Predictions about the collapse of Russia are as old as the country itself. Yet a consistent centralization of power has gone on for decades, weakening Russia's territories and republics. The war in Ukraine changes everything and nothing.
The prediction “Russia is about to fall apart” has been a mainstay of the political science-futurist genre for the 30 years since the end of the USSR and establishment of the Russian Federation.
Now, the war with Ukraine has drastically reduced the time-frame for such apocalyptic forecasts to come true. First, because it turns out that Russia can very well lose the war; and secondly, a defeat would weaken Vladimir Putin’s regime — and who knows if he will retain power at all?
“No Putin, no Russia” is a more recent refrain.
This line of thinking says that the weakening of the central government will push the regions to act independently. Yet noted political scientist Alexander Kynev explained in an interview with Vazhnyye Istorii why he doesn't believe anything like this will happen. The collapse of Russia is unlikely even if Putin loses.
Indeed, something like the collapse of a historical state does not happen spontaneously, and is no random occurrence.
What is the role of ethnic Russians in other republics?
All regions, all territories and most of the republics of Russia have a majority ethnic Russian population, more than 80% in most regions. In some ethnic republics, titular ethnic groups dominate, but there are few of them: even many large ethnic regions still have a large part of the Russian population.
Buryatia, for example, is made up of 66% of Russians. In addition, in many republics there is no single ethnic group. In Dagestan, for example, there are more than a hundred ethnic groups, of which four are the largest. In other regions, a single ethnic group consists of sub-ethnic groups or clans, as in Yakutia, which is along the Arctic Ocean. In this case, the Russians act as a lubricant uniting the territory, and the Russian language works as an interethnic one.
Speaking of regions with a pronounced ethnic identity, there are very few of them, mostly on the periphery: a belt along the borders in the North Caucasus and South Siberia, like, Tyva, which was the last to join the USSR and largely retained its identity — although it is absolutely loyal.
Regional elites have been destroyed over the past 20 years.
Regions such as Yakutia or Tatarstan are, in fact, enclaves; they have no external borders. History does not know cases of successful separation of interior regions.
Regional elites, as a subject per se, have been destroyed over the past 20 years. The regional policy of the center deliberately destroyed all sites where they could be formed. Power in the regions is de facto appointed by Moscow from top to bottom. There is not one vertical; there are many of them. Regional administrations are not a single force. the governor himself cannot appoint a deputy without the consent of Moscow — each deputy has his own Moscow boss.
This is like a layer cake, where almost every official has a vertical from Moscow. They are also very rigidly rotated; a rare governor serves more than one term.
Concert marking Russia Day in Moscow
Difference between Tatarstan and Chechnya
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the republics had stable elites that did not change for years. Under former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's rule, the leadership of the territories did not change for decades. There was a very strong personnel reshuffle under Stalin — a conscious policy aimed at ensuring that there were no threats of collapse.
Khrushchev continued this policy and also often rotated regional leaders. Under Brezhnev, there was stabilization in everything. The stagnation was not only economic, but also personnel, the first secretaries [the actual leaders of the republics of the USSR] calmly remained in power for 15–18 years. When Gorbachev came, there was also no personnel revolution. Yes, some were sent to retire, but were replaced mainly by the same local ones.
There are no economic elites either because practically all large regional property has long ago become part of federal corporations. There is hardly even a large medium-sized local business left. What remains is not significant: something in trade, something in construction, local "food", agricultural enterprises ... But there is nothing close to the companies of the 1990s, which served as sorts of bases for regional elites. The former regional elites have turned into the regional management of federal companies.
Of course, there are separate regions with strong elites that Moscow is afraid to touch, but there are very few of them. For example, Tatarstan. Even if there are several border regions with a predominant ethnic group and a strong local elite, they are all subsidized. For example, Chechnya.
What happens if Russia collapses?
The collapse of Russia is more political desires and dreams, but these are very, very far from reality and the needs of the regions.
What could be the worst-case scenario? The collapse of the state, the collapse of a single government, unresolved conflicts between federal groups, public unrest. In times of turmoil, when there is no federal power, unrest can begin and some border territories may indeed secede. However, other things being equal, I don't see such a scenario. I think that the crystallization of regional elites may begin not now, but after the change of federal government, when the agenda changes and new rules of the game are established.
The lion's share of appointees will most likely leave the regions immediately. A certain vacuum will arise and it will be filled by something. With what, we don’t know. These leaders will appear in the process. All this will happen later. And this does not necessarily lead to disintegration at least anywhere. There will simply be a negotiation process on the amount of powers because no one omits the topic of finance.
And one should not confuse anti-Moscow sentiments with separatist ones. If you look at local sociology, yes, there is dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy, the establishment, and there are anti-Moscow sentiments. But there are no sentiments that could be interpreted as "for disintegration." This is not the same thing.
The pendulum has been swinging too far in the direction of centralization.
On the contrary, people who advocate disintegration are perceived, to put it mildly, to be not well. People perceive it as a plus that they live in Russia. Many residents of the Far East are much greater patriots than Muscovites.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian flag
Not disintegration but federalization
After the change of power, not disintegration, but federalization will begin simply because it is cyclical. In our country, the relations between the center and the regions have always changed on the principle of a pendulum. Now this pendulum has been swinging too far in the direction of centralization, and there's a rising request for identity and distinctiveness.
The story will not be easy. It may be necessary to adopt transitional laws, a new Constitution, and then during discussions some concepts and points-of-view will be formed. They will gain supporters, and political parties will form around this.
I would like to remind you that in the U.S., the first major parties appeared just around the topic of separation of powers — the federalists of John Adams and the Democratic Republicans of Thomas Jefferson. In our country, it will be non-linear. There cannot be just two parties due to the diversity of the political environment. We cannot have one common opposition, and there will definitely be a separate left, a separate right, etc.
I think that a new concept will be formed in the process, and there will be a crystallization of the elites. But all this will be after the change of power, not before.