Putin’s Wunderwaffe: The Bugbear of Russia’s Collapse
Russia is unlikely to disintegrate soon, but its current leadership can no longer guarantee stability. The war against Ukraine and the Wagner mutiny have shown that Putin’s regime is both a threat to international security and to the cohesion of Russia itself, writes Maria Domanska.
One of the widespread concerns expressed by Western politicians and experts is that Russia’s stability and territorial integrity is threatened in the event of a regime change. Political turmoil resulting from the decomposition of the current model of government (as a result of Vladimir Putin’s death, a palace coup, or – highly unlikely — a “colour revolution”) is often seen as a potential path to state disintegration or civil war. Understandably, this prospect raises the spectre that Russia’s nuclear arsenal will fall into unreliable hands. It also resembles widespread fears from before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led George Bush to decry Ukrainian “suicidal nationalism” in his infamous Chicken Kyiv Speech in August 1991. Against this backdrop, a continuation of the authoritarian model in a post-Putin Russia is perceived as the “lesser evil”.
Indeed, Putin is likely to be gone during the current decade and Russia will again stand at the crossroads between authoritarian path-dependence and an opportunity for pluralism and political liberalisation. Once the personalist dictatorship is gone, the system may become unstable and chaotic indeed. However, there is no reason to doubt that the new rulers would be interested in securing Russia’s nuclear arsenal to no lesser extent than the post-Soviet nomenklatura was in the 1990s.
The biggest mistake we can make is to cling to the fear that the collapse of the autocratic regime will be worse than the current status quo
The biggest mistake we can make is to cling to the fear that the collapse of the autocratic regime, which has been waging constant wars and hybrid operations against its neighbours during the last two decades, will be worse than the current status quo. Our fear is playing directly into Putin’s hands and needs to be replaced by rational reflection on best-case and worst-case scenarios and by the elaboration of toolkits to handle them.
Why are we so afraid of Russia’s collapse?
The spectre of a post-Putin breakup of Russia has been – to large extent – artificially created and highly politicized. It occurs in two main contexts.
First, the Kremlin has long tried to justify its increasingly harsh domestic political course by the need to maintain domestic stability and prevent Russia’s disintegration. The main negative point of reference is the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.
Second, this theme resonates quite strongly in the West. Although the Soviet collapse ended neither in a bloody civil war nor with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the spectre of Russia’s possible disintegration keeps many Western experts and decision-makers awake at night. While some of these fears seem sincere, at the same time they provide an easy excuse not to develop fundamentally new and ambitious strategies towards Russia, based on comprehensive support for pro-democratic players. As a result, we may again be caught off guard when the regime falters, without scenarios prepared beforehand to effectively deal with new domestic political challenges.
Russian state propaganda has thus proved quite effective in its reflexive control exerted vis-a-vis Western audiences. Two false beliefs seem firmly entrenched in the debates about Russia’s future.
First, state stability is equated with the stability of Russian autocracy. According to a widespread stereotype, Russia’s vast and diverse territory can be ruled only with an iron fist and Russians are “organically” unfit for democracy. The collapse of the Soviet Union is cited as proof that reforms lead to the country’s decomposition, while failed attempts to democratise the country in the 20th century are pointed to as evidence that “Russia cannot change”. However, two other aspects of the problem are ignored. The more attempts at political reforms are undertaken, the greater the chance that they will succeed: apart from the learning curve related to past mistakes, each time the circumstances are different and new factors conducive to a successful change can emerge. Moreover, the post-Soviet transformation can hardly be called a genuine attempt to democratise Russia. Due to catastrophic economic conditions and the Soviet Union’s socio-political legacy, the nascent proto-democratic institutions promptly fell victim to Darwinist capitalism and gross political corruption. Amid widespread poverty and rampant crime, a sense of blatant injustice prevailed among the public, which discredited the very idea of transformation. Western governments and businesses contributed greatly to the failure of that proto-democracy, as they unconditionally supported “democratic” politicians who pursued anti-democratic goals with anti-democratic methods.
