The Ukraine War might really break up the Russian Federation


Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

It’s time to start taking the potential disintegration of Russia seriously.

A number of analysts see the shattering of the Russian Federation as a possible aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic war in Ukraine.

Although the world would be better off with a much weakened Russia, its fall may not go smoothly.

The Jamestown Foundation’s Janusz Bugajski would probably agree with this assessment: “as a rump state, under intense international sanctions and shorn of its resource base in Siberia, [Russia] will have severely reduced capabilities to attack neighbors.”

As a result, “NATO’s eastern front will become more secure; while Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will regain their occupied territories and petition for European Union and NATO integration without fear of Russia’s reaction.” Moreover, “countries in Central Asia will also feel increasingly liberated.”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius holds a gloomier view: “A fragmenting, demoralized Russia is a devil’s playground. … Russia’s internal disarray poses a severe dilemma for Putin, but it’s very dangerous for the West, too.”

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Tatiana Stanovaya occupies a middle ground, while leaning toward Ignatius. She writes that, on the one hand, “the Kremlin will be wrestling simultaneously with…a deepening crisis of Putin’s leadership, a growing lack of political accountability, increasingly ineffective responses by the authorities to new challenges, an intensifying fragmentation among elites, and a society that is growing more antiestablishment.”

On the other hand, although “the world will have to contend with a more dangerous and unpredictable Russia,” it’s likely that “this inward turn could lead to a more pragmatic approach to the war against Ukraine.”

Bugajski’s optimism derives from his focus on a post-disintegration Russia, one that is a rump state under international scrutiny, lacking the economic and military resources it would need to pursue an imperialist agenda. Ignatius’s pessimism, like that of Stanovaya, derives from their focus on the process of Russia’s disintegration, which, even in the best imaginable circumstances, would be very messy. Both Ignatius implicitly and Stanovaya explicitly worry about a less predictable Russia, which would presumably be more dangerous.

So, who is right?

Bugajski is correct to argue that a rump Russia reduced to the area bounded by St. Petersburg, Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod would immediately cease being a major geopolitical player and thus a threat to any of its neighbors — especially if the latter band together with the West. Life within that state might be poorer, but it would also likely be safer and more secure.

And even if rump Russia retained all of its nuclear weapons, it would be in no position to use them, except in the highly unlikely event of a coordinated attack by its neighbors.

But Ignatius and Stanovaya are also right to worry about the path to Russia’s final disintegration. Putin is trapped and possibly inclined to take desperate measures. Russia’s former president and prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, is, as his unhinged missives suggest, arguably insane — and he is not, alas, alone in his insanity. Russia’s elites are fractured and fragmented, lacking a cohesive and coherent vision of their country’s future; no one knows what to do about the disastrous war with Ukraine.

As Stanovaya says, “these developments are transforming Russia into a far less cohesive entity, one rife with internal contradictions and conflicts, more volatile and lacking predictability.”

But why is internal disarray and unpredictability a problem for the West — or, for that matter, Ukraine, or any of Russia’s other neighbors?

Russia has been in disarray for 30 years. True, the Boris Yeltsin years in the 1990s were especially difficult, but Putin has decidedly failed to build a cohesive society and functioning economy. A repressed society may be more pliant, but it is not cohesive and stable, as the Soviets learned during perestroika.

A dirigiste economy may enable the authorities to funnel resources toward whichever projects they want, but it is not therefore more functional. Putin did succeed in building a stronger regime and state, but even that success has been deceptive. It’s clear now that strengthening the forces of coercion while permitting the bureaucracy to run roughshod and seize rents is no way to promote state strength, but it is an excellent way to promote corruption and self-enrichment.

In sum, post-Soviet Russia has always been, in Stanovaya’s phrase, “rife with internal contradictions and conflicts.” The difference is that now they’re visible.

