Russian disintegration is a dangerously dumb delusion
So far, Russia’s attempt to reassert itself as a first-tier power commanding a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space has floundered. Rather than reestablishing Russia’s prestige and humbling the West, the war in Ukraine has revealed a morass of dysfunction that the country will likely spend decades attempting to live down while hobbled by economic isolation from Europe.
But Russian failures have also aroused a discomforting war euphoria in a liberal West that has lacked a sense of moral certainty and purpose in recent years; discomforting, because while confidence can be a virtue, hubris is an all-too-familiar vice. Many analysts and commentators have been making pronouncements that a year ago they would not have dared to even imagine, including Ukraine retaking Crimea, or the downfall of the Russian government.
The most extreme example is the growing crowd of voices encouraging the political and territorial disintegration of the Russian Federation or — in voguish campus rhetoric now appropriated by neoconservative hawks — its “decolonization.”
This irresponsible form of wishful thinking has taken hold in a surprising number of powerful and influential venues.
The Atlantic Council recently released a report in which 40 percent of experts surveyed “expect Russia to break up internally by 2033 because of revolution, civil war, political disintegration, or some other reason.” Twenty-one percent, the largest number of respondents, believed that Russia was the country “most likely to become a failed state within the next ten years.” Only 3 percent of respondents to the latter question said Haiti, a prediction that seems to have only survived about half a week.
In June, the congressionally-funded Commission on Cooperation and Security in Europe held a hearing titled, “Decolonizing Russia: A Moral and Strategic Imperative.” In his opening remarks, commission co-chair Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) stated, “Russia certainly has issues where they have, in essence, colonized their own country. It’s not a strict nation in the sense we’ve known it in the past.”
One commission witness, Casey Michel, asserted that “there’s this ongoing confusion … that the notion of decolonization, especially as it pertains to Russia, is simply a camouflage for dismemberment and partition, which it is absolutely not whatsoever.” This is somewhat at odds with Michel’s more recent view that “an inability or reluctance to understand Russia as the colonial empire it remains … is blinding Western policymakers to the potential for the Russian Federation’s dissolution.”
These views aren’t particularly new. In 1997, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recommended that Russia be split into three “loosely confederated” republics. Incidentally, during the Second Chechen War, Brzezinski was the co-chair, along with former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, a nongovernmental organization operating out of the partially government-funded Freedom House, which promoted the cause of Chechen separatists.
Fantasies such as these are nonetheless reckless to state out loud, particularly with the imprimatur of government officialdom. In December 2021, two months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said with regard to NATO, “It seems to me that our partners … think that Russia is a tad too large. … Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we only had 146 million people and that is too much for the West. I think that is the only explanation for their constant pressure against us.” In September 2022, Russia’s former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that “a forceful disintegration of a nuclear power is always a chess game with Death,” colorfully embellishing that these were “the dirty dreams of the Anglo-Saxon perverts.”
If careless statements promoting regime change are ill-advised, officially advocating for the breakup of Russia — let alone any material support for separatist movements within Russia — would be dangerous in the extreme.
Perhaps even more threatening than a deliberate Russian response would be an actual crackup of the world’s largest nuclear power, in which command and control systems break down, while stockpiles and scientists seek out new masters. This prospect should be especially hair-raising in a country where separatist movements — sometimes with exceptionally capable fighters — have been co-opted by jihadi terrorist organizations. Few seem to remember that during the end of the Soviet Union, the worst was avoided by equal measures of management and luck.
Even if Russia fractured without a nuclear catastrophe along the way, there’s little reason to think this would be to the geostrategic benefit of the United States, which faces a far more formidable challenge in a rising China. Were a series of new states to proliferate in Russia’s vast, resource rich but sparsely-populated east, they quite possibly would become satellites of China. By contrast, a unified Russia provides a lumbering giant to divert some of Beijing’s strategic attention away from the Pacific and to limit its command of Central and Northeastern Asia.
Finally, the paternalistic impulse to break up someone else’s country could blow back on our own humble multiethnic empire. What if China or Russia tried to make us return the half of Mexico we annexed not so long ago — including California, now the world’s fourth largest economy? Or to give the rest of the country back to its original owners, who remain subject to the shockingly abject conditions of the reservation system? Would this solve our own country’s problem with repeated interventions abroad? Let’s remember the old adage involving stones and glass houses.
Christopher McCallion is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
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