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The deconstruction of Russia and reconstruction of a “post-Russia space”: a risky but inevitable scenario

The Russian Federation is home to a large number of ethnic republics that briefly attempted to declare their sovereignty during the collapse of the Soviet Union. A similar series of crises now facing the country should encourage debate on what should be done if such areas once again push for more autonomy.

September 7, 2022 - Mychailo Wynnyckyj Valerii Pekar - Articles and Commentary

3D illustration by Photobankkiev / Shutterstock

The USSR collapsed in 1991. The political entity once referred to by President Reagan as the “Evil Empire” ceased to exist, but its successor state – the Russian Federation – survived, reconstituting itself into an equally aggressive empire. During the post-Soviet period, communist ideology was gradually replaced with Russian nationalism, but this shift only delayed the inevitable further collapse of the vast empire nominally ruled from Moscow.

The concluding words of Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhy’s bestseller The Last Empire from 2014 read ominously: “The collapse of the Soviet Union is far from over. The Last Empire continues its convulsions.” This book describes in detail the events of the last year of the Soviet Union. In January 1991, the USSR was still a superpower, capable of challenging global American hegemony. The Soviet Union was a large state with nuclear weapons, an all-mighty Communist Party and all-pervading KGB. By December of that same year, the USSR ceased to exist as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality.

In the words of another historian, Professor Alexei Yurchak, in the USSR “everything was forever, until it was no more”. An empire that seemed powerful and sturdy to all, suddenly ceased to exist. And yet, its disintegration was only partial. The end of the USSR represented only the first phase of the collapse of empire, but not the last.

As with the USSR, the future disintegration of Russia presents massive risks for the international community, but renewed collapse seems increasingly likely. Understanding its contours and fault lines increases the likelihood that the process can be managed peacefully.

Lessons from 1991

Empires crumble very, very slowly, and then suddenly. Elite unity and systemic legitimacy weaken gradually, and then one day disintegration happens: rapidly, almost instantaneously, as it did in 1991.

The key role in the formation of the new states that emerge from the remnants of empire is played by old management elites, not by new national leaders. In 1991 Ukraine’s independence was proclaimed by a parliament with a communist majority, and old surviving elites played similar key transitionary roles in all other newly independent countries. Charismatic dissidents offer a vision of the future and encourage their followers, but in fact the key political role (including determining the course of transition) is played by old elites.

The driving force of empire collapse is, surprisingly, the desire to preserve the old, rather than a desire to create something new. Security and stability seem to motivate both elites and the masses. If earlier the centre provided security and stability, then after the tipping point this centre becomes a source of danger and instability, so everyone starts looking for a new guarantor.

Finally, identity gives the process a certain form, but disintegration is encouraged primarily by economic factors. Economic self-sufficiency (or its illusion) in conditions of reduced resources could be a stronger driver of independence than identity.

It is now 2022, and history is ready to repeat itself, with certain corrections.

Fault lines of empire

At the time of its collapse, the USSR had a very complicated multilevel structure. In addition to the 15 first-level republics (Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, etc.), the Russian Soviet republic (the RSFSR) included 16 autonomous (second-level) Soviet republics, ten autonomous counties (greater regions), and five autonomous oblasts (smaller regions), hence its designation as a “Russian federation”. All these various autonomies were created for larger or smaller autochthonous (indigenous) nationalities that had been incorporated into the Russian empire over centuries.

Muscovy started its history as a state in 1263, struggling with other principalities for dominance in the north-eastern Slavic lands. In 1552 the territory of Muscovy first expanded beyond the Slavic ethnic territories and continued with the conquest of the Kazan, Astrakhan and Sibir (Siberia) states. In each of these regions, various Turkic and Finno-Ugric peoples live to this day, preserving their languages and cultures. Between 1654-67 the empire annexed Eastern Ukraine through a treaty union, and then later between 1764-75 liquidated the autonomy of the Ukrainian Cossack state. Colonisation of Siberia and the Far East was completed during this same period. In 1721 the Russian Empire annexed Estonia and Latvia and began its conquest of the Caucasus and Transcaucasia. By the end of the 18th century Belarus, Moldova, Central Ukraine, Crimea, Lithuania and some parts of the Northern Caucasus had been annexed. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian tsar was considered to be the most powerful leader in Europe for several decades – an equal (or more) among imperial rulers whose reigns were threatened by democracy. Their empires eventually disintegrated, Russia’s would take longer.

