Mapping Russia’s Devolution

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Story by Janusz Bugajski

Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk

The rupture of the Russian Federation will be the third phase of imperial collapse following the unravelling of the Soviet bloc and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. It will also herald another “time of troubles” (smutnoie vremya), a period of political crisis and chaos that Muscovite Russia experienced in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and was replicated during the disintegration of Tsarist Russia in World War One. However, unlike in the 17th and 20th centuries, modern-day Moscow lacks the capacity and geopolitical opportunity to reconstitute Russia as a continental empire.

The Russian Federation, the inheritor of Moscow’s remaining dominions, is a failed state with an incomplete national identity. It has proved unable to transform itself into a nation-state, a civic state, or even an effective imperial state. Russia’s numerous weaknesses are exacerbated by a convergence of factors, including dependence on export revenues based predominantly on fossil fuels, a contracting economy with little prospect of growth or global competitiveness, and intensifying regional and ethnic disquiet. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 accelerated the process of state rupture by failing to achieve the Kremlin’s stated goals and resulting in substantial military casualties and damaging international economic sanctions.

Although Russia’s 1993 Constitution defines the country as a federation, in reality it is a centralized neo-imperial construct integrated on the basis of administrative proclamation and not voluntary agreement. The artificial state is approaching the end of a regime cycle in which the political status quo is becoming increasingly precarious. Not since the fracturing of the Soviet Union have several simultaneous crises become so stark, including the government’s inability to ensure sustained economic development, widening disparities between Moscow and the federal regions, deepening distrust of Moscow’s governance, the limited efficacy of  mass repression, and a looming military defeat or indefinite quagmire in Ukraine. 

Intensifying Pressures

To prolong its survival, Russia needs to develop into a genuine federation. But instead of pursuing decentralization to accommodate the aspirations of distinct ethnic and regional interests, the Russian government is engaged in wholesale restrictions. Resentments proliferate over Moscow’s unilateral appointment of regional governors, its appropriation of local resources, its inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other national emergencies, as well as mounting casualties in the war against Ukraine particularly among non-Russian populations. Although the regime is obsessed with preventing or quelling protests, simultaneous crises in several far-flung regions can overwhelm Moscow’s repressive apparatus or its ability to provide economic relief to control unrest.

The Kremlin fears any repetition of the “color revolutions” that shook Ukraine and Georgia, when corrupt authoritarian governments were toppled because they could no longer prevent public protests against election fraud. Mass demonstrations in Belarus in the summer of 2020 over blatant vote rigging disproved the conventional wisdom about a passive Belarusian public that mirrors the widely held image of Russian citizens. Although protests in Belarus were eventually extinguished, the root causes of public unrest were not addressed.  Demonstrations and attacks on government buildings in Kazakhstan in January 2022 served as another warning to Moscow that simmering public anger can explode suddenly and spread rapidly. The appearance of stability cannot be taken for granted and a triggering event such as price increases or forged election can ignite public demands for broader political change.

The Russian Federation confronts an urgent existential paradox. This will become starker as the closure of Vladimir Putin’s presidential term approaches, regardless of whether it is constitutionally extended through rigged elections. Centralization and repression without sustained economic growth will increase public opposition and generate turmoil, while liberalization and decentralization would also result in the unravelling of the state. Without political pluralism, economic reform, and regional autonomy, the federal structure will become increasingly unmanageable. However, even if democratic reforms were undertaken, several regions could use the opportunity to secede. The chances for violent conflicts may diminish in the event of systemic reform, while the prospects for violent conflict substantially increase if reforms are indefinitely blocked.

As the country slides toward domestic turmoil, the existing federal system will be viewed as illegitimate by expanding sectors of the population. A spectrum of domestic scenarios can then materialize that will thrust the country toward fragmentation, including intensifying intra-elite power struggles, escalating conflicts between the Kremlin and regional governments, factional strife in the siloviki institutions, and a breakdown of central controls in several parts of the country.

The power structure in the multi-national federation is more fragile than that of the Soviet Union because of over-reliance on the persona of one leader and no predictable and legitimate method of succession. Additionally, Russia no longer possesses an all-encompassing Communist Party apparatus that can ensure a relatively smooth change of leadership. A democratic transition through competitive elections is anathema to the ruling clique, as it would inject even more uncertainty over Russia’s future. Indeed, the emergence of a democratic system after Putin’s demise may be less feasible now than it was in the 1990s. Expectations for genuine state-wide democracy are low, institutions are hollow, alternative political parties are weak, and civil society is repressed. It would take time for a coherent political elite to emerge at an all-state level and such a process can be challenged and derailed by autocratic, nationalist, and populist forces.

