War excites speculation about the possible break-up of Russia

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Welcome back. Readers of Europe Express Weekend are asking what I think will be the long-term geopolitical consequences of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

So this week I’m looking at an unusual but significant genre of war commentary — what I’d call “Russian catastrophe literature”. Its premise is that the war might backfire dramatically on Putin by leading, over time, to the Russian Federation’s break-up.

I’m at tony.barber for any thoughts on this and other matters.

Russian catastrophe literature brings together several types of author. First, Russian strategists and polemicists in Moscow. Naturally, they want the country to hold together.

Second, conservatives in the US and central and eastern Europe. They would relish the end of what they see as an anomaly of history — a Russian-ruled, multinational, autocratic empire that, unlike its European counterparts, wasn’t swept away in the 20th century.

Last, scholars and writers, both western and Russian, who have no political axe to grind but see a real possibility of Russia’s break-up. Many are apprehensive about the dangers such a process might entail.


It may seem odd to talk about Russia’s disintegration when Putin appears set on expansion by annexing parts of Ukraine.

But in this interview with the Italian magazine Limes, the prominent Russian foreign policy thinker Sergei Karaganov was asked if a long war in Ukraine might result in Russia’s break-up. He replied:

We know it’s a possibility and we are openly talking about that . . . We also know that for the first time since the . . . cold war we have some western powers openly aiming at disaggregating Russia.

The west, of course, doesn’t consider itself at war with Russia. Yet in Karaganov’s view, Russia is locked in an “existential” struggle with the west, one in which it must prevail. “It is whether the country survives.”

Make what you will of Karaganov’s rather apocalyptic outlook. He is no Kremlin mouthpiece, but his views broadly reflect the antagonistic, anti-western mindset of Russia’s political and military leadership.

At a minimum, this suggests that the prospects for an early settlement of the war in Ukraine are bleak.

US and European conservatives

In recent months, several essays in favour of breaking up Russia, or radically reorganising the country, have appeared in US magazines such as the National Interest and the Atlantic. Here is one, “Decolonize Russia”, by the New York-based writer Casey Michel.

Quoting from the memoirs of former CIA director Robert Gates, Michel recalls that, during the USSR’s collapse in 1991, the then defense secretary Dick Cheney “wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world”.

Michel lists various Russian regions, from the Komi Republic and Tatarstan to Udmurtia and Sakha, that proclaimed their “sovereignty” as the Soviet Union broke up. This process unfolded partly in response to Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s invitation to the regions in 1990 to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow”.

Under Putin, all Russia’s regions were dragged back under Moscow’s central control, with the partial exception of Chechnya. There, the warlord Ramzan Kadyrov is allowed to rule his territory like a personal fiefdom on condition of loyalty to Putin.

Michel says it may not be necessary to break up Russia, as Cheney advocated, if the country can be modernised and rebuilt as a democratic federation.

A very different take comes from Janusz Bugajski of the Jamestown Foundation. He says Russia’s break-up might set off ethnic and territorial conflicts, but could also promote “the creation of several viable states with a notable degree of political stability” — for example, in the middle Volga, the Urals and Siberia.

Scholars and writers

Vladislav Zubok, a much-respected Russian historian, injects a dose of reality into these speculations. He says that, even if Russia agrees to an “uneasy armistice” in Ukraine, there will be “a period in which Ukraine and the west have to coexist with a weakened and humiliated but still autocratic Russian state. Western policymakers must prepare for this eventuality rather than dreaming of collapse in Moscow.”

Yet it was a Russian novelist, Vladimir Sorokin, who as early as 2013 wrote a novel, Telluria, that imagines the break-up of his country (as well as that of Europe and China). An English translation is appearing soon.

Writing in the National Interest magazine, Julian Spencer-Churchill of Montreal’s Concordia University contends that Putin’s authoritarian system cannot last. “What is certain is that a liberal constitution in Moscow will lead to further secession of Russian minority territories.”

Russia is more ethnically and linguistically homogenous than the USSR, so a calamitous unravelling is unlikely, he writes. But Russia’s thinly populated far east is vulnerable to China, which, though friendly with Moscow now, may have an eye one day on reclaiming territories ceded to the tsarist empire in the 19th century.

And that raises a big question. To the extent that China is the west’s long-term rival in this century, shouldn’t western governments want a stable, united Russia — not a broken-up Russia?

To that, I would add — if Russia starts to fall apart, what will happen to its nuclear arsenal?

What do you think? Will Russia disintegrate as a state? Vote in our poll here.

Notable, quotable

Hong Kong has risen from the ashes — China’s President Xi Jinping

Xi marks the 25th anniversary of the return to Chinese sovereignty of the former UK colony, now under a strict national security law.

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Once a region steeped in economic decline, eastern Germany is emerging as the centre of Europe’s electric car industry. The FT’s Guy Chazan and Joe Miller report from Guben and Dresden

  • After President Emmanuel Macron’s setback in parliamentary elections, French politics is looking distinctly eastern European, says Jan Rovny, associate professor at Sciences Po in Paris, in a commentary for the London School of Economics

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