December 16, 2022
Human emotions can be quite the rollercoaster ride. From the depth of despair (“Kyiv in 3 days”) when the war began, many analysts have now swung to irrational exuberance (“Russia will fall apart”). I, of course, have broached the subject of a possible disintegration of Russia too — and very early on — but this was a sort of a speculative take on a long-term process that might or might not occur. If you listen to some Western analysts (and hopeful Ukrainians), the days of the “Last Empire” (to quote the term popularized by Serhii Plokhy) are numbered.
Now, I do not have a crystal ball and can’t tell when a random street vendor would set himself on fire and trigger a massive conflagration that can bring down an established regime. I also cannot predict when Putin might decide to test that hypothesis about gravity with a leap from a window. What I can do is think about the arguments people have made about the impending doom of Russia. (Recently, even Henry Kissinger has decided to exercise himself on the topic, warning that Russia falling apart might be a very bad thing indeed.)
In all honesty, as far as I can tell, the “arguments” about the dissolution of Russia are basically a syllogism:
- All Russian governments fall if the country is defeated in a major war
- Russia is going to lose this war
- Therefore, Putin’s government is going to all
Let’s suppose — for the sake of this argument — that we grant #2 (Russia is losing the war). The strength of the proposition then depends on the validity of assertion #1. Here, we are usually given two instances by way of proof: World War I and the subsequent October Revolution, and the Cold War and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union. Now, the second was not really a “hot” war in the conventional sense but mostly a metaphorical description of a long-standing rivalry punctuated with a few “proxy” wars. And no, trying to use the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan for the regime-ending war would not work either since one would have a very hard time making that particular causal connection (at least as main factor). There’s also a problem with the fact that Russia has lost quite a few wars. Starting with the 19th century, we have the following defeats: War of the Third Coalition (1803-06), War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-07), Crimean War (1853-56), Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Baltic Wars of Independence (1918-20), Georgian-Ossetian Rebellion (1918-20), Polish-Soviet War (1919-20), and First Chechen War (1994-96). Of these, only the loss in the Russo-Japanese War ended with a revolution at home, but it was crushed. The posited relationship does not seem to be robust, but maybe it’s just that the war has to be “big enough” (suitably defined)?
Let us then take a closer look at the two wars that are often mentioned to see what the reasons for regime collapse were then, and whether these factors seem to be operating in Putin’s Russia today.
Defeat in the First World War. Briefly, by 1917 the strain of the war was causing very profound economic problems in Russia, which had led to major disturbances in the cities. The communists had thoroughly penetrated the working class with their local soviets, and there was a ready-made mass that could be turned militant. The army and the navy were not just demoralized (in part, by communist propaganda), they were mutinous (let’s recall that it wasn’t the communists who started the revolution). There was an elite that had already gotten the Tsar to abdicate although they then made the fateful mistake to stay in the war, which led to their own overthrow.
None of these are present in Russia today. The economic strain, while noticeable, has not caused shortages. The prices have climbed, but there’s no hunger. I do not expect that the economic situation of ordinary Russians would worsen enough to cause them to go into the streets any time soon.
There is no alternative political force in the country — none at all. Putin spent more than a decade ensuring that there is nothing but him and the “vertical of power” that he created. While there are numerous groups with coercive capabilities, none can organize politically or even administratively. Certainly, there is nothing remotely comparable to the communists to provide the core of opposition to the regime.
The army is not mutinous. It’s not motivated, true, but it is fighting nevertheless. The mobilization has succeeded in driving hundreds of thousands more into an eventual meatgrinder in Ukraine. Yes, the longer the mobilization continues, the less popular it will be. Yes, the more bodies come back, the more resistance to sending more people to the front might materialize. But, recent behavior by the authorities suggests that they have learned the lessons of perestroika/glasnost too: they are not going to allow “mothers and wives of soldiers” to have any protest voices. They are already harassing the more active among them, and I understand the siloviki have orders to disperse them by force if they try to organize protests.
It is possible that soldiers, disgruntled at the lack of supply, inept command, unclear goals, and absence of victories, might turn their guns on the Kremlin, but this seems extraordinarily far-fetched at this point.
Bottom line: none, absolutely none, of the preconditions for a successful toppling of the regime on an 1917 analogy exist in Russia today.
Collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet example is also very problematic. The problem is that the Soviet regime had encouraged the republics to behave like true states in the union. They had complete control of them, of course, through the Communist Party (CPSU), and so could let local elites do what they wanted as long as they remained loyal to the Politburo. Over time, this resulted in strengthening of the ethnic and nationalist differences. When the reform drive — with the attendant infusion of “new blood” into the CPSU — began to destroy the party structure, local elites began to ignore the center and look after their own interests. When it became clear that the government did not have the will to coerce them, the local elites went their own way.
The thing is, these elites had territorial entities that could function on their own — they were large enough and developed enough for that — and the elites had enough of a control to make sure they continued to function (not well, in most cases, but function nonetheless). In these republics (outside Russia itself), ethnic Russians were minorities everywhere, which meant that they could not put up effective resistance even if they wanted to. The largest share of Russians were in Kazakhstan (37%), Latvia (34%), Estonia (30%), Ukraine (22%), and Kyrgyzstan (22%), as shown in the figure below.