A much more likely prospect is deepening fissures inside the political structure, growing challenges to the hierarchy of power, weakening central controls, and widening political cleavages. National identities and ethnic divisions can fuel separatism, but secessionist sentiments can also develop within the same ethnos where distinct regions harbor an assortment of grievances against the central government or calculate that separation would be economically beneficial. Initial challenges to state integrity can be gradual and non-violent, although violent scenarios cannot be discounted. It can result in the full separation of some federal units and the amalgamation of others into new federal or confederal structures.

Moves toward separation by any of the 22 ethnic republics are likely to provoke demands for self-determination among several regions with ethnic Russian majorities. This would significantly weaken the center and lessen the likelihood of maintaining an autocratic state. Instructively, in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union began to unravel, 40% of the predominantly ethnic Russian regions pressed for greater autonomy and some veered toward sovereignty similar to the ethnic republics. Enhanced regional activism can be a bargaining tactic for extracting finances or other resources from the Center. However, separatist movements often start with demands for economic decentralization and then escalate in response to central government actions and soaring elite and public aspirations.

Triggers for Turmoil

A key driver of state disintegration would be a military defeat or a prolonged military stalemate for which the Kremlin is widely blamed domestically. Public acquiescence and regime survival under Putin’s rule has been increasingly based on an aggressive foreign policy, territorial revisionism, patriotic militarism, and anti-Western propaganda. A major setback or stalemate in Ukraine involving significant casualties will evoke opposition to Putin’s policies, propel power struggles to replace him, stimulate popular revolts against a discredited leadership, and highlight the accumulated failures of the state. The Tsarist empire collapsed during a war with imperial Germany in World War One and the Soviet empire disintegrated in the wake of a failed war in Afghanistan. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s former chief ideologist, may have been correct when he claimed in an article published in November 2021 that if Russia does not engage in successful imperial expansion, then it will expire as a state.

Russia’s leaders are also fearful of spontaneous public unrest, as witnessed in overreactions to peaceful street protests and constant attempts to eliminate all forms of organized opposition. Officials are aware that public opinion polls are not a failsafe barometer of the public mood. They tend to be sparse in many regions of the country, reflect an unwillingness to reveal genuine sentiments, and can swing in unpredictable directions during times of escalating crisis and perceived regime fragility. Additionally, as elections results are falsified by state actors, the public’s political preferences cannot be accurately gauged by state officials and this contributes to anxieties within the “power vertical” over the longevity of the current system. What appears to be apathy, avoidance, and even hopelessness among the majority of the population can rapidly spiral into hatred and aggression toward the authorities.

Spreading disruption can be fueled by multiple factors and triggered by a major event or a series of rolling crises. This can have strong economic dimensions with a wide array of public grievances, such as a deepening depression, rampant inflation, wage arrears, inadequate housing, environmental destruction, collapsing infrastructure, declining social services, and fast rising unemployment. Kremlin assurances that economic downturns are merely temporary phenomena will ring increasingly hollow if they are prolonged and deep. Even the traditionally pro-government elderly population and residents of small cities, towns, and rural areas will feel increasingly abandoned and cheated by Moscow. Local political actors will accuse the federal government of economic exploitation and highlight the parasitism and arbitrariness of state bureaucrats at the expense of public well-being. Although protests could be spontaneous and initially small-scale, they can also snowball and combine numerous single-issue campaigns.

The Putin regime has spent the last two decades convincing citizens that there is no viable alternative to the prevailing system. Nonetheless, the relationship between protests and economic conditions can be combustible when society experiences constant decline and not simply “stagnation,” when inequalities between rich and poor become increasingly conspicuous, and where official mismanagement and corruption are rampant. To avert a revolutionary scenario, the administration may impose a variety of measures, including the provision of urgent economic benefits for key sectors of the population or a mass crackdown in one or more regions. A program of limited decentralization may also be attempted to pacify public unrest. The limits of republican and regional sovereignty would be tested in trying to forge a workable federation and several regions will see an opportunity for pursuing maximalist options during a period of confusion at the central level.

Attempts to pacify the most volatile areas of the country through economic incentives could boomerang. Selective economic benefits can provoke resentment in other regions and convince them that mass opposition to Kremlin policy can be lucrative by increasing state funding. Political concessions to local leaders and administrative devolution will encourage governors to act more independently and push for more extensive autonomy. Increased resources and authority for ethnic republics could also inflame Russian ethnic nationalism, driven by animosity against national republics such as those in the North Caucasus that are perceived to be favored by Moscow. This can either increase calls for greater centralization and the elimination of ethnic republics or provoke demands for the creation of a distinct Russian ethno-national republic.

The regime’s capabilities to impose mass repression across the country or even in several restless regions simultaneously will prove inadequate. Strikes and other forms of industrial labor action can break out across several regions with employees protesting against low or unpaid wages, poor working conditions, rising prices, and falling living standards. Spiraling chaos will witness ebbs and flows of mass protests and police repression. Police attacks on peaceful manifestations can engender radicalization and more violent responses. Protests will also provide opportunities for coordination between different movements, causes, and locations. A revolutionary situation will develop when the state is incapable of maintaining the repression necessary to subdue all public unrest, while a growing number of people are unwilling to live under a failed dictatorial regime amidst deepening poverty.

