The “top-down power” system imposed by the Russian President in the last 20 years – including the redefinition of the components of the federation – would be severely shaken by defeat. Economically speaking, given that a warring state must choose between guns and butter, Moscow may find increasingly difficult to provide either. Conscripts returning from the military campaign in Ukraine will often feel bitter and at times socially demeaned. Former prisoners that have joined militias will of course be tempted by the shadow economy of gangs, trafficking and extortion. Finally, as with all authoritarian regimes in which leaders sign a Faustian pact by fuelling competition between different power centers, the risk of large-scale violence would be real between the military, the intelligence services, the National Guard created in 2016, and, of course, the militias of Messrs. Prigozhin, Kadyrov or Shoigu.
The risk of territorial secession would add to that of political secession. There is no real Russian nation, according to political scientist Sergueï Medvedev: “there is just a population governed by a State.” The country now comprises 89 federal subjects, including 21 non-Slavic autonomous republics. Russian citizens (Rossiiskii) are not all ethnic Russians (Russkii), and the proportion of ethnic Russians (approximately 80 percent today) is on the decline. The other main nationalities – notably the Tatars, the Bashkirs, the Chuvash, and the Chechens – are experiencing population growth. As is well known, the poorest populations, often from remote areas, contribute disproportionately to the country’s military; to the point that, as in past empires, they have a sense of serving as cannon fodder for the central government. Was the breakup announced by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse in 1978 – based mainly on demographic data – prophetic?
The early 1990s come to mind, which, like the late 1910s, experienced an eruption of nationalities and demands for independence in the Union as a whole, but also within what was then the Federal Republic of Russia. Not many might recall that in 1990, each of the 21 constituent republics declared themselves sovereign. In the present-day scenario, Western observers ought to reacquaint themselves with an abundance of names that will no doubt seem exotic to non-specialists. Who, outside the circle of some of the country’s leading experts, had ever heard of the Chuulhn - the Kalmyk People’s Congress – which, on October 27, 2022, declared the independence of the people it claimed to represent?
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