Will Russia Break Up?

One speculation on the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine is that Russia will break up. Russia remains an empire, conquered over centuries. The breakup of the Soviet Union allowed 14 of its colonies to become independent. Those colonies had been given the status of Republics of the Soviet Union. Russia today contains several types of internal groupings: 46 oblasts, 21 republics, 9 krays, 4 autonomous okrugs, 2 cities of federal significance and 1 autonomous oblasts.

Many of these are ethnically distinct. All are supposed to be treated equally, but they are unequal in size and importance to Moscow. Many of the differences go back to how the groups were incorporated into the Russian Empire.

In addition to the union republics, most of these groups existed at the time the Soviet Union but did not seek independence, partly because their governmental organization was not strong enough to stand independently. All of the union republics had legislative bodies (supreme soviets) and an executive, some stronger and more prepared for independence than others.

Russia contains many separatist organizations. None seem to be as strong as the organizations in the Baltic states in the late 1980s. Paul Goble follows many of those organizations. He was in the State Department, working with the Baltic states as the Soviet Union broke up. He reports on news out of Russia, usually with several posts daily. I’m drawing on a number of his recent posts.

Ramzan Kadyrov has been Vladimir Putin’s man in Chechnya, with his own ambitions which currently are served by being Putin’s man. Putin’s difficulties with finding enough people for his adventure in Ukraine have led him to allow regional units to be formed within the Russian military. Kadyrov’s units are among the most powerful. He has been bringing law enforcement personnel into those units. If these units are not dissolved after their action in Ukraine, there will be armies available for separatist leaders.

An organization called the Free Nations of Russia Forum met in Prague and issued a Declaration on the De-Colonization of Russia. Excerpt:

This colonial policy and practice has been carried out over the course of centuries, as a result of which our indigenous peoples and colonized regions have become victims of historical injustice and in some cases forced deportation and genocide. Now this colonial policy is being expressed in ever broader ways in the form of state terrorism and repression.

The Russian Federation today is a terrorist country which is ruled by war criminals. The number of insane wars unleashed by the leadership of the Russian Federation over the last 30 years has deprived out native peoples and colonized regions of the most important thing – the right to live because the representatives of indigenous peoples and colonized regions have been subjected to mobilization and used as “cannon fodder.”

It’s hard to say how many people are involved and how influential they are, but some portion of the Russian population believes that Russia must be de-colonized.

Abbas Gallymov, a former Putin speechwriter, says that dissatisfaction with Moscow is growing  in both ethnically non-Russian and Russian regions for many years. It is especially strong in non-Russian republics, but it is increasing in intensity in the oblasts and krays as well. People see the war as being an ethnic attack on Ukrainians and part of a Russian imperial project.

Anatoly Nesmiyan, who blogs under the name El Murid, believes that if Russia comes apart, it will be a bloody struggle of all against all, for the reason that the political divisions are not as straightforward as they were for the union republics. Even there, Stalin drew boundaries that divided ethnic groups and other connections between people, for the purpose of making it more difficult for any group to leave the Soviet Union. The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia has been a recent result of such boundaries.

In contrast, Leonid Volkov, the leader of the Navalny movement, tries to calm the discussion of a Russian breakup by saying that it’s unlikely that such a thing would happen. Goble quotes him as saying that Russia is too centralized and the regions should have power to keep the taxes they collect and make their own choices as do American states and the German Lander. But none of them really want to leave.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I recommend following Goble’s blog. He also has a Twitter feed, which he uses solely for distributing his blog posts.

At this point, it doesn’t look like Russia will come apart, but it is one of Putin’s worries, and in 1989, a great many people would have said that it didn’t look like the Soviet Union would come apart.

Map is from the Library of Congress.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money


  1. gary hein · 16 Days Ago
  2. The Blog Fodder · 10 Days Ago

    The “West” did not want the USSR to break up. I am sure they will oppose RF breaking up but the colonies of Moskva/St Petersburg are sick of being bled and living in poverty. The Tuvinians, Buryats, and Dagestanis who are fighting and dying in overwhelming numbers have never seen street lights, pavement, washing machines or Nutella. There is a centrifugal force building that will tear the RF to pieces. It will be like the War Lords in China until it gets sorted out. And the ordinary citizens of RF will suffer as they have done for centuries. Is there an answer?


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