The realistic scenarios of Russian collapse we should be prepared for
The flag of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (Photo:chechen-government.com)
Let's try to consider the potential disintegration of Russia from a historical perspective
After the full-scale invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the topic of the possible collapse of the Russian Federation into several independent states gained popularity in Ukrainian and Western media. The amount of this speculation is increasing with the success of the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the front and the problems that have arisen in the Russian army.
In September 2022, when our military successfully managed to recapture the territory of Kharkiv Oblast from the Russians, General Ben Hodges said that the world must be ready for the collapse of the Russian Federation, comparing its potential collapse with the disintegration of the USSR, for which the West was not ready. At the beginning of January 2023, several leading publications at once (Politico, Foreign Policy, The New York Sun, The Sunday Guardian) devoted articles and comments to the issue of Russian disintegration. The main news-makers on this topic in Ukraine are the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksii Danylov and head of military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov, who from time to time raise questions about the collapse of the Russian Federation in their speeches and comments.
A recent survey of 167 experts by the Atlantic Council showed 40% of respondents expecting Russia’s collapse within the next decade due to revolution, civil war, political disintegration, or other reasons.
Let's try to consider the potential disintegration of Russia from a historical perspective.
The key issue, in my opinion, in the process of the collapse of the Russian Federation is the strength and influence of national movements (that is, those forces that seek to gain independence for their ethnic groups or autonomous entities) within modern Russia. In addition, there is the influence of legal, economic, and security factors, in particular the support of Western democracies for the disintegration aspirations of the peoples of Russia.
From the point of view of the policy of imperial Moscow, all levers have been used to suppress such movements in the past few decades, as, in principle, has been done for centuries before. Despite the fact that Tatarstan, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Karelia, Yakutia (Sakha), Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, like some other subjects of the federation, are republics and have their own constitutions with the established right to national self-determination, this is not evidence of these national communities’ free democratic development. Rather the opposite.
Russian collapse would presumably happen with a domino effect
We know from the history of Ukraine that in June 1917 the Ukrainian Central Rada (UCR) proclaimed its First Universal Declaration, and on November Third, about the formation of the Ukrainian People's Republic (UNR). The situation was similar in other regions of the former empire. In December 1917, the Republic of Tatarstan was proclaimed. From this period originates the formation of the Turkic state of Idel-Ural, which spanned the lands of the modern Chuvash Republic, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and a number of nearby regions of Orenburg, Chelyabinsk, and Samara Oblasts. In February 1918, the Kuban People's Republic was created, and in June, the Siberian Republic.
All these entities eventually ceased to exist under the pressure of the Red Army. The nations that managed to proclaim and maintain their independence were those that had strong national movements, a relatively recent tradition of having their own state, as well as support among officials from the United States, Great Britain, and France – the countries that won the First World War and created a new world order. Thus, independence was successfully proclaimed by the Poles, Finns, Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians.
During this period, the Russian Empire experienced a half-collapse, but over time it was restored by the Bolsheviks. In their new empire, the Bolsheviks could not ignore national feelings, and therefore, with the policy of so-called “indigenization," they tried to have these conquered peoples “become their own,” temporarily giving the population of these territories certain features of real national entities, as paraphernalia. Thus, the Russian Empire was transformed from a monarchical state into a federation of socialist republics - the USSR. However, imperialism did not go away, and the "independence" of the national republics was conditional.
An attempt at another restructuring of the "old" Russian empire in the mid-1980s in the midst of military failures in Afghanistan and the democratization of public life failed and led to another half-collaspe. First, the Central European countries broke away from the imperial center, and then this trend continued in the Soviet republics. The Ukrainian SSR, which was located closest to such states, and whose national movement could not be suppressed by terror, wars, and repressions, and which was especially active in exile, proclaimed sovereignty in 1990, and independence a year later. A few months later, the USSR ceased to exist.
We took advantage of this opportunity and embarked on the so-called parade of sovereignties and territories that are now part of the Russian Federation. In 1990, the Republic of Tatarstan proclaimed its declaration of sovereignty, but the matter did not come to a declaration of independence. Officials in Tatarstan enjoyed autonomous rights within the Russian Federation for some time, but recently Putin canceled them. In 1991, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic proclaimed its sovereignty and became the 16th union republic. After its division into Ingushetia and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the Chechens exercised their right to withdraw from the union treaty and declared independence, which was suppressed by the Russians in the early 2000s after two bloody wars.
