In his article, “The Best Way to Deal With Russia: Wait for it to Implode,” (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/08/03/russia-separatism-vladimir-putin-227498), Peter Eltsov of the National Defense University argues that internal contradictions in the Russian Federation—separatist movements among ethnic minorities, lack of a unifying ideology, and intellectual and economic weakness—will lead to Russia’s inevitable disintegration, and that the West should simply wait and allow it to happen. Eltsov’s points are right on the money, although I disagree with his assertion that Russia’s collapse will come anytime soon.
While Eltsov accurately identifies the major factors contributing to Russia’s slow downfall and disintegration, examining the actual manifestations of these weaknesses sheds more light on the problem, and also demonstrates why Russia probably won’t be dissolving anytime soon.
First, the protests in Moscow are just the most recent and visible expressions of the Russian people’s discontent with the Putin regime. While Putin can look the other way when protests erupt in Tyumen, Kemerovo, and even St. Petersburg (as happened in 2017), disturbances in Moscow not only disrupt the capital but become the focus of international media. The latest protests were headlines news throughout the world, and failed to gain the main spotlight only because of events in Hong Kong. Putin’s response was heavy-handed and reminiscent of the worst of Soviet times, with militiamen beating unarmed and peaceful protesters, underscoring how seriously the Russian strongman takes the protests.
The second concrete factor derives from the separatist issue. Eltsov mentions Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, but the real problem lies in Russia’s continuing efforts to subdue the Caucasus. Anyone who even cursorily examines the history of the region cannot help but be amazed at the amount of time, energy, money, and human lives Russia has been willing to squander over the last 300 years to maintain control of people who have more than any other minority in Russia shown complete unwillingness to integrate into the social structure of the country.
However, neither of these factors will necessarily lead to Russia’s disintegration in the near future. This misreading of the Russian situation stems from the fact that most Western scholars look upon Russia’s various governments—tsarist, communist and “federal”—as essentially European phenomena. In fact, Russia’s problems with self-rule go back to the 1500s, when the paradigm for its political system was set.
The Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus, leading to the total destruction of that kingdom, was the watershed event that set Russia’s course. In place of the loose confederacy of tribal units, the Mongol dictatorial system was put in place in Moscow by Tsar Ivan IV. This structure survived throughout Tsarist and Soviet times, and re-emerged under Putin after Boris Yeltsin’s brief attempt at federation collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions. In this sense, Russia’s government today more resembles the despotic regimes of the Middle East—Syria, Iran under the Shahs, Iraq under Saddam Hussein—than any Western state. Two features of these states are easily identifiable in the current Russian system: willingness to resort to any level of barbarity in order to maintain power, and an unapologetic imperial system that does nothing to promote the aspirations of minority populations.
The extreme reaction to last week’s Moscow protests, the use of trumped-up drug charges and the regular torture of dissidents all fit into the pattern of this “post-Mongol” despotism that, for example, marks Assad’s Syria. As for the ethnic minorities, it is true that Assad acted as a brake on the majority Sunni Arab population’s repression of Assyrians, Circassians and others, but only insofar as they serve the regime’s needs (the recent purge of Circassians from positions of authority shows how fickle this “protection” can be). Elsewhere, as in Iran, ethnic minorities are effectively silenced and their own national aspirations are regularly frustrated (the Talysh and Kurds, for example).
It is this second factor, the discontent of ethnic minorities, that most threatens the Moscow regime’s viability. As David Siroky and Ceyhan Mahmudlu argue in their examination of ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan, “E Pluribus Unum? Ethnicity, Islam, and the Construction of Identity in Azerbaijan,” (Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 63, pp. 94-207), “Building a strong sense of civic nationalism among minority groups is vital to successful state formation,” and that “the lack of integration, the absence of identification with the state, and ethnic separatism represent a persistent challenge to social order and successful state building.” In the article Siroky and Mahmudlu argue one-sidedly in favor of the Azerbaijani State, labeling ethnic identification, as well as many other “non-civic” identities, as a “primitive” phenomenon, a sort of pseudo-marxist justification for “re-education.” While addressing the ethical dilemma placing the needs of any “state” over those of the peoples the state supposedly represents can’t be addressed here, it does warrant saying that the Soviet experiment in this regard gives little encouragement to those who hope that such a civic nationalism will emerge. The Bolsheviks tried for decades to create a “Soviet citizen,” and had woefully poor results. Ethnic nationalism was not diminished; one could argue that Soviet efforts had the opposite effect.
The current Russian regime does in fact seem to want such a civic nationalism to emerge. The reduction of opportunities to learn non-Russian languages, the recent emphasis on the ethnic term “russkii” as opposed to the civic term “rossiiskii,” and other actions by Moscow all point to a heavy-handed attempt by the authorities to enforce “Russianness” on all people in the Russian Federation. This has been tried in the past: as one example, in the late 19th Century the Tsarist government reclassified Lithuanians as “Poles,” required that the Lithuanian language be written in Cyrillic, and took other steps to efface Lithuanian identity. Such efforts uniformly fail. Even Turkey’s repressive and violent efforts to annihilate Circassian identity over the past 100 years have been only marginally effective. A more likely outcome is that predicted by Benedict Anderson in his study Imagined Communities: the failure to achieve a common vision, a common “civic nationalism,” as Siroky and Mahmudlu put it, will lead to the disintegration of Russia at some point in the future.
However, there are factors working in Moscow’s favor that makes me less sanguine about Russia’s demise than Eltsov. First is the fact of the Russian ethnic group’s current overwhelming majority. The many minorities in Russia are numerically insignificant one their own, and Moscow regularly works both to ensure at least the impression that these groups are miniscule (e.g. the classification of Circassians and Tatars into ethnic subdivisions to make their numbers appear smaller) and to set the different ethnic groups on one another (as with Chechnya’s land grab in Ingushetia and now in Dagestan). Second, as Paul Goble pointed out today, Russians themselves are little interested in the rights of the ethnic minorities (http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/). This makes it impossible for a united front to emerge from the two factions of discontents in Russia: the political protesters and the minority nationalists.
Third, Moscow’s heritage of violent oppression of any dissidence, a consequence of the Mongol-based system Russia inherited, will not allow any serious challenge to its power. Rather than looking to Europe for models of Russia’s future, the civil war in Syria would be more apropos. The wholesale destruction of Grozny in the early 2000s, which as Anna Politkovskaya chronicled, included aerial attacks on fleeing civilians, provides a glimpse of Moscow’s strategy for dealing with threats to its control.
Russia’s disintegration is inevitable, but in no sense is it imminent. “Waiting” for it to collapse is wishful thinking, and a more rational strategy would be to examine the interplay of ethnic nationalism with Russian chauvinism to determine the best way to mitigate the damage to the people who are trapped in this collapsing but stubborn system.