Vladimir Putin and Moscow’s central power have been weakened by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny. The fact that Prigozhin and his rebellious troops have not been punished will embolden others to challenge Putin’s authority. Russia may well descend into internal turmoil that would include a new round of breakaways by constituent republics similar to the one in 1991. Policymakers in Washington and other Free World capitals must prepare for this eventuality.
Putin has not delivered for the Russian people. After twenty-four years of Putin’s rule, Russia remains well behind Europe in both freedom and prosperity. And falling further behind. He is now asking Russians to die in a war against peaceful brother Slavs and suffer even more deprivations from foreign economic sanctions.
Neither has he delivered for the corrupt clique that controls Russia’s security, military, and economic levers of power. The Ukraine war has turned Russia into a pariah country and most of them suffered sanctions and asset freezes by Free World countries.
Putin also appears weak. He is losing in Ukraine. Before his invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s military was seen as second in the world, behind the United States. Now it is viewed as second in Eastern Europe, behind Ukraine even. At home, Prigozhin’s mercenaries captured one of Russia’s key military centers without firing a shot; several Russian military leaders waited and watched before they chose the regime’s side; and Putin did not have the power to punish Prigozhin and his mutineers.
This environment of discontent and weakness is likely to encourage more power challenges. Maybe from another military man. Or through renewed separatism among Russia’s republics.
Russia is a multinational empire. Over the centuries, the Grand Duchy of Moscow expanded by conquering peoples in Europe and Asia. But these peoples have not forgotten their national identity and dreams of freedom, similar to the peoples once part of Austria-Hungary or Yugoslavia.
Separatist movements in Russia were strong but ultimately unsuccessful in 1917 when Russia was losing in the First World War, and the incompetent and corrupt Tsarist regime had little popular support. They were successful in 1991 when fifteen republics, including Ukraine, the Baltics, and Kazakhstan, succeeded in breaking away after the Soviet Union had lost the Afghan war and was failing economically.
Russia’s heavy losses of life and treasure in the Ukraine war, isolation and sanctioning by the Free World, and the weakening of Moscow’s central authority are creating conditions in which separatist tendencies are likely to assert themselves again. Particularly since Russian minorities are thirty times more likely to die in Ukraine than Russians.
Russia’s twenty-one republics already have the legal construct they need to break away. Each has its own constitution, legislature, president or prime minister, court system, flag, and anthem. There are of course differences when it comes to their history, geography, and natural resources. Some are on Russia’s borders and are resource-rich, like Chechnya and other Caucasus republics, Tyva, Karelia, and Sakha. Others are in the Volga region, landlocked but with a strategic position and natural resources, and home to large numbers of Muslims and Buddhists, like Tatarstan, Kalmukya, and Mordovia.
A new wave of breakaways by Russian republics may be peaceful like the first wave in 1991. Or it may lead to a protracted civil war like the one in Yugoslavia.
Contrary to the claims of conspiracy theorists in Moscow, and they are many, Russia’s current troubles are not the result of evil plots in foreign capitals. They are the effect of Putin’s policies which are corrupt and oppressive at home, and revisionist and expansionist abroad.
Still, U.S. and Free World policymakers will have to address three thorny issues.
First, how to respond to the demands for recognition from Russian republics seeking self-determination.
Second, how to ensure that Russia’s 6,000 nuclear weapons are not used during the unrest. Matthew Kroenig raised the possibility that Russia may experience the first nuclear civil war.
Third, how to deter a Chinese land grab in resource-rich Siberia. The current borders were established only 160 years ago when a weak China was forced to cede to a strong Russia 350,000 square miles of Siberia (more than Texas, somewhat less than Egypt). Today the power balance is reversed. And especially in terms of population in the border region, where a Russian population of 6 million faces 90 million Chinese.
A new round of secessions by Russian republics may seem far-fetched today. But so did the first round at its time. It is important to prepare policy options for this eventuality.
Dan Negrea is the Senior Director of the Freedom and Prosperity Center at the Atlantic Council. He served at the U.S. Department of State as a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Office and as the Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The National Interest or its editors.