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When Russia is over…

The potential for internal strife in Russia has scared western administrations for many decades. Instead of propping up the Kremlin, decision-makers should accept the possibility of change as a positive development.

October 26, 2022 - Helen Faller Nick Gluzdov - Analysis

Scenic panorama of the Kremlin in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. Photo: Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock

Most western experts predict that Ukraine will win the war Russia started on February 24th 2022. When it does, we should not artificially hold together the world’s last colonial empire, an anomaly that has persisted into the 21st century, through international intervention. Instead, we should allow it to dissolve. As former Commanding General of the US Army in Europe Ben Hodges states, “US war-aims for this conflict should include “de-imperialisation” of Russia… we are seeing the beginning of the end of the Russian Federation… We need to be prepared for this…we were not prepared for the end of the USSR.”

In 2014, after annexing Sevastopol and Crimea, the Russian Federation included 85 territories. On October 5th 2022, this expanded to 89 territories after populations voted in sham referendums at gunpoint in four Ukrainian regions. This number may have already diminished to 88, as Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kherson proceeds with lightning success. There is nothing natural or inevitable about Russia’s borders. For example, Kaliningrad is a former Prussian city, an exclave isolated from mainland Russia surrounded by Lithuania and Poland. Many other territories are ethnic enclaves with their own languages and cultures, like Tatarstan.

Kaliningrad. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 

In 1990, Yeltsin visited Tatarstan, then at the vanguard of an unofficial confederation of autonomy movements. The Russian leader famously declared that regional leaders should “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow”. In March 1992, Tatarstan held a referendum in which 62 per cent of a population that was majority ethnic Russian voted in favour of sovereignty. Then in 2000, Putin visited Tatarstan, officially to celebrate the Tatar holiday of Sabantuy, and locked himself up for 24 hours with the presidents of Tatarstan and neighbouring Bashkortostan. Behind those closed doors, he threatened to seek out Islamic terrorists and turn both republics into Chechnya if they did not conform to his demands. Since then, Russia has been held together by force.

Administrative divisions in Russia. Source: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division 

But that no longer has to be the case.

Ex-Solidarity leader and Polish President Lech Walesa advocates for freeing the 60 nations Russia has annexed. This would bring Russia’s population down from 144 to 50 million and divide the country into 10 or 20 states. Independent scholar Kamil Galeev supports letting the empire collapse so that ethnic Russians finally have the opportunity for enfranchisement in their own political system. Analyst Paul Goble notes that Russian Muslims, now up to one-fifth of the population, are increasingly embracing the idea of secession.

Ethnic Make-up of the USSR (1974). Source: Center for Volga German Studies

Western politicians fear global transformations, wanting instead to maintain stability. The events largely responsible for Europe’s current configuration – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR’s subsequent collapse – happened not because of, but despite the wishes of political elites.

In Kyiv, on August 1st 1991, three weeks before Ukraine declared independence, President George H. Bush gave a speech in the Ukrainian parliament in which he warned against “suicidal nationalism”.

These days, aware that Ukraine’s defeat of Russia will lead to the collapse of Putin’s regime and likely the collapse of Russia itself, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz continues to stall arms shipments, sending enough weapons to keep Ukraine from losing the war, but not enough to turn the tide. At the same time, even after the atrocities committed in Mariupol, Bucha and Borodyanka came to light, even with proof of the daily shelling of homes, preschools and hospitals in Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Odesa, French President Emmanuel Macron sought to help Putin save face. One reason western leaders cling to the status quo is their concern that Russia will nuke Ukraine. This is based on their fears that Putin is a madman, an intimidation tactic the Soviet Union likewise employed. But Putin is not suicidal.

The historical parallels between the USSR’s collapse in 1991 and the potential disintegration of Russia should reassure western politicians. After all, we have been through this before.

  • Could the emergence of multiple nation-states across Russia’s territory result in new totalitarian regimes?

This is unlikely. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became full members of the EU and NATO. The Soviet Warsaw Pact countries – East Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria – also successfully joined the European family. The post-Soviet countries without democratic regimes suffer primarily from internal problems exacerbated by Moscow’s meddling. They also do not pose a threat outside the region like Russia does. Do we need to fear the appearance of a legion of Kadyrovs? Unlikely. There is only one Kadyrov and without Putin’s support, he would not be able to maintain power.

  • If Russia dissolves, will we need to fear China upsetting the global balance of power?

Perhaps, but with Russia intact, we have to worry about Chinese technology facilitating Moscow’s continued aggression and threats against democracies around the world. Besides, if Russia were no longer on the UN Security Council, China would lose a key international partner.

  • Could nuclear weapons fall into the wrong hands?

Possibly, but when the USSR collapsed in the 1990s, that did not happen. Three out of the four cases of states voluntarily relinquishing their nuclear weapons occurred when Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus signed the Lisbon Protocol in 1992. Since then, satellite monitoring has become more sophisticated, decreasing the chance of disaster. Indeed, it was Ukraine’s rejection of its nuclear capability, the third largest in the world, as part of the Budapest Memorandum that made possible Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Donbas in 2014. Of course, this eventually led to Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in 2022. If we fear nuclear disaster, why do we tolerate Russia’s continuous bombing of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporozhzhia?

Pundits raise the spectre of the horrors that could occur if Russia becomes a failed state. But what of the atrocities Russia commits today? Why should we prop up a dying empire for another century, an anti-democratic system that suppresses differences of opinion and flagrantly commits human rights violations? Why do we not allow the people of Russia the simple right to self-determination?

Russia has demonstrated that it lacks the capacity to manage the complexity of its territory. That is why it robs the provinces of their resources and young men to serve as soldiers: to keep the standard of living high in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Why should people living in Russia be deprived of democracy in favour of Moscow’s imperial ambitions and the West’s fear of change? Let us not deny progress and endanger the planet’s future by assuming Russia needs to exist. Instead, let us offer incentives by lifting sanctions and offering economic development packages to the new state entities that emerge from the rubble of the Russian Federation.

Helen Faller is an anthropologist with 30 years of experience in the former Soviet Union. She has conducted long-term ethnographic research in Tatarstan (Nation, Language Islam: Tatarstan’s Sovereignty Movement) and Kazakhstan and is currently finishing a memoir about traveling to Central Asia to study dumplings.

Nick Gluzdov is half Ukrainian, half Russian and grew up in Kyiv and lived in St. Petersburg before moving to Philadelphia in 1999. Building an IT company from the ground up in which 40 of his 80 employees live in Ukraine has given him insights into systems analysis which he scales to analyze political organizations.

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