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9 July, 2014  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

What Remains of the Empire

What Russia’s frontiers could look like in case of fragmentation triggered by ethnic, religious, economic and other factors

The inevitable failure of Putin’s regime can trigger disintegration of Russia. Unlike the unitary Ukraine, all oblasts and republics in Russia are de jure equal subjects of a federation.

In the 1990s, before Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, it was facing obvious disintegration trends in national republics, as well as a number of regions ethnically dominated by Russians. Putin drove these processes deep under the surface, freezing some, using security services and turning the rebellious republics into addicts of the Moscow-administered oil and gas rent provided by a handful out of Russia’s 83 regions. Another factor that helps keep Russia united is expansionist policy coupled with imperialistic and chauvinistic ideology.

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However, imperialistic illusions are doomed to crash against the bitter reality of Russia’s limited possibilities in today’s world.

For Ukraine, disintegration of Russia is vital despite all risks that the chaos of the process could carry. Ukrainians cannot feel safe next to a militarized empire, several times the size of their own country, that officially wages a nationwide campaign to deny Ukrainians a mere right to exist as a separate nation or a sovereign state. Moreover, its leadership declares the doctrine of unrestrained interference with Ukraine’s internal affairs based on one excuse alone: that a certain number of people who speak Russian in everyday life reside in various regions in Ukraine. In this situation, Ukraine’s national security is directly dependent on the seizure of Russia’s existence within its current borders. The process of disintegration should occur so as not to leave a single state with demographic, economic or military clout exceeding that of Ukraine.

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It is for this reason that Ukraine must now take every possible effort to encourage future disintegration of Russia and affect the arrangement of spin-offs that would be favourable for itself. At the same time, it should keep persuading Europeans and Americans that the benefits of such disintegration for the Western world are potentially much greater than possible risks caused by temporary destabilization of the huge territory that possesses nuclear weapons. After all, the world has already gone through a similar process once when the Soviet Union collapsed. As a result, nothing particularly scary happened, while the world only gained from it. Just think how much worse the situation would be today if Vladimir Putin had come to power back in the 1990 to run the USSR within its original borders rather than in 1999 to run the current Russia.

The crucial fracture

Disintegration of the Russian Federation could be triggered by just a few federal subjects that are potential hotbeds of separatism. They already have plenty of ethnic and/or economic reasons to separate from Moscow. If such sentiments escalated, Russia’s further existence as a single state would be impossible due to a number of reasons.

The first such province is the modern Ural Federal District that is clearly divided into two specialized regions: Tyumen Oblast (or Yugra comprised of the oil-rich Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug) and the steelwork-dominated Ural including Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk oblasts. Adjacent is Kurgan Oblast dominated by industrial machine building.

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Tyumen Oblast with its two autonomous okrugs has the most abundant resources in Russia. It provides 2/3 of all Russian oil and over 90% of natural gas (Gazprom is nothing without it). Deprived of its minerals, the rest of Russia would automatically turn into a huge importer of natural gas and would hardly be able to export oil or oil products, but would most likely have to import those as well. The population of Tyumen Oblast was a mere 3.55 million at the beginning of 2014, with just 2.15 million in the autonomous okrugs that extract oil and gas. This makes the region comparable to Kuwait in terms of oil extraction per capita (Kuwait’s population is 2.7 million people). The only difference is that Tyumen Oblast extracts 3.5 times more oil and over 150 more gas than Kuwait does.

Moscow is currently taking all rent from these riches, channeling it into confrontation with the outer world and support of depressed regions inside Russia, including a toll to North Caucasus republics. Thus, even though ethnic Russians make up an absolute majority in Tyumen Oblast, they have sufficient socio-economic motivation to get independence. Remote as it is from China, it faces minimum Chinese threat. The scale of its integration with European economy opens vast possibilities for entering the protectorate of the EU and NATO. That option would be much cheaper for the region compared to the funding of all Russia and its growing spending on the military industry and external expansion.

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Part of Ural Federal District that encompasses Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk and Kurgan oblasts also has its long-standing separatist sentiments, including attempts to establish the Ural and South Ural Republics in the 1990s. A natural addition to it would be Perm Krai adjacent to Ural. Together, they would make the territory of the “Great Ural” comprised of four modern federal subjects covering the floor of 517 sq km with the population of 11.3 million as of the beginning of 2014.

