Who would benefit from the fragmentation of the Russian Federation into a multitude of smaller, independent states? This is the question asked by Susan Smith-Peter, professor of Russian history at the City University of New York, who specializes in regional and local Russian history.
China replaces its maps with the old Chinese names of Russian-occupied territories
In a wide-ranging article published by the academic journal The Conversation, she argues that the prospect of a fragmented Russia is unlikely, but that discussions of Russia’s disintegration and changing names on maps touch on themes worth exploring. The teacher also wonders: who would benefit from a split of Russia: the West or China?
In early 2023, Smith-Peter writes, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources ordered that new maps use the old Chinese names of the lost territories in what is now the Russian Far East.
Vladivostok, the headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet, became Haishenwai; Sakhalin Island became Kuyedao. Then, in August, the ministry released a map showing the disputed Russian territory of Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island within China’s borders.
These changes come amid growing voices and even calls in Western foreign policy circles for the disintegration of the Russian Federation into a multitude of smaller states. It is believed that breaking up into smaller states would diminish Russia’s challenge to the West and its ability to continue the war in Ukraine.
The disintegration of Russia, demanded by many
Moreover, Smith-Peter points out, the number of those calling for or predicting the disintegration of the Russian Federation has increased in number since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. In the book “Failed State: A guide to Russia’s Rupture”, political scientist Janusz Bugajski argues that the territories of the Russian Federation will eventually declare their independence – as during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This, he and others argue, would be beneficial for everyone, outside of Russia. A smaller Russian state would have “reduced capabilities to attack neighbors“, claims Bugajski.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius takes a gloomier view of Russia’s disintegration, writing in August that it would provide “a playground for the devil” that could pose a danger to the West.
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin photo: The Truth archive
However, a growing number of analysts believe that, as Russia researcher Alexander J. Motyl puts it, it is “time to get serious about the potential disintegration of Russia.”
“Having worked on the history of Russian regionalism for two decades, I see serious obstacles to the declaration of independence of the territories“, says Susan Smith-Peter. She continues: “It is true that centralized authority has been detrimental – both economically and culturally – to some of the 83 regions of the Russian Federation. But there is a lack of massive public support for autonomy – that is, the ability to decide local and regional issues within a larger state – let alone full independence.“
Not all Russian regions want independence
Not all regions in Russia are the same, warns the expert. In some, such as Tatarstan and Dagestan, autonomy is genuinely demanded.
But most of the Russian regions demanding greater autonomy are in areas that would make it difficult for them to declare outright independence because they would still be surrounded by the Russian Federation.
“Those in areas more suitable for independence – say, those with borders with neighboring countries – often face other difficulties, such as being close to China. In the Russian Far East, there are concerns among potential separatists that independence could lead to the possibility of an interventionist China taking control or at least exerting influence”, warns Smith-Peter.
Geography poses big problems
“Abolitionists” – the term the teacher uses to describe those who support the disintegration of Russia – assume that all regions of the Russian Federation aspire to independence.
But an analysis of Russian regions by Adam Lenton of Wake Forest University found widely varying levels of support for autonomy in Russian regions.
The data shows that in many of the regions that have exiled independence leaders and are considered potential separatist regions, the public does not support this goal.
The data show support for autonomy rather than independence, which would make the Russian Federation a true federation.
How the support for autonomy in the Russian regions looks like The Conversation source
The region with the most support for autonomy is Tatarstan, a sub-national republic ruled by the Turkish-speaking Tatar people, 720 km south of Moscow. But the argument that this should lead to independence makes little sense – it would be completely surrounded by a hostile Russian Federation. An independent foreign and defense policy under such circumstances would be almost impossible.
The North Caucasus regions have some of the highest support for independence, plus a foreign border with Georgia, making them potentially better candidates for breaking away from “Mother Russia.” But the region has a bitter experience with attempts to secede. Chechnya’s bid for independence failed after a long and bloody war.
In Siberia, the Tuva region has high levels of support for autonomy. But it is in China’s backyard – and that would make it geographically vulnerable.
The Russian Far East includes the Amur region along the border with China and Vladivostok. These were taken from China by Russia during the 19th century when the Russian general Nikolai Murav’ev-Amurskii used Russia’s armed might and more modern military to defeat China.
But the status of the territories in the region remained controversial. In 1969, China and the Soviet Union fought an undeclared seven-month war over border issues.
China could turn the Russian Far East into its satellite
After 1991, China and Russia went through several rounds of talks and treaties to ensure that the border between them was ratified by both sides, with the last treaty held in 2004. Even so, not all groups in China accept the results.
Chinese textbooks still mention the loss of 1.5 million square kilometers to Russia and note that Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, said he would “this payment note”, that is, Russia will have to pay for what Mao perceived as a “theft of territory“.
“The theme that worries some Russians – and those in the West – is that China could turn the Russian Far East into its satellite, using it as a source of raw materials such as diamonds and gold, as well as oil and gas. And with economic hegemony comes political influence“, Smith-Peter also writes.
China faces challenges that make increasing its influence in the Russian Far East particularly attractive now, including what experts see as a structural economic crisis and a gap in rural education. Territorial expansion could provide economic growth while serving as a distraction from domestic problems.
Polls show that the war in Ukraine is having a unifying effect for Russians
But the disintegration of the Russian Federation could also pose a threat to China’s security. The experience of the Xinjiang region serves as a warning. This territory, which has been the focus of China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, has twice been a breakaway region under the protection of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
In addition, the Chinese Communist Party will be fearful that any unrest in areas of the Russian Federation that are close to Xinjiang could spill over.
The war in Ukraine united the Russians
“Given all this, the abolitionists’ argument that no one except President Vladimir Putin would lose if the Russian Federation disintegrated is simply not tenable“, believes the expert on Russian issues.
Moreover, instead of hastening the disintegration of the Russian Federation, polls suggest that the war in Ukraine is having a unifying effect.
“Many Russians who were initially against the war became reluctant supporters of it—in part because of propaganda that emphasized the threat from the West to Russia’s territorial integrity“, the article states.
As of 2021, Russia’s military doctrine emphasized this threat, stating that one of the main problems facing the nation were groups “intended to violate the unity and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation“.
So, writes Smith-Peter, “calls from the West for the dismemberment of the Russian Federation may suggest to Russians that Putin’s territorial fears may become a reality. Moreover, dreams of a fragmented Russian Federation could distract Westerners from the very real issue of helping Ukraine protect its own territorial integrity.“