Over the past year, Russia’s military failures in Ukraine have prompted much debate about the possible collapse and break-up of the Russian Federation into a number of de facto statelets, and the potential dangers – or opportunities – that could present. This speculation has come from Western and Ukrainian voices, but also from nationalistic Russians such as Igor Girkin and, more recently, Vladimir Putin himself.
None of this is new. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the strategic analysts at Stratfor were making similar remarks back in 2015. But while hopes for democratic reform of Russia within its existing borders are still (somewhat implausibly) held by the likes of Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny, it’s not difficult to see why Moscow’s continuing rule over the vast Russian lands might be in jeopardy.
Russia has a mix of ethnic groups across its many regions, but is still over 70% ethnic Russian – although that population is in fairly steep decline, partly due to fertility and mortality rates, but (perhaps more tellingly) because fewer are willing to identify as ethnic Russian on the census. It has a highly centralised and corrupt Government, run by ethnic Russians for the benefit of an avaricious and predatory criminal elite (the silovikí, literally “strongmen”), propped up by its only real exports: hydrocarbons and guns. This is hardly a recipe for long-term stability. But a key unifying factor for the past quarter of a century has been Putin, whose personal popularity – and ruthlessness – make him a figure not unlike Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito.
However, because of the war in Ukraine, the cracks inside Russia are beginning to show. Western sanctions and poor military performance have caused Russian hydrocarbon profits to suffer, and weapons exports are looking pretty shaky (part of a longer-term trend). Western sanctions are also affecting individuals inside Russia – and not just the “oligarchs” (a term rightly rejected by Khodorkovsky, since they have no real power). Roughly 700,000 of Russia’s brightest and best have already left the country, which might seem a relatively small number, but which is indicative of a deeper malaise, exemplified by the increasingly desperate efforts to find fighting-age men willing to die in Ukraine. Putin has broken the pact between the people and the elite: that the people would be left alone, and in return they would allow the elite to get rich and handle foreign policy. Putin dare not order a general mobilisation.
There is also the ever-present instability in Russia’s North Caucasus region, with anti-mobilisation protests having exposed the lack of control of Kremlin-appointed leaders. Other ethnic groups inside Russia are starting to grumble more openly. There have been reports of firebombings of recruiting stations, the killing of recruiting officers, small-scale attacks on military bases and the widespread insubordination and desertion of Russian soldiers. Reports of increasing numbers of mysterious fires abound. And while I don’t believe the National Republican Army really exists, and view the assassinations of Darya Dugina and Maxim Fomin (aka Vladlen Tatarsky) as more likely the result of elite infighting, it’s hard to ignore the signs of trouble.
Add to this a decisive battlefield defeat (such as the loss of Russia’s beloved Crimea, as Gen. Ben Hodges thinks is plausible this summer) and with a demoralised and dissatisfied soldiery returning home, it’s hard to see how Putin could remain popular, or how his regime could then survive a determined challenge. But I take the view that a successful challenge to Putin would not come directly from the people, but from within the silovikí. The apparatus of state control of the populace is just too entrenched and too brutal for it to be likely that Moscow or St Petersburg will see the kinds of protests that happened in Kyiv in 2013–14, or that these wouldn’t be put down immediately. Furthermore, the internal security forces look – on paper, and at least for now – to be powerful enough to crush any but the most well-organised and determined insurrection. It’s often said that control of a populace can be maintained as long as the political leadership has the willingness to use its monopoly of violence, and the silovikí know full well the history of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘colour revolutions’ – where acquiescence led to overthrow. (It’s also worth noting that Russian gun control laws are relatively strict.)
That is not to say that parts of the North Caucasus might not become ungovernable or break away as a result of a distracted Moscow elite, or that Buryatia or Tuva (which have provided much of the manpower for the Ukraine war) wouldn’t at least become troublesome. It’s also quite conceivable that China would, in the end, find itself with more influence in the far east – perhaps even reigniting previous disputes. But in that kind of scenario, which could take years to unfold, Russia would still maintain control over the big gas and oil fields, and over its nuclear weapons.
In short, while a decisive Ukrainian victory this summer is looking increasingly likely, the prospects for a catastrophic and potentially dangerous collapse of the Russian Federaration are easily exaggerated.