Does Russia risk disintegration? Experts' Perspectives
February 21, 2023
Could the war shift the balance in relations between Russia’s ethnic republics and the federal center? Russia.Post asked a pool of experts specializing in regional and ethno-national politics for their take.
Since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine one year ago, some observers have speculated that the war may serve as a catalyst for ethno-political protest and the growth of separatist sentiments in Russia. Others have openly called for the “decolonization” of Russia, or the breakup of the Russian Federation and the destruction of the Russian state.

To be sure, ethnic minority populations appear to be over-represented in Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, protests against the clumsy start to mobilization broke out in predominantly non-Russian regions, and ethnic minority organizations have been prominent voices in the expatriate resistance to the war. But could grievances among ethnic minority groups really lead to a splintering of Russia?

In what ways might the war and its consequences affect the relationship between Russia’s ethnic republics and the federal center, if at all? To answer this question, Russia.Post asked a pool of experts specializing in regional and ethno-national politics for their take.
Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer
Faculty Fellow, Georgetown University

Contradictory data invites contrasting interpretations of republic dynamics with the center. A Sakha anti-war lawyer was denounced, and protesters in republics have been arrested daily. Tatarstan ceded aspects of its hard-won relative sovereignty, while arson has increased against military targets even in Bashkortostan. Secessionist talk has accelerated in the republics of Sakha, Tyva, and Buryatia, as well as among their burgeoning diasporas. But many fear separatist discourse is extremist because it invites repression and reactionary Russian nationalist solidarity. Non-Russian residents abroad often feel like hostages trying to protect their loved ones within Russia.

The Sakha Republic, given its resource wealth and vast size, is a lynchpin for leverage with Moscow, and crucial to discussions of non-Russian polarization. As President Putin digs into entrenched aggression in Ukraine, Sakha is a key to Russia’s war economy. Many there persist in identifying with their republic rather than Russia, and resent the neocolonial plunder of minerals.

Particularly embittering is that citizens in the republics are disproportionately mobilized, perceived as expendable. Non-Russian soldiers are often impoverished, rural, and subject to ethno-racial prejudices. Racialized images of non-Russians have increased; Siberians are said to be more savage than Chechens, capable of atrocities such as those which occurred at Bucha. Racism is evident in Donetsk militias’ brutalization of Tyvan draftees.

Anger about shrinking degrees of sovereignty and free speech began before Putin’s war. Putin may have hoped for a diversionary victory that could unite Russia’s diverse multiethnic peoples against a manufactured outside enemy, staving off domestic political, economic, and ecological discontent. Yet instability has increased, masked with performative patriotism. Siberian peoples thrust onto the frontlines of floods and forest fires now feel they are on the frontlines in Ukraine. Alienating non-Russians by killing their sons and curtailing negotiated federalism can backfire.
Irina Busygina
Visiting Scholar, Harvard University

Indeed, in the course of the war it has been possible to identify some peculiarities of Moscow's approach toward the ethnic regions of Russia and the political situation in these regions. Experts have actively discussed disproportionally high mobilization rates from small peripheral republics, as well as growing discontent and grievances against authorities in the North Caucasian republics.

However, it seems unlikely that ethnic regions will create big problems for Moscow – or expecting as much is at least premature – for a number of reasons. First, most ethnic regions are among the poorest regions in Russia, and their survival depends heavily on redistribution (i.e., on financial subsidies from the center). This is a strong argument for Moscow in keeping these regions silent. Second, there is virtually no horizontal coordination between the ethnic republics. On the contrary, relations between some ethnic groups (for example, in the North Caucasus) are often very tense, both between regions and within the same region. And Moscow is perfectly capable of playing this card.

Finally, discontent and protest in ethnic regions is expressed (and maintained) only by individual activists and small – but not yet completely defeated – civil society organizations. The majority is silent, just as it is silent in the “Russian” regions. Regional and local authorities are also keeping silent – under present conditions, this is the only rational strategy for sub-national authorities in Russia. All alternatives would be political suicide.

On the other hand, right now the Kremlin is not interested in any major reforms of center-regional relations, such as depriving the ethnic republics of their status. Firstly, this status does not bother anyone and does not determine anything. Secondly, the Kremlin now has a different agenda. All that is required of the ethnic regions is silence and loyalty. And cannon fodder, of course.
Harold Chambers
North Caucasus analyst, Foreign Policy Research Institute

Overall, the war has already had a paradoxical effect. Administratively, a tightening of federal control has accompanied a delegation of responsibility to the regions. Putin seeks to strengthen his authority, yet in 2020 he ordered regional and local governments to deal with COVID responses, and now with the ongoing war effort. With respect to identities, different pro-regime actors have promoted either a “russkii”-dominated or a diverse, yet unified, “rossiiskii” national identity. However, the increased repression in informational spaces, in addition to the over-representation of ethnic minorities in the war effort, has given way to a resurgence of nationalist sentiments – encompassing a spectrum of passions, from increased minority language usage to sovereignty movements – that has been absent from the public sphere.