The Kremlin will also attempt to steer the population toward ethnic scapegoating by depicting a potentially separatist republic as an existential threat to Russia and its citizens. This would replicate how Chechnya was demonized by officials when Prime Minister Putin launched the second war of reconquest in August 1999. However, the promotion of ethnic and religious hatreds would further break down national and social cohesion and convince sizeable segments of the Muslim populations that Russia had become their existential threat. Moscow will not be able to sustain state survival if it scapegoats particular nations and alienates specific ethnic groups. Such a policy may also prove politically counter-productive by convincing the majority of Russia’s citizens that separatist entities should be allowed to secede to avoid bloodshed. The classic “divide and rule” strategy can thereby result in more division and less rule.

Looming Power Struggles

Before the federal structure begins to rupture, Russia will face a prolonged spiral of chaos and ungovernability and accelerating elite power struggles in which state institutions witness a breakdown in the chain of command, as was evident in the final months of the Soviet Union. Some institutions may cease to function altogether, while regional and central elites compete more vigorously over shrinking financial resources. Kremlin fears come to fruition regarding the enduring loyalty of elites who have benefited from presidential control over state assets. Their adherence will dissipate alongside their shrinking economic benefits and this could herald a series of turf battles, kidnappings, assassinations, and attempts to use the security forces against political and business rivals.

Russia’s political stability revolves around an elite consensus in supporting Putin together with sufficient public acquiescence. It is not dependent on popular legitimacy or enduring institutions. Putin has managed to balance competing political, economic, and security factions, while relying on his security service connections and the allegiance of his original Leningrad inner circle. Internal power struggles are unlikely to produce a clear winner, whether a reformer or another centralizing autocrat. They are more likely to be prolonged, violent, and inconclusive. Putin’s ouster will not necessarily end the struggle for power or pacify public protests. On the contrary, it will intensify political battles and popular revolts, because there is little trust among top officials and minimal public confidence in the ruling elite.

Power struggles can erupt between rival political “clans” or networks. The strongest of these “clans” include state security officials and military personnel (siloviki), heads of state corporations, major oligarchs (tycoons), leaders of loyal political parties, industrial lobbies, and regional heads. These conflicts can burst into the open once the consensus around Putin begins to unravel or if the country faces protracted economic decline and growing competition for scarcer resources. Contests between political rivals to replace Putin will undermine the “power vertical” and solidify factions within the internal security forces. Police officers in some regions are likely to remain neutral or even join public protests once demonstrations expand. Paradoxically, substantial sectors of the population who supported Putin because he ensured order and predictability, will abandon the regime when it appears to be increasingly weak and yielding. When uncertainty and chaos spread in the country and no credible successor emerges in Moscow, sectors of society will look toward local and regional leaders to restore some semblance of order in their cities and regions.

Elite loyalty toward the Kremlin is not based on shared ideology but on raw economic and political advantages. Elements of the elite will lose confidence in the regime if resources for corruption become depleted, international isolation curtails revenues, and social unrest spreads. With a shrinking national economic “pie” the pyramid of state paternalism favoring specific interests groups will become increasingly unstable. A conflict within the elite can materialize over diminishing resources with some individuals seeking to steer social unrest against their rivals. The ruling United Russia can splinter, as many regional members of the party did not enlist because of ideological affiliation or political loyalty but for opportunistic reasons and are likely to abandon it when power struggles weaken the central government. The systemic opposition parties, including the Communists and Liberal Democrats, can adopt a more independent posture in criticizing the Kremlin if their benefits dwindle. Regional branches of party organizations have also proven to be less compliant than national bodies and could break away or challenge Moscow loyalists. This can lead to factionalism, purges, and outright conflicts within the ruling strata.

In the midst of an unsuccessful war and a shrinking economy, a coalition of high officials and security chiefs may stage a “palace coup” and blame the incumbent regime for Russia’s problems. Nevertheless, such a rotation of the “power vertical” will do little for economic development and can increase social turmoil and even trigger civil conflicts and insurrections. Political factions in Moscow may seek allies among regional elites, as was the case during the Soviet breakdown in the early 1990s. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin encouraged regional sovereignty to weaken their rival’s position and enhance their support base. Renewed attempts to manipulate republican and regional leaders will become another precursor for the dissolution of the state.

As power struggles intensify, Russia’s military commanders will become increasingly alienated from the Kremlin. This would be especially evident if the armed forces were mobilized to pacify public unrest. In the midst of state collapse, the military can also experience a breakdown in the chain of command, fractures along ethnic and religious lines, clashes between different ethnicities, and the evacuation of non-Russians from service outside their federal regions. Military casualties in the war against Ukraine demonstrate that non-Russians are significantly overrepresented, largely because the military offers poorer populations career prospects. Moscow has also sought to deflect blame for war crimes on national minorities in the Russian military in the pursuit of a “divide and conquer” approach to absolve ethnic Russians of genocide. Nonetheless, the deployment of other nations as cannon fodder in a foreign war will intensify anger against Moscow and military defeats in Ukraine will make Russian armed forces more prone to conflicts and mutinies. As the federal crisis deepens and the military fractures, various weapons will be acquired by militias, insurgents, and emerging proto states.

