have ratcheted up: "The Ukraine crisis is no longer just about Ukraine. It's now a much bigger, more dangerous crisis, between Russia and western countries, about values and order in Europe," he said.
Sawers' counsel — "a new approach to co-existence with President Putin's Russia" — sounds suspiciously like appeasement to American hawks. But Sawer pointedly linked Western caution on Ukraine to the calamity still unfolding in the wake of our Libyan misadventure. "When crisis erupted in Libya, we didn't feel it right to sit by as Gadhafi crushed decent Libyans demanding an end to dictatorship. But we didn't want to get embroiled in Libya's problems by sending in ground forces," he noted. "No one held the ring ... Result? Growing chaos, exploited by fanatics."
That, not an emboldened Russia, is the true nightmare scenario for the West.
What's left of the Russian empire is ripe for chaos. The one-two punch of a shale oil glut and economic sanctions has left Moscow scrambling for shelter in international financial markets. This painful humiliation comes at a time when Russia's economic, institutional, and demographic weaknesses have become endemic. "Russia's GDP equals that of Italy," wrote Roger Altman at The Wall Street Journal. Almost half a million people — out of a population of 140 million — have fled in three years, he went on, "and life expectancy is falling. The level of corruption is staggering. Russia's oil fields are mature and require capital and Western technology even to keep production flat."
Where Altman goes wrong is in arguing that since Russia is on the precipice, the West should give it a push. Rather than arming Ukraine, which would do little to hamstring Putin, Russia itself should be monetarily disarmed, he argues. "Russia has no method of countering sanctions," Altman wrote, "unlike its military-response potential." Fair enough. And Altman is also correct that there's "a point at which a currency or banking collapse will prevent any major nation from functioning." The problem is, we shouldn't want Russia to stop functioning.
Two hundred years ago, it was unthinkable that the Russian empire would disintegrate into an anarchic civil war stretching from Kiev to Vladivostok. But by 1918, Russia's inherent weaknesses were thrown into terrifying relief. Then as now, the country's political structure featured a dramatically centralized government, a hard-to-govern interior, and a turbulent, vulnerable periphery. As the civil war metastasized, communists, imperialists, democrats, socialists, anarchists, and separatists were all drawn in. Then the West intervened. Despite deployments across Russia's time zones, the Allies proved incapable of bringing order to the chaos. In its wake arose the Soviet Union.
In working for peace and security in Europe, the U.S. should not live in fear of repeating history. But the faulty and fragile structure of political order in Russia cannot be forgotten. The fantasy of bringing Russia to its knees, however warranted in theory, depends on an all-too-willful ignorance of the shattering landing to come — and the incalculably perilous task of picking up the pieces.