Among the frenzy of speculation regarding the future of Russia following the war in Ukraine, an old prospect has resurfaced in Western discourse: the disintegration of the Russian state.
Politicians, experts, and media pundits alike have predicted a civil war following defeat in Ukraine, resulting in the secession of several regions. On the more cautious end of this discourse, there is a call for Western countries to prepare for the disastrous consequences of such an event. But there are also those who openly welcome the prospect of this dissolution as a long-awaited third act to the Cold War. In this line of thinking, the end of Russia would bring about liberation and security for its neighboring countries, and deprive China of a major partner in its coalition against the West, weakening its position in global affairs.
As mentioned though, this is not a new idea, and to understand its context and whether it is indeed possible – or even desirable – we need to look at the last few decades.
The idea of Russian collapse goes back to the fall of the Soviet Union, when it loomed large both in the minds of Westerners and in Russia as well. After all, if places like Armenia and Kazakhstan could break away from Moscow, why couldn’t Siberia or Tatarstan do the same? This possibility shaped much of the Kremlin’s policies in the 1990’s. Looking to appease the push for regionalization and keep the country together, Boris Yeltsin famously told regions to “grab as much autonomy as you can swallow.” And indeed they did; by the 2000’s, governors held an outsized level of power, and thousands of regional laws were in conflict with the Russian constitution.
Then came Vladimir Putin, who presented regional autonomy as a threat to the survival of the nation. Putin’s intentions were clear from the start. In his 2000 autobiography, he wrote that “Russia was created as a super centralized state. That’s practically in its genetic code… the mentality of its people.” This belief, along with Putin’s deep-seated fear of dissolution, informed the hyper-centralization of a country that has become a federation in name only.
With the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the idea of disintegration came up again. That same year, the Duma ironically passed a law punishing any “public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” with up to five years in prison.
And yet, this inspired exactly what the Kremlin had sought to prevent. 2014 saw mass demonstrations throughout the country, with calls for a return to regional autonomy in cities like Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, among others. Most notably, a group of protesters in Kaliningrad went so far as to raise the German flag over the FSB offices of the former Prussian territory. Still later, in 2020, Khabarovsk region saw most unprecedented protests in all of the country’s history against the encroachments of the center on the electoral and other rights of those who live in the regions.
And now, with the country chafing under the pressure of war, forced mobilization, and a struggling economy hit with heavy sanctions, the topic is circulating once again. If Russia is to break up at any point, certainly now is the time, with a warmonger stamping his boot on the face of the people.
Of course, any talk of Russia’s collapse is contingent on defeat in Ukraine – but seeing as this is only a matter of time, the idea is beginning to sound increasingly more plausible to many. Recently, an American think-tank even hosted a forum together with an organization known as the Free Nations of Post Russia, a small group of representatives from the country’s ethnic republics calling for the decolonization of their regions.
But despite such fatalism, there is little on the ground that justifies these predictions.
Rather, they are primarily the result of long-standing Western mythologies of Russia as the quintessential “evil empire.”
The threat of separatism is a largely exaggerated one, a closer reflection of Putin’s paranoias than of concrete change. Though there is massive discontent at Moscow’s centralization and the neglect of the outer regions, over 90 percent of citizens believe the country’s territorial integrity should be protected at any cost.
Besides, the repeat of Soviet-style dissolution is politically unfeasible. As Vladimir Milov points out, Russia’s federal subjects are not analogues of the USSR’s republics; Russia’s ethnic groups are largely minorities in their own regions, and have no previous experience at independent statehood. Ethnic differences notwithstanding, the level of cultural, linguistic, and economic ties between the federal subjects is also much greater than between that of Russia and former Soviet states.
The economic development of these regions would also be a considerable challenge. Disintegration seldom brings prosperity. Breakaway regions would lack resources previously accessible within a unified Russia, such as access to navigable sea routes for landlocked areas. Long neglected by Moscow, the fragile economies of any new regions could likely stagnate, and then find themselves in competition with one another.
But even if a concrete secession movement were to occur, there are serious security issues to be considered. We forget how many in the West feared destabilizing consequences from a Soviet collapse. Just months before Ukraine declared independence, President George H.W. Bush traveled to Kyiv to caution against “suicidal nationalism.” There was no guarantee that 1991 would have gone peacefully – and such assurances are even fewer today.
First, the Kremlin would brutally respond to any attempts at independence, something most would be happy to avoid. Second, if any regions did manage to secede through armed conflict, the ensuing structural vacuum would leave no guarantee that new regional leaders would be more stable or democratic than Putin’s satraps. In a worst-case scenario, this could see a balkanized Russia, and create a geopolitical disaster. Yugoslavia part two – this time with nuclear weapons.
In short, all this talk of disintegration is little more than a “cinematic” need to see the Death Star blow up, and one that neglects the repercussions from such a fallout. But then, what should democratic countries and the opposition in Russia do to address the damage done by Putin’s regime?
In the immediate, military support for Ukraine is the obvious first step. The start of the war marked the beginning of the end for Putin. This may take some time even after defeat, and could potentially see the Kremlin engage in a domestic “war on terror” against any citizen deemed a threat. Still, defeat will invariably destabilize the regime, and set the country on a course towards liberalization.
In the meantime, democratic forces need to project a future that promises stability and the restoration of federalism. To this end, the growing discontent among the regions should be used to unite the country in a movement towards freedom. But if instead dissidents agitate for disintegration and turmoil, Russians might rally around their dictator in search of stability. Moreover, when such calls come from abroad, they play directly into Putin’s propaganda of a Western effort to destroy the country.
Democracy is bound to arrive in Russia, and the West should support that transition to ensure safety in Eurasia and beyond– not wish for the collapse of its old foe.
What may follow is anyone’s guess. It may well be that one or more regions of a democratic Russia achieves independence in the future. However, such a break can only successfully occur within a peaceful and democratic context; anything else will lead to more instability and suffering.
After being victims to a century-long fight between modernization and archaic conservatism, Russians do not need more violent revolutions or great collapses – now is the time for democracy.