Separatism is not limited to these two regions. The state of Komi could emerge north-west of it. Its motivation would be similar to that of the mineral-abundant Tyumen Oblast. The Komi Republic and Nenets Autonomous Okrug (Komi Republic would be landlocked without it) extract 30 million tons of oil and 4bn cu m of gas today. They could export almost all oil and part of gas. With the current prices, this would bring them nearly USD 20bn of gross income and at least USD 10bn in various revenues to the budget of a country that would have a tiny population (915,000 as of the beginning of 2014).

South of Komi are two Turkic Muslim republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. They provide up to 50 million tons of oil yearly, Tatarstan extracting nearly 8.5 tons per capita, and Bashkortostan supplying nearly 4 tons per capita. The average ratio of extracted oil in Russia is under 3.5 tons per capita. Both republics have poorer resources than Komi or Tyumen Oblast, yet they abound in long-standing separatist sentiments as stranger-republics in Russia. In Tatarstan, the share of the titular ethnic group has already exceeded 53%. Turkic Muslims in Bashkortostan seem to be facing serious problems of ethno-linguistic identification. This could serve as a ground for merging into a single state with Tatarstan. Ethnically, Bashkortostan has 29% of Bashkirs and 25% of Tatars. Linguistically, 34% are Tatars while 25.8% are Bashkirs. A third of all Bashkirs speak Tatar, while the capital of the republic has twice as many Tatars than Bashkirs.

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The two states could as well exist separately once disintegrated from Russia. For them, the fate of Orenburg Oblast is important: it cuts them from Kazakhstan, i.e. alternative routes for exports of fuels that would allow the potential state to avoid dependence from Moscow. Orenburg is still dominated by the Russian population, yet it has many Turkic Muslim peoples, including Tatars, Bashkirs and Kazakhs, especially in rural parts. If Bashkortostan and Tatarstan united into one state, they could well add the 2-million Orenburg Oblast, or at least part of it densely populated by Turkic people that would open them the corridor to Kazakhstan.

The second blow

Without Tyumen Oblast, Komi, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the Asian and European parts of Russia would be torn apart. Meanwhile, prerequisites already exist for a similar divide within the Asian part of Russia.

The state of Sakha (Yakutia) could emerge in Northern Siberia and the Far East. Currently, the republic is 3.08 million sq km with the population of 954,000 people. The share of Yakuts has already hit 50% after two decades of intense growth (from 33.4% in 1989). Similarly to the scarcely populated areas of the Extreme North, it has huge deposits of nonferrous metals and stones, as well as other minerals, compared to the number of its population. This provides it with a much higher income compared to the rest of Russia. With Russia disintegrated, Sakha could potentially integrate the neighbouring Chukotka Autonomous Okrug mostly populated by innumerous indigenous groups of the Far North (Chukchas, Dolgans, Nenets people, Evenks, Evens, Koryaks and others), parts of Krasnoyarsk, Khabarovsk and Kamchatka krais, as well as Irkutsk Oblast. The same goes for Magadan Oblast which has just 160,000 people (most of them staying there temporarily) but cuts Sakha off the Pacific Ocean. If merged, this “Great Yakutia” could cover 7.15 million sq km (40% of the current Russia) and 1.47 million people. 

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Three national republics could emerge south of the possible “Great Yakutia” whose indigenous peoples are an absolute majority of the local population or could soon become the dominant groups in their respective regions. One is Buryad Oron (Buryatia), the other two are Tyva (known as Tuva in Russian) and Altai. They all border on Kazakhstan or Mongolia.

The potential “Great Yakutia” and Buryatia could cut off Zabaikalsky Krai and administrative units of the Far East from the rest of Russia, thus creating the foundation for them to emerge as one or several separate states. If united, such state could cover 1.63 million sq km with the population of 6.14 million as of the early 2014.

The rest of today’s Siberian Federal District would thus stretch to Tuymen Oblast in the west and Buryad Oron and Sakha (“Great Yakutia”) in the east. Within those frontiers, it could well grow into an independent state comparable to its southern neighbour Kazakhstan by scale. The floor of such Siberian Republic or Federation would be 1.92 million sq km with the population of 16.4 million as of January 1, 2014 (compared to 2.7mn sq km and 17.2 million people in Kazakhstan). Over 90% of its population are ethnic Russians and Russified descendants of people from European countries (Ukraine and Belarus first and foremost). It is home to 80% of Russia’s coal deposits and has vast farmlands making Siberia an important exporter of coal and grain, as well as other farming produce, to the global market. The region harvests nearly 20mn tons of grain per capita, a number equal to crops in Ukraine.