Second, Putin is consistently presented as the last line of defence against radical nationalists or criminal groups who could come to power if he is ousted. This narrative is primarily intended to stoke fear that the risk of nuclear proliferation will increase dramatically if Putin’s regime unravels, for instance as a result of a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield. At the same time, the risks to international security posed by the continuation of the current political regime seem to be gravely underestimated.
As the genocidal war crimes committed in Ukraine have shown, Putin is an unpredictable criminal, ready to destabilise the entire international security order to maintain his grip on power. Incidentally, the Prigozhin mutiny in June 2023 proved that the Russian president is not the strong guarantor of stability that we used to see in him. At the same time, he actually is the leading nationalist in Russia, whose words and deeds meet the widely recognized definition of fascism as formulated by Umberto Eco.
The principal risk for Russia’s destabilisation is directly related to Putinism and the structural malaises produced by it
In fact, the principal risk for Russia’s destabilisation is directly related to Putinism and the structural malaises produced by it. It is currently based on an unprecedented, top-down criminalization of the state, lawlessness, systemic violence exacerbated by war-related crimes, ultimate degradation of state institutions, depreciation of human lives and the cult of death. The longer this system lingers on, the more risks and threats it will generate and can lead to Russia’s future destabilisation and unpredictability to a much larger extent than alternative scenarios.
Is disintegration a probable scenario?
Unlike the late Soviet Union, Russia is much better cushioned against major turbulence. Its economic model is still largely based on the market economy, the sector of small and medium-sized businesses has been flexible enough to survive amid corrupt “state capitalism”, and the relatively well-developed civil society was ultimately suppressed only in 2022 (and is now reconstructing itself in exile).
Usually, national separatisms are invoked as a factor potentially leading to Russia’s breakup. However, today there is little left of the socio-political mood of the late 1980s and early 1990s. that led to the Soviet collapse (and even then Russia did not disintegrate). At present, none of the regions inhabited by national minorities (who prefer to call themselves nations of Russia) has a potential for secession. Separatist moods are also absent on territories populated mostly by ethnic Russians, including the Kaliningrad region – the exclave where regional identity tends to supersede the all-Russian one[i].
In the administrative units of the Russian Federation populated mostly by ethnic-national minorities, regional elites as a hypothetical separatism-driving force are neither legitimate nor do they genuinely represent the interests of local populations. Due to the lack of free and fair elections, they remain loyal to those who in fact appoint them: the business-political clans linked to the Kremlin. Regional budgets are heavily dependent on the federal one, while regional economies remain underdeveloped. Moreover, most of these regions are landlocked: they do not have borders with other countries, which makes them rely on adjacent Russian regions for transport, logistics and trade. Last but not least, the non-Russian (nerusskiye) ethnic groups often do not constitute a majority in their titular regions and their national, historical, cultural and linguistic identities (that could otherwise underpin separatist tendencies) have largely been suppressed by the federal centre.
Anti-Moscow sentiments do not have much in common with separatist moods
Although anti-Moscow sentiments have long been perceptible in the regions, they do not have much in common with separatist moods. Instead, they mostly reflect opposition against the federal bureaucracy with its excessive powers and greed for local resources. Negative memories of the Soviet collapse and the two wars in Chechnya still work against radical scenarios, as well as deeply-entrenched passivity of Russia’s population. In the future, the trump card of separatism and ethnic nationalism can be used mostly as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the redistribution of incomes, prerogatives and political clout between the federal centre and the regions.
