Russia’s disintegration will happen and it will not be peaceful – interview
Janusz Bugajski/ Latvie dole
Russia’s disintegration started before its invasion of Ukraine, but the war accelerated the process. The Kremlin is likely to look for enemies in an attempt to maintain its crumbling state, which could lead to provocations against the Baltic states and Poland, Janusz Bugajski, an expert at the Jamestown Foundation, says in an interview with LRT.lt.
Bugajski is the author of numerous academic books, the latest of which – Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture – was published in September last year.
We’ve been hearing about the possible disintegration of Russia since the start of the invasion. Do you see any signs that Russia and its regime are crumbling?
I see a lot of signs and indications that Russia is on the verge of a major internal rupture. I wrote about this even before the war in Ukraine began, projecting it over a decade or more. Now, I think the process is going to be sped up.
It’s not going to happen overnight; we’re not going to wake up one morning and see declarations of independence by different states that are now part of the federation. But I think what we’ll increasingly see will be the impact of the war. In other words, a very important element would be for Ukraine to drive out all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory and inflict a major defeat on the Russian army.
I think that would reverberate very negatively across Russia, particularly if Crimea is lost. I think that would accelerate the power struggles within the elite between different sectors of the security forces, the private armies, and the FSB.
What we need to watch very closely is the role of regional leaders, who are being increasingly squeezed by Moscow to provide recruits for the military and devote more of their budgets to what is essentially military expenditure. There is also increasing economic distress. I think this year, Russia is going to witness a major economic downturn because of the sanctions regime and its own mismanagement and corruption.
So, I think this combination of economic distress and the internal power struggles, defeat in war, loss of men, and increasing militarisation of society is going to lead to various conflicts within the country. I think this will happen over the next couple of years. We’re going to witness major changes in Russia.
You said you were writing about Russia’s rupture even before the war started. What started this process or was it an ongoing process after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
It’s a continuation of the collapse of Russian imperialism, which we first saw with the fall of tsarism. The Bolsheviks managed to preserve much of the country, but nevertheless, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Poland did gain independence at that time. So, that was the first collapse of the Russian empire. The second collapse was the collapse of the Soviet Union when Lithuania and other countries restored their independence.
Now, I think we’re witnessing the third phase because 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, unlike most other countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, Russia hasn’t been able to transform itself into a viable state. It’s not a civic state, not an ethnic state, not a national state. It’s not even a modern empire – empires don’t really have a place in history at the moment, but Russia hasn’t been able to transform itself into a stable state.
And we see this in the case of Ukraine. Paradoxically, Russia’s attack on Ukraine indicates that while it is hungry imperially, it is incapable of controlling the territories that it acquires. The paradox is that as they lose territories in Ukraine, this will also encourage other nations and regions within Russia to claim sovereignty, self-determination, and even independence.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of the federal subjects of the Russian Federation were declaring sovereignty, and some were calling for independence. Chechnya, Tatarstan, and others did not sign the federal treaty, or they did so after a few years under pressure. So, there’s a lot of latent resentment of the fact that what was supposed to be a federation became a very centralised personal dictatorship. I think that is going to explode into Moscow’s eyes in the coming years.
Do you think these ideas of some regions gaining more sovereignty and independence, have roots in the local societies? Wouldn’t the outcome of the state crumbling be just different groups fighting between themselves?
It’s a combination. I don’t see it necessarily as a peaceful process. I think it will be a combination of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, most of which was violent, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was relatively peaceful.
I think we’ll see both violence perpetrated by the centre – Moscow – trying to keep these republics within Russia, as we saw with [Slobodan] Milošević in the former Yugoslavia. But also, we’ll see some relatively peaceful secession because Moscow simply would not be able to handle the unravelling once it begins, particularly because much of its security and military apparatus has been destroyed in Ukraine.
So, they won’t have the capabilities to hold the country together. They will try to do so in some regions rich in resources, but, ultimately, they will have to let go of much of the periphery, such as the North Caucasus.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky has suggested that the only viable option for Russia is to turn into a real federation. Do you think there are other alternatives for the future of Russia?
I agree with him up to a point. In other words, yes, if Russia had been a real federation, it would have had a future.
