Can One Expect a Peaceful Restructuring of the Russian Federation?
June 1, 2023
  • Guzel Yusupova

    Carleton University

Guzel Yusupova explains that the war in Ukraine might lead to demands for greater autonomy from Russia’s regions and argues that the ethnic factor may be just one precipitating a restructuring of Russia.
Some observers of the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine point to the likelihood of Russia’s disintegration, hoping that this will bring an end to the war and potentially to Putin’s regime. Others are afraid that internal conflicts along ethnic lines could be a likely outcome of Russia’s defeat in the war and lead to violent secessionist movements. Most agree that ethnic nationalism in Russia’s regions is a crucial factor that could drive such processes. Indeed, the voices of oppositional ethnic minorities, especially from diasporas abroad, have been especially loud (or finally heard) since the beginning of the war , and Russia’s ethnic diversity has suddenly become visible for outsiders, which was not the case before.

Reshaping center-region relations

The discourse on decolonization has finally become applicable to the Russian context and has even become mainstream in the discussion of Russia’s future in Western academia and media. Calls to decolonize the aggressor state themselves are an echo of imperialist claims that Russia is using to legitimize its invasion of Ukraine. The decolonization discourse, however, is also flipped by the Russian political elites and used as another legitimizing idea conveyed to the Russian public: that Russia is actually fighting against the colonizing West.

Therefore, due to such ambiguity around the term “decolonization,” and not to mislead the reader, I will not emphasize the “decolonization” narrative in the discussion below. Although it is important to refine its applicability to Russia and the space that used to be called post-Soviet, in this essay I focus on the issue of territorial autonomies versus the federal center. This framing of the question can help shape a more realistic approach to the policy measures and international response to possible – and always rapid in such circumstances – developments that might happen in a vast, resource-rich country like Russia, which cannot be isolated for long.

One of the issues to consider when talking about the prospects for Russia’s disintegration and the violence that may accompany it is related to ethnicity: Is the ethnic factor of primary importance for grabbing greater autonomy from the center in a highly centralized state?

Unite and resist versus divide and rule

First, most observers discussing the likelihood of succession highlight the significance of ethnicity and the shares of titular ethnic groups in each of Russia’s two dozen “ethnic regions.” The same observers then make claims that the Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union, that the titular groups are a minority in most of those regions and the share of ethnic Russians in them is often over 80%. Therefore, most of Russia’s regions, including ethnic ones where the titular groups account for a minority, do not have incentives to disintegrate, they conclude.

However, research conducted in the early 2000s in ethnic regions suggests that
“Secessionist claims can be supported by the majority group of ethnic Russians in cases when titular minority groups offer an inclusive agenda and when greater autonomy appears to promise significant economic gains.
Moreover, the historical evidence both from the collapse of the Russian Empire and the Russia’s federalization in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union shows that the flexibility of regional elites in forming coalitions to advance their agendas and gain political leverage versus the center is not a new phenomenon. When necessary, the political imagination can find legitimizing historical narratives in support of any union to be used in negotiations with competing powers. These narratives do not necessarily have to be based on common ethnic origin.

Indeed, the divide-and-rule principle helps federal authorities to keep regions weak.

For now, the horizontal ties among Russia’s regional elites, as well as among local oppositional political activists in different regions, have been effectively cut. But the metropole might not be able to continue this policy for long if confronted with economic collapse or even amid a relatively successfully militarized economy. The prizes up for grabs for regional elites (for example, additional federal funds allocated to the regions) will be limited in either case.

This might weaken the incentives to stay in the federation and strengthen secessionist inclinations for rich regions.

One could argue that the territorial disputes and competition for resource-rich lands may lead to serious conflicts and even wars. But to pursue autonomy, regional leaders will need consolidated and motivated residents and legitimacy. This legitimacy cannot be obtained without some sort of restructuring of center-region relations first, as for now regional heads are appointed by Moscow and in most cases lack genuine public support. This restructuring can come about and be effective only if some or most regions unite their claims vis-à-vis the center. To unite they first need to come to at least some sort of agreement among themselves.
Members of the Buryat and Kalmyk diasporas protesting against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. New York, September 2022. Source: Twitter
Horizontal ties and disbalances

For now, the grip on the regions is heavy, but when the economic circumstances eventually change, some possibilities for horizontal solidarity among regional elites might emerge. In my research, horizontal solidarities were observed in 2017-19 among intellectual elites in ethnic republics protesting against cuts to minority-language education.

