Amid war in Ukraine, some strategists are setting their eyes on the “decolonization” of Russia itself.
Russia’s poor performance on the Ukrainian battlefield, and the growing belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threat shouldn’t be taken at face value, has emboldened Western analysts and Russian dissidents to publicly call for “decolonization” of Russia itself. They are referring here to the vast Russian Federation, the successor of the Soviet Union that consists of 83 federal entities, including 21 non-Slavic republics.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an independent U.S. government agency with members from the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate, and departments of defense, state, and commerce, has declared that decolonizing Russia should be a “moral and strategic objective.” The Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, comprising exiled politicians and journalists from Russia, held a meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels earlier this year and is advertising three events in different American cities this month. It has even released a map of a dismembered Russia, split into 41 different countries, in a post-Putin world, assuming he loses in Ukraine and is ousted.
Western analysts are increasingly pushing the theory that Russian disintegration is coming and that the West must not only prepare to manage any possible spillover of any ensuing civil wars but also to benefit from the fracture by luring resource-rich successor nations into its ambit. They argue that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the West was blindsided and failed to fully capitalize on the momentous opportunity. It must now strategize to end the Russian threat once and for all, instead of providing an off-ramp to Putin.
But many others see a rump Russia as a more severe threat to global peace and security and warn against emasculating an enemy that, even when weaker than the West militarily and economically, still possesses almost 6,000 nuclear warheads, armed militias, and vast resources trapped in a sparsely populated landscape bordering China.
Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, has recently written a book called Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture. He argues that Western sanctions have squeezed Russian economy and there is a “disquiet in numerous regions over their shrinking budgets.” He advocates against providing security guarantees to Putin.
Others who agree with this thinking say Putin’s defeat in Ukraine will destroy his strongman cult and expose him as a weak leader. Once the elites in the non-Slavic republics sense Moscow is neither rich enough to fill their pockets nor militarily strong enough to crush their dissent, they will rise.
Sergej Sumlenny, director of the European Resilience Initiative Center in Berlin, and a former chief editor at Russian business broadcaster RBC-TV, said Putin has controlled the diverse nations by corrupting their elite and by instilling the dread of a Chechnya-style conflict.
In 1991, after the Soviet Union crumbled, 14 of Russia’s nations declared sovereignty. The bloody campaign in Chechnya a few years later was designed to discourage and dissipate independence movements, while Putin’s heavily centralized policies brought the supposedly autonomous republics firmly under Moscow’s control.
But the war in Ukraine has exposed Putin as a disillusioned, feeble man not worthy of the image he had cultivated, Sumlenny argued.
“He was seen [in Russia] as a leader who could defeat anyone, and Ukraine was seen as so weak that it would be defeated without any effort,” Sumlenny told Foreign Policy over the phone from Berlin. “But now, everyone, including the ruling elite in republics and regions, can see that Moscow neither has the money nor a strong army.
“If you are a mafia boss the worst thing that can happen to you is that your subordinates suddenly realize that you are not as strong as you claimed to be.”
There have been murmurs of discontent and resentment in parts of the Russian Federation for years. Five thousand miles away from Moscow, thousands in the Khabarovsk region in Russia’s Far East protested for months on end in 2020 against the arrest of their governor on spurious charges. They said the Kremlin stole their vote when it ordered the apprehension of Sergei Furgal, the man they elected to lead, and replaced him with a puppet.
The same year, protesters in the Republic of Bashkortostan agitated against limestone mining of what they deemed sacred hills. In 2018-19, people of the Arkhangelsk region, 700 miles north of Moscow, blocked roads and pitched tents to stop the Russian government from using their territory as a dumping ground for Moscow’s garbage.
In the Republic of Tatarstan, a slow-burn nationalistic movement has been growing over the imposition of Russian language and being forbidden to switch to the Latin alphabet from Cyrillic script, as Tatars fight for more cultural autonomy. Bashkortostan has also protested to protect their local language and used slogans such as “No Language Means No Nation.”
More recently, as Putin announced partial mobilization and recruited a disproportionately large number of conscripts from poorer regions, protests flared in different parts of the country. Free Buryatia Foundation has been set up to help reservists avoid the recruitment in the Republic of Buryatia, while the Dagestan and Chechen republics—the latter whose leader Ramzan Kadyrov has pledged loyalty to Putin—have both said they have already fulfilled their conscript quota. Women came out in the city of Yakutsk, in Sakha Republic, and chanted, “Let our children live!”
Experts cite protests in the past to illustrate that tensions have long existed in the region. Some believe that the current anti-mobilization protests will act as a unifier and galvanize independence movements across the Russian republics. That may be the case, but thus far the belief seems to rest more on hope, rather than on concrete intelligence or evidence of strong underground movements.
For every argument made by the proponents of imminent Russian disintegration, there are more counterarguments. The truth is that there is an information vacuum deliberately maintained by Russia; and yet absence of information doesn’t by itself justify the theory.
Experts point out that Russian citizens in the autonomous republics may fear Putin, but being anti-Putin does not necessarily mean being anti-Russia. And even for those states that genuinely desire to leave the Russian fold, there is no guarantee what follows will be democratic or friendly to the West. Experts fear many regions in the Russian Far East already lean toward China. Then there is the concern of civil wars and regional dictators fighting over Russian nukes.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former CEO of Yukos Oil Company and then a political prisoner in Russia, dismissed a peaceful disintegration of Russia and warned of regional wars. “First, Russia is tied into a single transport and economic mechanism,” Khodorkovsky said. He added that most of the resource rich regions don’t have access to the sea. “This sets up a potential conflict, between regions that have fewer people but vast resources and those that have a large population and ways of transporting resources.” These different regions will fight over borders and try to take control of nuclear weapons—a nightmare for the West.
Khodorkovsky added that another dictator will spring in Moscow in place of Putin to reclaim lost territories. “Will the West cope with 15 to 20 new states that are at war with each other and possess nuclear weapons and their means of delivery?” he asked. “Will the West cope with the dictator who will unite the country again, at the request of the army and the impoverished [Russian] population?”
Even though the Kremlin accuses the West of fomenting trouble inside Russia routinely, talk of Russian disintegration in Western capitals could raise nationalistic fervor and make Russians rally behind Putin. It could also be exploited by far-right supporters of Putin across Europe to strengthen anti-Americanism. Worse, it could feed the disinformation machinery and be quoted by conspiracy theorists online to build a parallel narrative.
Russia’s disintegration is “highly improbable,” said Joana Deus Pereira, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, Europe. Even such insinuations in the West will increase “Putin’s appeal,” she added, giving some perspective on how nationalists Russians might see them.
“After the Soviet Union collapsed Russians were told they were going to be closer to Europe,” she said. “That didn’t happen and it hurt Russian pride.
“In that context, look at Putin’s first speech where he said he would raise Russia from its knees, from humiliation. There is huge support for Putin from what we see and follow, and any talk or efforts to split Russia will only help him,” Deus Pereira said. Moreover, she said, the non-Slavic republics and regions don’t really want Russia to disintegrate, but only “recognition of their region, their own flag and more cultural independence within the Russian Federation.”
Both those who believe a Russian collapse is imminent and those who warn against it agree on one thing: The Russian Federation has never truly been, well, a federation. Decentralization is the key, Khodorkovsky said. Whenever the time comes for the West to lift sanctions, it must negotiate with a government that has received legitimacy from the regions.
“That will tip the scales in the direction of federalization,” Khodorkovsky said.