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West must prepare for a splintering Russia

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Buryatia. Idel-Ural. Komi. Sakha. Tyva. The names sound exotic to western ears. But these are not fictional Ruritanias. They are real places which may yet, their champions say, become real countries. Next month supporters of around 41 bits of what is currently the Russian Federation will meet in London. Their organisation, the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, was founded in response to the war in Ukraine. Some of their ranks are fighting there as foreign volunteers against Putin’s forces. Defeat for the Kremlin is inevitable, they believe, followed by Russia’s disintegration. That spells freedom for their long-forgotten homelands. They want outside help in economic stabilisation, safeguarding Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal, and building democratic institutions.

The rhetoric is anti-imperialist. The Russian authorities for centuries treated their peoples the way other countries treat their overseas colonies: looting natural resources, crushing dissent and imposing ruthless Russification. In the kaleidoscope of survivors, some have Turkic roots, such as the Tatars, Bashkirs and Chuvash. Others — Mari, Komi and Karelians — are ethnic cousins of the Finns and Estonians. There are the Buddhist Kalmyks and Buryats, plus Cossacks (descended from Russian warrior tribes), the Circassians of the Caucasus, Siberians and dozens of others.

The faultlines are not only ethnic and linguistic. Paul Goble, who as a US government official in the 1980s was a lone voice predicting the Soviet collapse of 1991, now thinks that a far messier, 1918-style disintegration is more likely. “Regionalism is going to be the nationalism of the next Russian revolution,” he told a post-Russia meeting in Washington DC, earlier this year. Other Russia-watchers think economic interests and territorial divisions could be a potent combination in some far-flung regions, as central power wanes.

The failed mutiny by Wagner mercenaries in June has highlighted the fragility of Putin’s grip on power. But the vaulting ambition of the “free nations” is not yet matched by reality. I spoke at a meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels. Official western support, or indeed serious interest from almost any quarter, was conspicuously absent. I could see why. Flags, maps, faded photographs and long speeches were in plentiful supply. Money, strategy, leadership and clout were not.

I was reminded of Cold War exiles, squabbling and seemingly pointless, in the 1980s. Yet these governments-in-exile and diplomats without countries had the last laugh as communism collapsed. Their western connections and historical legitimacy became prized.

Inside Russia, the forum is officially proscribed as an “undesirable organisation”. Its members operate underground or not at all. Yet the spectre of separatism haunts the Kremlin. Propagandists lambast the exiles. Putin’s security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, claims (without evidence) to have uncovered ten western-backed plots in Karelia, a region neighbouring Finland. The allergic reaction has deep roots. Russian nationalists believe western plots destroyed the Soviet Union and that our mischief is continuing.

Outside countries, notably Poland, did back such interwar efforts. But these days western governments steer clear. One reason is ignorance. We have pitifully few diplomats or experts who know the languages, cultures and history of Russia’s regions. Even countries with deep knowledge, such as Estonia, worry about giving the kiss of death to those they help. Quite innocuous efforts prompt repression (a small-circulation book of fairytales for the tiny Pomor minority, paid for by the Norwegian government, was treated as high treason).

Determined outsiders would have little to work with. The leaders of the old Soviet republics were political heavyweights, buoyed by five years of liberalisation under Mikhail Gorbachev. Regional elites in Russia now are stuffed with nonentities. Ethnic Russians are a majority almost everywhere, non-Russian languages marginalised. Although the war has largely spared Moscow and St Petersburg, casualties and economic woes have hit the provinces disproportionately hard. Yet so far that has stoked, not corroded, patriotic sentiment. The most cohesive non-Russian entity is Chechnya, which fought two wars for independence. But it is now in fervent alliance with the Kremlin and run, under strict Sharia law, by a particularly nasty warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov.

But the biggest reason for hesitation is that, to many outside eyes, a collapse is neither likely nor desirable. Some bits of the evil empire leapt to freedom in 1991 but others became dictatorships. Inside Russia it heralded a decade remembered for chaos and misery. Few want to risk a repeat. A leading expert in regional politics, Alexander Kynev, says the post-Russia movement is a counterproductive distraction. “The collapse of large countries almost inevitably gives rise to wars, territorial disputes and ethnic cleansing. Internal borders are usually as controversial as external ones. There is nothing good in getting 20 smaller dictatorships fighting each other,” he wrote recently. The priority, he argues, is not to “destroy the state and create chaos” but to rebuild institutions hollowed out by Putin.

For those under Moscow’s yoke, along with Ukrainians, Georgians and others, only disintegration can exorcise the demon of Russian imperialism. They would rather take their chances with a fragmented, disorderly Russia than face some future Putin. Western governments shudder at the prospect of that: a “time of troubles”, or smuta in Russian. They prefer stability to a smorgasbord of new countries. But that may not be on the menu.

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