Putin’s War and the Dangers of Russian Disintegration

As Russian President Vladimir Putin doubles down on his war in Ukraine, the stability of his regime hangs in the balance. Some observers have predicted that the Russian president could be overthrown; others even hope for a breakup of the country. Which raises the question: Could Russia splinter?

Russia’s geography makes cohesiveness elusive. Spanning 11 time zones, it is the largest nation in the world by landmass. Twenty percent of its population is not ethnically Russian but belongs to local indigenous nations. While Moscow was named the third most prosperous city in the world by the UN-Habitat’s City Prosperity Index a few weeks before the war began in February, a large part of the Siberian subcontinent is impoverished and sparsely populated. In the far north, declining extractive industrial cities predominate. In the Far East, residents are economically more connected to China, Japan, and South Korea than to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Under Putin’s leadership, power has been heavily centralized in Moscow and political and cultural autonomy in the provinces have been reduced.

Some Western observers have been not only speculating about Russia’s collapse but agitating for one, seeing in it a solution to Moscow’s international behavior. A breakup, however, would not solve the West’s “Russia problem”. Any positive future for Russia and its neighbors such as Ukraine, as well as for the rest of the world, will require the country to reinvent its federalism from the inside, rather than explode.

Ties That Do Not Always Bind

Russia has a long history of leaders employing a mix of carrots and sticks to keep the country’s far-flung regions united. Tsars granted cultural autonomy to some conquered nations, while violently forced assimilation on others. The Soviet regime followed that same playbook, sometimes celebrating national identities, sometimes deporting and punishing peoples deemed unfaithful to the Soviet project.

A pendulum has also swung between centralization and resistance to it in Russia. In the twentieth century, the country experienced only two periods of relative decentralization: under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, between 1953 and 1964, and between perestroika and the end of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, from 1985 to 1999.

Once Putin took over in 2000, he gradually reasserted Moscow’s control over Russian regions and republics. Since then, growing socioeconomic disparities between residents in rich metropolitan centers and provincial regions have generated tensions. Moscow and its surrounding area consume more than their share of the state budget. Siberian regions, in contrast, contribute more than they get back. Moscow has amassed too much power, and distant regions have lost their bureaucratic and financial autonomy, which in turn has depressed regional development. Even in the Krasnodar Krai, in Russia’s south—an area very loyal to Putin—local leaders criticize Moscow-based bureaucrats for imposing policies that are not in touch with on-the-ground realities.

Russia’s ethnic mapping adds one more layer to this complexity. The country’s 21 autonomous ethnic republics do not make for a unified whole. In some regions, ethnic Russians dominate (sometimes overwhelmingly; for example, they make up two-thirds of the population in the Siberian republic of Buryatia on Lake Baikal) while in others they are scarce (around three percent in Dagestan, in Russia’s south). But with few exceptions—such as in industrialized Tatarstan—they all not only face the economic challenges that bedevil Russia’s remote provinces but also harbor cultural grievances. There is, for example, growing frustration in these linguistically diverse regions about the dominance of the Russian language. Local activists have called for history textbooks to stop celebrating their nations’ supposed peaceful integration into the Russian Empire. In the Arctic region, Indigenous leaders have clamored for a voice in how extractive firms, such as oil companies, exploit what was once their land.

The war in Ukraine could increase calls for greater autonomy from Moscow. The military mobilization in September has generated a backlash in areas with large populations of ethnic minorities whose conscripts have already suffered high casualty rates. Even the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who presents himself as Putin’s loyal foot soldier, stopped the mobilization in Chechnya earlier than did leaders in other regions, announcing that his republic had already fulfilled its quota. In September, the wife of Dagestan’s chief mufti made a similar declaration.

Deeper demographic changes could also increase calls for decentralization. Of the 20 Russian regions with positive population growth, 19 have relatively high percentages of nonethnic Russians. This is especially the case for Dagestan and Chechnya in the North Caucasus and Tuva in Siberia. In Sakha, the most northern republic of Russia, the regional capital Yakutsk has seen its population double over 30 years, thanks to the exodus of young Yakuts from rural areas to the city, making the city Russia’s most vibrant urban scene for Indigenous culture.

