MOSCOW — From Norway last week came the news that a sunken Russian submarine--nuclear powered and armed--was rusting away on the ocean floor. If as much as "a glass of water" leaked through the corroding hull to the plutonium weapons, warned one expert, the resulting explosion would be "an underwater Chernobyl."
That sunken submarine was a potent symbol for Russia's current condition. The world's most heavily armed and nuclearized society is slowly falling apart, with dangerous and unpredictable consequences for the rest of the world. Convulsed by power struggles at the top and undermined by local secessionists below, Russia may even face the fate of the Soviet Union--to break up into quarreling nations and regions in a continuing spiral of chaos and violence.
Non-Russian ethnic groups in the vast Russian Federation have long been seeking greater autonomy and even independence. Now, ethnically Russian regions are getting into the act. From western-most Kaliningrad to eastern-most Vladivostok, Russia's regions and republics are beginning to flirt--and sometimes more than flirt--with setting up shop on their own.
Representatives from 19 Siberian local governments took the first steps last week to set up a "Siberian Republic" that would offer shelter to parliamentary deputies deposed by President Boris N. Yeltsin. Farther east, the regional council of Khabarovsk revived old civil-war-era proposals for a Far Eastern republic that could trade with its rich Asian neighbors, exploit its natural resources and avoid the heavy-handed, insensitive bureaucracy in faraway Moscow.
Russia's regional governments profited from the long battle between Yeltsin and the Parliament. Both sides in Moscow needed regional support; the regional leaders shrewdly traded their support for important economic and political concessions from the once all-powerful central government. As the power struggle in Moscow heated up last week, so did demands from the regions. Unwilling to see the end to the power struggles--and to the political opportunities that gridlock offers the regions--associations of regional councils and leaders have bombarded the Yeltsin forces with proposals for "compromise" that would perpetuate the gridlock. Pressure from the regions helps explain Yeltsin's reluctant decision to reopen discussions with Parliament under the auspices of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
What makes talk of a breakup more than a fantasy is the continued disintegration of the national bureaucracy, the planned economy and the armed forces--Russia's three centralizing institutions. Bureaucrats in Russia's far-flung regions have increasingly shaken off their dependence on Moscow. Local authorities and businesses exert increasing pressure on low-paid civil servants. What was once the world's most centralized government has fallen into chaos, as instructions and decrees from the center are quietly ignored.
Economic change also weakens Moscow's grip. As privatization and economic pressures break up industrial enterprises that once spanned the country, and competition for scarce resources increases, Russia's local politicians champion the special needs of their localities and no one seems to have the vision--or the money--to lay out a convincing economic program for the country as a whole.
In the armed forces, the situation is worse. Most Westerners have little idea of the abusive and lawless nature of the Soviet--now Russian--armed forces. The conditions of Russian draftees were often more like those of U.S. prison inmates than of citizen-soldiers in a normal European army. The army was riddled with corruption: dishonest officers and contractors stole and took bribes; hapless draftees were forced into such projects as building luxurious \o7 dachas \f7 for the party elite. Officers failed to discipline the men under their command, to enforce the rights of draftees or to protect them from the most abusive kinds of bullying. Neither rape nor death was rare among Soviet draftees; Russian soldiers in units with high proportions of Central Asians suffered perhaps worst of all.
Today's Russian armed forces--already hampered by extreme shortages of fuel and equipment--reap the rewards of this corruption. Discipline is poor, desertion widespread. The prestige of the officer class is low, and younger officers are openly contemptuous of the system they are called on to serve. "I'm not even talking about war with China," says one observer. "If \o7 Finland\f7 attacks us, then only God can save Russia."
The command structure of the Russian military seems to be breaking down. Russian "volunteers" have been seen in the war between Georgia and Abkhazians--apparently dispatched by a military faction in defiance of Moscow's own policy. If Russia's breakaway regions should move toward open defiance, the Russian armed forces may be powerless to intervene--or may splinter along the same lines as the rest of the country.