Staunton, April 14 – Just as some old generals assume that future wars will be just like past ones, so too many analysts who predict the coming disintegration of the Russian Federation take 1991 as a model when the USSR fell apart precisely along the then-existing boundaries of the union republics.
That assumption has two consequences. On the one hand, it leads many to focus only on the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation as threats to the territorial integrity of that country, ignoring not only the extent to which their borders are even more gerrymandered than were those of the union republics in Soviet times but also many predominantly ethnic Russian regions which may have an interest in escaping Moscow’s clutches.
And on the other, it leads many to assume that as long as Moscow controls the non-Russian republics, it can ensure the territorial integrity of the country, an assumption that ignores regional aspirations and the multiplicity of political structures, including federal districts and economic zones, that could be the basis for challenges to the center.
In a comment on Ekho Moskvy today, journalist Aleksandr Plyushchev offers a corrective. He argues that “the breakdown of Russia will occur hardly along the borders of republics and oblasts drawn on maps. [Instead] it will follow unseen perforations which limit the power of the bosses of the most varied levels” (echo.msk.ru/blog/plushev/1747694-echo/).
Plyushchev’s insight suggests that the possible disintegration of the Russian Federation will be far messier and more radical than what happened in 1991, with more players of various ethnicities, including Russian, being involved and also with far more violence and uncertainty about any particular outcome.
The threat that this process could easily become a Hobbesian war of all against all may be a powerful weapon in the hands of those who oppose it; but the fact that there are far more players likely to be involved is something both analysts and political figures need to take into consideration.
Otherwise, they may find themselves in the position those mired in the past often do, incapable of imagining that the future could look very different from the past and that the policies that appeared to work against disintegration then are the most appropriate ones now and in the future.
Indeed, Plyushchev’s comment should sensitize everyone to the possibility that some of the strategies Moscow adopted in the past could, if applied in the new situation, provoke the very outcome that the center and its leaders say they do not want, a territory far more fragmented and unstable than that country has seen since the smutas of the early 17th and early 20th centuries.