1. Russia is an anomaly. Why the empire continues to exist
  2. A trigger is needed. When empires fall apart
  3. Under the bulldozer. Should we expect the disintegration of the Russian Federation?
  4. The West has relaxed. How the war affects Russia
  5. Who will have access to the red button

The collapse of Russia, victory, and regaining control over Ukraine's borders in 1991 is a typical dream of every Ukrainian. However, this may be an illusion as empires like Russia need triggers to collapse, three historians tell

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Together with them, we explored the reasons that may or may not lead to the collapse of Russia and that have already led to the collapse of empires in the past: sanctions, losing a war, the cult of personality – in the case of the Russians, dictator Vladimir Putin.

But we are not the state-run telethon and we are not going topaint you a rosy picture. Ukraine's collapse is possible sooner, historian Yaroslav Hrytsak told in a new interview, which you can watch on our YouTube channel.

"Unfortunately, we are at a low point. Collapse is a war of attrition. The collapse is not so much because of the situation at the front, although it is very important, but also because of the public mood. Are the people ready to bear the burden of war any longer? From what I can see, patience is decreasing. People want a solution... It's dangerous, it's an illusion, but I don't rule out such a scenario... Because Putin is riding high now," Hrytsak tells

Why does such an imperial entity as the Russian Federation still exist in the twenty-first century? When do empires fall apart? Is the split of Russia possible and which regions are the most unstable? These questions were addressed by Yaroslav Hrytsak, Janusz Bugajski, and Martin Schulze Wessel for

Yaroslav Hrytsak is a professor at Ukrainian Catholic University and the author of Overcoming the Past: A Global History of Ukraine, which became perhaps the first modern bestseller on Ukrainian history.

Janusz Bugajski (USA) is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank on defense policy. He is the author of Failed State: A Guide to Russia's Rupture.

Martin Schulze Wessel (Germany) is a professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. He specializes in the history of Eastern Europe. He initiated a high-profile appeal to the German government in December 2023, in which leading historians called on Germany and the West to increase support for Ukraine.

Russia is an anomaly. Why the empire continues to exist

The previous century killed many an empire. The First World War and national movements for independence ended the existence of colossal imperial powers one by one: Ottoman, Habsburg, Prussia, Janusz Bugajski (USA), an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank on defense policy, tells In 2022, he published the book Failed State: A Guide to Russia's Rupture.

The Second World War sent even the empires that won it, such as the British and French, into historical oblivion. Most of their colonies became independent.

Perhaps the only empire that survived the upheaval in Europe was Russia, he adds: "This happened because the Communists seized power and created the Soviet Union."

"Already in our time, the Russian Empire has been reformatted into the Russian Federation," adds the American political scientist. "The West was deceived. They believed that the end of the USSR would mean the end of Russian imperialism. But this is clearly not the case."

Another empire that has survived to the present day is China, according to Bugajski. China includes many different territories and many ethnic groups. And this empire, according to the analyst, extends to Tibet, Xinjiang (Uyghurs), Manchuria (Manchus), Hong Kong (until 1997 a de facto colony of Britain, where a completely different system exists than in the mainland China), Macau (until 1999 a Portuguese colony).

The Russian empire continues to exist in the modern world, and this is an anomaly, Yaroslav Hrytsak, a professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University, said in an interview with After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, there were no fundamental changes in the leadership of the state. Although the election of Boris Yeltsin gave some hope to the movement to the West, Russia remained loyal to the empire, not even claiming to be a "normal" state.

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Yaroslav Hrytsak (photo: Ivan Stanislavskyi/

Most Russians still consider the collapse of the USSR a mistake or an accident. "Or even worse, that it was a special conspiracy against Russia," adds Hrytsak.

So Putin's rise actually met their expectations.

"In fact, Putin came at the request of the Russians. They wanted a ‘firm hand’ that would ‘restore order’ and restore the empire. This happened because the past has not been processed," he believes.

Although there is an organization in Russia called Memorial dedicated to preserving the memory of political repression in the USSR, it was necessary to strongly condemn Joseph Stalin and at least symbolically condemn the Communist Party. Instead, the Communist Party in Russia was only gaining momentum, becoming almost Yeltsin's main opponent in the 1999 elections.

In 2023, more than 60% of Russians stated in various polls that they had "respect, admiration, or sympathy" for Soviet dictator Stalin.

"Russia has not settled accounts with the past – no one forced it to do so. No one in Russia has worked with the fact that empire is bad and murderous," states Hrytsak and emphasizes that this point is one of the mandatory ones in the "Sustainable Peace Manifesto," which the historian developed with more than 20 other scholars and public figures.

