AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
As Moscow continues to wage its war of conquest in Ukraine, opposition leaders inside Russia are renewing calls to dismantle the Russian Federation, adding more pressure on Vladimir Putin as his military offensive falters. With the G-7 conference beginning on Friday, Russia’s post-war future is sure to be a topic of discussion among world leaders.
During the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, more than a dozen former satellite nations broke away from Russian control in a largely peaceful manner to become fully sovereign and independent countries. Some of these, like Poland, have become flourishing democracies and allies of the United States.
In other cases, however, semi-autonomous regions remained part of the new Russian Federation and have been under the direct or indirect control of Moscow ever since. These republics were allowed to form their own constitutions, and some even adopted their own currencies. In theory, they retained the right to break away from Russia entirely.
In practice, however, Moscow has used brute force to keep these regions under its control. The most infamous example of this was Russia’s two wars in Chechnya, a small, mountainous region in the North Caucuses that is home to about 1.5 million people.
Now, many of these regions, which view themselves as rightfully sovereign countries imprisoned within the Russian Federation, are again pushing for independence, hoping to take advantage of Putin’s weakness as a result of his failures in Ukraine. Many of these opposition leaders refer to Russia as the “Moscow Empire,” a modern-day version of European colonial empires that once spanned the globe.
Representatives of republics like Sakha, which is twice as big as Alaska and home to nearly a million people, Buryatia, also home to a million people and nearly as big as Montana, and Altai, which is slightly bigger than Maryland, have said they have had enough of Moscow’s domination.
These smaller republics, which are comprised largely of non-Russian peoples, have borne the brunt of Putin’s war in Ukraine. A Foreign Policy analysis found that, as of last September, there were more than 200 confirmed battle deaths each from Dagestan, Buryatia, and Krasnodar, compared to just 15 from the Moscow region. Despite being home to a full ten percent of Russia’s population, Moscow has suffered low losses compared to poorer regions in Russia’s far east made up largely of minority populations.
Partially in response to this, opposition leaders in many of these republics have banded together to form the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum (FNRF), an umbrella organization which is calling for the dissolution of the Russian Federation. The FNRF has appealed directly to the United States as well as the United Nations to assist them in the transformation to independent republics.
These opposition leaders notably report being inspired by the American dream of independence that birthed the United States nearly 250 years ago. Just as the U.S. Founding Fathers did, the FNRF promotes the idea that government derives its power from the consent of the governed, and all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.
The FNRF’s hope is that the war in Ukraine and the Western pressure campaign will lead to a similar situation as in 1991 when the Soviet Union also faced external and internal pressures, leading to independence for many former soviet republics.
However, some experts believe such a mass independence movement could be difficult to replicate organically, and would only succeed with outside intervention. Dr. Paul Goble, a leading specialist on ethnicity and the history of non-Russian peoples within Russia, told this correspondent, “frankly, the current situation is not anything like that,” referring to the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
As he explained, when the Soviet Union fell, the republics that won independence did so by quickly declaring their sovereignty and affirming pre-existing borders. Many republics that are now seeking independence have disputed or vaguely-defined territorial claims.
The Soviet Union also lacked the ability to engage in mass police action against many countries at once, Dr. Goble argues. While the Ukraine war has certainly diminished Moscow’s power projection, Putin still has more firm control of his military than did Soviet leaders in 1991.
Additionally, the republics which broke away from Moscow in 1991 represented about 50 percent of the USSR’s population. Today, republics which are majority non-Russian only make up about 15 percent of the Russian Federation’s population.
However, Dr. Goble told me, “All the events that eased and accelerated the collapse in 1991 do not exist, but the current circumstances look like 1918.” This, he says, should be very alarming, as 1918 was the beginning of a bloody civil war in Russia.
Dr. Goble believes the West should have a pre-determined plan for Russia at the end of the Ukraine war, so as to ensure internal conflict does not engulf Russia and lead to a chain reaction of violence and instability throughout eastern Europe. While he advocates for the independence of republics who wish to break free from Moscow – whether naturally or with outside support – he is hopeful that this goal can be accomplished peacefully.
It is possible that the map of Europe and Asia could once again be redrawn in the coming years just as it was after 1991. If this is indeed the case, it will once again be a course-altering event in the history of the world.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.