Regional Revivals

As turmoil spreads a regional resurgence will be evident across the country. Russia’s “federal vertical” is fragile, as it remains dependent on coopting the loyalty of power elites in a limited number of key regions, either those with sizeable populations or with key industries and resources, particularly in the energy field. The stability of the federal structure will come under increasing pressure, especially when central control weakens because of elite conflicts and budgetary contractions that severely undercut subsidies to the federal subjects. Governors can seek popular legitimacy in their home territories by opting for regional sovereignty. Some governors will also conclude that Moscow’s campaign against titular languages in the republics and plans for regional amalgamation will further reduce their authority and even lead to disbanding republican institutions and subjecting them more directly to Moscow. Such developments will raise support among governors and local legislatures for sovereignty and self-determination.

Demands in the ethnic republics and Russian-majority regions will be driven by an accumulation of grievances, including sharply rising poverty levels, falling federal financial subsidies, deteriorating local infrastructure, costly and inadequate transportation connections between cities, contested land use between federal and regional authorities, an absence of environmental protection, deteriorating health care services, neglect of significant historical sites, harmful social policies, police brutality, rampant official corruption, and overall public alienation from central decision-making. Simultaneously, it can be positively energized by expectations of material benefits, rising ethno-national status, and international recognition if Moscow’s overlordship is eliminated.

Disparities in regional self-assertion are likely, with leaders in ethnically homogenous republics, resource rich regions, or entities more geographically distant from the capital escalating their demands and fortifying links with nearby foreign states. Regional activists will mount challenges to the legal basis of the federal state and the position of its subjects. Some could seek the full application of federalism or propose new structural arrangements to loosen ties with Moscow, including a confederation or commonwealth. The wealthier regions with greater economic potential and a sizeable export portfolio will demand a radical reduction of the money transferred to the central government or may withhold payments. This can be the case with oil producing regions in Western Siberia or the mineral rich republic of Sakha.

Power will devolve to the regions when the Moscow-centered vertical begins to splinter. In the event of major public unrest, regional governors will find themselves in an untenable position. The Kremlin will demand that they suppress local protests, while citizens will press them to fulfill their regional responsibilities. Attempts by regional authorities to use local protests as bargaining chips to gain resources from Moscow may no longer bear fruit if the Center cannot afford to comply and protests escape the control of local officials. Governors can either avoid a crackdown or blame Moscow for a harsh repressive response. Either way, they will fortify local public opinion against the Center. The process will expose the deep-rooted regional resentments against Russia’s capital, which is widely viewed as a colonial exploiter with an irredeemably corrupt bureaucracy. People will increasingly identify themselves as residents of a particular region rather than as citizens of an integral Russian state.

Some republican and regional leaders will claim discrimination in the federal structure and push for genuine autonomy. Similarly to federal Yugoslavia on the eve of its disintegration in the early 1990s, several richer regions will voice their resentment at subsidizing the poorer ones and claim they would be better managed and more prosperous if either they separated from the federation or the poorer republics such as the North Caucasus seceded. Separatist movements that contributed to the crumbling of the Soviet communist empire in the 1990s were partly or initially elite projects designed to keep more resources in the hands of Union Republics. Many leaders of republican pro-independence movements emerged from the Soviet establishment.

Regional elites will conclude that the costs of maintaining loyalty to Moscow outweigh the benefits and will opt for greater regional sovereignty. When local elites no longer trust the Kremlin to ensure their political legitimacy and provide necessary resources, they will promote their own power base as authentic republican or regional leaders. Public movements and local authorities in different republics, krais, and oblasts can synchronize their demands toward Moscow once the hierarchy of power splinters and they may form cross-regional linkages for mutual support. A knock-on effect would be visible, whereby the success of some federal subjects in gaining greater sovereignty without central government intervention encourages other republic and regions to push for fuller autonomy. Moscow’s traditionally divisive policies to provoke conflicts between ethnic groups and disorient the opposition will prove less successful where ethnic republican leaders seek coalitions with representatives of different national groups and assist other entities in pushing for sovereignty.

Republican leaders will also demand control over natural resources and economic assets on their territories, insisting that they have been unfairly exploited by Moscow. Even some ethnic districts, such as the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug – Yugra in the Tyumen Oblast, can claim sole ownership over natural resources in regions that supply a substantial proportion of Russia’s oil and natural gas revenues. As the federation loosens, regional governments will stake claims to a variety of economic benefits, including export privileges, tax reductions, and special quotas for local products, as well as direct access to pipelines exporting oil and gas that are currently controlled at the federal level.

