Is Russia’s Disin­te­gra­tion a Realistic Prospect?

Russland besteht aus mehr als 80 Regionen; Grafik: Shutterstock

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.

This comment was published in the framework of our Center’s Expert Network Russia. For a related analysis, read “Putin’s Wunder­waffe” by Maria Domanska.

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. 

Portrait von Vladimir Milov

Vladimir Milov is a Russian oppo­si­tion politi­cian, publicist and energy expert.

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 (

[iii] “Путин предупредил о появлении «московитов и уральцев» в случае распада России”, February 26, 2023 (; “Путин заявил, что Запад пытается расчленить Россию и сделать слабой” (

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