Is Russia’s Disintegration a Realistic Prospect?
In the light of Vladimir Putin’s military failures in Ukraine and discussions about Russia’s possible future after Putin, there has been much discussion recently about Russia “disintegrating” or “falling apart” into separate countries. Is that a realistic possibility? Vladimir Milov does not think so.
The problem with the rhetoric about a future “disintegration of Russia” is that it is almost never based on facts or thorough analysis. No realistic “blueprint for disintegration” exists beyond just some generic rhetoric. The arguments are often driven mostly by emotions (negativity towards Russia as an aggressive imperialistic country and wishful thinking about its future disappearance as a solution to the problem of Russian imperialism) or lightweight extrapolation from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
This article provides a number of arguments, which suggest that the discussion about the prospect of “Russia falling apart” is not based on a realistic assessment, but really is a total waste of time. Even if Russia does indeed disintegrate into separate countries, there will be a powerful drive to bring those separate lands back together, essentially recreating a “re-unified Russia” after some time.
Drastically reduced role of ethnic minorities
To begin with, many commentators often base theories about a possible territorial disintegration of Russia on comparisons with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this is not a relevant comparison at all. The situation in modern-day Russia is drastically different from the last years of the Soviet Union. Take the ethnic composition: In the late Soviet Union, only about 50 per cent of the population were ethnic Russians; the country’s disintegration was driven by the national republics, dominated by titular nationalities, where Russians were a minority. None of the former Soviet republics were dominated by Russians in their ethnic make-up – Russians were always a distinctive minority.
The situation in today’s Russia differs sharply. Ethnic Russians comprise 81 per cent of the population – which means that the country is ethnically far more homogeneous than the Soviet Union was. Most Russian regions – particularly those industrially developed – are territories vastly dominated by ethnic Russians, who have little or no demand for separatism (the issue of ethnic Russian separatism is discussed in more detail further below).
Moreover, the share of native ethnic minorities in Russia’s total population really is much lower than the 19 per cent non-ethnic Russians in the total population. About 5 per cent of the total population are ethnicities which have their own statehood outside Russia – Ukrainians, Belarusians, Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Koreans, etc. These peoples largely are not concentrated in compact areas but spread across the country, so they cannot qualify as ethnicities which may claim “independence”. That leaves us with just under 15 per cent of the Russian population which can be qualified as ethnic minorities who compactly reside in certain territories of Russia. Even if we hypothetically assume that they all separate, that would hardly amount to “disintegration”, because the lion’s share of the territory, dominated by ethnic Russians, remains intact.
Most of Russia’s 21 ethnic republics and four autonomous districts are such in name only, and are, in fact, dominated by ethnic Russians. The share of ethnic Russians in their total population is as high as 98 per cent in the Jewish Autonomous District, 82 per cent in Karelia, 80 per cent in Khakassia, 68 per cent in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District, 66 per cent in the Nenets Autonomous District, 65 per cent in the Komi Republic, 64 per cent in Adygea and Buryatia, 62 per cent in Udmurtia and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District respectively, 57 per cent in the Altai Republic, 54 per cent in Chukotka, and 53 per cent in Mordovia.
In two other national republics – Bashkortostan and Mari El – ethnic Russians are not a majority, but a plurality visibly larger than the titular nationality, constituting 36 and 45 per cent respectively. In the capital and largest city of Bashkortostan, Ufa, only 17 per cent of residents actually identify as Bashkirs – while 50 per cent are ethnic Russians.
The total territory of those ethnic republics dominated by a non-Russian population (Chechnya, Chuvashia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Tatarstan and Tuva) make up just 2.5 per cent of the Russian Federation’s total territory. If one adds Bashkortostan, Buryatia and Mari El — where ethnic minorities are far from a majority, but still constitute a sizable part of the population – that would make it 5.6 per cent. Assume that these republics all separate from Russia – that won’t even remotely qualify as “disintegration”.
Another separate question is the Republic of Sakha, commonly known as Yakutia. It has a population of about 1 million people, and its territory takes up 18 per cent of Russia’s total. Yakutia is also rich in natural resources like oil, natural gas, gold, diamonds and coal. 55 per cent of local residents are Yakut by nationality, with only 32 per cent being Russian. Thus, theoretically, a separation of Yakutia could deal a serious blow to Russia’s territorial integrity and to its natural resource reserves.
In reality, however, Yakutia consists of two very distinctive parts, which are not even properly connected with each other. In the southern districts Mirny, Lensk, Aldan and Nerungry, ethnic Russians make up a 70–80 per cent majority of the population. Southern Yakutia is also far more industrially developed and connected by railroad and paved roads to the adjacent Russian-dominated regions of Irkutsk, Zabaykalsky Krai and Amur. Here’s where most of Yakutia’s gold, diamonds and coal are mined. The Chayanda gas field, the main source for the Power of Siberia pipeline which supplies gas to China, is located in Yakutia’s southern Lensk district, where 78 per cent of the population are ethnic Russians.