Russia will undergo a revival of many of the pro-independence movements that emerged during the collapse of the Soviet Union. In several cases, members of titular ethnic groups will claim the right to play a more dominant role in their republics. Numerous ethnicities can assert indigenous status and residential longevity in their home territories in distinction to recent ethnic Russian or other settlers. Ethnic activists will also challenge the dominant Muscovite narrative that all republics voluntary entered the Tsarist Empire, the Soviet Union, or the Russian Federation. Ethnic elites will seek public support by asserting that for the smaller nations the republics are their only homeland, while Russians possess a much larger territory outside these republics. Such pronouncements could lead to pressures on members of non-titular groups to leave the republics, particularly ethnic Russians.

Inter-ethnic and inter-religious disputes and even violent clashes can be expected in some parts of the country. In the midst of economic decline and political uncertainty, an assortment of ethno-nationalist movements will emerge with some seeking scapegoats to mobilize the public. Members of several non-titular ethnic groups will raise complaints that republican elites have promoted their own nations at the cost of other ethnicities and engaged in minority assimilation. Such allegations could be most evident in the overlapping historical, territorial, and resource claims in the North Caucasus and they can strengthen aspirations toward both the separation and fracturing of some republics.

The Kremlin is mindful of promoting Russian ethno-nationalism domestically to dampen discontent over the deteriorating economy, as this would contribute to tearing the country apart. Fanning xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiments could light a fuse Moscow will be unable to extinguish. Surveys have consistently indicated that ethnocentric and xenophobic sentiments are widespread in the country and have been bolstered by anti-immigrant attitudes against workers from Central Asia and the North Caucasus. However, the exploitation of such sentiments by state actors and a growth in Russian ethno-nationalism will provoke anti-Russian sentiments among other nationalities.

According to the 2010 census, Russia’s population stood at 142.9 million. About one fifth, or nearly 30 million people, belong to non-Russian nationalities and the proportion has been steadily rising. The demographic decline of ethnic Russians poses challenges for the country’s social, political, and territorial cohesion and will encourage movements for autonomy, secession, and independence. According to census figures between 1989 and 2010, in 14 of the 21 republics (excluding the occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea) the ethnic-Russian population has steadily decreased proportionally to the titular nationality. In 13 republics, ethnic Russians form less than half of the total population. In nine republics, ethnic Russians form less than a third of the total population. In 11 republics, the ethnic-Russian population is smaller than that of the titular nationality. Additionally, regional identities in Siberia, the Urals, the Pacific region, and elsewhere, have also been consolidated and will motivate calls for statehood regardless of common origin and language, as witnessed in the former British colonies.

Rupture Scenarios

An initial rupture of the state could involve a limited fracture. In the midst of economic distress and political chaos, the separation of one or more federal entities can occur where there is little prospect of reconciliation with Moscow. In this scenario, the Kremlin accepts such an outcome to avoid mass violence that could spread to other republics and regions. Chechnya is a primary candidate for such a break because the foundations of a separate state already exist and independence was initially achieved during the 1990s. Other republics may declare their sovereignty without moving toward outright secession or they may seek to emulate Chechnya’s example, especially in the North Caucasus or the Middle Volga. This could resemble the situation in 1990 when all autonomous republics in the RSFSR proclaimed their sovereignty, although stopping short of secession.

Some regions with a predominantly ethnic Russian population may also demand the status of autonomous republics. This would include krais and oblasts objecting to an asymmetrical federation amidst growing calls for sovereignty and self-administration in parts of Siberia and the Pacific region. A more widespread fragmentation would occur once the regime itself begins to unravel at the center through intense power battles. This could be sparked by Putin’s incapacitation, assassination, sidelining, or sudden natural death. In the less violent scenario, a reformist or quasi-democratic leadership takes over the presidency and even includes some members of the political opposition to placate a frustrated public. However, a rival coup attempt may also be staged by hard-liners seeking to preserve the political structure and either maintain Putin at the helm or replace him with a similar authoritarian figure. Such a scenario would be reminiscent of the failed seizure of power by Soviet hard-liners in August 1991 that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union. A coup by Russian statist-imperialists would be resisted in several ethno-national republics, as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg, although some regional authorities may decide to wait until there is a clearer outcome.

The federal structure will be a casualty of Russia’s intra-elite battles. However, administrative ruptures may not affect the entire country uniformly. Some federal units can push for secession and others for extensive autonomy and confederation. At some critical point, the Kremlin could decide on violent centralization and mass repression to keep the country intact and this itself would trigger violent responses in several parts of the federation. If passive resistance fails to dislodge the regime, then one viable option will be armed resistance whether through urban warfare or armed partisan movements in the more disaffected regions. In driving the opposition underground, the regime will radicalize several groups that turn to sabotage, bombings, and assassinations to further disrupt state authority. The Kremlin may endeavor to mobilize the public through a major military intervention in a rebel republic, claiming that it had embarked on “anti-Russian separatism” and endangered the country’s territorial integrity. However, public opinion could prove lukewarm to another military confrontation and citizens will prefer that several republics secede to avoid a prolonged domestic war in the wake of the massive military losses in Ukraine.