Ignoring the crimes of the Soviet regime is what fundamentally distinguishes Russia from Germany, which was under pressure from the outside after World War II: "Germany very actively went through both the Nazi and communist phases. Moreover, it also created Nazism... The Germans are still trying to rethink this."

The way of thinking of Russians, in fact, has not changed, the Ukrainian historian believes: "They just started thinking like this: ‘I finally have my Mercedes, but where is my empire?’"

However, it is too early to give up on empires and say that this is a passed stage, adds Hrytsak.

"Empires are slowly beginning to revive. I don't know whether they will survive in the future, but Timothy Ash says that Europe should turn into a new democratic liberal empire," the historian adds.

A trigger is needed. When empires fall apart

First of all, when they are at war. They cannot withstand the pressure of modernization and rapid change, and wars accelerate this need hundreds and thousands of times, Hrytsak believes: "And it doesn't even matter whether the empire won the war or lost it. After the First World War, the empires that lost collapsed. After the Second World War, those that won the war collapsed."

"I think that the time of empires is the time of dinosaurs, which are dying out because of the radical change in historical conditions," the Ukrainian historian explains.

Nation-states are more adaptable to shocks. They responded better to challenges such as the 2008 economic crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Russian Empire, on the other hand, has always been a large backward state.

"I have hope and conviction that Russia will collapse, and this will be the end of the war. Perhaps, if not the whole of Russia, then the Putin regime will collapse for sure," the historian adds.

The Russo-Ukrainian war may play a decisive role in the disintegration of Russia.

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Janusz Bugajski (Courtesy photo)

"For the collapse of empires, a trigger is needed. In the case of Russia, a full-scale war against Ukraine is a potential trigger for collapse. It exposes many of the failures of the Russian state," Janusz Bugajski told

Problems in the economy, incompetence of the armed forces and the cult of personality in the political system indicate serious problems in the Russian government, he believes: "Now in Russia there is not even a communist party that would somehow bind this system."

"Recently, the signs that Russia will fall apart have only increased. The large number of people mobilized leads to instability in the labor market and deteriorating infrastructure. All these factors contribute to the growth of internal problems that undermine the stability of the Russian Federation. This indicates that the Russian Federation may be on the verge of collapse," Bugajski adds optimistically.

In the end, Russians are forced to attack their neighbors to justify their existence.

Russia only seemed to be potentially successful militarily – until it began to waste its forces in Ukraine. "The Russian army was supposed to be the second strongest army in the world, but instead it became the third strongest army in Ukraine: after the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Wagner PMC," Martin Schulze Wessel, a German historian and professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, tells

"One way or another, it is now destroying its own demographic and economic resources. Since most of the Russian economy is working for the war effort, the civilian economy and infrastructure will be worn out and destroyed: "All of this could lead to a collapse."

Secondly, empires collapse when they become too corrupt, the center cannot trust the regions, and not enough money comes to it, Bugajski says. This is exactly what is happening in Russia, he believes: "Pay attention to the level of corruption, the deplorable state of equipment, the lies in the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine."

"We have already seen all this in the USSR, where they lied about the five-year plans. When they tried to show the tsar – Stalin and the Central Committee – how well they were doing with production. In fact, it was all an illusion. Now we hear identical propaganda from Putin and his entourage. It's as if they've never read about the collapse of the Soviet Union and lies as one of the reasons," says Bugajski.

An empire that relies solely on siloviki is fragile, adds Martin Schulze Wessel. "An empire is more stable when it is built on regional and local self-government, on consensus between regions. This does not work in modern Russia, if it ever worked at all," the German historian states.

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Russian police on the background of the Kremlin (photo: EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV)

Under the bulldozer. Should we expect the disintegration of the Russian Federation?

Collapse in the form of Russia's disintegration may be a sweet illusion. Even the probability of civil movements in Russia is very low, Yaroslav Hrytsak tells

First, Russia is a monocultural country. Russian culture has a dominant position there, while others are despised. This creates unique conditions for maintaining its monolithic nature.

"Russia is under the bulldozer of Russian culture. And this may be the biggest mystery – how the Russians managed to crystallize into such a monolithic state. Even successful empires, such as the British or French, failed to do so," Hrytsak states.

Putin has also successfully destroyed regional elites and turned various ethnic groups into "one people" – perhaps with the exception of Tatarstan. Until recently, the majority of the elite there was Tatar, and they took special care to keep outsiders out of power. Perhaps this can also be partially said about Chechnya, but Ramzan Kadyrov is definitely not a national elite," the Ukrainian historian says.