Centrifugal tendencies likely less destructive
However, there are two scenarios where local and regional identities (both Russian- and non-Russian speaking), as well as ethnic Russian nationalism, may play a role and even lead to separatist tendencies. The first source of centrifugal tendencies could be a deep economic crisis, the emergence of a political vacuum in Moscow and an incapacity or unwillingness by the Kremlin to deliver basic services to the population and pay regional elites for their loyalty. We witnessed a similar situation in 1991, when Soviet Central Asian republics were in fact forced by the federal centre to separate and seek bonds with alternative players. However, this time it would be both less probable and less destructive than in the 1990s. Thirty years later, there are proto-democratic templates handy and free market experience to build on, while society at large is in a much better financial-economic condition. These factors will likely mitigate the impact of separatist slogans, but a “functional” disintegration of the state cannot be ruled out: Russia’s regions will stay within the state but will cut loose from the federal centre.
Chauvinism and discrimination on ethnic grounds are systemic
Second, if political liberalisation starts in Russia after a new leadership comes to power, it will likely and naturally unfreeze long-suppressed resentments and political demands in the regions. The appeals to de-imperialise and de-colonise Russia can garner broader public support and the “national question” can be raised on a scale unseen since the 1990s. This will incur risks of serious political turmoil (armed separatisms on a mass scale are hardly likely though), which can undermine the attempts to reform the state or even provoke another surge in radical imperialism. In the latter case, Moscow’s reaction to possible separatisms may be much more a threat than separatisms themselves.
In the author’s conversations with exiled civic-political activists who represent national minorities, the topic of systemic chauvinism and discrimination in Russia on ethnic grounds was recurrent. This has been confirmed by leading researchers in this field[ii]. The activists usually point to:
- the perpetuation of imperial-colonial cliches in state propaganda that presents Russian language and culture as superior;
- the deliberate suppression of ethno-national identities by the Russian state;
- racially motivated violence on the part of law-enforcement agencies;
- everyday manifestations of racism, more often than not tacitly tolerated by the wider public.
Languages spoken by Russia’s national minorities are disappearing fast
Incidentally, this is just another aspect of state-sponsored promotion of systemic violence as a regulator of socio-political relations[iii], which can fester and stoke serious inter-ethnic tensions in the future. Non-Russian ethnicity is often scorned, culture – reduced to “folklore”, and languages are often treated as inferior or “peasant”. In the current version of the Russian constitution, which otherwise admits the multinational character of the state, Russian is exclusively described as the language of the “state-forming” people. School and university textbooks are illustrative examples of symbolic violence: they cover up the dark pages of Russian colonialism and imperial abuse, ignore the historical memories of local populations (including the suppressed memories of the mass terror by the Soviet state), and promote the idea of ethnic Russians’ socio-cultural superiority over other nationalities that form the Russian citizenry.
Russia’s ethnic minorities are often associated more with folklore than with real ethnic identities. Photo: Child singers in Buryatia/Siberia
Languages spoken by Russia’s national minorities are disappearing fast, as linguistic policies imposed by Moscow do not aim to preserve the country’s linguistic diversity. There is a clear trend toward monolingualism, buttressed by the state education system. According to the 2021 census, Russian citizens use more than 370 languages and dialects among which 133 belong to the “languages of Russia” according to official classification. At the same time, only 65 indigenous languages are studied as school subjects, while education is provided in only 13 languages[iv]. A law passed in 2018 that abolished the compulsory teaching of national languages was met with indignation in “national” regions[v].
Also, the disproportionately high death rate among non-Russians mobilised to the frontlines can contribute to the general feeling of Moscow-inspired injustice. In this way, the ongoing war in Ukraine may fuel the process of rediscovering identities both in their social and political dimension.
Even if fears of Russia’s breakup are now being artificially stoked in the interest of the Kremlin, the possibility and potential consequences of the country’s destabilisation as an indirect result of Putinism should be taken seriously. It might become reality, especially given the yet unknown effects of the war, including an increase in war-related violence and crime, and economic hardships. Long-suppressed frustration, conflicts, mass disenfranchisement of citizens can burst out, once the dictatorial grip disappears – unless prior work is carried out to plan a smooth transformation and disarm potential problems, challenges and risks.
How can Russia become stable and non-authoritarian?
