In 1998, retired General Aleksandr Lebed, governor of Krasnoyarsk krai, declared that he would assume control of a Strategic Rocket Forces division deployed on the territory of his region unless the federal government improved the financing of that division. Although his words were not followed by action, this statement raised the specter of what might be called nuclear regionalism--the possibility that Russia's regional leaders might establish de facto control over various nuclear assets on their territories, including nuclear power stations, caches of fissile materials, research and industrial facilities, export control (customs), and ultimately nuclear weapons.
The possibility that Russia might break apart--following the path of the Soviet Union and leaving several smaller nuclear states in its wake--is extraordinarily small, and for all practical purposes nonexistent. This kind of nuclear separatism is a myth, although a rather popular one.
Nuclear regionalism, however, is a reality. Regional authorities are gradually acquiring greater influence over the Russian nuclear infrastructure, both civilian and to a lesser extent military, as well as over the armed forces. The process is not one-dimensional, though, and does not boil down to straightforward devolution of authority from the center to periphery. Instead, it takes the form of an alliance between governors and powerful, highly institutionalized federal-level interest groups, first and foremost Russia's nuclear industry and the military. Thus, nuclear regionalism is not a sign of disintegration. Rather, it might be the first stage of a new type of integration--a merger of federal and local elites that can strongly affect the country's national security policy. [...]