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After the Fall. Must We Prepare for the Breakup of Russia?

After the Fall. Must We Prepare for the Breakup of Russia?
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

In the Risk board game, where many baby boomers learned the basics of geostrategy, one could look forever for Russia without finding it. Instead, one would come across Ukraine, Ural, Yakutia, Chita and Kamchatka.

It is hard to think of the disappearance of the largest country by area in the world as a credible scenario. Yet the premise of Russia’s collapse has long haunted Russians, just as it stirred the West’s imagination. 40 years ago, a British author published a novel entitled The Fall of the Russian Empire in which he wrote: “Russia, in all its grandeur, brutality, and impenetrable mystery, has been transformed into a human volcano about to explode”.   

It is not uncommon to see empires collapse after major military defeats, which act either as a direct cause or as a catalyst for implosion – the lack of political legitimacy and the disorganization of state structures compounding the human and financial cost of war. This was obviously the case after World War I, Russia included. For the Soviet Empire, the stalemate in Afghanistan was both a revelation of the weaknesses of its armed forces and an incentive for rebellion among non-Russian republics.

He or his successors would then face an even more dangerous scenario: that of the collapse of an empire in which one national group, the Russians, dominates other populations.  

Vladimir Putin, who can theoretically run again in 2024, will do everything to avoid that. We know that he looks up to Ivan Ilyin and has certainly read and re-read the philosopher’s essay What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World (1950). Yet it is by no means certain that he could survive politically – or even survive at all – a defeat of his military. He or his successors would then face an even more dangerous scenario: that of the collapse of what continues to be, to this day, an empire in which one national group, the Russians, dominates other populations.

The “top-down power” system imposed by the Russian President in the last 20 years – including the redefinition of the components of the federation – would be severely shaken by defeat. Economically speaking, given that a warring state must choose between guns and butter, Moscow may find increasingly difficult to provide either. Conscripts returning from the military campaign in Ukraine will often feel bitter and at times socially demeaned. Former prisoners that have joined militias will of course be tempted by the shadow  economy of gangs, trafficking and extortion. Finally, as with all authoritarian regimes in which leaders sign a Faustian pact by fuelling competition between different power centers, the risk of large-scale violence would be real between the military, the intelligence services, the National Guard created in 2016, and, of course, the militias of Messrs. Prigozhin, Kadyrov or Shoigu.

The risk of territorial secession would add to that of political secession. There is no real Russian nation, according to political scientist Sergueï Medvedev: “there is just a population governed by a State.” The country now comprises 89 federal subjects, including 21 non-Slavic autonomous republics. Russian citizens (Rossiiskii) are not all ethnic Russians (Russkii), and the proportion of ethnic Russians (approximately 80 percent today) is on the decline. The other main nationalities – notably the Tatars, the Bashkirs, the Chuvash, and the Chechens – are experiencing population growth. As is well known, the poorest populations, often from remote areas, contribute disproportionately to the country’s military; to the point that, as in past empires, they have a sense of serving as cannon fodder for the central government. Was the breakup announced by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse in 1978 – based mainly on demographic data – prophetic?

The early 1990s come to mind, which, like the late 1910s, experienced an eruption of nationalities and demands for independence in the Union as a whole, but also within what was then the Federal Republic of Russia. Not many might recall that  in 1990, each of the 21 constituent republics declared themselves  sovereign. In the present-day scenario, Western observers ought to reacquaint themselves with an abundance of names that will no doubt seem exotic to non-specialists. Who, outside the circle of some of the country’s leading experts, had ever heard of the Chuulhn - the Kalmyk People’s Congress – which, on October 27, 2022, declared the independence of the people it claimed to represent?

Instead of 15 member states, there are 89 federal entities as mentioned, of which six are not internationally recognized as belonging to the country. Which would be most likely to secede? We immediately think of those on the border (Caucasus, Tuva and even Buryatia,  despite its predominantly Russian population), which also happen to have suffered the most in terms of human losses. We also think of those that are the most homogeneous, where ethnic Russians have sometimes all but disappeared, and which are often the poorest (in the Caucasus, again). Yet others that are among the richest and that have a history of nationalistic claims could also be concerned, particularly two republics in the Volga basin: Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Five centuries after the conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan by Ivan the Terrible, the end of the “inner empire” may well come to pass.

A minority fringe of nationalists might look favorably upon the departure of non-Russian peoples from the Federation, especially since Russia’s separation from Ukraine would move the center of its imperium eastward. Yet, it would come at the cost of further demographic decline in a country already performing badly from this standpoint (not to mention that nearly a million people have already left the country since February 24, 2022). Four of the federal entities most likely to deviate from Moscow’s center of gravity are also the only ones with a positive natural balance (an excess of births over deaths) in recent years: Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Tuva. Minority populations could represent 30 percent of the population in a few years.

And yet the Soviet Union’s disintegration is only a flawed precedent for imagining the outlook for Russia. The USSR had real power centers in its periphery. Russia is “an economically, socially, and regionally fragmented country, consisting of a few developed cities and micro-regions and a vast impoverished and disconnected hinterland.”

