Putin Truly Fears Russia’s Potential Rupture – Analysis

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In February 2023, when President Vladimir Putin referred to the possibility that not only the Russian Federation but also the Russian nation itself could disintegrate, commentators in both Moscow and the West agreed almost unanimously that he was engaged in a propaganda exercise rather than expressing his own views.

These pundits do not think that Russia will disintegrate even if it loses in Ukraine and are confident Putin thinks the same way (Polit.ru, November 25, 2022). Such analysts have their reasons: Russia is far more ethnically homogeneous now than the Soviet Union was in 1991, and any coming apart now would require setting Russians against Russians rather than non-Russians against ethnic Russians (Vz.ru, July 13, 2022).

Today, the Kremlin has taken vastly tougher measures against the non-Russians within the Russian Federation’s borders than Mikhail Gorbachev did the last time the country’s future was at risk (Holod.media, February 14). Additionally, even most Russian opposition groups are against the country coming apart and warn that declaring such a goal is counterproductive (Echofm.online, March 1). Furthermore, Russians who oppose Putin and his war in Ukraine fear the possible disintegration of their country (Business-gazeta.ru, January 3). Indeed, many of them and others have long supported Putin because they believe he put a stop to the country’s possible rupture through his brutal war in Chechnya (Graniru.org, April 15, 2022).

Putin thus has reason enough to raise the specter of the disintegration of Russia and the Russian nation as a propaganda tool to win support for himself and his policies, especially when such notions are presented as goals of Western policy. And it is certain that the Kremlin leader considered all this when making his remarks. But at the same time, according to Russian commentator Aleksandr Skobov, compelling reasons underline the possibility that Putin, similar to but if anything even more than earlier Russian rulers, fears that “an abyss” overshadows his rule and that “the fragility of the entire imperial structure” could collapse suddenly and unexpectedly if he were to move away from repression. Skobov goes into detail on the ways in which fear had informed past Russian rulers and how that compares to Putin’s own worries (Kasparov.ru, March 6).

Skobov’s analysis is compelling. He points out that, similar to other empires, the Russian empire has always been a combination of various territories and peoples kept together by force, being distinguished by its strict limitation on the development of “horizontal ties” in establishing overall rule from the center. As the Russian commentator points out, “In seeking to subordinate everything to a ‘vertical’ administration, its imperial ruling class interfered directly in the natural rise of horizontal ties among the various parts of the empire” (Kasparov.ru, March 6). However, the Russian empire did something more: it deformed the Russian nation by compensating for its subordination by encouraging it to feel superior to all others. This “organic connection between the imperial character of the Russian state and the authoritarian tradition permeating the entire system of social relations is obvious” and helps produce as an “inescapable” side “the anti-Westernism” of the Russian system, whose leaders view the West as threatening both state and nation.

As a result, “an imperial Russia” under whatever name, Skobov stipulates, “easily moves from the state of being ‘a besieged fortress’ to that of ‘a crusade’ aimed at destroying” the West, which is viewed as “a nest of sin and vice” (Kasparov.ru, March 6). And that is especially the case as all events to “abandon both authoritarianism and anti-Westernism have generated powerful disintegration processes.” Thus, the Russian elite naturally seek to combat that danger, setting in train a vicious circle in which fears of disintegration reinforce both authoritarianism and anti-Westernism, the commentator argues. And that pattern means this: “a Russian empire cannot be liberal and it cannot become part of the community of Western civilization.” But parts of Russia could, and Putin’s fears about the disintegration of Russia and the Russian nation are thus part and parcel of his hatred of the West.

The answer to this is almost certainly positive, and as a result, “Putin fears that the imperial identity of his state without the support of an authoritarian power will easily divide into regional identities. And then ‘the cursed West’ will absorb into itself ‘the Russian world’ part by part” (Kasparov.ru, March 6). Putin’s references to parts of Russia, such as the Urals, breaking off is thus “not [just] something intended to frighten the people. This is a genuine and deep fear in Putin himself. And what is primary here is hatred of the West as a civilization, which rejects granting unlimited rights to power and its use” by the Russian state. By themselves, of course, Skobov continues, “the appearance of Muscovites, people of the Urals and so on is not something anti-natural or tragic.” The only issue is how this can happen without an uncontrolled societal explosion, something that almost everyone in Russia has a vested interest in seeking to avoid.

Skobov is far from alone in these suspicions about Putin’s thinking and in seeing the Kremlin leader’s hostility to the West and his fears about disintegration as deeply interlinked. Vladimir Marchenko, the political observer for Tatarstan’s Business Online portal, says that Putin’s understanding of the way in which these are linked comes from the influence of Ivan Ilyin, often identified as the Kremlin head’s favorite philosopher.

According to the Kazan analyst, the real reason Putin admires Ilyin is not the latter’s commitment to fascism. Rather, it is their shared obsession with the risk that Russia could disintegrate and their common commitment to do whatever it takes to prevent that (Business-gazeta.ru, October 2, 2022). For Marchenko, like Skobov, Putin’s authoritarianism, sprinkled with Ilyin’s influence, is therefore not primary but rather a reflection of these fears, something that sets both men apart from other Russian thinkers who have flirted with fascism. Additionally, this explains why Putin is committed to overcoming divisions in Russia even by force to prevent disintegration.

“Never before in history,” another Russian analyst, Vladimir Pastukhov, has observed, have so many people around the world, as well as in Russia, been so focused on the possibility that Russia may rupture, a sharp contrast to the years preceding the demise of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the Soviet Union in 1991 when few expected the radical changes just ahead (see Polit.ru, June 3, 2022; and compare with Russia in DeclineForewordYouTube, February 15). Yet, despite what many may believe, Putin is among their number, and his existential fears on this point are driving his policies across the board. As this is the case, his words about disintegration must be taken far more seriously than is currently the case.

This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 39

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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