Also new solidarities between the anti-war ethnic-minority diasporas abroad and various decolonial initiatives have been established more recently in various forms, including social media accounts, foundations and rights defense groups, as well as regular events. Such initiatives create networks of solidarity among various minority groups inside and outside Russia – between diasporic minority communities and their kin communities within Russia.

Although some of these initiatives have agendas that may appear too radical, the very existence of such networks is useful as platforms for discussions about the reconfiguration of the Russian state and its future. Therefore, a peaceful way of getting together in order to disintegrate or, most likely, reintegrate may emerge precisely if, and only if, these voices are taken seriously.

Some observers refer to Henry Hale’s brilliant paper explaining why the Russian Federation did not fall apart when the Soviet Union did. His argument is that only when one core region becomes dominant do others get an incentive to challenge this arrangement, while in a more resource-balanced union collapse is unlikely. As the war with Ukraine exacerbates the territorial economic inequality in Russia at all levels (urban-rural, inter-regional, center-periphery), the disbalance of the union is more than obvious. Another disbalance is reflected in the ethnic hierarchy implied by the 2020 constitutional amendments, which define the core role of ethnic Russian culture and the Russian language in the multinational federation.

Alternative projects outside ethnic claims and the legacy of real federation

The economic and symbolic disbalances can be seen through the lens of regional disparities too. In her book Ununited Russia, Russian journalist Olesya Gerasimenko describes various alternative projects of local identity politics in the non-ethnic regions that were prominent in the early 2000s. Nowadays, such a project would be impossible because of inevitable repressions.
Yet if and when the umbrella national identity is compromised for the majority, it might become less attractive to be called Russian, and such projects might get a new lease on life.
The arrest of Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal in 2020 triggered long-lasting mass protests in the region. Source: Wiki Commons
Repressions against successful regional elites made such projects too dangerous to pursue, with the case of Sergei Furgal, the former governor of Khabarovsk Region, the most prominent. Furgal became more popular than Putin in his region, which was the likely cause of his arrest in 2020. The arrest triggered long-lasting mass protests in the region, but they had no effect: in early 2023, Furgal was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

The unsuccessful protests show the strength of the regime and the weakness of regional leaders, though in the context of the war and the inevitable economic weakening of the federal center, this balance of power might shift.

It should be borne in mind that in recent years, local protests over environmental and other issues in Russia’s provinces have created networks of civic solidarity and a sense of common local identity that can be strengthened vis-a-vis national identity when this becomes more attractive and less costly. This may look fully improbable now, as the regime has grown highly repressive, but these networks do already exist and can gain strength and popularity as grievances accumulate among local communities.

Samuel Greene and other authors highlight that the logic that brought the Soviet empire to its collapse might not be applicable to Russia at war. However, today’s Russia still has some traits of the early days of the Russian Federation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Regional elites who have lived experience of the real federalism that existed in Russia in the 1990s might try to revitalize it.
Of course, the top elites have been repeatedly replaced by the Kremlin, though my own research in several regions shows that mid-level officials are local residents who grew up during that time and not only experienced the economic hardships, but also enjoyed the freedoms of a more balanced federalism, as well as the benefits of functioning interregional institutions and projects. Some of them even have personal experience of building them, while others are children of elites who had high hopes for greater autonomy of their regions.

Last but not least, the regions’ economic interdependency, which binds Russia together, does not necessarily mean that these ties would be severed, should regions evolve as independent states or unions. Certainly, poorer regions may struggle to be included in the conversation about restructuring Russia and are likely to lose the most from any transformations that may occur as a result of the war, be it total disintegration associated with bloody feuds, or a peaceful disintegration along the current administrative lines. But they might also benefit from establishing unions with the richer regions.


Strengthening horizontal ties between the regions, promoting local identities and highlighting the multicultural nature of the Russian society in all possible ways and at all possible levels is crucial for mitigating the consequences of the war. Creating platforms for engagement to develop alternative agendas, without limiting this engagement to ethnic or minority status, would be beneficial for all who are interested in the democratization of contemporary Russia.

There are many more factors to be considered before picturing a peaceful, restructured Russia, whether it remains one state or devolves into several new ones. Among those factors are the states adjacent to regions that have culturally similar populations, such as Turkey and China, or those that have territorial ambitions, such as Japan, as well as the location of nuclear weapons facilities in various places across Russia. However, just how these factors may play out is even less predictable than the role of ethnicity and regionalism in the political imagination of Russia’s local populations and regional elites.
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