For empires to fall apart, there must be subjects.

In 1991, when the USSR collapsed, there were republics – especially in the Baltic and Caucasus regions – where the local elite was ready to take over. Even in Ukraine, before Leonid Kravchuk came to power, the Communists were nationally oriented, not to mention the Rukh party and Vyacheslav Chornovil. "I don't see this in Russia," Hrytsak says.

"For me, the future of Russia after Putin is a big, threatening unknown," he says. "[Mikhail] Khodorkovsky (former head of the former Russian oil company Yukos, who opposed Putin's regime – ed.) once told me the shortest joke: "The future of Russia".

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Russian Embassy in Kyiv (photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO)

However, tensions within Russia are growing, says Janusz Bugajski. Indigenous people in regions rich in natural resources are increasingly resentful that Moscow is simply using them: "They don't even have gas where a lot of gas is produced. They give everything to the national and federal budget. Because of the war, it's getting even worse."

In 14 of the so-called autonomous republics, the majority of the population is indigenous. In Siberia, the Far East and the Far North, regional identity is growing, he says.

"Because non-Russian ethnic groups are considered second-class citizens. They are used as cannon fodder in the war in Ukraine. They work as guest workers for a pittance. They suffer from discrimination. Their languages are being replaced by Russian," the historian adds.

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Martin Schulze Wessel (Courtesy photo)

All of this together can lead to civil unrest, but in the long run, Martin Schulze Wessel is convinced: "This policy of the Kremlin does not meet the interests of national minorities and creates tension in Russia. This tension may be suppressed for a while, but it will definitely continue to exist and may cause civil unrest there. This will be a challenge for the Russian state."

In the fall of 2022, when the Kremlin announced mass mobilization, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to the Caucasus, Siberia, and indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation and urged them to resist: "Dagestanis should not die in Russia's vile and shameful war. Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians, Circassians, and any other people who find themselves under the Russian flag."

Of course, no resistance has begun. And it is unlikely to begin, Hrytsak reiterates:

"Perhaps some regions will secede someday. Perhaps the Caucasus. Maybe Tatarstan. But the main colony of Russia is Siberia, and we forget about it. There are still indigenous peoples there who are aware of their [roots]. And it is this colony that is the source of Russia's strength. Because it is from there that oil and gas come, which form the basis of the Russian economy."

Therefore, the key question is whether Siberia will break away: "I think not. During the First World War, there were movements for Siberian autonomy. Now there are none".

Russia will agonize, and the agony can last for a long time, concludes Yaroslav Hrytsak.

Movements for independence could theoretically emerge in other republics, says Bugajski. For example, in Bashkortostan, Chuvashia and other ethnic Tatar republics: "In Khabarovsk Krai, there have also been protests over the past few years, in particular over election fraud. People there are against Moscow".

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Dmitry Medvedev at the festival in Kazan, Tatarstan (photo: EPA/DMITRY ASTAKHOV/RIA NOVOSTI/KREMLIN POOL MANDATORY CREDIT)

The first republic to secede will trigger a snowball effect. But this will not happen immediately, the process will be slow. If the Kremlin loses the war in Ukraine, it will lose control over the regions, and Putin will have more competitors.

"Remember, Yeltsin unleashed the war in Chechnya as a lesson for others – to show that no republic or region of Russia will be free," he adds.

The West has relaxed. How the war affects Russia

Defeats in wars can provoke the collapse of states. As a rule, this inevitably leads to internal political struggles and uprisings. This is exactly what happened to Russia after the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War, Bugajski recalls.

"Russia lost the war with Japan in 1905, which led to the first Russian revolution. The second revolution in Russia was triggered by the First World War and enormous losses at the front against the Germans. At that time, the revolution was supported not only by workers, but also by soldiers returning from the front," says the Jamestown Foundation analyst.

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Rally in Moscow (photo: EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV)

He expects the same thing to happen now, if the formerly mobilized return to their cities and realize "the catastrophe to which their officers and the government have led them."

"The Kremlin is so desperate for new recruits that it is forcibly mobilizing guest workers from Asia. Moscow also offers contracts to soldiers or mercenaries from all over the world: from Cuba, from Somalia, from Afghanistan," he says.

According to official figures, Russia's losses in the war against Ukraine have exceeded 500,000.

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
War in Ukraine, Photo: 93 OMBr Kholodny Yar

"The collapse of Russia as we know it is in the interests of the Russians themselves. The empire is dangerous simply by the fact of its existence. It is dangerous for Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States, NATO, and the entire European security architecture," states Martin Schulze Wessel. "If Russians are interested in prosperity, personal security, and the ability to travel, only a Ukrainian victory in the war could ensure this."