Putinism is based on at least three, inextricably intertwined domestic political pillars, which – taken together – have built a “stable” state abounding with seeds of instability.
- The first is the overcentralisation of state power. The autocratic grip over the vast country and its highly diversified society (in political, social, economic and ethno-national terms) have led to pseudo-federalism, where regions have virtually no voice in shaping local policies. The institution of local self-government has been hollowed and expression of regional identities is considered “extremist”, very much in line with the totalitarian idea of homogenisation and atomisation of society.
- Second, the lack of confrontation with the totalitarian past has paved the way to neo-totalitarian domestic repression and mass war crimes under Putin’s rule. No international tribunal has ever condemned and punished the wrongdoings perpetrated by the Soviet leadership. The paradigm of the state’s impunity has been perpetuated by the glorification of imperial legacy, the sacralisation of the 1945 victory over Nazism, and the idea of Russian messianism and moral superiority over other nations.
- These two mechanisms have resulted in the third phenomenon: depriving citizens of any semblance of political agency. As the Kremlin claims the right to arbitrarily define national interests and the tools of domestic and foreign policy, Russian society has been rendered the object, rather than the subject of politics, which is a non-public domain. This model is based on the assumption that the state is entitled to restrict citizens’ rights and freedoms in exchange for relieving them from the burdensome responsibility of shaping the reality.
The process of dismantling the pillars of Putinism will be long and difficult, but it is the only path to a genuine stability of the Russian state. It would also help iron out the adverse consequences of a possible separation of individual regions in the case they strive for it: the more civilised a divorce, the bigger the chance of avoiding major turmoil.
Therefore, besides neo-totalitarian Putinism and a collapse of Russian statehood, there is a third and most promising option, which is usually ignored in the Western debate. Making Russia a genuine federation based on far-reaching decentralisation of political power and economic assets would cure a lot of the current dysfunctions. The country could be stabilised through the empowerment of individual citizens and regional and local communities, thus breaking the current political paradigm that is based on the deep atomisation of Russian society. Building a viable system of local self-government would allow to organise the micro-level public sphere and lead with time to an increased sense of citizens’ grassroots agency, without which any genuine democracy is unconceivable.
The free expression of regional and national identities could become a cure against the imperial-totalitarian ideology that the government is now using as the main binding factor for the whole country. To achieve that, Russia will need a “four D strategy”, based on the deimperialisation, decentralisation and decolonisation of domestic politics, which in the long run can lead to democratisation. In order to replace the totalitarian paradigm of artificial homogeneity with a democratic one, diversity should start to be perceived as a value in itself.
Why Russia needs decolonisation
Out of the three prerequisites for democracy mentioned above, decolonisation is often missed in debates both by Western experts and Russian democratic politicians, although it is increasingly discussed among civic activists in exile. The importance of this issue is too often downplayed due to the fact that there currently are no separatist tendencies in Russia or diluted within the broader theme of future federalisation and state decentralisation. However, as in many other countries, the issue of minority rights requires a separate, thoughtful approach at the state policy level. In a multinational state, bilingualism or multilingualism is a reality and the most adequate strategy is their purposeful development. Languages perform far more social functions than those usually associated with Russian as the language of social advancement, higher education and professional careers. The popular argument that national issues are not a problem because ethnic Russians make up 80 per cent of the country’s population is unfounded both in terms of democratic values and sheer statistics[vi].
Underplaying the problem prompts non-Russian (nerusskiye) activists to deeply distrust democratic opposition figures, while the two groups are natural allies in their anti-regime and anti-war resistance. A revival of local identities, historical memories and indigenous languages can foster rather than hinder the future resurgence of civil society[vii]. In turn, the latter can become a powerful base of support for democratic politicians. Anti-regime groups simply cannot afford to enter the post-Putin period divided by distrust and grudge. The sooner a serious dialogue is launched on this issue, the more probable it will be to mitigate the impact of radical movements in Russia’s regions and make federalist ideas to prevail.
