The Breakup of Russia?

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Putin's air of invincibility is shrinking by the day. But what would happen if he were somehow removed from power?

In my previous post, I speculated on the possibilities of sudden collapse in Russia. My argument was that, as was the case with respect to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, there's a possibility of a similarly unexpected downfall in today's Russia as well. While Vladimir Putin by all accounts appears to be quite secure with respect to his ability to maintain his position in power, there is certainly precedent in Russia for seemingly stable regimes falling unexpectedly. 

As I noted on Monday, Putin's legitimacy rests largely upon his ability to deliver. He has no dynastic claim. There is no all-powerful party in the manner that there was in Soviet times. Nor is there any real ideology associated with Putin's rule. Instead, Putin's competence has been his primary tool of legitimacy in Russia. And, no matter how much Russian authorities endeavor to hide the truth from their citizens, the fiasco that is the war in Ukraine is becoming increasingly difficult to explain away. So, when your claim to legitimacy is based mainly upon your competence, that legitimacy evaporates once you've been exposed as incompetent. 

And that can be very bad news if you happen to be the incompetent one in power.  

My sense is that, were Putin to be removed from power, it wouldn't happen in the form of a people-power movement of Jeffersonian democrats. Indeed, the only form of criticism of the war that is disseminated in Russia these days is that which critiques the war effort from the right. Anti-war views are not permitted, but voices arguing for a more successful prosecution of the war are allowed.

Reports of rifts between the Kremlin and the mercenary Wagner Group have been circulating for months. If I were a betting man, I would tab this organization as a much more credible means of overthrowing Putin than any of the more democratic-appearing figures in Russia. That's certainly not good news, but one thing that history teaches us is that things can always get worse. And the prospect of civil war breaking out in a country with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons would end up making today's shit-show look very minor in comparison. 

Thinking two steps ahead of where we are today, we need to consider the prospect of Putin's foolish and catastrophic war rebounding back upon Russia. The last two times that an intellectually bankrupt regime came under pressure during the course of a losing and destabilizing war effort, the result was not simply the fall of a regime, but also the breakup of the country and, in some of its former regions, civil war. 

Prior to launching this war, Vladimir Putin had usually made a point of not presenting himself as a Russian nationalist. Instead, he saw himself as a custodian of Russia's best interests. 
This is a smart approach, as Russia is a multi-ethnic federated republic. 

As was the case with the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is divided into dozens of republics and regions, the great majority of which are ethnically defined. Like in the USSR, crossing these borders means relatively little today. But, if Russia were to descend into political chaos, or fall into civil war, there are pre-existing boundaries that could provide a guide for what might happen next. 

Non-ethnic Russian regions of Russia, such as the North Caucasus and Buryatia, have been prime sources of cannon-fodder in Ukraine since the war began. While it is true that the cruel details concerning the war have been largely shielded by the media in Russia, it is also clear that, particularly in non-ethnic Russian areas, there have been protests against the war. People, at least some of them, know what's going on. 

Anyway, this is all idle speculation. For all I know, Putin could remain in power for decades to come. But history has shown that intellectually bankrupt regimes fighting long and hopeless wars don't tend to last forever. Putin seems determined to fight to the end, but no matter how badly the war goes for Ukraine, Ukrainians are going to keep resisting Russia for as long as they possibly can. At some point, things are going to start falling apart on the Russian side. And once that happens, past may indeed end up as prologue in the breakup of Russia. 

In the past, western politicians have been accused of making the mistake of focusing solely upon Russia's leader. Such was the case, allegedly, with regard to George HW Bush and Gorbachev (he ignored Yeltsin!) and Bill Clinton (focused too much on Yeltsin!). Now, they may be doing so again with respect to Putin. Obviously, we need to keep paying attention to the Russian President, but it might also be a good idea to starting thinking about life without him. 

More on Russia: 

Regrouping in Belgrade N & P

Russia-Ukraine Notes: Early October Edition

All Crimea/Ukraine posts since 2008

Re Russia-Ukraine: Changes Coming?

Back and Forth in the Quagmire

A "Mission Accomplished" Moment?

This past week...

More Thoughts Re Ukraine and NATO

The USA: NATO's Weakest Link?

Brown Trouser Time

Looking for the Long-Term in Putin's Moves

Moscow Recognizes Two Breakaway Republics: Why do this?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the 'Mini-Republics' (from 2008) 

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