In some parts of the country the collapse of central power and a vacuum in regional authority could lead to local security personnel, armed militias, or crime groups seizing control over regional governments and local economies. Alternatively, regional authorities can demand the withdrawal of Russian troops and in some republics and regions local governors will establish their own military and security units to defend the fledgling states, similarly to the creation of armed forces in the early 1990s in the former Union Republics and in the separatist enclaves within Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

During prolonged turmoil, both Russian ethno-nationalism and statist-imperialism will witness a resurgence and mobilize supporters, just as ethnic and regional separatism mushrooms throughout the country. Russian nationalists and imperialists could challenge the central government as well as several regional administrations. Some nationalist leaders may marshal pro-regime groups to prevent state fracture or they may seek to replace the government with a more explicitly imperialist or ethno-nationalist regime that can salvage state integrity and eliminate opponents. Nationalists can establish militia groups on the pretext of defending Russian ethnics in various republics, resisting regional independence movements, and preventing a meltdown of the state. The conflict will be intensified by religious differences between Muslim and Orthodox populations that can be exploited by militants on both sides.

Emerging National States

In a scenario of escalating state disintegration, Moscow’s attempts to subdue revolt sparks broader resistance across Russia between protestors and security forces and conflicts spread to numerous regional capitals. Security and military units will become thinly stretched and unable to contain a multiplicity of political revolts. The 1990s demonstrated that when Russia’s central government weakens and power struggles intensify, numerous republics and regions reach for sovereignty and even independence to provide a measure of stability. Political paralysis at the federal center will encourage several republics and regions to issue declarations of independence and organize public referenda. Movements toward self-determination in richer and more economically developed republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan will encourage similar initiatives in neighboring republics. They can voice a spectrum of demands for their future status, including sovereignty, confederation, or outright independence. Such assertions will have a domino effect throughout the country and stimulate other republics and regions to emulate their success.

A number of nations will assert historical precedents for statehood by highlighting periods of independence before Russia’s imperial conquest. These include Tatars, Bashkorts, Karelians, Udmurts, Moksha, Erzya, Mari, Circassians, Balkars, Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Khakass, Altais, Buryats, Tuvans, and Sakha. Activists in several other nations in the High North, Siberia, and the Pacific region can demand their own autonomous regions with greater control over territories and resources, including oil, natural gas, gold, uranium, and other minerals. A number of indigenous peoples can claim the right to self-determination under the United Nations Charter and the 2017 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They will affirm legal rights to their traditional territories and resources and to administrative self-determination. They could proceed further by asserting statehood, according to the UN General Assembly 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. Even nations in Russian-majority krais and oblasts can claim indigenous status prior to the Russian conquest and colonization as grounds for self-determination and independence.

The Federation can unravel along regional lines as well as ethno-republican boundaries.

Russian ethno-nationalists will claim that Russians have been discriminated against in the USSR and the Russian Federation and need their own single national republic or a federation of Russian republics. Residents of resource-rich regions or with strong local identities could push for independence based on inclusive multi-ethnic principles. Some predominantly ethnic Russian regions have previously created the rudiments of statehood and such initiatives can be revived. The most notable case was the short-lived Urals Republic in 1993, consisting of six oblasts – Sverdlovsk, Perm, Chalyabinsk, Tyumen, Kurgan, and Orenburg. Other Russian majority regions can emerge by default as independent states during the federal collapse, including Kaliningrad as the fourth Baltic Republic and Primorsky as a new Pacific state, both with prospects of economic integration with richer foreign neighbors.

Several other temporary state structures based on regional identity have existed in Russia and some local activists may seek their revival or use them as historic precedents for claiming legitimate statehood. These include the Siberian Republic and the Far Eastern Republic, whose territorial span would encompass several krais and oblasts. During the post-Tsarist civil wars, Siberian regionalists, who claimed a distinct identity and sought to emulate the American War of Independence against Russian colonial rule, established a provisional government for an Autonomous Siberia in January 1918, but the formation was eliminated by the Bolsheviks. Nonetheless, a significant sector of ethnic Russians may support the sovereignty or secession of regions in which they have ancestral roots and have few ties with Moscow regardless of common language. A Republic of Siberia could be one of the first entities to proclaim its independence. The large Ukrainian population in the Far East may also seek greater regional autonomy and closer links with Ukraine. Descendants of Ukrainians and other nations, including Tatars and Chuvash, who were deported to southern Siberia and the Pacific territories, have undergone a process of cultural and linguistic rejuvenation since the Soviet decomposition.