Although their grievances are genuine, Russia’s ethnic minorities are not clamoring for secession. Surveys show strong Russian state patriotism in ethnic republics. It could be argued that these populations would rally for independence if the process were put in motion. But it is more probable that a majority would continue to see Russia as their homeland and would be content with being given more cultural and political autonomy.

Don’t Hope for A Crack-Up

Despite the lack of evidence for support of a breakup coming from within Russia, some Western policymakers and observers have warmed to the possibility. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a government organization also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which counts senators, congressional representatives, and executive officials among its members, declared decolonizing Russia to be a “moral and strategic imperative”. In May, the anti-kleptocracy journalist Casey Michel made a similar argument in The Atlantic: “The West must complete the project that began in 1991. It must seek to fully decolonize Russia”. Sergej Sumlenny, writing for the pro-NATO think tank Center for European Policy Analysis, put the question this way: “Russia’s Collapse? Good News for Everyone”.

Similar sentiments have emanated from Poland and Ukraine. The Nobel Prize winner and former Polish President Lech Walesa has advocated for the “60 peoples who got colonized by Russia” to break away, so that Russia would be reduced to a country of about 50 million people (as opposed to one of 140 million). A League of Free Nations as well as a Forum of the Free Peoples of Russia have staged meetings in central Europe and called for “freeing imprisoned nations”—a formulation that harks back to the tsarist period, when dissidents derided Russia as a “prison for nations”, and from the CIA-sponsored Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations during the Cold War.

Exiles from Russia’s ethnic minority groups and Russian opposition figures composed the majority of individuals who participated in these congresses. Meeting in Prague in July, the Forum of the Free Peoples of Russia has, for example, published a “Declaration on the Decolonization of Russia”, accompanied by a map of a dismembered Russia with about 30 new republics.

But Western policymakers should not fall into the trap of conflating political exiles’ radical statements with the views of Russian citizens, which are much more nuanced. It would also be wrong to assume that empowered minorities would automatically help create a Russia more in sync with Western norms. Ethnic minorities are not more inclined toward democracy, human rights, good governance, and pro-Western liberalism than the Russian ethnic majority.

Russia’s main cultural divide is not between ethnic Russians and minorities but between big urban areas and the rest of the country: industrially depressed regions, rural provinces, and ethnic republics. Russia’s big cities have shown growing signs of civil society engagement and grassroots pluralism over the past decade—even if this trend has been repressed, especially since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Rural residents and minorities, in contrast, tend to be more conservative in terms of cultural mores and more supportive of an authoritarian and paternalistic regime. Muslim minorities are more likely to oppose abortion rights, liberal divorce laws, equality in the workplace, and LGBTQ rights. They are also more likely to condemn NATO and the United States for their policies in the Middle East.

Advocating for Russia’s collapse is an erroneous strategy, founded on a lack of knowledge of what ties together Russian society in all its diversity. More important, such a strategy also fails to consider that a Russian breakup would be disastrous for international security. A collapse would generate several civil wars. New statelets would fight with one another over borders and economic assets. Moscow elites, who control a huge nuclear arsenal, would react with violence to any secessionism. The security services and law enforcement agencies would crush any attempts at democratizing if that meant repeating the Soviet Union’s dismemberment. Although decolonization sounds like liberation, in practice it would likely push the whole of Russia and ethnic minority regions even further backward.

To be sure, Russia’s breakup is unlikely. In the aftermath of Putin’s disastrous war, however, the regime will nonetheless face growing pressures to decentralize. The best outcome would be for local self-government—inscribed in the Russian constitution but scrapped by Putin—to become a reality. This refederalization of Russia would be possible only if accompanied by a national reckoning on the legacy of Russia’s colonialism. This reappraisal would be important for ethnic Russians as well as for minorities. But as in the United States and Europe, that societal transformation will take decades. It is worth pursuing, however. Only a Russia that decentralizes politically and culturally can reform itself from the inside out.

Marlene Laruelle is Director and Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. She is the author of  Is Russia Fascist? Unraveling Propaganda East and West.

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