Post-Soviet Russia has also been unpredictable. Who thought Yeltsin would open fire on the parliament? That an unknown KGB officer would succeed him? That that unknown KGB officer would destroy several buildings inhabited by hundreds of Russians in order to consolidate his rule? That he would imprison and then free Mikhail Khodorkovsky? That he would launch a war against Ukraine in 2014 and relaunch it in 2022? That he wouldn’t crack down on a putschist mercenary leader who led an aborted coup attempt?

Putin has always been appreciated for his ability to outplay and surprise the West. What is that, if not unpredictability? Is unpredictability likely to increase if Russia experiences disintegration? Or is the opposite more likely — that, as both Ignatius and Stanovaya predict, Russia will become more repressive at home, that Putin will become more desperate, that the war will remain a quagmire for Russia and a liberation struggle for Ukraine, and that Putin’s rule and regime are headed for oblivion?

Russia’s neighbors and the West have been living with a deeply unstable and unpredictable Russia for three decades. Whatever the reasons for this state of affairs, there is almost zero likelihood that Russia will suddenly shed its instability and unpredictability and stop its slide toward disintegration. As Bugajski, Ignatius and Stanovaya recognize, instability and unpredictability are a product of Russia’s internal affairs. As such, they will continue to take their course, regardless of what the West or Ukraine do.

All that the West and Ukraine, as well as Russia’s other neighbors, can do is win the war, insulate themselves from Russia’s mayhem and imagine what will need to be done to make sure that Bugajski’s vision proves durable.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark specializing in Ukraine, Russia and the USSR. He is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as Imperial Ends and Why Empires Reemerge.


  1. “All that the West and Ukraine, as well as Russia’s other neighbors, can do is win the war, insulate themselves from Russia’s mayhem and imagine what will need to be done to make sure that Bugajski’s vision proves durable.”

    Honestly, which person that is reading this has enough confidence in our leadership that this – what the paragraph above says – can be achieved? Who could be such a leader?
    I have zero confidence.
    We’ll just have to wait and see what will happen to mafia land and how our naive cowards and mafia-ass-givers will react. React is all they could do, because none of the above-mentioned mediocre-at-best leaders or potential leaders are proactive achievers.

    • No one in the Dems has that vision as far as we know.
      As for the GOP, there are three good candidates for 2024 who could take the right decisions: Christie, Pence and Haley. But at the moment they don’t have any chance, with putinoid scum making all the running.
      Ukraine’s ability to emerge from the horror inflicted by the most savage, implacable and most genocidal regime in history is the hands of one man; an octogenarian with fading lucidity and rather questionable resolve.
      Joe has helped to prevent the worst catastrophe; full credit for that, but shows no signs of taking the key decisions needed right now.
      Surely his advisers should be saying : “win the war for Ukraine and you can surely present yourself to the electorate as a winner; a man of principle.”
      But I guess they aren’t.

      • Maybe they are telling him this, but the old guy concentrates too much on licking his ice cream cone.

        • Another new baby was murdered by the putinaZis today. The tragic story was in the DT:

          “A three-week-old baby was killed along with her family after Russian forces shelled a small village in southern Ukraine.

          The girl and her parents died in the attack on Shyroka Balka, while their 12-year-old son later succumbed to his injuries in hospital.

          A total of seven people were killed across Kherson today, while another twenty were injured. Houses were engulfed by fires caused by repeated airstrikes.

          Igor Klymenko, the Ukrainian interior minister, said: “Terrorists will never stop killing civilians voluntarily.

          “Terrorists must be stopped by force. They do not understand anything else.”

          Do world leaders like Biden see these type of stories?
          Surely it would move them to say: “we just aren’t doing enough; let’s finally at least give Ukraine what they need.”
          Can anyone read that and not want to end it?

          • Frankly, I don’t know if Biden or any of the other losers see such news. Sometimes I think that they are completely sealed off to any bad news.

  2. I am sure we here and everyone in the world with a soul would favour the Bugajski extrapolation.
    A de-fanged Russia is vital for the democratic world.
    But first Ukraine must win, win big and win quick.
    And that variable is in the gift of America and its allies.

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