The precedent of Yugoslavia accordingly comes more naturally to mind than that of the Soviet Union. It is also frequently invoked by the Russian authorities, as a precedent to be feared. Some stakeholders would be better off using the weapon of self-determination referendum, which has been repeatedly used by Moscow to annex several parts of Ukraine. According to one of the most in-depth analyses of this scenario, “The demise of the current Russian Federation is unlikely to follow a single path, unlike that of the Soviet Union, where the fifteen Union Republics became independent States almost by default. […] The fracturing of the state is likely to be chaotic, prolonged, sequential, conflictive and, increasingly, violent. It can result in the full separation of some federal units and the amalgamation of others into new federal or confederal arrangements.”.

In short, the collapse of the Russian empire would look more like 1917 than 1991. As with the Ottoman Empire at the time, “the sick man of Eurasia” would undoubtedly cause new conflicts.

In short, the collapse of the Russian empire would look more like 1917 than 1991. As with the Ottoman Empire at the time, “the sick man of Eurasia” would undoubtedly cause new conflicts. In the absence of a watchdog, it would be coveted by neighboring powers, especially  China and… Turkey. And what would become of Belarus in this case? Would Moscow accept its independence? Or would it want to keep the rest of the Soviet Union at all cost, like Serbia and Montenegro after the disappearance of the Yugoslav federation – but perhaps at the price of a new bloodbath? 

“Russia is the nightmare machine of the West,” says the main character of the Wizard of the Kremlin. The only good news in the scenario outlined in this piece: the nuclear issue would probably not be as serious as it was in the case of the Soviet Union. At the time, nearly 7,000 weapons were stationed outside Russia… Today, except for naval bases, the country’s nuclear forces are mostly located in the heart of the Federation, in the south and along major communication routes well controlled by the central government (though sometimes too close to the borders not to raise major concerns about their fate in the event of severe  disruption). In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was described as “Upper Volta with rockets.” By the 2000s, it was “Mexico with nuclear weapons.” In the 2010s: “a gas station with nuclear weapons.” Will it become a “Somalia with nuclear weapons?”

The empire’s collapse would not be irreversible. Russia always ends up rebuilding itself, as it did in the late 1910s. In an optimistic scenario, this could eventually be done as part of a new, more egalitarian federation. Otherwise, chaos could pave the way for a genuinely totalitarian regime.

While the scenario outlined here remains very unlikely, it cannot be overlooked. This is something we must reflect upon. But should we wish for it to happen? In 1991, two positions emerged in Washington. The first, embodied by US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, saw the breakup of the Soviet Union as a historic opportunity for the West to free itself from the  Russian threat. The other, backed by US Secretary of State Jim Baker, argued for caution, focusing on the risks involved in the disintegration of a superpower, especially a nuclear one. As is well known, the latter position was the one adopted by President George H.W. Bush. He actually ended up going to Kyiv and asked the Ukrainians not to leave the Union – as had been recommended by George Kennan who is considered to be the “father” of “containment” and revered in some Washington circles, as early as 1948. We would undoubtedly see the same debate break out in Western countries, and probably witness the same caution exercised by the White House. America would consider a Russian descent into chaos all the more unfavorably because it would distance it still more from its main project: the pivot to Asia.

China itself would hardly be favorable to Russian disintegration. Admittedly, it could win in the long run: a Russian Far East emptied of its inhabitants could become the Congo of the 2000s – an ungoverned territory open to all predatory approaches –  with Russia becoming a “space” more than an “actor,” and with China aiming to control the Northern Maritime Route and the resources of a territory that stands to be severely disrupted by the melting permafrost (60 percent of the territory). But Beijing is not fond of chaos.

China itself would hardly be favorable to Russian disintegration. Admittedly, it could win in the long run [...]. But Beijing is not fond of chaos.

At any rate, it would be counterproductive to publicly hope for the empire’s collapse. Russian paranoia is already high. Some analysts even believe – though obviously mistakenly – that “The strategic decision to try and dismantle Russia may have already been made in Washington and London. (...) Paris, Berlin and Rome may not like this decision, but they will have to go along with their senior Anglosphere allies.” Let’s not entertain that prospect. We may wish to “end the Russian military threat” as we did with Germany in 1918 or in 1945, but not “do away with Russia.” It is understandable for one of Ukraine’s top officials to say thatUkraine’s national interest is Russia’s disintegration.” But we are not obliged to share that position.

On the other hand, we should consider the  consequences of this scenario should it happen. The historian Michael Khodarkovsky already said so in 2016: “We should not be taken by surprise if one day Russia itself implodes, as the [USSR] did.” This is the position today of some Republican analysts in the US who worked on the subject, such as Janusz Bugajski (Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture) or Luke Coffey (Preparing for the Final Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Dissolution of the Russian Federation.)

Our first duty would be the lockdown of Russia in the pandemic-related sense of the word. It would be to avoid the overflow of violence and trafficking and any other collateral effects. In other words, to help ensure that the implosion does not become an explosion. “Ensure that this swamp does not decompose by releasing mushroom clouds”. And thus invalidate Bill Clinton’s gloomy prediction in 1999: “If Russia is not stable, Russia will know misery”. But we must also be ready to help, if need be, those forces ready to transform the country politically in a way that would serve our own interests and values.


Copyright image : STRINGER / AFP

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