The areas dominated by ethnic Yakuts are way up in the North and poorly connected to the rest of the region (including the capital Yakutsk) – there is no rail connection, no bridge over the river Lena and roads are poor. 19 out of 35 Yakutian districts, mostly those dominated by ethnic Yakuts, lack paved roads and have poor (or no) transport connections with the rest of Russia.
Under these circumstances, it is very hard to imagine that Yakutia’s southern districts – where natural resources and industry are concentrated and which are dominated by ethnic Russians – will follow the call, if the Yakut-dominated north – economically far less self-sustainable – declared a desire to secede from Russia. Northern Yakutia has no effective instruments to impose its will upon the Russian-dominated south. But even if the whole of Yakutia – hypothetically – separates from Russia, that would still mean that over 75 per cent of Russia’s territory remained intact.
Russia’s hidden ethnic diversity: A myth
There also is little evidence to support speculation that the large share of ethnic Russians is a result of “forced Russification” of other peoples and that there is a much bigger ethnic diversity hiding behind official population figures.
The share of ethnic Russians in Russia’s total population has not increased in the past decades. Instead, it has shrunk somewhat, from 83 per cent in the Russian Soviet Republic (RSFSR[i]) in 1939–1979, to 81,5 per cent in 1989, to a stable 81 per cent in the censuses of 2002, 2010 and 2021.
Forced Russification did indeed happen in certain conquered territories in past centuries (e.g. in Ukraine) and should be condemned. But it is worth noting that many territories east of the Volga River were historically scarcely populated. Although local peoples did suffer oppression in multiple instances, which should be acknowledged by historians, the majority of the ethnic Russian population is generally not a product of “forced Russification” but a result of ethnic Russians resettling in scarcely populated territories further east. According to Western experts’ estimates[ii], the population of Siberia grew from some 270,000 indigenous people and settlers at the end of the 17th century to over a million by 1795 and over two million by 1830 – mainly due to resettlement from the European part of Russia. The migration to Siberia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when about three million peasants crossed the Urals, paralleled the mass migration from Europe to the United States in the same period. As a result, the population of Siberia grew to more than ten million by 1914.
In areas with historically large concentrations of ethnic minorities – the Volga region, North Caucasus and North Yakutia – these minorities continue to dominate local populations to this day.
In past decades – particularly since 1990 – “forced Russification” has not happened at all. Instead, many national republics were governed by representatives of titular nations well beyond their actual share in the population. For instance, in Tatarstan, ethnic Russians are given less than a quarter of ministerial posts in the regional government, despite the fact that their share in Tatarstan’s ethnic make-up is some 40 per cent. In Buryatia, Russians have less than 50 per cent of ministerial posts, but their share in the local population is two thirds. Bashkortostan has effectively been ruled by ethnic Bashkirs since 1957, despite them being only the third largest local ethnicity up until the 2002 census, when they overtook ethnic Russians and landed on second place.
Thus, official figures of Russia’s ethnic composition largely reflect reality – there are no reasons to believe that significant numbers of minorities remain hidden under the “ethnic Russian” label.
No signs of ethnic Russian separatism
All the above means that any separation of ethnic minorities from Russia would not amount to the country’s “disintegration”. Russia would lose some territories and population, but not too much. Any real “disintegration” would mean a very different thing: the establishment of separate Russian states inhabited predominantly by ethnic Russians.
This is something which is often misunderstood by some foreign commentators – many of them automatically imply that, because Russia has multiple ethnic minorities and national republics, their separation would mean the country’s “disintegration” – just as with the Soviet Union. But the situation in Russia is drastically different: Russia is significantly more ethnically homogenous than the Soviet Union, and even the complete separation of those territories dominated by non-Russian minorities would not qualify as “disintegration” – because most of the country would remain intact. For the country to really “break apart”, a separation of Russian-dominated territories would be required.
Is that a realistic prospect? First, there are practically no recorded separatist trends nor evidence of separatist thinking gaining traction in the regions dominated by ethnic Russians. In some Russian regions, there are groups of activists who mull separatism (Kaliningrad and “Ingria” in the Leningrad Region and St. Petersburg), but these groups are small, and show no signs of significant public influence.
Much of the public speculation about the past attempts to establish Russian-speaking “republics” like a Urals Republic and a Far East Republic, are based on misinterpretations of actual historic events. The “Urals Republic” of 1993 was no genuine bottom-up separatist movement but an administrative attempt by then Yekaterinburg Governor Eduard Rossel to elevate his region’s status from oblast to republic, which then had more budgetary autonomy. The attempt was quickly dropped after the 1993 Constitution was adopted, which abolished key republican privileges. By contrast, the Far East Republic was a Bolshevik-sponsored puppet state in the early 1920s, far from a genuine attempt to establish a separate Russian-speaking state.