Then, after condemning its own regime and compensating for the damage, Russia could open the way to a different future, the German professor argues.

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Yaroslav Hrytsak (photo: Ivan Stanislavskyi/

"This war, according to my predictions, will end with the collapse of one of the parties. The question is whose collapse it will be. Putin really hopes that it will be the collapse of Ukraine and the West. I think there is an understanding in the West that it is necessary to bring Russia to collapse. Not to the collapse of Russia, but to the collapse of the Putin regime," says Hrytsak.

As long as Putin is in power, there will be no peace, the historian asserts. "Therefore, we need to tell the truth, not lull the society with a 'telethon'. Yes, the Ukrainians have thwarted the blitzkrieg plan, but now it is at best the middle stage, and we should prepare for a sustained war. It's similar to the war between Israel and Hamas – such wars don't end quickly, and negotiations can't solve them."

Despite high expectations, the sanctions against Russia have not been a deterrent. But this does not mean that they do not make sense. They have many unpredictable effects.

It is very important for Ukraine to have Western export sanctions in place. The fact that there are still exports of dual-use goods from the West to Russia is very harmful to Ukraine, says Martin Schulze Wessel. Import sanctions are even more complicated. For example, the European Union no longer imports gas from Russia, but Russia has found other countries to buy its fuel. India and China have become alternative markets for Russian oil.

It is worth introducing a new package of sanctions every few months, says Janusz Bugajski. They are effective if they are fully applied in the right sectors.

Нафтопереробний завод у Москві (фото: EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV)
Oil refinery in Moscow (photo: EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV)

"Unfortunately, they are still making money on it. But the fossil fuel industry has virtually no investment at the moment. Gazprom is losing huge amounts of money. They will either have to diversify, which is very difficult without modern technologies, or find another source of income. All these problems will further aggravate the moods in Russia," he says.

"When the cheap petrodollar ceased to exist, the USSR collapsed. Putin may claim that Russia is using oil and gas for technological transformation, but nothing is actually happening," says Hrytsak.

The West has relaxed because it has forgotten what a great war is. Hrytsak cites a rule: the probability of war increases if there are three generations who have not seen it. Then the sense of threat disappears. "In the West, they think in terms of the Cold War," the historian believes. "Relatively speaking, to keep Russia tied up until it dies, as happened with the Soviet Union. To use Ukraine as a factor of exhaustion. But this does not work. We see that we can exhaust ourselves faster."

Who will have access to the red button

It does not seem that Western countries have any scenario for what to do with Russia in the event of its collapse, Hrytsak argues. First, America believes that China is a more serious rival, and it is right. Second, there’s Russia's nuclear arsenal.

After all, this is exactly what Western countries feared in 1991 – that the collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to the uncontrolled use of nuclear weapons if they ended up in the countries that would emerge from its wreckage.

But this issue is perceived incorrectly in the West, says Janusz Bugajski.

"Most of the nuclear weapons will continue to be controlled by Moscow. They will try to disarm all other nuclear devices outside of European Russia as soon as possible, just like after the collapse of the USSR. It was not Moscow that gave up nuclear weapons then, but Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan," he says.

Russia is in agony, but Ukraine may wear out faster. Three historians discuss the future
Russian Topol ballistic missile, Moscow (photo: EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV)

Nuclear weapons are now in the hands of an unstable government. In addition, the new countries are unlikely to start a war: it is the military logic of the Russian Federation that will encourage them to become independent.

"So I'm sure that the fear-mongering about nuclear weapons is part of Moscow's propaganda to try to scare the West," Bugajski states.

Therefore, we should not be afraid of Russia's collapse, but prepare for it, he believes.

"Western and eastern democracies, countries of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Far East should prepare for the consequences of the collapse, as it was with the Soviet Union," says the analyst. "We are still trying to understand what the new countries that have emerged from the wreckage of the USSR mean for us and how we should deal with them, including Ukraine."

There is no example in world history of an empire collapsing with such weapons, Hrytsak notes: "Let's imagine what would have happened at the end of World War II if Hitler had had access to nuclear weapons." Fears about Russia and nuclear weapons are quite real, the historian concludes.

But it is also dangerous for the West to be guided by them.

"My feeling is that there is a consensus among Western elites that if Ukraine is defeated, the West will have to pay an even higher price than they are paying now," says Hrytsak. "However, words are one thing, and actions are quite another. There is a huge difference between the two."