None of this is true for the Federation. Due to internal migration (encouraged by the regime), ethnic Russians constitute majorities in the vast majority of federal subjects. I collected the data, which I show below, sorted in ascending order by percentage of ethnic Russians.
|Federal Subject||% Russians||Population||% Total Pop||Fed Xfer||2016 GRP||Xfer/GRP|
|Republic of Tuva||16.27||324,423||0.22%||45,657||14,268||320%|
|Chukotka Autonomous Okrug||52.49||49,663||0.03%||206,495||113,735||182%|
|Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug||61.74||541,479||0.37%||0||317,106||0%|
|Republic of Crimea (Ukraine)||65.20||1,911,818||1.30%||9,665||14,286||68%|
|Nenets Autonomous Okrug||66.13||43,829||0.03%||0||502,634||0%|
|Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug||68.11||1,663,795||1.13%||0||160,696||0%|
|Jewish Autonomous Oblast||92.74||159,913||0.11%||11,211||24,334||46%|
|Nizhny Novgorod Oblast||95.15||3,214,623||2.19%||1,395||31,274||4%|
Only in 13 out of 85 federal subjects are Russians in a minority. These thirteen subjects represent 12.6% of the total population of Russia, and only five of them have a population exceeding a million: Bashkortostan (4.05M), Tatarstan (3.90M), Dagestan (3.09M), Chuvashia (1.22M), and Chechnya (1.46M).
The subjects in the Caucasus (Ingushetia, Dagestan, Chechnya, North Ossetia) are well known, as are the separatist tendencies in some of them. Moreover, since these are relatively poor regions, their residents tend to be overrepresented in the army, which resulted in higher relative casualty rates in the war. There was resistance to the mobilization in Dagestan, forcing Moscow to (temporarily) ease on the dragnets there. Most analysts point to the Northern Caucasus as the most likely place for a flare up. Currently, with the dominance of Kadyrov in Chechnya, it’s is difficult to see how any of these could mount another drive for independence. The other question is whether it would spread beyond the Caucasus, where the situation can be radically different.
The two prominent minority-Russian regions are actually among the wealthiest. Tatarstan used to be an autonomous republic within Russia during Soviet times, and in 1990 it declared sovereignty in an attempt to elevate itself to a Republic within the Union of Sovereign States that Gorbachev was organizing. When the scheme fell apart, Russia refused to recognize its sovereignty, which precipitated a referendum, in which 62% voted for sovereignty (many thought they were voting for independence). On the basis of this vote, Tatarstan negotiated with Russia a special status for itself with a treaty signed in February 1994. This avoided the fate of Chechnya, which of course descended into a war, but at the cost of progressively losing any semblance of that sovereignty. In a series of movies, including a renegotiation of the power-sharing agreement in 2007, the Russian government has stripped the region of its privileges, until all references to sovereignty were expunged. In mid 2022, Russia passed a law finally renaming the President to “Head,” which will come into effect on January 1 2023.
In an interesting development, the parliamentary committee recommended further study of the proposed changes to the Constitution on December 22, virtually ensuring that the demanded amendments will not pass this year. Among the sticking points are precisely the Russian demands to rename the President and to eliminate all references to sovereignty and Tatarstan citizenship from the Constitution. In a nod to recent events, the amendments also require the removal of the article that Tatarstan rejects war and forbids propaganda about war. Whether anything comes of this act of defiance remains to be seen, but if there is a region that could potentially be problematic for Putin, Tatarstan might be it.
Neighboring Bashkortostan, which is closely tied culturally, linguistically, and ethnically with Tatarstan, also used to have its own President until 2015, when Russia changed the title to “Head.” The position has been occupied by Khabirov, who was appointed by Putin in 2018 (and subsequently elected). Bashkortostan has no sovereignty (despite adopting a declaration in 1990). It is not at all obvious to me that this region could become a hotbed of separatism under present-day conditions although developments in Tatarstan might change the calculations.
What about the other regions? The thing is, when conflicts arise, they are often delimited by existing borders, which in this case are the administrative borders of the Federation. This is the “homeland” for local elites to organize, and potentially head some sort of “nationalist” policy, perhaps based on ethnicity. The problem is that Russians dominate within these borders, as evident from the table above, and they are definitely not going to allow “natives” to do anything of the sort.
Most of these federation subjects do not have local elites but carpetbaggers sent by the Kremlin. There are no local political structures that can easily take over because Putin’s policy has been to eliminate them all. (Hence all the shenanigans with regional governors.) The majority of these subjects cannot exist independently because their economies are so intertwined and mutually dependent, and because their geographic location makes independence a very dubious proposition.
In other words, none of the reasons that USSR could collapse into its constituent republics are present in the Federation today, which means that it’s unlikely to go the way of the Soviet Union despite finding itself under serious strain.
This is just a long way of saying that I do not believe that the disintegration of the Russian Federation is in the cards anytime soon. As a result, the fears that defeat in Ukraine would somehow trigger some irreversible processes are unfounded.