Ex-analyst of the CIA says America has a chance to challenge China in the vast and resource-rich heartland known as the Republic of Sakha.A man on a snowy street at Yakutsk, Siberia, the capital of the Russian republic of Sakha, in December 1965. Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Sept 1st, 2023
As independence movements stir in Siberia, Washington has a chance to parry future Chinese moves, according to an American analyst of separatist movements in Russia, a federation of 83 territories.
“Better a protectorate of China than ruled by Moscow? There are a lot of people in eastern Russia who think that way,” Paul A. Goble, a former CIA analyst, warns the Sun. “It is critically in the interest of the U.S. that China not be the only player. I hope the Japanese also will play a role.”
Japan has historic claims to part of Russia’s Kurile Island chain, an area Tokyo calls Japan’s Northern Territories. Chinese schoolchildren study maps that mark much of the Russian Far East as “stolen by the tsars – 1858.”
The real prize for China would be Russia’s Republic of Sakha. Covering an area larger than Europe, this Siberian land mass is rich in oil, gas, coal, gold, diamonds, and rare earths. This last group includes key ingredients for smartphones, light-emitting diodes, wind turbines, and electrical cars.
“If the Chinese were to become the primary power in Sakha, they would become very close to becoming a dominant source for rare earths,” Mr. Goble, now an adjunct professor at Institute of World Politics at Washington, warns. Two weeks ago, a mixed ethnic group of Sakha activists issued a manifesto calling for independence of the region with a population of 1 million.
“For four centuries now, our Sakha Republic has been a colony of Moscow, our people have been enslaved by Russia against their will, our resources have been plundered, our nature has been trampled on,” the underground appeal begins.
“Now, during the military aggression of the Kremlin criminals against the free people of Ukraine, our men are being used in a deadly conflict, depriving our families, our people of a bright future. It’s time to put an end to this, secede from the Russian Federation and become an independent democratic state.”
Internally, Russia’s intelligence agencies try to infiltrate the new secessionist movements. Overseas, Russian diplomats seek to block them. Last month, a “Forum of Free Peoples of Post-Russia” was held at Tokyo, winning the support of several deputies of Prime Minister Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democrats.
Russia’s foreign ministry issued a proteststatement, saying that Mr. Kishida’s government “demonstrated open support for terrorist rhetoric and the ideology of hatred against Russia. … Japanese apologists for terrorist ideas must suffer the deserved punishment.”
Undeterred, Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, last week set up an 11-member committee to help ethnic groups and regions across Russia break free of Moscow’s control. A Rada deputy, Volodymyr Viatrovych, says: “The only way to dismantle the [Russian] empire is to destroy it from within … we must establish cooperation with the different minority people of Russia and develop mechanisms for strengthening their self-awareness, develop their media, their political and public structures and national military formations in our armed forces.”
Ukraine already has several fighting units composed of regional groups from the former Soviet Union — Georgians, Chechens, Belarusians, Buryats, and Siberians. To counter future Chinese dominance, Mr. Goble says, Washington could identify the Russian regions most likely to win independence in the 2020s. These areas could be wooed with expanded local-language broadcasting by Radio Free Europe. Rising elites could be given scholarships to study at U.S. universities.
One successful example of American diplomacy in the region, Mr. Goble says, is Mongolia, a former Soviet satellite sandwiched between China and Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Washington has successfully encouraged Mongolia to take the path of a pro-Western, open market, multi-party democracy. This summer, Mongolia’s parliament designated English as the nation’s primary foreign language, displacing Russian.
In contrast to the largely bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mr. Goble predicts that this time Moscow will fight back. Over the last 18 months, relentless Kremlin propaganda has taught Russians to see the invasion of Ukraine as an effort to avoid a split in the Slavic family. This mindset could easily transfer to a fight to retain wayward republics.
The fight over Russia’s land empire would be similar to the bloody civil war that was waged between 1918 and 1920. That’s when the Bolshevik leader, Vladmir Lenin, and the leader of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, managed to recover most of the Russian Empire, renaming it the Soviet Union.
“That small, mobilized center is going fight — and fight hard,” Mr. Goble predicts, referring to Russia west of the Urals. This Slavic core corresponds to the area controlled by Ivan the Terrible in the late 16th century. Of Russia’s 83 units, the 18 oblasts, or states, in the Central Federal District are expected to stick with Moscow.
Two weeks ago, though, authorities in one of those oblasts, Smolensk, were rattled when an oblast deputy, Vladislav Zhivitsa, made a statement at Warsaw calling for the independence of Smolensk.
Across Russia, the growth of secessionist sentiment is sparked by the poor performance of Russia’s army in Ukraine.
Mr. Goble says: “The amazing story is that Russia thought it had the second best army in the world. Now it has the second best army in Ukraine. Everyone inside the Russian federation is paying attention. If you are sitting in Sakha, in Chechnya, or in Krasnoyarsk, the Russian Army no longer is an irresistible force.”
Given growing radicalism in Russian regions, Mr. Goble predicts that five years from now Russia’s map will be different: “On the low end, the world could see six to eight new republics; on the high end — 60.”
With tectonic shifts expected to shake the world’s largest land empire, Washington could follow the leads of Ankara and Tehran and start planning now, he urges. “In 1989-1990, the number of people in Washington who thought the Soviet Union could collapse were microscopic,” he says.
Mr Brooke has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Voice of America. He reported from Russia for eight years and from Ukraine for six years, coming home in 2021.