Secession based on ethno-national principles could also spark internal disputes between majority and minority groups or with a Russian ethnic population seeking to remain within a single federation. Some republican leaders or movements supporting secession from Russia may also campaign for territorial acquisitions and the amalgamation of neighboring regions containing ethnic kindred. As the fault lines widen, Putin or his successor can turn to Russian ethno-nationalism to try and maintain Kremlin control, prevent the secession of Russian-majority regions, and preserve a core Russian state.

The deliberate pursuit of ethnic divisions through violence would resemble developments in a collapsing federal Yugoslavia during the 1990s. It is worth remembering that the “Yugoslav scenario” was varied, with only limited military skirmishes in Slovenia, a small guerrilla war in Macedonia, a short NATO bombing campaign in Serbia, and no armed conflicts in Montenegro. In marked contrast, the wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosova took the lives of tens of thousands of people and displaced millions more. Different parts of the Russian Federation could follow these diverse scenarios with outright war between the center and some republics and regions. Moscow can emulate Serbia by mobilizing ethnic Russians to carve out ethnically homogenous regions from rebellious republics. It can fund, arm, and direct militia groups and volunteer movements, as in Milošević’s Yugoslavia, to kill and expel non-Russian populations. Various ethno-nationalist revolutionary movements advocating violence against non-Russians could be recruited and some already have experience in violent attacks against ethnic minorities and political opponents. Returning fighters from Ukraine’s Donbas and other conflict zones can gravitate toward internal territorial and ethnic battlegrounds.

In the midst of outright conflict with Moscow, the process of de-russification can intensify in some former federal subjects. New governments will seek to protect a burgeoning identity and independent statehood and seek to shield themselves against the “Russian world.” In some cases, this could involve purging ethnic Russians from significant political positions, confiscating Russian-owned businesses, and even expelling Russian populations viewed as a potential fifth column. “Ethnic cleansing” operations could be conducted by the central government and by some republican regimes in order to ensure ethnic homogeneity or to seize territory and create larger states.

Russia can experience a number of civil wars, reminiscent of the period between 1917 and 1926 during the collapse of the Tsarist empire and following the Bolshevik seizure of power. Several of these conflicts were wars of national liberation to restore or establish states independent from the Russian empire. Such struggles can include guerrilla wars against the central government or against regional governments loyal to Moscow. The Kremlin will find its security forces too thinly stretched to handle simultaneous liberation wars across the country and may only be able to maintain control over Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the core oblasts of European Russia. A smaller Russia may not necessarily gravitate toward democracy and regional cooperation. It could evolve into an aggressive power. Nonetheless, its military capabilities would be significantly reduced, its geopolitical aspirations narrowed, and it would be focused on ensuring state survival rather than imperial expansion. In the midst of the escalating conflicts, competing factions with distinct ideologies or regional programs could claim to be the legitimate national governments of a new Russian state. The country could then face a Libyan, Iraqi, or Syrian scenario with competing political forces fighting over disputed territories, economic resources, and political authority in a shrunken Russia.

After the Rupture

Aspiring countries that emerge from a truncated Russian Federation are unlikely to gain rapid international recognition. Some may evolve into “frozen states” with unresolved internal ethnic and territorial conflicts or even become embroiled in external disputes with neighbors. The process of fracture could lead to a number of destabilizing scenarios, whether through spillovers of armed conflicts, refugee outflows, territorial wars, energy and trade disruptions, or various military incursions. However, it can also result in the creation of several viable states with a notable degree of political stability, a sufficient economic base, a favorable geographic location, and governments committed to international cooperation.

Statehood is an important condition for the preservation and development of national identity. The proto states and other entities that emerge from the Russian Federation will not be uniform in their internal political systems and administrative structures. Several could develop into embryonic democracies with newly formed political parties competing for office as the republican or regional institutions achieve independence. They will seek workable models of sovereignty and may look toward the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), and other post-Soviet countries for assistance and guidance.

New autocrats may emerge in some former federal units and a few may resemble mini-Russias, with corrupt authoritarian local leaders constructing personalistic fiefdoms through control of the legislature, law enforcement, and the judicial system, combined with internal repression and media censorship. They may also invent or exaggerate the extent of internal and external threats in order to pose as the staunch defenders of the integrity of the new state. Because of prolonged repression, in the majority of regions there is limited organized democratic opposition that could challenge local autocrats.

In parts of the North Caucasus, the traditional ethno-clanship system of self-government will gain strength and replace Moscow-appointed regional administrations. In some former autonomous republics, local leaders could construct ethnocratic states curtailing the rights of non-natives. Secession can also lead to intra-elite power struggles based on rival patronage networks within the fledgling states if stability and representative government cannot be ensured. Moves toward independence will become a test of strength for regional identity and multi-ethnic co-existence in a number of ethnically mixed territories. Some republics may witness ethnic discrimination, purges, expulsions, or the voluntary exodus of non-titular nationalities as the new leaders seek to create more ethnically homogenous entities. Many nascent states will also face economic problems when Moscow’s federal allocations are terminated. Moreover, business operations and foreign investments will be discouraged if there is persistent political uncertainty, social unrest, ethnic conflicts, official corruption, and organized criminality.