In the 19th century the Russian Empire annexed Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Poland, Finland, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states. The Northern Caucasus was finally conquered in 1864 after a bloody war that lasted for half a century. Some Central Asian states were finally captured as late as 1914. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian Empire reached its peak of territorial expansion.

Author: Mzajac. Source: wikimedia

When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, plenty of smaller and larger nations proclaimed their sovereignty. The Communists tried to restore imperial territorial integrity by force but failed to reincorporate Poland, Finland and the three Baltic states. At the same time, despite communist victories in all the other states into which the empire broke up, these nations were not ready to join a unitary state centred on Moscow as proposed by Stalin. To avoid losing people and territories, Lenin offered a federative structure. The first four Soviet republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Transcaucasian Federation) founded the Soviet Union in 1922. Later, after all reorganisations and the 1939 annexation of the Baltic states (according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) the number of Soviet republics came to sixteen (reduced to fifteen in 1956). All nations of the USSR suffered from Stalin’s terror, Russification (forced assimilation) and cultural pressure, and relegation to the status of second or third-class citizens.

In 1990 declarations on state sovereignty were adopted by the majority of autonomous (second-level) republics within the Russian Federation, following the example of similar declarations adopted in 1988-90 by all first-level Soviet republics. After the collapse of the USSR, the first Russian President Yeltsin, in an attempt to keep the autonomous republics within Russia, offered them “as much sovereignty as you can swallow”. But when the Chechen republic declared independence, he began the First Chechen War.

The Russian elites cling to an imperial structure that has already failed twice (and will now experience a third), and this attachment to the old model does not allow for modernisation.

National minorities in Russia

This brief historical review demonstrates that there is no great difference between the former Soviet republics, which gained their independence in 1991, and the “autonomous republics” of the Russian Federation, which were unable to do so at the time. Both were conquered during the expansion of the Russian Empire and then became parts of the USSR. Some republics inside the current Russian Federation are territorially quite large: Bashkortostan is almost like Ireland, Tatarstan is like Croatia, and 13 of the 21 republics are larger than Luxembourg or Montenegro. Location (many republics have borders with other countries), economic power (many republics have powerful modern industries and/or significant mineral resources), time of conquest, or the percentage of ethnic Russians in the local population, do not seem to be significant reasons for these areas not gaining independence in 1991.

The only reason they missed their chance when the USSR collapsed was their lack of formal status as a first-level member of the federation, and this status was dependent on the discretion of communist power (Karelia had first-level status before 1956, then was reduced to the second level). At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the international community resigned itself to the emergence of 15 new states on its remnants, but was not ready to support others even when their people were ready to fight and die for freedom.

According to official data, 22 per cent of the population of the Russian Federation is not ethnically Russian. In fact, this number is likely higher (perhaps even twice as high). During the census people actively register as “Russian” to avoid humiliation and a reduction in human rights. The dynamics of changes in the national composition between consecutive censuses confirm this hypothesis.

The main feature of empire is the difference in status and rights between representatives of the dominant identity and representatives of the secondary autochthonous (indigenous, non-immigrant) identities. This is a reality of everyday life in the modern Russian Federation, which is a federation on paper only. Non-Russian nations are discriminated against in terms of self-government, language, culture, and education, and they are humiliated as everyday racism is extremely common in Russia.

On the one hand, observable national movements are weak, the political and information space has been “cleaned” by Moscow, and the population of the national republics is partly Russified and assimilated. On the other hand, new charismatic leaders have already emerged, economic problems and the easing of imperial pressure are fuelling allegiance to local identities, constant linguistic and cultural oppression and, ultimately, the heavy losses of non-Russian peoples in the war with Ukraine (primarily it is they who are recruited, not Russians), keep colonial humiliation in constant focus.

It is likely that in the foreseeable future, ethnic conflicts will intensify in Russia. Everyone will blame everyone else for their own problems and the growth of Russian chauvinism will fuel national movements in the republics (and vice versa). When ethnic conflict breaks out in several places at the same time, Moscow is unlikely to have enough power or money to put out these fires. And then we will have a “domino effect”.

Is further decomposition possible?