But I don’t see this at the moment, with this very centralised regime, which is not willing to let go of any central powers and is exploiting the resources of the richer regions, such as Western Siberia, the Arctic, or parts of the eastern Pacific region. I don’t see this regime going for federalism.
If there was a government that came and instituted genuine federalism, then much of the country could stay together. But I don’t think it is very likely. And even if it is likely, would they let go of those aspiring countries that say, we don’t want to be part of this federation because we don’t want to be exploited anymore?
I think there’s going to be a lot of suspicion. […] I think much more likely are power struggles, certain regions pulling away, and this sort of mix of Yugoslav and Soviet scenarios unfolding.
What do you think this would mean for Russia’s neighbours in the West, Central Asia, and even China?
I’m urging every government to monitor what is going on in Russia […] because I’m sure Moscow will try to project conflict onto neighbouring regions. In other words, it will try to mobilise the population against the so-called common enemy, and, of course, the Baltics are traditionally the common enemy for Russia.
I could imagine some sort of provocations against Estonia, Latvia, or even Lithuania or Poland. It won’t be an open attack because that would precipitate a NATO action, but some sort of provocation, sabotage, or hybrid war action.
So, I think we need to be prepared for this and NATO needs to be strengthened. I think one of the most important things that have happened in the past year is Finland’s membership in NATO because that increases the frontier between NATO and Russia. It also adds a very important military component and strategic component to NATO planning.
But there’s a lot that can be done, including plans to recognise those republics that declare their independence once the centre weakens to such a degree that it cannot control them. We also need to work closely with other countries. Countries like Turkey will be very much affected by what happens in the North Caucasus, Kazakhstan and Mongolia will be affected by what happens in southern Siberia and the middle Volga, and, of course, China and Japan will be affected by any loss of far eastern territories by Russia.
All of these countries need to plan very closely and prepare for this rupture. Otherwise, we’re not going to be in a position to protect our countries against spillovers from Russia, such as refugees, guerrilla wars, state actors, criminal organisations, and so on. I think the next few years are going to be extremely disruptive not only for Europe but also for parts of Asia, including Central Asia and the Far East.
But most Western leaders do not want to even ponder publicly about the prospect of something changing in Russia. Do you think they’re discussing this behind closed doors?
I know that in some countries there are definitely discussions about this behind closed doors, I presume also in Lithuania. I think the countries that have been most directly affected are beginning not only to think about it but also to talk about it and plan for it.
Yes, many of the Western leaders, including Washington and Brussels, prefer to maintain the status quo and even return to the early 1990s when we had a cooperative Russia.
But I think if anything, this war has shown that there is no going back. Putin and his regime were declared war criminals, even though they haven’t stood trial yet. […]
If the war in Ukraine reaches a stalemate or something that Putin can present as a military victory without reaching an actual victory, would this process of Russia’s disintegration be postponed?
After failing to capture Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, and other places, Putin’s declared victory was supposed to be the capture of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Now, they’re desperately trying to capture one town – Bakhmut – which is not that strategically significant. So, what kind of victory is he going to declare?
At some point, people are going to see through this. There may be a stalemate for a little while. Ukraine’s counteroffensive is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a long, drawn-out process, it might take several months, maybe up to a year. But during that process, Russian forces will be mostly on the retreat. So, none of this can be depicted as a victory.
We’ve already seen former military guys, complaining about the Russian military structure, about the defence ministry, and that the regime made a mistake. So, this is going to multiply. We’re just seeing the top of the iceberg, and what’s going on underneath I think is a major power struggle. If you look at the number of officers that have been replaced, you see this power struggle. I think it is going to spread across Russia as the regime loses territory in Ukraine.
Do you think it is possible that the regime could survive without Putin?
Depends on how you define the regime. This is not like communism with a huge party structure that controlled every aspect of life. It’s more of a centralised, personalistic, fascistic regime based around Putin. If Putin is ousted, I think there will be a power struggle as to who will replace him. There is no clear line of succession. Even the communists had some sort of debate in the Politburo and eventually came up with a candidate that everybody would agree to.
There isn’t that in Russia, and there isn’t a party structure or any kind of ideological structure that will keep this country together. So, once Putin is gone, the regime is going to be very unstable and people, both at the centre and in the region, are going to reach for power./lrt.lt/