Without respect for rights and sensitivities of national minorities, there will be no democracy
Without respect for rights and sensitivities of national minorities, there will be no democracy. Nurturing diversity can be a successful path to sustainable social peace. Inclusion and broad representation of various group sensitivities in discussions about Russia can not only contribute to better socio-political solutions, but also disarm potentially explosive problems and challenges and make reforms appealing for millions of voters. The more democratically composed the aspiring counter-elites are, and the better their understanding of local needs, the more viable their templates for the organization of future state politics can be.
(Let’s) decolonise the West’s mental maps where Russia is usually visualised as the state of ethnic Russians.
Decolonisation needs to be implemented at many levels, including language, restoration of suppressed historical memories (about the abuses of the colonial conquest and state terror), uprooting tolerance for racism and chauvinism, promotion of the rich diversity of non-Russian cultures, etc. Incidentally, the same work is currently underway regarding Ukraine and other states that are – regrettably – still called “post-Soviet”. Although in the Russian language ethnos and citizenship are described with two different words (russkiy, rossiyskyi), even the most progressive journalists, politicians and activists do frequently confuse them. Most foreign languages (including Polish and English) need to conceive new terminology to properly differentiate between the two – which would also serve the goal to decolonise the West’s mental maps where Russia is usually visualised as the state of ethnic Russians.
Broad political empowerment of individual citizens and groups is a path towards a civic nationalism based on values, institutions and the sense of ownership of the country. It is the only viable alternative both to the current militarist-imperial ideology and ethno-nationalisms. Understanding diversity is the only way for Russian citizens to find an answer to the question: What do we actually have in common?
Editing by Nikolaus von Twickel
[i] OSW Team, Fortress Kaliningrad. Ever closer to Moscow, OSW Report, November 2019, p. 25, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-report/2019–11-07/fortress-kaliningrad
[ii] Нерусский мир. Управляемая ненависть, indigenous-russia.com/archives/31555
[iii] M. Domańska, From domestic abuse to Wagner’s sledgehammer: war as a product of systemic violence in Russia, New Eastern Europe, Issue 2/2023, https://neweasterneurope.eu/2023/04/29/from-domestic-abuse-to-wagners-sledgehammer-war-as-a-product-of-systemic-violence-in-russia/
[iv] И. Ширманова, А. Кокоурова, В республиках России больше 30 языков, которые могли бы использоваться наравне с русским – но многие из них переживают упадок. Рассказываем, почему так происходит, 21 July 2023, http://zapravakbr.com/index.php/analitik/1887-v-respublikakh-rossii-bolshe-30-yazykov-kotorye-mogli-by-ispolzovatsya-naravne-s-russkim-no-mnogie-iz-nikh-perezhivayut-upadok-rasskazyvaem-pochemu-tak-proiskhodit; В России сокращается число национальных языков, которые преподают в школе, 3 March 2020, https://ria.ru/20180221/1515034968.html
[vi] First, substantial concerns have been raised as regards the numbers presented in the 2021 census, with some demographers indicating that the overall number of the country’s population may have been overestimated by several million people. Есть большая ложь, есть выборы, а еще есть перепись населения, 16 Novemer 2021, https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/11/16/est-bolshaia-lozh-est-vybory-a-eshche-est-perepis-naseleniia. While 80,8% of those who defined their ethnic identity declared they consider themselves ethnic Russians, this proportion falls to 71,7% if the whole population is taken into account. Всероссийская перепись населения 2020/, https://fadn.gov.ru/otkritoe-agenstvo/vserossijskaya-perepis-naseleniya-2020/
[vii] For example, this belief is present among some civic activists in the North Caucasus. I. Gretskiy, Is There Life in the Desert? Russian Civil Society After the Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine, https://icds.ee/en/is-there-life-in-the-desert-russian-civil-society-after-the-full-scale-invasion-of-ukraine/
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