As mentioned, few predicted (nor desired) the collapse of the USSR at the beginning of 1991. But empires cannot survive in a modern globalised world, so they continue to exist only because of “inertial” effects. In recent months, these have come to be questioned:

  • Money is a key factor. The imperial centre can successfully control local elites only as long as it can redistribute money to them. Sometimes it looks like the centre simply buys their loyalty, as in the case of Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. But now the Russian central budget is shrinking, and a reduction in available resources means that subsidised regions receive less and donor regions question the expediency of feeding others (primarily the centre which suffers from austerity the least). Resource depletion under conditions of significant disparity becomes devastating. While the bulk of the population has always lived in poverty (so for them the current economic problems of Russia are almost normal), local elites are losing almost everything.
  • Identity, the “collective imaginary” explaining why people shall live together, can be more powerful than economic logic. However, when people begin to feel greater loyalty to their national, rather than common imperial identity, and this is combined with calls for collective dignity and joint resistance to collective humiliation, then decolonisation is unescapable. In this respect, Putin’s recent decision to create national battalions may prove fatal. Failure in mass mobilisation forced him to shift responsibility to the local level, but national battalions will be more loyal to their national elites than to their Russian army commanders. One day they may become the cores of self-defence forces of newly independent states, as occurred in Austria-Hungary during the final months of the First World War.
  • The career journey of the elites has changed. In Soviet times the careers of local leaders could often reach Moscow. Non-Russians often became members of the Soviet Politburo – appointed because they were representatives of their national elites. In today’s Russia this is impossible. Notable exceptions like Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina or Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu have no connection with their ethnic national roots.
  • Ideology is also a key issue. Communism was an internationalist ideology, but the current “Russian world” ideology offers nothing but assimilation to other nations. The state-fed cult of “victory” in the Second World War includes a narrative of the past, not the future.
  • The limited capacity of enforcement agencies (siloviki) is important. The Russian invasion of Ukraine involved the active participation of the Russian National Guard and police special forces in the second echelon of the offensive (units were initially ordered to clear the rear, and were appropriately equipped with lists of local leaders, civil activists, journalists, etc. as well as plastic bags and mobile crematoria for them). However, in the general chaos they often found themselves on the front lines, where they experienced heavy losses. Their forces have been forced to relocate to the occupied territories of Ukraine. Now, Putin’s power resources within Russia itself are very limited.
  • Social inertia engendered by stability is a good thing (politically) if you have stability. It does not help in times of economic downturn, war, stress and rapid changes.

In other words, all the factors that hold Russia as an empire together are weakening more and more day by day. This does not mean that it will disintegrate immediately: even under these circumstances it can exist for a relatively long time, until the moment when a shock will throw it off balance and reveal the lack of mechanisms holding the system together. One day we shall see that the Russian state is a colossus with feet of clay – exactly like its army.

The next phase of the transformation of the empire

Similarities between 1991 and 2022 include a difficult domestic economic situation, rapid weakening of the federal centre, the rise of identities and fall of ideologies, a lack of stability in political and everyday life, diminishing security and rising disorder, a weakening of enforcement agencies, sufficient levels of maturity of local elites, and a high probability of local conflicts.

In addition, there are factors now (absent in 1991) that reinforce tendencies towards disintegration. These include failed war (which brings not only great losses and discontent, but also widespread availability of weapons and devaluation of life), sanctions instead of western support as in 1991, low oil prices, demographic factors, and the availability of information and cooperation tools in the digital age. Moreover, powerful new players with their own geopolitical interests have appeared since 1991. China is already powerfully present in Siberia and Turkey supports all the Turkic nations. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Estonia and other countries which became free in 1991, now offer success stories to be emulated by non-Russian nations, especially those who view themselves as culturally related.

Despite assimilation, Russification, an imposed fear of independence and learned helplessness within a large part of their populations, national movements are gaining strength quickly. On July 23rd some leaders of these movements signed a declaration concerning decolonisation in Russia. They declared their loyalty to the principles of international law reflected in UN documents and their desire to establish future independent states as nuclear-free democracies, where human rights are protected and disputes settled peacefully.

Now, as in 1991, the West is absolutely unprepared for the deconstruction of Russia’s empire. The US in 1991 did everything possible to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union (remember the “Chicken Kiev Speech” delivered by the American president in Kyiv just a few weeks before Ukraine’s declaration of independence). Overall, the West came to terms with the new geopolitical reality only after it was done. Such a position (then and now) is understandable because the deconstruction of the empire brings unacceptable risks.

