Re-federalisation: avoiding the risk of Russia’s collapse
While western elites continue to support Ukraine, they also worry about the potential collapse of Russia following a defeat on the battlefield. In order to overcome this binary, we must discuss how to truly transform the Russian Federation into the pluralist state it is on paper. Such change would rely on the “re-federalisation” of the state first and foremost.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the peoples and governments of the democratic world have thoroughly supported Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity and right to defend itself. Political leaders have made promises to provide ongoing support to Ukraine. Despite this, they avoid speaking about the end of the war and attempt to delicately refrain from using the term “Russian defeat”, refusing to accept that this outcome is possible. Conversely, experts such as Professor Martin van Creveld, a foremost authority on military history and strategy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, assert openly that the western nations should fear the Russian defeat. This is due to the potential consequences of this scenario, including the ensuing chaos and bolstering of China, which could arise as a result of a Ukrainian military victory.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a prominent Russian political analyst who holds a senior position at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, posits that with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin has initiated an era of chaos. According to her perspective, this period of turmoil will culminate in a state of all-out conflict, in which Vladimir Putin will lose his ability to function as a mediator among his vassals and influential figures. The recent extermination of Prigozhin (predicted in one of our previous articles) marked the next stage in the destruction of the regime, which can no longer rely on the usual force mechanisms: arrests, prosecutions and media attacks. Overall, the power system in Russia is becoming more and more unstable and fragile.
The American historian and political scientist Alexander J. Motyl proposed that we start taking the potential disintegration of Russia seriously. In his article he quotes several prominent experts like Stanovaya, as well as the Jamestown Foundation’s Janusz Bugajski and the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Motyl emphasises that the prevailing attribute of Russia at present is its complete unpredictability, a trait that could escalate significantly in the event of disintegration. Ignatius and Stanovaya posit that Russia’s internal repression will intensify and its external aggression will grow. This trajectory would enable Putin to maintain his authority through individuals he deems personally loyal. Nevertheless, as Stanovaya underscores, Prigozhin’s rebellion highlights that this framework of Putin’s power will continue to be profoundly unstable and erratic.
Moreover, the outstanding expert poll arranged at the beginning of 2023 by the Atlantic Council demonstrated that experts considered Russia a very fragile and potentially failed state many months before the problem become evident to the wider audience.
While all the esteemed researchers mentioned above present valid perspectives, the conclusions drawn from their analyses regarding the uncertain and unstable future of the Russian Federation ultimately contribute to a state of indecision. This is especially true in terms of political resolutions aimed at addressing the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine.
In our previous article we have meticulously outlined the concept of uncertainty and showed that uncertainty cannot be reduced by giving the initiative to the operator of uncertainty and certainty, that is, to the subject who can increase the level of uncertainty at his discretion. The instability of Putin’s power, exacerbated by his personal choice to initiate the war, understandably unnerves western political elites. Their concern primarily revolves around preventing the Russian Federation from fragmenting into numerous smaller entities, which echoes the policy of US President George W. Bush and his cabinet towards the Soviet Union in 1991. This was vividly depicted in the infamous Chicken Kyiv speech.
In a bid to mitigate the perils of political instability stemming from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bush endeavoured to temper the internal dynamics within the state. However, his efforts proved unsuccessful, as these processes were caused by inevitable inner drivers.
The present processes of decreasing the regime’s power and stability in the Russian Federation also are driven by inevitable factors like a failed invasion, economic difficulties, the rise and fall of ideologies and identities, demographic factors, the availability of information and cooperation tools, and indeed the significant decline of the human capital of the regime. This has been caused by the systemic replacement of experts with loyalists (usual practice for any autocratic regimes).
The risk of Russia’s collapse will persist and remain highly plausible. This is because all the factors contributing to this potential collapse are inherent within the boundaries of the Russian Federation.
The democratic world longs for the victory of Ukraine but fears the defeat of Russia. However, any situation in which Russia is not defeated means the defeat of Ukraine, as the war will never end. A war is a system that involves a zero-sum (win-lose) or negative-sum (lose-lose) game. Is it possible to turn the war into a win-win game?
Yes, if we do not identify Russia and the Russian Federation as the same thing.
