Russia may not survive the coming decade due to the divisive stresses pulling the federation apart.
In 2007, two years before he died, Russia’s first post-communism prime minister, YegorGaidar, published a book with the title, “Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia”. In it, he warned Russians against the “post imperial syndrome that Putin has come to represent”. That path would only lead to ruin. And so it has.
Responding to Putin’s famous statement describing the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”, Gaidar warned that “Trying to make Russia an empire again means imperilling its very existence”. He then attacked Putin’s narrative: “The legend of a flourishing and mighty country destroyed by foreign enemies is a myth dangerous to the country’s future.”Gaidar always feared that Putin would do exactly what he is doing now in Ukraine. He even prophetically referred to Putin’s invasion of the country, fifteen years before the event: “Dreams of returning to another era are illusory. Attempts to do so will lead to defeat,” he wrote. He was right, but he was right too soon and his warning went unheeded. If only Vladimir Putin had read Gaidar’s book. If he had, Russia’s future would not be in so much doubt.
When in 1991 the Soviet Union fragmented into the fifteen countries, local elites within many regions in Russia saw the opportunity to declare their ‘sovereignty’, creating the danger that Russia itself might implode. To prevent the disintegration of the country, Russia’s then president, Boris Yeltsin, came up with the idea of a Federation, promising each region as much ‘sovereignty as it could swallow’. Yeltsin made this promise in Kazan, the ancient capital of Tatarstan, from whose university Vladimir Lenin had been expelled a century earlier. Tatarstan quickly acquired many attributes of a separate state: a president, a constitution, a flag and, most important, its own budget. In exchange, Tatarstan promised to stay part of Russia.
Others in Russia’s 89 regions and republics took advantage of Yeltsin’s offer. Bashkortostan for example, 900 miles west of Moscow. Here, a “country” of about 4.5 million had its own constitution, declaring it a “sovereign” state within the Russian Federation, a police force of 40,000 loyal to its President Murtaza Rakhimov, and judges and prosecutors who worked independently of Russia’s federal law. Many of Russia’s other regions, including Siberia and Karelia, also declared their “sovereignty” at the time.
Chechnya, primarily of Muslim faith, was an extreme example of Moscow’s inability to tame its unruly provinces, declaring independence from Moscow after the First Chechen War of 1994-96. Russian federal control was restored after the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000, although it took another nine years before the insurgents were defeated. Its current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, a former warlord installed by President Putin, is an example of how the current president gives “local princes” the right to rule. In exchange for votes for Putin, they receive a share of oil revenues and the right to rule as they see fit.
On entering office, Vladimir Putin saw that Yeltsin’s model was creating the real possibility that Russia itself could break up, just as the Soviet Union had done a decade earlier. He quickly reversed federalism and turned Russia into a centralised state by cancelling regional elections, imposing a “presidential” representative over the heads of governors and redistributing tax revenues in Moscow’s favour. Putin’s biggest error, however, was his failure to build common institutions, so that most provinces see the Russian state not as an upholder of the law, but as a source of injustice and corruption.
This centralisation has created real tensions between the regions and Moscow that have become magnified by the war in Ukraine. Soldiers with roots in poorer regions are disproportionately represented among Russian casualties in the war. Social-economic stratification has a long-term tradition in the Russian armed forces. Those well-educated from major cities, such as Moscow and St Petersburg, serve in military units far from the war, while badly-educated infantry from poor families in the poorer regions serve as cannon fodder in the infantry.
Last September, the BBC’s Russian service examined reports of more than 6,000 confirmed battlefield losses and found that troops from Dagestan, Buryatia (once part of Mongolia), and Krasnodar in southern Russia had lost most soldiers—over 200 deaths from each region. By comparison, only 15 soldiers from the Moscow region, which accounts for almost one-tenth of Russia’s population, had been killed in battle. Sending troops from the poorer and more remote regions to Russia’s meat-grinder in Ukraine enables the Kremlin to avoid ruffling the feathers of wealthy city dwellers.
Today, because of the disastrous and misguided invasion, Putin’s neo-imperial project is collapsing. Russia has become an inhomogeneous state which may not survive the coming decade, due to the divisive stresses pulling the federation apart. The war in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions against Russia have intensified the acrimonious tensions between Moscow and the regions. This was the conclusion of a recent poll of 167 global strategists conducted by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security. Nearly half (46%) of respondents expect Russia to either become a failed state or break up by 2033. Most of these expect Russia to fracture internally because of revolution, civil war, or political disintegration. As a consequence, the Russian Federation could metamorphose into ten or more states, only one of which would be known as Russia. That would change the face of Eurasia for ever.
So how will this happen?
If Russia’s war leads to a victory for Ukraine or, more likely a stalemated quagmire, the instability of the Putin regime will grow exponentially. With the Kremlin preoccupied with the power struggle over Putin’s crown, many regions will take the opportunity to bolt.
Chechnya stands out as the most likely candidate to turn its back on Moscow first. Although Ramzan Kadyrov enjoys extensive autonomy, the opportunity to achieve what the two wars failed to do would be too great to miss. Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, all of which exhibit strong national identities and practice Islam, have a combined population of 5.2 million, almost that of the EU countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Most likely next to go would be the far-eastern regions of Sakhalin Province (oil and natural gas production), Primorskiy Region (key ports for trade), Khabarovsk Region, Kamchatka Region and the Sakha Republic (also known as Yakutia). The bedrock of Yakutia’s economy is mining, not only of coal but almost 100 percent of Russia’s diamond mining and processing. The total output of gold in Yakutia and Khabarovsk is 64 metric tons. With a combined population of over 4.5 million, the regions have experienced a national revival in recent decades with mass demonstrations and protests against Moscow.
Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are also likely candidates for severance from Russia, not only because of their unique constitutional arrangements but because they are home to Russia’s legacy crude oil production, producing about 1 million barrels per day. Tatarstan alone has about 7.3 billion barrels in reserve, or 30 years of supply at current production rates. By comparison with the rest of Russia, the two regions are diversified economically, having strong manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Together they have a high net trade balance with exports of $15 billion and imports of $1.6 billion.
Unless Vladimir Putin’s gamble of last February pays off, currently the odds of success are microscopic, the likelihood of Russia breaking apart is extremely high. Putin acknowledged this as far back as 2011, four years after the publication of Gaidar’s book. At a government commission for the development of the North Caucasian Federal District in Gudermes, he warned of what would happen if the Caucuses sought to leave the Russian Federation: “If this happens, immediately, at the same second – not even an hour, but a second—there will be those who want to do the same with other territorial entities of Russia. This will be a tragedy that will affect every citizen of Russia without exception.”
Therefore, the sooner the West starts thinking about what a Russian collapse looks like the better. Not simply because there is much that can be done to stop it, but because it will have earth-shattering consequences for the planet.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.