Putin’s Wunder­waffe: The Bugbear of Russia’s Collapse

Wagner fighters in Rostov-on-Don, June 2023. The merce­naries’ mutiny is a stark reminder that Putin’s regime does not guarantee stability. Photo: IMAGO

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.

This analysis was published in the framework of our Center’s Expert Network Russia. For a related comment, read “Is Russia’s Disin­te­gra­tion a Realistic Prospect?” by Vladimir Milov.

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”.

Portrait von Maria Domanska

Maria Domańska PhD is a senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, Poland.

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.

SHUTTERSTOCK

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

[v] Е. Барышева, Что не так с российским законом о национальных языках, 19 June 2018, https://www.dw.com/ru/

[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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