We already touched on this issue considering the blind spot of the West. Russian studies led the West to a Moscow-centric outlook by including in the same Russian discourse not only all the minority peoples of the Russian Federation (comprising 28 per cent of the population according to the official Kremlin statistics, and very probably much more in reality) but also nations of the former USSR like Ukrainians or Kazakhs.
It is possible that Russia (the Empire) can lose and the Russian Federation can win, together with Ukraine and the free world. This can only be achieved by transforming Russia into a genuine federation in accordance with the principles outlined in the Constitution of the Russian Federation. When one aligns with this assertion, it becomes essential to study the constitution.
The re-federalisation concept: Empire versus Federation
Article 1 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation establishes two fundamental principles. Firstly, it affirms that the Russian Federation is a democratic, federal state operating under a republican system of governance. Secondly, it stipulates that the terms “Russian Federation” and “Russia” are to be used interchangeably and hold equal significance. It is necessary to acknowledge that both assertions are entirely inaccurate.
First and foremost, it is beyond contention that the Russian Federation does not function as a democracy. After all, it can be observed that its operational structure resembles more of an empire than a republic.
Secondly, it is evident that the 83 federal subjects of the Russian Federation (excluding the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories) lack genuine autonomous rights. This is due to the fact that the election of governors is entirely managed by the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation (now specifically Sergey Kiriyenko, the first deputy head of the president’s administration). Furthermore, the Senate of the Russian Federation, the upper house of the parliament, which granted Putin the authority to deploy the military in Ukraine, is also under complete presidential control.
Thirdly, it is imperative that western political elites understand that the Russian Federation is distinct from Russia. As highlighted by Martin van Creveld, who expresses concerns about the potential defeat of Russia, the number of ethnic groups within Russia surpasses 100. Among them, certain groups — especially those that follow non-Christian traditions (Islam, Buddhism, or various ancient or local beliefs) — harbour deep-seated historical grievances over their inclusion into the Russian empire, often through coercive means. As a result, they aspire to regain their previous independence. Regions such as Chechnya, Buryatia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and others (21 republics in total) are formally part of the Russian Federation based on constitutional norms and the Treaty of Federation. However, it is essential to recognise that these regions have never been, and cannot be considered, integral parts of Russia.
Putin’s Russia is an extremely centralised state where the subjects of the “federation” have neither self-government nor rights to their natural resources. They also do not have the ability to maintain and develop their cultures, languages and religions, or the right to their own history even if their statehood came earlier than Moscow. The strength and aggressiveness of the regime is based on an extremely centralised budget, which, on a top-down basis, allocates meagre crumbs to regions with huge natural wealth, ensuring their poverty and subsidisation.
Consequently, the conversion of the Russian Federation from an imperial entity into a genuinely federative state (re-federalisation) holds the potential to achieve the liberation of Ukraine and provide assurances against the recurrence of aggression. Simultaneously, this transformation would allay fears concerning uncertainty and state disintegration.
In essence, authentic “re-federalisation” should amplify the capacity of the federation’s constituent entities to effectively safeguard their interests and rights, whether through active or passive means. This stands in contrast to the operation of the so-called “power vertical” supported by the Kremlin, regardless of the individual holding the presidency of the Russian Federation.
Re-federalisation will guarantee the retention of control over socio-economic processes within the constituent entities of the Russian Federation. This objective corresponds with western interests in averting the disintegration of the Russian Federation.
The sole viable approach for achieving this is for the constituent entities of the Russian Federation to evolve into decision-making entities that genuinely represent their populations. This entails moving beyond the role of merely executing directives from a centralised authority and instead advocating for the interests of their respective constituencies.
To attain this objective, western elites must discard their “hands-off policy”, as adhering to such a stance could result in the realisation of their apprehensions about the fragmentation of Russia.
Ultimately, western elites should engage with responsible regional leaders within the Russian Federation to envision an alternative future that does not involve Russia as an empire but rather as a united, federal and stable state — the Russian Federation. In this context, the military accomplishments of Ukraine on the battlefield can transition from being a source of western apprehension to a tool for shaping western policies.
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.
Dmytro Zolotukhin is executive director at the Institute of Post-Information Society.
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