Is the Russian Federation about to break up? Spend enough time listening to a certain type of thinktanker who has become prominent as a result of the war in Ukraine and you’d be forgiven for thinking so. As Ukraine struggles against Moscow’s nakedly imperialist ambitions, it is becoming increasingly common to hear predictions that an anti-colonial movement is expanding to Russia’s indigenous peoples, threatening the very survival of the Russian Federation.
According to this view, Russia is the last European empire. Its multitude of federal republics, from Udmurtia to Buryatia, may be named after the country’s dozens of minorities but the legacy of imperial rule in the country remains very much unaddressed. Minorities are treated with quasi-colonial contempt by the centre. Non-Slavic peoples are oppressed, their native languages and cultures suppressed. Perhaps nothing is more illustrative of the colonial nature of the contemporary Russian state than the fact that ethnic minorities such as Yakuts and Dagestanis have been disproportionately targeted for recruitment into the army, sent in huge numbers to die in Ukraine.
Russia’s minorities do have very real grounds for resenting rule from Moscow. Even so, such grievances are not likely to result in the dissolution of Russia in the near term. Excitable parallels between the Soviet collapse and the supposed imminent end of Russia are probably wrongheaded. For one thing, the USSR fell apart because its constitution granted the country’s constituent republics a formal right to secede from the union, which they chose to exercise when the political winds made it possible in the late 1980s. One of the reasons why Moscow could not prevent the USSR dissolving was because when the Soviet republics, from Ukraine to Georgia, declared independence, they were applying a power they clearly legally possessed, even if it had never been used before.
By contrast, Russia’s federal subjects possess no comparable constitutional right to secession. The dissolution of Russia would as a result be legally much messier. Secession might happen anyway – as it did in the north Caucasian republic of Chechnya between 1991 and 2000, legally part of the Russian Federation – but it would be more constitutionally fraught. The Kremlin would more easily be able to justify crushing attempts at succession. Were the regions to resist, conflicts over sovereignty might descend into war as they did in Chechnya.
Indeed, it is telling that tiny Chechnya – which had de facto statehood between two wars with Russia – is the only Russian region with any modern history of independence from Moscow. No other republic has come close to secession in recent years, even during the so-called “parade of sovereignties” in the 1990s during which dozens of regions of Russia declared themselves sovereign, though not independent.
There are few regions of Russia that might attempt independence aside from Chechnya and perhaps two or three more in the north Caucasus. Tatarstan, a region in central Russia home to the Tatar people which declared itself a “sovereign state” in the 1990s, is perhaps the next most likely. Yet Tatarstan is surrounded by other parts of Russia. The closest foreign country, Kazakhstan, is over 250km away. Nor is there much indication of the existence of serious secessionist movements seeking separation on geographical rather than ethnic lines.
Free Idel-Ural, an organisation claiming to represent the peoples of six regions of central Russia including Tatarstan, Mordovia and Mari El, advocates the “complete, controlled” dissolution of Russia into at least 34 states. Yet Free Idel-Ural is for the moment politically marginal among the people it claims to speak for, Gulnaz Sibgatullina, an assistant professor in the faculty of humanities at the University of Amsterdam, recently wrote. There is little evidence that its radical demands have much sway among the peoples it claims to represent.
This is unsurprising when one considers the daunting geographical and demographic challenges many republics would face were they to separate from Russia. Republics such as Tuva, Chuvashia and Udmurtia have tiny populations spread over vast areas and are either entirely surrounded by other Russian regions or border landlocked countries such as Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Further afield, Yakutia, the Arctic region home to the Sakha people, has a population of a million people living in territory six times the size of France. And most republics have a large minority or even a majority of ethnic Russians living within their borders, which could lead to prolonged ethnic strife in the event of independence.
If Russia’s minorities were to demand constitutional change, it is more likely to be in seeking to make the Russian Federation live up to its name. They might demand the reversal of Vladimir Putin’s relentless centralisation of power, which has steadily marginalised minority languages and cultures. Republics such as Tatarstan might seek to be granted genuine political and cultural autonomy without the headaches of full independence. “There’s an element of wanting to reclaim history and identity in these areas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean nationalism and separatism,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert, said.
Ultimately, the narrative of the impending demise of Russia is not only misleading but counterproductive. Pretending that Russia is likely to stop existing in its current form is a cop-out to avoid the difficult question of how Ukraine and the West can coexist with a hostile, nuclear-armed regional power in the long term.
Worse, it is to miss the point. Even if the entire north Caucasus and six republics Free Idel-Ural claims to represent were to go independent – together representing about 25 million people, or just 17 per cent of the Russian population – a country which is recognisably still Russia would continue to border Ukraine and the EU. Coming up with a way to manage this challenge requires deeper thinking than the fantasy politics of predicting the imminent end of Russia itself.