Fraught legacies of colonisation are returning to haunt a multinational state founded as an empire.
The writer is an analyst and investigative journalist who covers topics from kleptocracy to modern Russia As the cold war sped to its close, western observers bold enough to forecast the Soviet Union’s collapse were few in number and small in influence.
This was reported by The Financial Times.
The USSR’s territorial integrity was taken for granted. Those who thought otherwise — such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US senator who predicted in 1980 that the Soviet break-up would be the “defining event of the decade” — were largely ignored.
As such, when the Soviet implosion began rippling across Eurasia, western governments were caught flat-footed. Instead of shaping the contours of the Soviet collapse, leaders such as President George HW Bush, who publicly cautioned against Ukrainian independence, scrambled to keep up with the pace of events.
In hindsight, it’s difficult to see how western policymakers could have been so myopic. Moscow was mired in a bungled war in Afghanistan, burdened with a stagnating economy and increasingly struggling to retain control of its continent-wide colonial empire. And yet, time and again, most western officials missed the widening cracks that were staring them in the face.
Now, with the Kremlin once more bleeding men and resources in a foreign war, and again sagging under a torpid economy, western policymakers risk being caught out a second time. Just as a failure of imagination blinded the west to the Soviet Union’s imminent demise, so the same failure — and an inability or reluctance to understand Russia as the colonial empire it remains — is blinding western policymakers to the potential for the Russian Federation’s dissolution. None of this is to say that the Russian state’s territorial disintegration is inevitable, or even something over the immediate horizon.
But with casualties continuing to pile up and no end in sight for President Vladimir Putin’s messianic revanchism, the eventual dissolution of the Russian Federation can no longer be dismissed out of hand. Western policymakers need to begin preparing for the possibility sooner rather than later. There are, of course, differences between the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia.
Rather than emulate Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms, Putin has chosen repression and centralisation. And demographically, ethnic Russians remain the dominant nationality. But like the Soviet Union, Russia today is a federal state, centred on a constellation of republics representing the homelands of titular nationalities colonised by the Kremlin. The legacies of Russian imperialism and colonisation have hardly disappeared in these areas — indeed they grow more pertinent, and more painful, by the day.
The invasion of Ukraine has effectively exploded the myth of Putin’s united Russia — not least because the Kremlin has targeted specific nationalities, such as Sakha, Tatars and Chechens, for conscription. Minority voices opposing the war are “more radical compared to the old conformities and silences”, as one activist put it.
“They are talking about colonialism and imperialism, ethnic and racial discrimination.” Often overlooked in western academic circles, Russian colonisation of these nationalities in the Caucasus, Siberia and elsewhere paralleled the brutality of European colonisation, leaving persistent societal scars and schisms.
Even when it comes to places like Buryatia, which has seen a greater burst of anti-Kremlin agitation than almost anywhere else, the history of the Buryats’ colonisation — and how it took Russia a full century to fully subdue them — remains largely unknown in the west. Now, Putin’s war has transformed these colonised nationalities into “cannon fodder” for the Kremlin. And the fractures originating in Russian imperialism are beginning to emerge in ways reminiscent of the late Soviet period.
Clearly, Russia’s ethnic minorities are not suddenly agitating for secession. As one official from Tatarstan’s government-in-exile recently said: “Our struggle for independence has not yet started.” Besides, any secessionist movements are hardly guaranteed success. As after the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet collapse, the Kremlin has a history of snuffing out the sovereignty of colonised nationalities trying to break free.
This time may be different. Not only have these colonised nationalities watched the Kremlin’s pledges of federalism evaporate yet again, but western governments are more willing to recognise Russia for what it is: an unreconstructed empire, bent on reclaiming former colonies and adding them to the pile it still controls. Any movements emerging in opposition to this Russian colonialism are increasingly worth supporting.
Putin’s war in Ukraine risks turning Russia into a failed state with uncontrolled borders. This offers nationalities colonised by Russia and tossed into the maw of conflict the chance to claim sovereignty and freedom.
The west must, then, be ready for what comes next, including a possible Soviet-style disintegration. The historian Michael Khodarkovsky wrote in 2016: “We should not be taken by surprise if one day Russia itself implodes, as the [USSR] did.” All empires eventually splinter apart. Thinking Putin’s — and Russia’s — will be any different is just another failure of imagination.