Kremlin, Racked by Separatist Ferment, Sows Division and Decolonization Everywhere — Except at Home

The world’s last colonial empire, though, is Putin’s Russia.

AP/Efrem Lukatsky
Members of the pro-Ukrainian Siberian Battalion train near Kyiv, December 13, 2023. AP/Efrem Lukatsky

Texas should secede. Alaska should come home to Mother Russia. It’s presidential election time again in America, and Kremlin leaders again are preaching the breakup of the United States. 

Russia’s former president, Dmitry Medvedev, recently joined a Kremlin chorus supporting Texas independence. A Russian state television host, Tigran Keosayan, said of Alaska, which Russia sold to America in 1867: “Secession from the United States is half the battle. The main thing is to join Russia.” 

Reflecting the Kremlin view that Ukraine is Russian land, he exclaimed: “What  a surprise it would be if the secession from the U.S. succeeded before the secession of Ukraine.” While this sounds like nonsense to many Americans, the Kremlin projects onto the United States its own innermost fear: the split up of the 82-unit Russian Federation.

In 1914, Lenin called the Russian empire “a prison of nations.” Over the following century, Russification homogenized many of the differences, putting Russia’s 190 ethnic groups  into a cultural blender. Differences endure, though. A catalyst for unrest is  the war in Ukraine, a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, Janusz Bugajski, tells the Sun.  

To shield Moscow and St. Petersburg from the war, Russia’s military draft  targeted racial and religious minorities and residents of peripheral regions. British intelligence predicts that by the end of this year,  half a million Russian soldiers will be dead or severely wounded — more than five times the number killed and wounded during the Soviet decade in Afghanistan. 

Ukraine takes advantage of Russian citizens who do not want to fight for Russia, but to fight against Russia. Ukraine has set up a “Siberian Battalion” composed of men from ethnic groups east of the Urals. There are two Chechen battalions, totalling 1,000 men, fighting alongside Ukrainian troops.  

December saw the graduation of the first students from a new Ukrainian school — the University of Free Nations. Receiving instruction from lawyers, economists and  leaders of liberation movements, the first class included Bashkirs, Buryats, Chechens, Daghestanis, Ingush, Oyrat-Kalmyks, Sakha and Tatars. 

With Russia facing the biggest upswing in secessionist sentiment since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Mr. Bugajski, a Polish-American expert on the former Soviet Union, said “it is remarkable how many young people are getting involved.” Looking at demographic shifts, he added, “in 14 of the 22 autonomous republics, Russians are no longer the majority. The Russian element is shrinking. The ethnic element is rising.” 

On Tuesday, Jamestown will host at Washington the latest Free Nations of PostRussia Forum, a conference drawing “representatives of national liberation and anti-colonial movements of captive nations and regions currently occupied by Moscow.” Energized by radicalization caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Forum has held ten conferences  in the last two years.

Judging by the Kremlin’s reaction to two similar emigre conferences over the last two months, one in Estonia and one in Germany, the Kremlin will denounce the event as “proof” that the West’s  goal is to break Russia apart. Last month, President Putin used his annual State of Russia speech to accuse the West of  planning to turn Russia into a “dependent, declining, and dying space where they can do as they please.” 

While most of the 27 groups in the PostRussia Forum advocate independence for their regions, others advocate converting Russia, a highly centralized state, into a  federal one, along the lines of Canada, Germany, or the United States. Now deceased Russian dissident Alexei Navalny argued last fall in a Washington Post opinion piece that “Russia needs a parliamentary republic. That is the only way to stop the endless cycle of imperial authoritarianism.”

Skeptics say Russia can only be ruled with a strong hand from a strong center. “What used to be the main theme of anti-Western Soviet propaganda back in the 20th century is now a favorite toy of hawkish Atlanticists, pro-Ukraine activists and East European ethnonationalists,” Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin wrote recently in George Washington University’s Russia Post. He denounced the spreading separatist movements as the “realm of charlatans and grifters duping Western institutions out of their money.”

However, Russian leaders know that demographics are not on their side. In 1989, the last census of the Soviet Union showed that 120 million Russians lived in the Russian Soviet Republic, or 81.5 percent of the Republic’s population. In the 2021 census, that number declined to 105.5 million, or 72 percent of the total.  Muslim and Buddhist birth rates are often double Russian Orthodox ones.

Last month, Mr. Putin announced that he will channel $750 million into programs devoted to boosting birth rates in regions where they are lowest. Moscow State University geographer Vyacheslav Baburin points out that this is a first for Russia — reserving aid for predominantly ethnic Russian regions. 

American Russia analyst Paul Goble writes that Mr. Putin “has shown that the problem of the demographic collapse of the ethnic Russian center of the country is now so severe that he is prepared to address it…something ethnic Russians are likely to celebrate and non-Russians are likely to view as yet more evidence of the Kremlin leader’s hostility toward them.”

Without waiting for a Russian baby boom, the Kremlin has mandated the local governors to proactively put out separatist fires. The men running the Kremlin, starting with Mr. Putin,  all were traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has ordered regional governments to speed up Russification by curtailing local language classes and to create special staffs to block “the emergence and spread of separatism, nationalism.” 

On a national level, the Kremlin has branded a string of regionalist and separatist groups and leaders as “foreign agents” — the current equivalent of Stalin’s “enemies of the people.” The biggest crackdown was in  Bashkortostan, a largely Turkic Muslim republic of 4 million people 100 miles north of the nation of Kazakhstan. 

The January 15 sentencing of nationalist activist Fayil Alsynov to four years in jail sparked days of protests. After protesters pelted police with snowballs and chased police cars from the protest area, police responded with tear gas and batons. About 40 protesters were injured, and 197 were arrested and charged. Three men died in police custody.  Local Internet was shut down. 

Mr. Alsunov’s key ‘crime’ was protesting the draft of local men for the war in Ukraine. “The smartest, strongest Bashkir men are being put under fire,” he posted on social media. “This is not our war. Our land has not come under attack.” By one Bashkir journalist’s tally, 1,350 Bashkir have been killed in the war. 

The Kremlin-appointed governor, Rhadiy Khabirov, defended his crackdown  writing: “You can put on the mask of a good eco-activist, a patriot, but in fact the situation is not like that. A group of people, some of whom are abroad, essentially traitors, are calling for the separation of Bashkortostan from Russia. They’re calling for guerrilla warfare here.”  

From Moscow, a Duma member, Dinar Gilmutdinov, blamed the protests on “elements related to the special services of foreign governments, operating from the territory of Ukraine and the Baltic states.”

Contrasting with emigre talk of  “decolonization,” the Kremlin held an old-style conference in Moscow two months ago:  “Forum of Supporters of the Struggle Against Modern Practices of Neocolonialism.” The foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, urged delegates, largely from Africa, Asia and Latin America “to complete the decolonisation work launched by Soviet diplomacy at the UN.” 

At the “Free Nations of PostRussia Forum” in Washington this Tuesday, the prevailing view is likely to be that Europe’s last empire is Russia.

The New York Sun

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