“It is increasingly clear that Ukraine will win this war and that the Kremlin is facing a historic crisis of confidence,” Ben Hodges, the former commander of US forces in Europe, wrote in an article for the British newspaper The Telegraph.
“I truly believe now that there is a real possibility that (Russian dictator) Vladimir Putin’s exposed weaknesses are so serious that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end — not just of his regime, but of the Russian Federation itself,” opines the retired US general.
Hodges names several factors that lead him to believe that Russia’s disintegration is possible: the revelation of the Russian military as “corrupt” and not as effective as it was believed to be; problems of the economically important energy sector and defense industry for Russia; the decline of the Russian population; and “pervasive corruption” that will become unacceptable for Russian civilians paying the price of Western sanctions, summarizes his arguments in the American magazine The Newsweek.
“The combination of losses on the battlefield and the impact of sanctions on Russia at home will make it very difficult for the Kremlin (to) maintain things,” Hodges believes.
Reflections on the possible disintegration of Russia are not new. For example, the British The Economist wrote about them already in 2015, i.e. a year after the start of the Russian war against Ukraine. He pointed out at the time that the predecessors of today’s Russia had already tried several times to prevent the modernization of the state through aggression and expansion, which eventually led to its end.
The Economist mentions the year 1904, when Tsar Nicholas II. he tried to avert the revolution by searching for traitors and a “little” war with Japan, which he lost a year later, and in the next twelve years the tsarist empire disappeared. Similarly, in 1979 the Soviet Union “under the weight of its own contradictions” invaded Afghanistan, and twelve years later it too collapsed.
And when Putin’s regime faced street protests at the beginning of the last decade, it responded to internal problems by cracking down on the opposition and launching a war against Ukraine in 2014, adds The Economist.
Tightening the regime may mean its end
Also, analyst Yuri Fyodorov has long stated that the disintegration of Russia is one of the possibilities of further development – in addition to the trend of strengthening the regime, which according to him can be characterized as fascist. “As paradoxical as it may seem, the attempt to establish a hardline fascist dictatorship in Russia can and probably will lead to its collapse,” he wrote in 2019.
According to him, although Putin strengthened centralization and weakened the autonomy of a number of Russian regions, these were only formal steps that removed the external manifestations of separatism without addressing its underlying causes. Fyodorov sees these in the interests and discontents of regional elites who are trying to reduce their dependence on the central government and dislike the current budget system, as well as in the cultural, value and psychological differences between people in different regions.
According to him, the strengthening of national movements combined with the weakening of the central government in Moscow could lead to the disintegration of Russia.
For its war in Ukraine, the Kremlin recruits soldiers primarily from poorer, ethnically non-Russian regions, which register more casualties than wealthier European regions.
With this, disapproval of Putin’s campaign is also growing in these regions. Anti-war movements that help soldiers end their contracts and return home have already appeared, for example, in Buryat, Kalmyk, Tuva and Yakutsk, reminds the non-state Russian website The Insider.
He also notes that Russian recruiting has the unintended consequence of building “small regional armies.” All over Russia, as part of “hidden mobilization”, so-called national battalions are being formed in individual regions, which are made up of volunteers of the same ethnicity or origin. These groups are often named after regional heroes and their members share a common territorial identity.
“Today’s national battalions, which are financed from local budgets, consist of volunteers from the same region and use a special combination of symbols and values to emphasize their ethnic or territorial identity, can quite easily switch from participating in the war ‘for Russian-Ukrainian unity’ to challenging the unfair position of their ethnic groups or territories in the overly centralized Russian Federation. Given the active development of local anti-war movements, there are prerequisites for this,” says The Insider.
Russian expert in the field of political science and political geography Nikolai Petrov, who was contacted by the website, also points to socio-economic factors and large differences between individual regions. While the more economically developed Tatarstan was significantly affected by the sanctions, the situation is more stable in agricultural areas or regions more dependent on support funds from Moscow. However, according to him, it will gradually worsen everywhere.
Will Siberia be the first?
Fyodorov believes that if Russia breaks up, the whole process will begin in Siberia. According to him, this region has a long tradition of separatist thinking, the local elite and part of the population are dissatisfied with the “colonial policy of the center” and, due to its mineral wealth, it is capable of an economically independent existence.
For example, almost all of Russia’s diamonds are mined in Yakutsk, analysts Max Pyziur and Alexander J. Motyl report. According to them, the Yakuts, who make up roughly half of the population there, are also experiencing a national revival in recent decades, which was manifested, among other things, by the adoption of the new name of the republic (Sakha), referring to the original inhabitants.
Other regions in the Far East also have significant mineral wealth, Pyziur and Motyl name the Sakhalin Region, the Maritime Region, the Khabarovsk Region and the Kamchatka Region, which are primarily inhabited by Russians.
The North Caucasus Dust Barrel
The Economist believes that the first “renegade” in the event of the end of Putin and the drying up of federal money could be Chechnya, which has fought two wars with the central power in the past decades and over which Moscow has little influence. “Putin formally kept Chechnya as part of Russia, while de facto relinquishing control over its territory,” describes Fyodorov.
“Moscow is paying dictatorial and corrupt Chechnya huge sums in exchange for (Chechen leader Ramzan) Kadyrov pretending (Chechnya) is part of Russia and pledging loyalty to Putin,” notes The Economist.
According to the British magazine, the Chechen departure would have a dramatic impact on the entire North Caucasus, especially on the neighboring, much larger and more diverse Dagestan, and a possible conflict in the area, combined with the weakness of the central government, could also lead to detachment from Moscow in other regions.
Centrifugal tendencies in the heart of the earth
Last but not least, central Russia has separatist potential, i.e. the Volga and Ural regions, where Tatarstan and Bashkortostan already have significant autonomy within Russia. Both regions have significant oil deposits, lie at important transport intersections and have a diversified economy compared to the rest of the federation, Pyziur and Motyl calculate. Tatarstan’s parliament already adopted a declaration of independence in 2008, but Russia and the UN ignored it.
According to The Economist, the whole region around the Urals, which includes several federal entities, could form a republic – as it tried to do in 1993 – with the center in Yekaterinburg, or it could form a union with Siberia, the British magazine thinks.
The Economist and historian Alexander Etkind then raise the question of what would happen to territories that did not previously belong to Russia in the event of the disintegration of Russia, such as the Kaliningrad region, which was acquired by the Soviet Union after the Second World War at the expense of Germany, the eastern part of Karelia, which was lost Finland after the Winter War in 1940, or the Kuril Islands in the Sakhalin region, part of which is claimed by Japan.
If the Russian Federation were to really break up, it would carry great security risks. Although Russia paranoidly accuses the United States of seeking its disintegration, such a scenario is a nightmare for the West, writes The Economist. At the same time, he points to the issue of ensuring control over Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
“Although the command center would remain in Moscow, securing missiles deployed on Russian territory could be more difficult than it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” The Economist notes the fact that both Ukraine and Kazakhstan, on whose territory nuclear weapons were placed during the USSR, gave them up after the collapse of the union and their warheads were taken to Russia.
According to Hodges, a possible Russian collapse could be gradual, but also sudden, violent and chaotic. “If we don’t prepare for this possibility the way we failed to prepare for the collapse of the Soviet Union, it could introduce immense instability into our geopolitics,” the general warns.