Nonetheless, several post-Russia statelets could become more democratically oriented, business friendly, and receptive to international investment, especially those bordering democratic or prosperous foreign states. They could also pursue broad ethnic representation in government institutions in order to provide key constituencies with a stake in the new state and support its independence. However, each developing country will confront the enormous task of reconstruction and economic stabilization and will need significant international diplomatic and material support. Assistance is more likely to be forthcoming for fledgling states that are able to ensure a relatively stable and predictable political, social, and legal environment or those that possess resources and industries that can attract foreign investment.

Disputes between some post-Russia states could escalate toward armed clashes in which the control of nuclear weapons, military equipment, energy infrastructure, or critical resources could become a major source of contention. However, it would be misleading to assume that a fractured Russian state will generate conflict and chaos in all directions, as claimed by Kremlin propaganda. Developing states may follow the example of post-colonial Africa by maintaining the previous administrative boundaries in order to avoid persistent conflicts over territories and minorities where virtually every state possesses some claim against neighbors. Such a solution may be pursued by the new governments regardless of whether the proto states develop as democracies or autocracies.

The dismantling of Moscow’s rule can also encourage the emergence of pan-regional and pan-republic associations. Such initiatives could evolve into federal or confederal state structures. A precursor of such a process was visible in the 1990s with the development of eight inter-regional associations spanning most of Russia that were subdued by Yeltsin. The most significant was the Siberian Agreement, based in Novosibirsk and including 19 regions with the objective of coordinating economic activities between western and eastern Siberia. Moscow resisted any moves toward forging agreements with a single Siberian unit, as it was fearful of fortifying an extensive pan-regional identity and encouraging Siberian separatism. The Urals Republic declared in 1993 could also become an inspiration for a new confederal arrangement between former oblasts, krais, and national republics.

In the Middle Volga region, the Idel-Ural State can be revived. This was a short-lived independent republic proclaimed in March 1918 in Tatarstan’s capital Kazan and asserting the unification of Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash, and other nations and their liberation from the Russian empire. It included present-day Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Orenburg Oblast, with some activists even claiming part of the Caspian Sea coastline. A present-day incarnation of a Middle Volga union promoted by the Free Idel-Ural movement would include the republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Mari-El, Udmurtia, and Mordovia – the latter renamed as Erzyano-Moksha in recognition of the two constituent nations. The new Idel-Ural state is envisaged as a confederation in which each republic would maintain its own domestic and foreign policy. Some activists have proposed a larger confederation to include the Komi Republic, Perm Krai, and Orenburg Oblast to give the new state a foreign border with Kazakhstan.

Inter-republican initiatives can also include the revival of the independent Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus that existed between 1918 and 1922. This confederal republic included seven constituent states – Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Ossetia, Circassia, Abkhazia, and the Nogai steppes. During the Soviet collapse attempts were made to revive the Mountainous Republic and an Assembly of the Mountain Peoples of the North Caucasus was convened in August 1989 and renamed as the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. In October 1990, it was declared as a successor state to the Mountain Republic of 1918 and as separate from the Russian Federation. In November 1991, representatives from fourteen peoples of the North Caucasus signed a treaty formally founding the Confederation. It was not based on Islamic religious principles but on multi-ethnic solidarity and opposition to Russian imperialism and colonialism.

In northern Siberia, the republic of Sakha would become the largest state extracting itself from the Russian Federation with its own Arctic coastline, ports, and significant energy and mineral resources. With an astute political leadership, it could benefit from the expanding Northern Sea Route and significantly develop its trading potential with the Asia-Pacific region as well as with southern Siberia and China. Other northern regions along the Arctic Ocean may follow Sakha’s example on the global stage, including the Komi Republic, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

A parallel development to republican independence would be the emergence of sovereign Russian majority regions some of which federate or confederate to create new state structures. This would signal the emergence of an ethnic Russian national state, although its political composition and the prerogatives of the central government are likely to generate competition and even conflict between regional leaders and the administrations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The fracturing of the Russian Federation will also have an impact on all neighboring countries. Some states will be vulnerable to spillovers of conflict or subject to Moscow’s provocations designed to divert attention from its domestic upheaval. Other countries stand to benefit from Russia’s weaknesses and cleavages by easing their security concerns, expanding their influence, and even regaining territories lost to various iterations of the Muscovite empire.

Other stories written by Janusz Bugajski

Other stories illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk


Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His new book Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture will be published by Jamestown in July 2022. The Ukrainian translation will be available in Autumn of 2022 from ArcUA. He has authored 21 books and numerous reports on trans-Atlantic security, Europe, and Russia.


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