“Nations are not eternal,” French philosopher Ernest Renan observed in 1882. “They have a beginning and they will have an end.”
That’s something to keep in mind as we assess the damage Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is doing to Russia.
The situation in Russia is increasingly fraught. Putin believed he would seize Ukraine in three days, show off the capabilities of the Russian army and revive the Russian Empire. Instead, he has galvanized and unified Ukraine, broken the Russian army and set in motion forces that could fracture Russia itself.
Those forces now unleashed in Russia are embodied by restive and resentful people groups who see a window of opportunity opening, as well as military fiefdoms who could play the role of king-maker or nation-maker in the wake of Putin’s debacle in Ukraine. Let’s start with Russia’s restive ethno-national groups.
By its own census tally, the Russian Federation enfolds 193 ethnic groups and 270 languages. Unlike America, which is indeed highly diverse, Russia’s ethno-national groups aren’t held together by a shared idea. Nor are they assimilated into something bigger than their group. Nor does it appear that Putin’s regime has the power – or largesse – to hold them together indefinitely. As an Economist analysis details, “For the past decade the main job of the Moscow-appointed governors has been to provide votes for Putin. In exchange, they received a share of oil revenues and the right to rule as they see fit.” These regions and statelets could break away if Putin falls.
The Russian Federation enfolds more than 80 autonomous regions, districts and territories. These include Chechnya, an enclave in southern Russia which has fought unsuccessful wars for independence against Moscow in the 1800s and 1900s; Dagestan, a region with 33 distinct nationalities; the Ural Republic, which attempted to go independent in 1993; Tatarstan, Siberia and Karelia, each of which declared “sovereignty” in the early 1990s; Kalmykia, which has made moves toward independence; Bashkortostan, which claims political autonomy; the vast Sakha Republic in eastern Russia; and scores of other regions. One of those regions is the St. Petersburg district, where members of the city council have called on the Russian legislature “to indict the Russian president for treason and remove him from his post.”
Moscow’s apparent use of ethnic minorities as cannon fodder in Ukraine could add fuel to the bitter resentment that already smolders in Russia’s hinterlands. The British Ministry of Defense, for example, reports that the death rate of troops deployed from eastern Russia to Ukraine as a percentage of the population is “30 to 40 times higher” than the death rate of troops deployed from the Moscow region.
Add to this combustible kindling the fact that some regions, corporate conglomerates and individuals have their own militaries.
Topping this list is the Wagner Group. A private military organization numbering in the tens of thousands, the Wagner Group was once the vanguard of Russian military operations – from Georgia and Crimea, to Syria and Libya, to Sudan and Mali. Wagner’s founder and leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, enjoyed close ties to Putin. Wagner’s personnel had access to the very best military equipment. And Wagner’s exploits accorded it prestige in Russia – and fear outside Russia.
In Ukraine, however, Wagner fighters have been eviscerated. Some 40,000 Wagner mercenaries are estimated to have been killed, captured or disappeared in Ukraine. Wagner’s mercenary army has been mauled in Bakhmut – apparently by Kremlin design. Wagner has been cut off from direct communications with the Kremlin and has not received needed ammunition. Prigozhin claims the Russian Defense Ministry is engaged in “an attempt to destroy Wagner.”
Putin confidantes, in turn, accuse Prigozhin and his mercenaries of committing war crimes – perhaps an early indication of how Moscow will defend and deflect the forthcoming charges sure to be issued by international tribunals.
With his army being ground down by Ukraine's monthslong defense of Bakhmut – and with little reinforcement from Russian regulars – Prigozhin cryptically said in March, “The Wagner private military group must turn … into an army with an ideology. And that ideology is the struggle for justice.” He added, “We will begin to reboot … we will start recruiting new people from the regions.” (That’s a reference to those far-flung territories whose sons Moscow has dragooned into war.)
In addition to these corporate armies and Wagner mercenaries and the Russian army, the Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service, Federal Protective Service, Ministry of Emergency Situations and National Guard field quasi-armies. Revamped over the past decade, the National Guard has been described as a “Praetorian guard” for Putin. Including Interior Ministry troops, riot police and special operations commandoes, it answers directly to Putin and is focused largely on maintaining internal security.
Some of Russia’s semiautonomous regions also have their own military-security forces. British diplomat John Dobson notes that Bashkortostan has a security force of 40,000 loyal to its president, Murtaza Rakhimov.
Chechnya’s well-equipped pro-Russian forces are fighting in Ukraine. But there also are pro-Ukrainian Chechen battalions actively fighting against their pro-Russian brethren and against the Russian army. As the Guardian reports, the pro-Ukrainian Chechens see a Ukrainian victory as the best path to independence for Chechnya. “We are fighting for a free future for us and for Ukraine,” declares one pro-Ukrainian Chechen soldier.
More worrisome for Putin: Some Russians are taking up arms against Russia.
With its core comprised of defectors, the Free Russia Legion (FRL) numbers more than 4,000 Russians fighting alongside the Ukrainian military. But FRL has its sights set on Moscow. “We will go to liberate our home – Russia – in order to destroy the Putin regime and establish a new free country in Russia,” an FRL fighter recently told Newsweek.
The FRL is reviewing thousands of applications. Indeed, there’s a deep reservoir of disenchanted and AWOL Russian soldiers. Consider the thousands of Russian soldiers who have refused to deploy; the reports of Russian troops killing their commanding officers and turning basic training into fratricidal massacres and rioting and mutinying; the torrent of social-media posts referencing absentee commanders and worthless equipment, disillusion and desertion. Russian troops from at least 16 regions have posted videos (here, here, here) detailing poor training, incompetent leadership and lack of gear.
An army of mistreated, disgruntled soldiers is a recipe for revolution, as history reminds us.
Political scientists note that one indication of state failure is a government that loses its internal monopoly on military force. That appears to be what’s happening in Russia.
As Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army-Europe, observes, “There is a lack of cohesive military structure in Russia.” Gen. Mark Hertling, also a former commander of U.S. Army-Europe, adds that these various armed groups, regional forces and private armies will “contribute to chaos” if Putin falls.
Chaos in Russia may already be unleashed. The fires, attacks and bombings all across Russia – airbases and National Guard facilities, police stations, railroad lines, military recruitment centers, government agencies, the headquarters of Putin’s political party, assassinations of Putin allies – are evidence of an active anti-regime resistance. Indeed, anti-Putin groups are openly taking responsibility for many of these guerilla-style attacks.
Although Putin’s demise – and Russia’s defeat in Ukraine – would be welcome news, chaos in Russia would not. Russia’s fragmentation into ethnic shards would create countless new national security concerns for the United States. Recall that Russia fields more nuclear weapons than any other nation. Its territory borders regions of vital importance to America’s security and prosperity: the Euro-Atlantic, the Indo-Pacific and the Arctic. And its natural resources help sustain many countries.
The worst-case scenario is something bloodier and uglier than Yugoslavia in the 1990s or Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of Putin’s reckless actions, we should prepare for the worst.