Overall, after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian leadership, using the typical imperial "carrot and stick" method, was able to keep all subjects of the Russian Federation under control. However, the outbreak of the full-scale war with Ukraine has already provoked certain crises with resistance to mobilization in the republics. Moreover, Russian propaganda continues to use the images of “Kadyrovtsy” and soldiers from the Buryat and other non-Russian peoples as the most cruel and trained participants in the hostilities in Ukraine, trying in this way to transfer future responsibility for the crimes of the Russian army to members of other peoples.
Modern Russia is an authoritarian country with a fascist regime in power. Its cult of personality and propaganda are key to keeping Putin's entourage in power and continuing to wage war on Ukraine. In recent years, the Kremlin has done everything it could to suppress any impulses in the subjects of the federation to separate themselves.
Russian collapse would presumably happen with a domino effect, whereby a declaration of independence in one republic provokes the same actions in other regions, and 20 different independent states could appear from the territory of the Russian Federation. Chechnya is considered one of the republics with the most potential to provoke a domino effect in modern Russia. It is the Chechens who have a history of a long struggle for their own recognition against the Kremlin, as well as a large and influential diaspora. It is possible that local elites, headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, who are now Putin's servants, with his weakening or death, will see more benefit for themselves in making a complete break. However, it is important that members of the national Chechen movement outside Chechnya be ready to support the desire for breaking off, and also be able to find understanding with those who have not left the territory of the republic. And here, in my opinion, there is the greatest threat to the successful restoration of Chechen independence. This state of affairs could provoke a new military conflict in the Caucasus, which may also involve neighboring regions.
This scenario, sometimes referred to as the "Yugoslav scenario," is feared by the governments of Western states, and they are therefore wary of lending any support to the national aspirations of the peoples of Russia.
A much more likely and desirable scenario would be peaceful disintegration, something like 1991 and the collapse of the USSR. This process could start from Tatarstan, a republic located on the Volga. This territory is quite independent in economic terms and lost its autonomous features not so long ago. In addition, as already noted, there was an attempt in 1917 to unite all the Turkic and Finno-Ugric peoples of the Volga region into the single state of Idel-Ural. Therefore, it is quite likely that, relying on historical tradition and having recent experience of autonomous rule, in a period of turbulence and a vacuum of political power in Russia, Tatarstan, like other entities in this region, will be able to peacefully secede and declare independence.
The situation in Siberia and the Far East may develop radically opposite. The People's Republic of China (PRC), which has not yet clearly outlined its attitude to the war unleashed by Putin in Ukraine, but whose friendship with the Russian Federation is supposedly without limits, may assert its claims to this region. This will allow the PRC to strengthen itself not only in territorial and mineral resources, but will give access to the Arctic Ocean, whose cover is decreasing every year, and the struggle for whose resources lays ahead.
The modern empire of the Russian Federation will eventually undergo another collapse. Under the influence of the war Russia has unleashed, the economic recession, the internal struggle of different political groups, the increase in national consciousness, and the weakening of the dictator, the Russian Federation may begin to undergo the process of disintegration. As difficult as it is to answer now, its success will depend on the strength of the national movements and the readiness of the Western democracies to support the peoples of Russia on their way to the formation of independent states.
It is important that Ukraine, as the country at the forefront of the fight against Russian imperialism, does everything possible to weaken the positions of the Putin regime in the republics and autonomous entities of the Russian Federation and to strengthen their national movements. Of course, certain steps have already been taken. Ukraine has recognized Chechnya as temporarily occupied, and units consisting of members of the peoples of the Russian Federation are fighting in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. However, greater coordination of their struggle in terms of foreign policy required.
In 1943, not far from Rivne, the First Conference of Enslaved Peoples was held, which aimed at the formation of national revolutionary armies from among the national formations of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). They were, in the course of the movement of the Soviet-German front to the west and the weakening of the power apparatus of the USSR, to break into their own national territories and create independent entities. At that time, this scenario could not be realized, but it was possible to unite in the diaspora, under the leadership of Ukrainians, representatives of all peoples enslaved by communism and Russian imperialism in the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations (ABN). We now need to take into account this historical experience and adjust it to the needs of today's realities of the struggle against Moscow.
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