There is much talk about some kind of separate “Urals” or “Siberian” identity, but in reality, whereas the populations of both regions clearly have certain distinctive cultural specifics, the absolute majority of them identify themselves as (ethnic) Russians and there is no real separate “Urals” or “Siberian” national identity. There are no major signs of ethnic Russian groups searching for a different identity. Attempts to find “breakaway identities” among ethnic Russians are not based on academic evidence.
In the absence of real separatist trends, one may safely assume that if major Russian-speaking regions somehow become separated, that would trigger a political movement to bring them together again. This would be similar to 20th century Yugoslav irredentism (which aimed to unite Bulgaria, Albania and parts of Greece, Italy and Austria with Yugoslavia), but much stronger – because this would be about a nation of one ethnic identity artificially broken apart. A movement to “bring the broken nation back together” would be a massive stimulus for chauvinists and revanchists, fostering a strong imperialist mindset. If successful, a reintegrated Russia, driven by resentment, would more likely be posed to attack its neighbors again. Such a situation would also strengthen revanchist forces who could reasonably argue that reintegration would reduce economic woes and barriers created by disintegration.
Thus, when foreign commentators speculate about a break-up of Russia with the purpose of rendering it weaker and unable to attack its neighbors again, they should bear in mind that this logic may only work in the short term. In the longer term, it would create dangers of feeding chauvinist resentment for decades – fueling revanchists with powerful incentives to “bring Russian lands together again” – because any separation into independent states creates uncomfortable economic and social barriers between them. Building democratic institutions would be much harder in a broken-up Russia, while nationalist resentment and irredentism would thrive – probably a far more dangerous environment than the one that led to Putin’s regime in the 2000s.
Moreover, the thought that it would be a good if separate Russian regions fight each other, so they won’t attack Russia’s neighbors”, really is a dangerous illusion not supported by historic experience. Yugoslav irredentism in the 20th century resulted in major international conflicts more than once. Hostilities between different Arab states in the Middle East did not prevent their collective threat against Israel. And even Russia’s own civil war of 1918–1922 (exactly after an initial “break-up into separate states”) did not stop Russia attacking its neighbors. Inciting such internal fighting as a means to prevent outside aggression is a bad idea, which is not supported by historic experience.
Should the separated ethnic Russian states manage to become peaceful, democratic and not dominated by politics of resentment, their only reasonable way forward to achieve progress and development would be to create a common market, common travel space, harmonized legislation, ultimately leading to… recreating just another form of re-unified Russia. So, both ways — either if revanchists or democrats win in the separated Russian states — Russia will be moving towards re-integration in the future, simply because that makes economic and practical sense, while artificial barriers between territories inhabited mostly by ethnic Russians do not make any sense in the long run.
Months into public debate about Russia’s possible “disintegration”, the proponents of this theory have been unable to move beyond general rhetoric on the subject and of outlining even the basics of how such disintegration may look like in practice. They have also failed to explain what sense it would make for Yekaterinburg to declare separation from Chelyabinsk or Tyumen, or for the Perm Kray to separate from neighboring Kirov Region. By contrast, the Soviet republics had real motivation to secede in the early 1990s. All were dominated by titular nationalities, Russians were a clear minority, and some even had limited international sovereignty – the democratic West did not recognize the occupied Baltic States as part of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republics retained formal seats at the United Nations. And the Soviet Constitution allowed the republics to secede.
Many of the former Soviet Republics (the Baltic States, Armenia, Georgia and Belarus) have experienced independent statehood in the past and all of them could engage in international trade, either via the sea or through borders with other countries. By contrast, the majority of Russian regions are landlocked or lack easy access to international maritime routes (commercial shipping in the Arctic remains a significant challenge). The former Soviet Republics’ borders essentially had much greater historic significance and international recognition than the borders of Russian regions, which were mostly drawn artificially and neglected for decades.
Many Russians remember the time of the early 1990s, when, during a chaotic transition, many regions introduced intra-regional barriers for trade or movement, which created a lot of discomfort for the population and later led to the support for Vladimir Putin’s “consolidation” efforts (which went too far). Most Russians hold negative views of the early 1990s “separation” experience and see it as something artificial and inconvenient.