Looking ahead, the authorities have laid the groundwork for greater societal discontent, and increased the likelihood that it is expressed. The localization of policy implementation, while the capabilities of those administrations are handicapped by the Kremlin, means that communities will view these problems as being closer to home, making it more likely to provoke public displays of dissatisfaction as local governments cannot fix the problems. Further, the shifts in nationalist expression makes it harder for any level of government to understand the people, as they have continuously neglected engaging in a meaningful way with national minority identities. That being said, separatist calls remain in the diaspora, with the existence of sufficient local support questionable, except in the case of Chechnya. As such, while tensions may increase, any grand rupture remains unlikely, absent a massive change at the top.
Adam Lenton
Ph.D. Candidate, George Washington University

2022 was an inflection point in center-region relations, which makes it difficult to say with any certainty how they may develop moving forward. The context of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine both broadens the range of possible futures and makes it harder, in my view, to assume that prior trends will remain stable. That said, a key paradox is that while the full-scale invasion of Ukraine appears in the short-term to be intensifying the trend towards political centralization, it also may be sowing the seeds of future instability. Much depends on the outcome of the war and specifically the fate of the Putin regime in Moscow. Based on this, it is possible to sketch a few possible scenarios.

First: Russia is defeated on the battlefield and Putin is ousted. There are republican elites of highly integrated economies that might be eager to shed international isolation and sanctions, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. In this scenario, however, it is unclear how Kadyrov’s Chechnya would act.

Second: the war continues into an indefinite stalemate and Putin remains in power. There would be increasing pressure to conform to Moscow, while at the same time economic strains may lead to greater pressure within republics vis-a-vis their domestic publics. Securing allies in Moscow would become key, wealthy regions may face bottom-up pressure to resist further economic redistribution in the center's favor, and poor regions may become more dependent on the federal government.

Third: total regime collapse. In this scenario we would no longer be talking about center-region relations but also region-region relations in a highly chaotic environment. All bets are off.
Kyle Marquardt
Associate Professor, University of Bergen

Over the past two decades, the story of center-periphery relations in Russia has been one of recentralization. The leaders of Russia’s ethnic republics have become reliant on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support – indeed, Putin initially appointed many of them to their positions. Cases like the imprisonment of popular and relatively independent Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal have furthermore made it clear that regional popularity is no protection against federal prosecution. As a result, the leaders of Russia’s ethnic republics have clear incentives to appease the federal center while managing nationalist sentiment.

Concurrently with the leadership of Russia’s regions becoming deeply embedded in Putin’s power vertical, respect for civil and political liberties has declined across Russia. The combination of these two factors has reduced the room for political opponents of the center to maneuver, especially in ethnic republics.

There is evidence that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated underlying tensions in some ethnic republics. Some of the most prominent protests against Russia’s mass mobilization campaign occurred in these republics, and Putin’s general popularity may mask substantial inter-ethnic differences in his support. However, these points of possible contention have not cohered into a larger political program of resistance either within or across regions. In the absence of increased instability in Russia, the strong incentives of the regional political elites are to ensure that such an anti-center political program does not emerge; any increased tensions due to the war have not drastically weakened the control of these elites over their population as of yet.
Anonymous political scientist

The balance in relations between Moscow and Russia’s ethnic republics can change only if the federal center weakens and political pluralism increases. That would allow regional elites to use ethno-nationalist attitudes as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with the Kremlin, and it would help national movements revive their organizational structures. But right now the federal center completely dominates, and all autonomous political forces have been eliminated. Therefore, a change in the status quo is highly unlikely.

The war has generated a new wave of political repression, tightening of censorship, and suppression of any political dissent. Meanwhile, military escalation with the West allows the Kremlin to boost loyalty among non-Russian ethnic groups. A significant part of Russia’s ethnic minorities lives in poor rural areas and retains traditional values and attitudes. Putin’s conservative rhetoric – which positions Russia as a bastion of traditional religious and family values against a “soulless West” – finds genuine support from minority ethnic groups. For non-Russians, military service in the war is also an opportunity to improve their own socio-economic standing, or to make a career in the civil service, where combat experience is now a marker of loyalty. This combination of values and rational motives means that there is even greater support for the war among non-Russians than ethnic Russians.

There is no reason to believe the war will aggravate relations between the federal center and the regions. We see the opposite happening. Of course, the situation might change in the long-term. And the war may – or may not – trigger socio-economic and political changes that shift the balance between Moscow and the regions. But these changes may come about regardless of the war and its outcomes.

Prepared by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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