Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine recalls Britain and France’s Suez campaign in 1956. Britain and France’s humiliating retreat marked the end of their status as first-rank powers and the beginning of a troubled period of political crises and loss of territory to independence movements.
History may repeat itself. Russia is failing in its attempt to occupy Ukraine. In the process, Russia is suffering grave losses in military capability, economic strength, and international standing. It is now clear that Russia is not a great power in the same league as the United States and China. And it is entering a period of political turmoil that is likely to include renewed demands for independence by its constituent republics in a replay of the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The Suez and Ukraine Crises
In 1956, Britain and France appeared to be strong. They were recent victors in World War II, dominant European powers, permanent members of the UN Security Council, and rulers of vast colonial empires. They felt strong enough to invade Egypt to prevent president Gamal Abdel Nasser from nationalizing the Suez Canal. But then the true superpowers of the day objected—the United States threatened economic penalties and the Soviet Union military retaliation—and Britain and France were forced into a humiliating retreat.
British prime minister Anthony Eden was accused of lying to the House of Commons and was forced to resign. Sensing weakness, Britain’s colonies increased their push for independence. The pro-British Iraqi monarchy fell in 1958. Cyprus and Malta became independent shortly thereafter. By 1967, more than twenty British territories were independent.
The crisis in France was even worse. The Suez retreat came two years after the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the North Vietnamese and some military officers ascribed these defeats to a spineless political class. In 1958, a group of military officers and colonial officials staged a coup in Algeria, the Fourth Republic collapsed, and Charles de Gaulle assumed power as the head of the Fifth Republic. The Algerians won their long war of independence in 1962 and 900,000 European-Algerians fled to France in fear of reprisals. Freedom movements gained strength throughout the French colonies.
Vladimir Putin’s Russo-Ukrainian War has been an overreach and it will force Russia to recognize its limitations and diminished status. It will likely face renewed demands for independence from constituent republics and territories.
The whole world is witnessing the inability of the vaunted Russian army to project force even in a neighboring country one-third of its size. The Russian economy is buckling under the cost of the war and of the sanctions: Inflation is heading towards 20 percent, the economy will contract by 10 percent this year, the Russian Stock Exchange is not functioning, and Russian stocks traded in London are down over 90 percent. The effect of the very harsh and comprehensive sanctions imposed on Russia by most of the major economic powers of the world will only increase with time.
The international political consequences of the invasion are equally sobering. Russia has no consequential allies in this war. China is offering only tacit support. Belarus is an ally but has little to offer. Meanwhile, almost all of Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and many other countries of the Free World are arrayed against Russia and actively helping Ukraine.
These grave challenges are handled by a fragile political system built around Putin’s personal dictatorship. Vyacheslav Volodin, his deputy chief of staff, famously summed it up as “No Putin, no Russia.” Putin will have to increase domestic repression even further to deal with growing dissatisfaction with the war. But that too has its costs and limits: There are more people today in Russia’s security apparatus than in its armed forces and more people in jail than in Brezhnev’s days.
The invasion of Ukraine has been a huge miscalculation. Putin thought it would be like the invasion of Hungary in 1956 or of Czechoslovakia in 1968 which made the Soviet Union stronger. It is instead more like the Afghanistan War of 1979-1989 following which the Soviet Union disintegrated and several of its constituent republics became independent.
Precedents of Independence Movements in the Russian Empire
It is not unprecedented for Russia’s constituent republics to demand independence when Moscow is weak.
The 1917 Russian Revolution was one such moment. Several constituent republics declared their independence at that time, and some stayed independent for years. Among them were Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Tatarstan, and the North Caucasus republics.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several USSR republics became independent countries: Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
The breakup process might have gone even further since several other Russian regions—including Siberia, Ural, Karelia and Tatarstan—declared their “sovereignty” at the time. To prevent more territorial losses, President Boris Yeltsin suggested a federation, promised the republics as much “sovereignty as [they] could swallow,” and negotiated deals with restive regions.
What Fuels Independence Claims in Today’s Russia?
The Russian Federation consists of eighty-five “federal subjects,” or constituent parts, of which twenty-two are republics named after non-Russian ethnicities. Russia has over190 ethnicities, and many of them live in remote locations like Siberia and the Caucasus region.
Why would they secede? For two main reasons: economic and cultural.
Today’s Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is not an economic success. Russia is a middling economic power with a GDP about the size of Spain or Texas. Its GDP per capita is even less impressive: In the 2020 World Bank index, Russia ranks eight-fifth, between Bulgaria and Malaysia.
Alexei Kudrin, a former deputy prime minister and finance minister, and perhaps the most influential Russian economist, argued in a 2018 interview that Russia may fall apart just like the USSR if “the Russian leadership will not get rid of the Soviet mentality.” Among the risk factors he named were oil dependency, sanctions, restricted access to technology, labor shortages, and low labor productivity.
Many of the republics and regions have closer ties with other countries than with Russia. They feel they get little to no benefits from the central government in Moscow that they view as corrupt and inept.
The other major motivation is cultural. Russia expanded from its European core mainly through wars of conquest, most of them long and bloody. It maintained its rule through terror, often resettling populations in faraway lands.
The Russian state is obvious about the centrality of its Slavic culture and about the privileged role of the Russian Orthodox Church, a key supporter of the regime (the head of the church called the Putin era a “miracle of God”). This does not sit well in many republics with non-Russian and non-Christian majorities.
But there is more to it. Today’s rulers in the Kremlin do not have the mystical appeal of the czars who ruled Russia since the 1500s, who were viewed by many to be the anointed of God and successors of the emperors of Constantinople, the Eastern Roman Empire. Nor can they make the inspiring (even if fraudulent) claim of the Communists that they rule for the benefit of the downtrodden.
The peoples of Russia know that Putin and his oligarchs, indeed the whole power elite, are former Soviet bureaucrats who got fabulously rich by looting the country. The Putin regime has no unifying ideology beyond defending Russia against a presumed hostile West.
Likely Independence Claims
In some cases, Putin himself has set in motion the forces of national disintegration by claiming that Russia can occupy Ukraine and Crimea because they “historically” belonged to Russia. Following that logic, several republics and territories could declare independence because historically they did not belong to Russia.
The semi-autonomous Russian enclave of Kaliningrad was only acquired by the Soviet Union from Germany in 1946. It is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, both EU countries, and has no border with Russia. The Republic of Karelia (600,000 people), neighboring Finland, was acquired by Stalin after his 1940 war of aggression against Finland.
Other republics have tried to be independent before.
The Caucasus republics, occupied in the nineteenth century, have Muslim majorities, are ethnically distinct from the Russians, and have borders with other countries. The Chechen Republic (1.2 million people) fought a determined and bloody war of independence in the 1990s.
The Chechens may be joined in an independence claim by other neighboring Caucasus republics including Dagestan (2.5 million people), Ingushetia (300,000), and Kabardino-Balkaria (900,000). A Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus existed between 1917 and 1922 as a country formed by Circassians, Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians, and Dagestanis.
Neighboring Mongolia and China is the Republic of Tuva (250,000 people mostly of Mongol descent) which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. Next to Tuva is the Republic of Khakassia (500,000 people mostly of Kyrgyz descent) that was incorporated in the 1700s.
In the Volga region is the Republic of Tatarstan, home to two million ethnic Tatars and 1.5 million ethnic Russians. It declared its independence in 1917, 1990, and again in 2008. It was an independent khanate conquered by Ivan the Terrible in the fifteenth century.