Russia’s Inside-Out Federation

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 148

(Source: Le Monde)

Many observers have long noted the paradox that the so-called “Russian Federation” is in fact no federation at all. It cannot be compared with well-known federations around the world—such as the United States or Germany—where the authorities of the states and lands are freely elected by their inhabitants.

The law on regional authorities, adopted by the Kremlin in December 2021, on the contrary, deprives regional and local administrators of any autonomy, building them into a single “vertical” (, December 21, 2021). This centralization and unitarization of the regional management system began immediately after Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, and now, it is fully legalized. The entire Russian landmass from the Baltic to the Pacific is governed exclusively by decrees of the “tsar,” and the governors’ sole duty is to carry out the Kremlin’s policies on the ground. This managerial hyper-centralism is characteristic of an empire, not a federation.

Putin has repeatedly expressed his sympathy for the imperial era, dubbing it “historical Russia.” However, he does not want to give up the official name “federation.” What is the Russian leader’s reasoning here? The post-Soviet Russian authorities nominally approved federalism; however, they began to use this principle not to develop regional self-government but rather to “return” the territories of the post-Soviet space back under the Kremlin’s authority. As a result, federalism was thereby inverted and became a neo-imperial project.

In 2014, Russia occupied Crimea in an act of annexation not seen in Europe since World War II. Moreover, this annexation did not appear to be purely imperial arbitrariness. Even so, the Kremlin tried to “pack” it into the framework of international law. After its capture by Russian troops, Crimea, for one day (March 17), proclaimed itself an “independent state.” It was then “voluntarily accepted into the Russian Federation” based on the results of a fictitious referendum. The decree on this reception was signed by Putin and approved by the Russian State Duma, Federation Council and Constitutional Court. A similar methodology was observed with the recent annexation of the four occupied Ukrainian regions in September 2022—the process formally followed the letter of the law and allegedly relied on the “expression of the people.” A prominent figure in Putin’s administration, Sergey Kiriyenko, remarked that the inhabitants of these territories “deserve to be part of Russia” (RBC, September 28).

However, this irrational policy of imperial expansion, which led to the ongoing senseless war in Ukraine, stands in sharp contrast to the final suppression of federalism within Russia itself and the continued impoverishment of its own regions.

The most obvious example of this is in Yakutsk, the capital of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), where a bridge still has not been built across the Lena River, which is a necessity to connect critical parts of the city. Although such projects were completed during Soviet times, in post-Soviet Russia, they became more expensive each year and, therefore, were postponed. The republic itself is unable to finance this construction because its most lucrative natural resources (diamonds, gold, oil, etc.) are controlled by Moscow-based corporations. In 2016–2019, the Kremlin preferred instead to build a bridge to annexed Crimea, utilizing the funds that had been originally allocated for the construction of the Lena bridge. This is clear evidence demonstrating that, for the empire, geopolitical ambitions are much more important than the development of its more peripheral territories (, May 11).

In his speech at the Kremlin on annexing the occupied Ukrainian regions, Putin promised to build modern infrastructure there. On this, Emilia Slabunova, a deputy in the Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Karelia, commented: “However, he did not say anything about when new hospitals, theaters, museums, factories and schools will be built in the Pskov, Tver and Arkhangelsk regions of Russia. Not a single children’s clinic has been built in Karelia for 22 years of Putin’s rule” (, October 1).

Moreover, today the Kremlin is forcing the regional authorities to “take patronage” over the annexed territories of Ukraine, at the expense of local budgets, although these regions themselves are often in complete ruin. As one resident in Novgorod region put it, “It is not clear where the war is going on” (Sever Realii, September 8).

The partial mobilization announced on September 21 by Putin is already beginning to provoke protests among residents of many regions. At the moment, the largest protests are taking place in the Republic of Dagestan, where local residents block roads and clash with police (, September 25). Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, more than 50 attempts to set fire to military enlistment offices have been committed in various Russian regions (, September 27).

For now, the security forces are suppressing these protests, but the ongoing war will most likely require the Russian leadership to bring in ever more troops, including police special forces, from the regions. At the current rate, soon, there will be no one to disperse the protests, and the demonstrations will become much more massive and widespread. And if Moscow cannot crush resistance in the “newly acquired” territories, it will surely be unable to deal with similar activities in its own regions. The potential failure of the annexations could precipitate the emergence of “independent regions” within Russia itself (, October 5). The “volunteer battalions” formed in various regions may well play a dual role in this process (see EDM, July 26).

With its annexation policy, the Kremlin has effectively deprived Russia’s borders of international recognition—and other global actors may well take advantage. For example, if Russia remains bogged down with the war in Ukraine, China, which has so far kept a low profile in regards to the conflict, could “take patronage” over Yakutia and finally build the bridge across the Lena without asking for Moscow’s blessing. Beginning this past summer, Beijing has been actively showing interest in the project (SakhaNews, July 12). Thus, the “inside-out federation” built by the Kremlin, instead of expanding the empire, may in fact lead to its ultimate demise.