Risks and risk management

The looming collapse of the Russian Federation involves massive threats to global stability:

  1. The risk of uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons. Instead of launch codes being in the hands of one Moscow authoritarian ruler, nuclear warheads and delivery systems may end up in the hands of dozens of unknown or poorly-understood new leaders who will each initially compete for status and territories.
  1. The risk of excessive strengthening of China at the expense of Siberia. Conditions of exclusive access to the resources of the richest Russian regions will make China not only stronger, but also more insolent in international affairs.
  1. The risk of radical Islamism. The collapse of the Russian Federation may also be used by some competing leaders in the Islamic world to gain greater significance and influence. This process can have either positive consequences for international peace and cooperation or negative consequences if radicals turn out to be the winners in the struggle for influence.
  1. The risk of internal conflicts, ethnic cleansing and local wars, which will lead to the largest refugee crisis in recent human history (probably tens of millions of people). We must not forget about the artificially distorted borders of the national republics, created deliberately to move some parts of nationalities outside of the borders of their republics in order to be replaced by ethnic Russians inside.

The desire to avoid these risks may lead us to attempt to preserve the empire by all possible means. But keeping Putin in his position or replacing him with a more aggressive successor means endless war, and replacing him with a liberal, pro-western successor would mean the rapid, uncontrollable disintegration of a great country held together only by brutal force and compulsory redistribution of money.

More than any other country in the region, Ukraine is interested in avoiding the chaotic uncontrolled collapse of the Russian Federation. If such a collapse occurs without clear policy decisions, all the resultant troubles will hit Ukraine first and foremost. But over time, all of Europe will be affected, firstly in terms of security.

Western analysts are discussing these scenarios already. The deconstruction of the Russian Federation was first talked about as impossible. Now it is talked about as possible and soon it will be talked about as desirable and even inevitable.

So, we have two theses:

  1. The collapse of the empire is inevitable (and may happen soon).
  2. The risks brought on by uncontrolled collapse are unacceptable.

The conclusion follows: Since the collapse of the empire is inevitable, but brings about unacceptable risks if uncontrolled, this process must be managed to minimise risks and mitigate consequences.

The only way to manage risks and ensure global security is by transforming deconstruction into reconstruction. Reconstruction of the post-imperial space must be pursued through international efforts aimed at avoiding chaotic collapse and related risks.

In 1991, the West was not ready for the collapse of the Soviet Union. That story was peaceful and successful not because of western policy, but in spite of it. In today’s world, the passive role of the West will not guarantee a happy end similar to 1991.

Controlled reconstruction makes it possible to emerge from the disarray of empire collapse with minimal losses:

  • To achieve denuclearisation of the newly independent states.
  • To minimise migration crises and terrorist threats.
  • To find mutual understanding with new leaders (this will be much easier than with Putin or his successors).
  • To reduce the threat from China. An uncontrolled imperial collapse may lead to the transformation of all of Russia into a Chinese satellite. Controlled reconstruction will allow us to guide many new states into the orbit of the democratic world (including leveraging the anti-Chinese sentiments of the numerous Turkic peoples).
  • To ensure that newly independent countries will be committed to the principles of human rights and the peaceful settlement of disputes.
  • To support Russian liberals in re-establishing their state within its core, without the necessity of force to keep together the unravelling patchwork of empire.

A proactive position on the part of the democratic world is essential. After the First World War  the West supported the independence of the nations that emerged from the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire, and declined to support the aspirations of nations emerging from the dying Russian Empire. The independence of Poland, Finland and the Baltic states was supported, but that of Ukraine and other future constituent republics of the USSR was not. As a result, democracy was established on the territories of all free nations until the Second World War, then quickly restored after the end of the Cold War. Conversely, the lands of those peoples who were denied independence initially plunged into bloody chaos, and then were incorporated for seven decades into one of the most brutal regimes of the twentieth century.

The peaceful reconstruction of the Russian Federation will end the long 20th century, which in Europe has been characterised by wars and persecution. A proactive West, with a reasoned policy towards Russia, can ensure global security and the victory of democracy over authoritarianism.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

Mychailo Wynnyckyj is an Associate Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the Ukrainian Catholic University. He is also the author of Ukraine’s Maidan. Russia’s War. A Chronicle and Analysis of the Revolution of Dignity (Ibidem, 2019).

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