The 22 of September 2022, the day on which Putin declared that he would be instituting a national conscription programme to obtain troops to fight in Ukraine, marked the beginning of the final demise of the hundred-year-old Russian empire. The Russian Empire has been in its death throes for a long time. After World War I, Nicholas II’s empire was dissolved, but Lenin and Stalin’s Soviet Union was an empire too, in all but name. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan triggered the dissolution of the Union and the liberation of the Warsaw Pact countries. The empire shrank down to a Russian Federation. However, up until now, Putin has managed to crack down on attempts at rebellion within Russia’s borders, suppressing the independence movements of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and Tatarstan. But the disastrous war in Ukraine is likely to lead to a resurgence of independence movements within Russia.
According to polls, in August 2022, before Putin announced the draft, 76% of Russians supported their country’s military actions in Ukraine and only 18% opposed them. These polls may have been inaccurate, however, given participants’ fears that their responses would not remain anonymous. It is likely that only a small majority of Russians actually support the war. Every young Russian man knows that he could be called up at any time—a prospect that is surely unwelcome to most, as reports of deaths on the front increase and Russia’s chances of victory dwindle.
Morale in the army itself is very low. Many Russians view Ukrainians as their neighbours and do not want to fight them. In addition, training methods are poor, and most recruits lack military experience.
No wonder Russians have been leaving the country in droves. Four million of them left in Spring 2022 alone, often heading for Yerevan, Tbilisi, Istanbul and other nearby cities. Among the first to leave were IT specialists, who can work remotely. The government instituted tax breaks and other measures to try to lure them back—but without much success. However, since some of these IT professionals still work for Russian firms and pay taxes in Russia, their departure did not represent a major financial loss in the short term. But since then, there has been a second mass exodus, which has included plant workers, truck drivers, doctors and nurses, lawyers and couriers. Their absence will mean a substantial loss of state revenue—revenue badly needed to finance the war—and the provision of public services will suffer. Russia’s workforce has been seriously depleted.
Tensions have begun to emerge within the Russian state apparatus, too. The military blame Putin and his protégés for the sorry situation at the front and may well launch a coup d’état. As social services deteriorate, the populace will become restless and more amenable to a coup. The situation is extremely unstable.
The technocrats who make sure the Russian government machinery runs smoothly are loyal to Putin’s regime on paper—they have no other option—but not necessarily ideologically committed to the war. In this current crisis, many regional governors have become disillusioned with the national government, which cannot guarantee stability, and are angry at the misappropriation of local tax revenues by the centre. Some may take advantage of the fact that the state’s military resources are concentrated in Ukraine to declare their independence. And they may well enjoy local support. Local leaders could recruit returning soldiers to their cause—many of these men have come back to Russia disillusioned with war and with their government and well-armed—bribing them with tax cuts or a share of local resources.
This could also lead to border disputes, as newly independent regions fight over resources (struggling, for example, for control of the oil reserves along the Tatar–Bashkir border). The Russo-Ukrainian war, then, could lead to a series of civil wars within the Russian federation.
Russia’s neighbours may take advantage of the current crisis to call for the return of some of their territories (see, for example, Japan’s claim to the Kuril Islands), though probably primarily by diplomatic means.
If parts of the Russian Federation achieve independence, there is no doubt that more prosperous countries will be keen to sign free-trade agreements with the fledgling sovereign republics and help facilitate their independence from Moscow by providing access to resources, like oil, coal and wood. For example, China might well enter into a trade agreement that allowed for the export of wood to some future Democratic Republic of Irkutsk. The new states may also do the reverse: exchange raw materials for stable budget revenues.
The break-up of Russia would also pose a serious threat to global security. What will happen to Russia’s military arsenal and, particularly, to its 6,000 nuclear warheads? It would be unacceptably risky to distribute them among the new sovereign states that emerge after the demise of the Russian Federation, given those states’ likely instability. To deny those countries nuclear weapons, however, would leave them vulnerable. There is also the danger that the nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of unreliable actors, such as terrorists or rogue states like North Korea.
Of course, we cannot know what the future will hold. But we do need to start thinking seriously about the possible configuration of a post-Russian world.