Not only is the war against Ukraine killing thousands of people, devouring immense material resources, dismantling Russia’s connections to the rest of the world, and destroying the ethical values of Russians. The way Putin and his government are waging this war is laying — and has already laid — the ground for a future civil war. It doesn’t matter that much whether it breaks out in one year or in two. What matters is that, with every day, it becomes more and more inevitable.
But firstly — is a civil war in Russia even possible? It is not, so long as we imagine it to be something like the civil war of 1918-1922, when the Russian Empire broke down into dozens of states or quasi-state entities. Modern-day Russia is exceptionally unified both ethnically and linguistically. Ethnic minorities make up only a small percentage of the population. The only region with a chance of independent existence is the Chechen Republic. However, even the secession of Chechnya — or a war for such a secession — would not be a full-fledged civil war, simply because Chechnya only makes up 1% of Russia’s population.
Indeed, a “region against region” type of civil war is practically impossible in modern-day Russia. A civil war of another nature, however, is possible —
like that which took place in the 1990s in Krasnoyarsk and Yekaterinburg, Kemerovo and Nefteyugansk between different gangs and law enforcement entities, both state and private, for access to the financial flows of industrial assets and natural resources. Only this time, unlike during the 1990s, there will be many more people with military experience taking part. And they will be considerably better armed.
However, a sharp increase in the number of people with military experience and in the amount of combat weaponry available to citizens is not the only factor precipitating war. More important is the breakdown of state institutions which we are already witnessing: the emergence of private armies unaccountable to the Ministry of Defence, the participation of the FSB, the police and the court system in political persecutions, including in those that are illegal even under current Russian law, the creation of paramilitary groups under both formal and factual command of regional authorities, etc.
All this will become superimposed onto the propagation of unfulfilled promises — material as well as “moral”. Armed persons will attempt to seize the office of Gazprom not only because they have the weapons and the experience, but because they will not receive early pensions, disability benefits, or even honour and respect. The economic crisis, which has replaced ten years of stagnation, is only beginning now, but, of course, at some point the government will have to stop paying lavish pensions and benefits to veterans. And not paying armed people is dangerous.
The first shots in this war have already been fired — for now only verbally. Last week, many media outlets quoted an answer given by Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder and leader of PMC Wagner, a private military company actively involved in the Ukraine War. A producer from state-controlled network RT had posed the following question: “What do you think is the reason why the country’s richest people often ignore the military situation, sometimes even helping the other side?”.
This was Prigozhin’s answer: “The reason is impunity. We must activate levers and mechanisms for the total ‘extermination’ of these people as businessmen. Stalin’s purges must be applied to them immediately” (Prigozhin is already setting an example: a Telegram channel affiliated with PMC Wagner recently posted a video showing the brutal execution of prisoner Yevgeny Nuzhin with a sledgehammer — editor’s note).
Russia’s richest people aren’t only the few oligarchs that have remained since the 1990s. They also include Putin’s inner circle as well as senior executives of the largest state corporations — Gazprom, Rosneft, Rostec, Sberbank. Of course, Prigozhin’s words are only words for now. But when the war comes to an end and the public money used to finance military campaigns runs out, Wagner and other PMCs will become natural contenders for control over the financial flow.
How should the government respond to former military men claiming control over financial and industrial flows and assets? An armed person robbing someone else of their property — be it state-owned or private — is a criminal. Law enforcement agencies should deal with him, one would think.
However, this is another consequence of war — there won’t be any law enforcement capable of dealing with private armies and unions of disenfranchised soldiers. Russia’s National Guard is partly defeated, partly demoralised. The reputation of the FSB is damaged in the eyes of both the elite and society — it is worse now than the reputation of the KGB was in 1991. And it doesn’t get much worse than that. No security services can last long using only force — when the money for large salaries runs out, they will stop functioning, like they did in the 1980s. And, just like in the 1990s, the members of the police, the National Guard, and the security services will turn into contenders within the wealth redistribution process, alongside servicemen and criminals.
The coming civil war has three ingredients — false promises, private armies, and the disintegration of law enforcement. And Putin has already prepared all three.
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