Alexander Etkind: Defederating Russia

15 April 2022

by Alexander Etkind.

Originally from St. Petersburg, Alexander Etkind is a professor of history and chair of Russia-Europe relations at the European University Institute and a fellow of the European Institute for International Law and International Relations.


What happened to the Russian Empire? It collapsed at the end of an imperialist war. What happened to the Soviet Union? It collapsed at the end of the Cold War. What will happen to the Russian Federation?

The answer seems obvious but will disappoint many people. Russian patriotism is so constructed that even those unsympathetic to the Kremlin regime are not ready to recognize the imperial nature of the current Russian state. Even those who consider today’s Russian regime unjust, incompetent or simply dangerous believe in the survival of the Russian Federation in its current borders. And even those, who like me wish Ukraine a military victoryand for Russian leaders an international trial, are not ready to admit that this will be followed by the overdue end of the country itself.

Losing territory and people, the country has already gone through several incarnations – the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation. This indicates its historical instability and the inevitability of new metamorphoses. The country’s collapse has long been feared and predicted, andl leaders promised to prevent it. And, true, this process could have been slowed down by taking advantage of the favourable economic situation, given competent management, skilful diplomacy and sheer luck. The ruling party, United Russia, though famous for its worthlessness, took a name that demonstrated a profound fear of the country’s collapse, as well as an absence of other values. The country’s far more powerful partners in global politics in no way sought this collapse. Some were grateful to the Federation for the end of the Cold War that was dangerous and costly. Others simply do not like change, fearing it more than war itself. Either way, the coming collapse of the Russian Federation will happen not because anyone abroad wanted it or planned it, but despite any such wishes or plans. Most likely, it will also happen against the wishes of the majority of the Federation’s population. But this is not a question to be decided by a vote.

In Russia, for a long time, for two decades, nothing significant happened. It proved possible, as knowledgeable people said in the century before last, to put the country’s political life on ice for a long time. Everything changed during the Second Russian-Ukrainian War, a war that should never have been started by those devoted to the idea of a United Russia. But it was started and it is continuing. The moment of truth has arrived so far as the preservation of the Federation is concerned.

The age of empires is long past. As they collapsed in wars or rebellions, the former empires gave birth to a multitude of nation-states that had once been their colonies. The Anglo-Polish writer Joseph Conrad wrote that nowhere in the world is there a piece of land that has not once been the colony of another country. England was a Roman colony and became the metropolitan of a new empire. Poland, a centre of power in Eastern Europe, was divided between three hostile states. East Prussia was the metropolitan of its own empire, a place of coronations, and became a colony. Even earlier, roughly the same thing happened to Tartary. History goes on without obeying the rules. Empires rise and fall like waves in a storm. And, nonetheless, almost all empires disappeared in the twentieth century. This process is called decolonization. Empires lost the political struggle for existence to other forms of state – national and federal. We are now interested in the latter: Russia calls itself a federation, like Germany or Switzerland. But in fact, Russia behaves like an empire in decline.

What is the difference between a federation and an empire? The voluntary nature of entry and of exit. Empires are held together by force; federations do not object to self-dissolution. In the twentieth century, this was called self-determination up to and including secession. This norm was written into the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, adopted by the Bolsheviks in November 1917. Later, it somehow went missing from Russian constitutionalism. Some federations that are an assemblage of states or, as scholars say, composite entities, collapsed without use of force. Such was the case with the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. The collapse of others, by contrast, has led to civil wars with international involvement. This is what happened at one time to the United North American States. We saw it happen to Yugoslavia. We use the term empire when the forces are unequal and one side imposes its will on the other by military might. But it can also happen that the collapse initially happens peacefully, but wounded pride and unsatisfied ambitions then lead to new violence. This is also called revanchism. Then new wars are inevitable.

I am not calling for the collapse of the Russian Federation. I am predicting it, and this is an important difference. The collapse could have been prevented. For that, all that was needed was simply not to start the war with Ukraine. But revanchism overcame everything else, even the habitual sense of caution. The breakup of this Federation – a complex, artificial community fraught with huge inequalities and economically increasingly unproductive – will be the fault of its Moscow rulers. And there will be no other reason for its collapse. Those who love the Federation, those who think that its peoples will be worse off without it than with it, and those who consider a United Russia the main or even the only political value, should all blame those who unleashed this war and no one else.

Into how many parts will the Federation dissolve? And will these parts correspond to the current republics and provinces that make up the Federation? I think that the existing local apparatuses of power, their leaders and, finally, the current borders, will all play a role in this “self-determination up to secession.” But many other factors will also be important: economic and cultural, domestic and international. The new states will differ from one another. Some will be democratic, others authoritarian. They will all be more connected to their neighbours, partners in trade and security, than to their old and tired “relatives.” One can also predict that the wreckage of other national formations which after World War II ended up as part of Russia – East Prussia, Karelia, the Kuril Islands – will leave with particular alacrity. These will have another state to join. We can also predict that ethnic and religious relations in particularly complex regions such as the Caucasus will lead to new wars. It is also likely that inequality, in recent decades so characteristic of Russia, will increase even more following the collapse of the Federation. The regions that are currently donors of raw materials will become much richer and regions that are recipients of their aid will become even poorer. But the latter will probably find creative niches for themselves in the new conditions of freedom, they will trade in what only free societies can create and invent new “comparative advantages.”

In any case, history will go on. And sooner or later the international community, which cannot stand aside while changes of this magnitude occur, will have to notice them. Otherwise, too much blood will be spilt. At that point, there will probably be a Peace Conference, convoked on the model of the one held in Paris in 1918-1919 by the victors in the First World War. Russia, which had concluded a separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, was not invited to that peace conference and its work remained unfinished. At the new conference, the mediators in the negotiations will be the former neighbours of the new countries: Ukraine and China, Norway and Poland, Finland and Kazakhstan. The more successful federations – the European Union, the United States – will also play their roles. A century later, a new Eurasian Treaty will complete the work left unfinished in Versailles.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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