Demand for federalism, not “disintegration”
There is, however, a significant and undeniable demand for federalization across Russia, including Russian-dominated regions, which is often mistaken for “separatism”. Since 2000 the central government has essentially taken away all the major powers from the country’s regions, leaving almost no room for self-governance. Before Putin, Russian regions retained about 50 per cent of the regional tax revenue in their budgets – this share has now dropped to just 35 per cent (whereas 65 per cent goes to the federal center). Putin also abolished the direct election of regional governors in 2005, only to return them later in much more controlled form, effectively depriving the regions from the ability to freely elect its own leadership. When voters in the Khabarovsk region managed to elect an opposition governor in a rare contested race in 2018 and a regional assembly without representatives of the ruling United Russia party in 2019, Putin arrested the governor and dismantled the election results.
Other major powers like policing or licensing natural resources have been taken away from the regions since 2000. Governors and parliamentary speakers were stripped of the right to represent their regions in the upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council, in 2000.
Thus, when people across the Russian regions demand more devolution of powers from the federal center, they essentially demand a return to a more equal distribution of powers between regions and the center. This should not be interpreted as “separatism” or a desire to break away from Russia.
Emigrant groups advocating secessions from Russia should bear in mind that Russia is experiencing a severe crisis of popular representation. The country has not seen a free and fair nationwide election for more than two decades. People are tired of being run by self-appointed officials, who have never been popularly elected, or were last elected in an open contest more than 20 years ago.
In this situation, the appearance of opposition figures, who were never publicly elected by anybody, but claim popular legitimacy or some representation (including of ethnic minorities) and advocate regional secession, is extremely counterproductive and creates confusion.
It prompts many people in Russia to think of politics not as competition of dictatorship vs. democracy, but as a contest of various self-appointed people from various sides (from Putinists to secessionists), who don’t really care about voters, but are driven by their own selfish agendas.
Undoubtedly, raising awareness of the interests and rights of ethnic minorities, fighting racism and xenophobia, promoting discussion about the self-determination of Russia’s ethnic minorities, and a true federalization of Russia, is good. But claiming false legitimacy and representation that does not exist, is bad and will actually make the opposition less, not more attractive in the eyes of Russia’s population – including ethnic minorities. When self-appointed players put forward the idea of “Russia’s disintegration” as given, that scares many people in Russia – including the ethnic minorities, many of whom do not want any secession. And it actually helps Putin’s propaganda, which can easily pick up the topic as a major threat to the country.
Distracting demagoguery that should be put to rest
When the above arguments are being laid out, proponents of the “Russia disintegration” theory usually accuse their critics of imperialism and the desire to prevent the free will of the people to separate from Russia, instead of proving their case. In reality, however, no one desires to prevent anything. The problem is not with disintegration as such – if it happens, it happens. The problem is rather that the whole subject is completely unrealistic and a total waste of time.
There are no conditions for Russia’s disintegration into separate states. The topic of possible statehood for Russia’s ethnic minorities is different: even if they all, hypothetically, separate from Russia, most of the country’s territory would remain intact, because the share of ethnic minorities in Russia’s population – and the share of minority-inhabited territories of the country’s territory – is relatively low. The link between the debate on self-determination of ethnic minorities and Russia’s “disintegration” is false, because even a total separation of ethnic territories does not equal disintegration. Real disintegration would mean the creation of separate states dominated by ethnic Russians – for which there are no real preconditions, and which would not be sustainable, most likely leading to their re-integration into some form of re-unified Russia in the future.
The totally out-of-touch debate about Russia’s possible “disintegration” has already happily been picked up by Putin and his propaganda[iii]: it is a very helpful topic for them to help portray Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a “defensive act against Western aggression and attempts to destroy Russia”. This is all the more deplorable because the whole topic has zero basis in actual reality. While Western democracies spend sizable amounts of taxpayers’ money to counter Putin’s propaganda and disinformation, some hothead “disintegrationistas” voluntarily hand a powerful propaganda tool to Putin, completely out of nowhere.
This distracting demagoguery should be put to rest. The proponents of the theory of “future disintegration of Russia” should better come up with some serious arguments as to why and how this may realistically happen, or this topic should be dropped out of the public debate once and for all. This will save us the time and energy from discussing fully unrealistic subjects, and it avoids helping Putin to gain an upper hand in his propaganda war.
Editing by Nikolaus von Twickel
[i] Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, in which borders Russian Federation continued to exist after 1991
[ii] Janet M. Hartley, professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “Siberia: Not (always) a freezing wilderness”, 2018, Yale University Press (https://yalebooks.yale.edu/2018/12/18/siberia-not-always-a-freezing-wilderness/)
[iii] “Путин предупредил о появлении «московитов и уральцев» в случае распада России”, February 26, 2023 (https://www.forbes.ru/society/485381-putin-predupredil-o-poavlenii-moskovitov-i-ural-cev-v-slucae-raspada-rossii); “Путин заявил, что Запад пытается расчленить Россию и сделать слабой” (https://tass.ru/politika/14092393)
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