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The European part

Apart from the abovementioned republics, potential spin-offs in the European part of Russia include Chuvashia and Mari El, both adjacent to Tatarstan, and North-Caucasus republics (the fractures there are difficult to project). If Moscow happened to lose the oil rent from its internal colonies, the current lavish subsidies it is allocating to the North-Caucasus republics would stop, and they would have no motivation whatsoever to remain in the Kremlin’s grip.

The adjacent Southern Federal District could follow its historical divisions and split into the Cossack Don (comprised one time of today’s Rostov Oblast and much of Volgograd Oblast), and Kuban (today’s Krasnodar Krai and Adygeya). The remaining units would then be Hal’mg Tanghch (Kalmykia in Russian) and Astrakhan Oblast.

In Kalmykia, the native Kalmyks make up the majority and occupy most governing posts in republican authorities. It is home to deposits of hydrocarbon accumulations that also abound in the adjacent part of the Caspian Sea shelf. Astrakhan Oblast has, too, seen rapid de-Russification over the past 25 years. Even though native Russians are still over 50% there, many of its administrative units are dominated by other ethnic groups while the share of immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus is growing. With its diverse population and many followers of Islam, and historical experience of the Khanate of Astrakhan, Astrakhan would have good reasons to turn into an independent state.

The “Great Don” itself historically included only the western part of the modern Volgograd Oblast. Yet, if Russia fell apart, it could claim the entire oblast which shares many similarities with it. These are regions with similar Cossack traditions, export-oriented agriculture and few industrial spots. Together, they have 214,000 sq km and 6.8 million people.

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The southward Kuban as part of Krasnodar Krai and the Republic of Adygeya would naturally merge with the adjacent Stavropol Krai (which would otherwise be left alone on the border with its North-Caucasus republicsDagestan and Chechnya first and foremost). If merged into the “Great Kuban”, the state would outrun Bulgaria, its neighbour across the Black Sea, by population, size and economic potential. It could export 15-20 million tons of grain alone with the current rate of harvesting. Plus, it is through Kuban ports that much of the transit from Central Asia and Siberia goes. It includes tens of billions of cubic meters of oil annually. And tourism flourishes on its coastline. All this provides reliable economic foundation for an independent state that could use its state-building experience from 1917-1920.

If Russia happened to fall apart and Moscow lost its oil colonies, another inevitable secessionist would be Kaliningrad Oblast. Surrounded by EU member-states, it is strongly integrated with their economies, has a decent population (almost 1 million compared to 1.2 million in Estonia) and plenty of territory to become another Baltic State. It could be called Prussia after the tribes inhabiting it before the German conquering.

Russia the size of Holland

With the abovementioned trends, Russia could shrink back to almost match the frontiers of the Tsardom of Muscovy when it just emerged in 1547, ending up with up to 2.23 million sq km of territory and 66 million people (as of the beginning of 2014). It could include eastern parts of the historic Sloboda Ukraine, that is 12 southern counties of Voronezh Oblast and 11 southeastern counties of Belgorod Oblast inhabited by predominantly Ukrainian population (according to all censuses) up until the 1930s.

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Once back to its authentic size, Russia (Muscovy) would likely face a socio-economic and psychological shock that would make it revise its role in the world and the region and quit its hegemonic ambitions. Within new borders, Russia would be forced to import almost all gas and oil it would consume, as well as partly grain and other basic foodstuffs. Deprived of oil and gas rent, it would have to cut the funding of the military industry and the army, state-funded organizations and services. All this would cause a sharp decline of domestic demand and the crisis of economic sectors driven by it. A collapse would then be faced by Moscow and probably St. Petersburg along with towns around them, currently home to 26 million people. They would turn out to be unnecessary and unaffordable for a 65-million strong country with no serious natural resources. This would in turn evolve into a resulting economic crisis, plummeting employment and a surge of migration.  

It could also trigger the effect of “Serbization”: once it realizes that it lacks even minimum clout to pursue its old imperialistic ambitions, and in the face of a socio-economic disaster, the country would be forced to embark on a path of real democratic and market reforms, and adjust to the standards of any average European state. In a new format, Russia would hardly claim a role in European politics equal to that of France or the UK, let alone Germany, while its weight would be limited to the comparable Ukraine, Poland and Spain, or probably the slightly more powerful Italy. Other spin-offs on the territory of the modern Russia would naturally have no imperialistic ambitions while some of them would likely develop into normal European national states, and become Ukraine’s partners in the EU and NATO eventually. Central Eastern Europe would then have a chance of stability.

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