THE Russian Federation harbors within its borders 16 autonomous republics, five autonomous regions, and 10 autonomous districts. If all these autonomies decided to secede, Russia would lose about half its present territory, including regions rich in oil, gold, and diamonds.This is no longer an abstract possibility, as the Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic's drive for independence shows. Should Dzhohar Dudayev, the republic's charismatic leader, continue to hold his own against Boris Yeltsin's government, other separatist movements will no doubt follow suit. Ironically, it was the Soviet regime that prepared the various ethnic regions for sovereignty by teaching its people to look at themselves as a nation, nurturing the local intelligentsia, and furnishing political elites with the tools of state power. To be sure, Soviet rulers have never meant to give their people genuine autonomy: They have often clamped down on native elites, settled all important issues in Moscow, and sought to instill rigid Marxist ideology in their subjects. Ethnic minorities have every right to demand a greater say in the way their cultures, economies, and how their natural resources are managed. Does this mean that each autonomy is entitled to claim sovereignty and is equipped to handle it? Hardly. In most cases, such claims would go against an intricate web of historical, demographic, economic, and political realities. Twenty-three autonomies inside the Russian Federation have Russian majorities. The rest are inhabited by ethnically diverse populations. Intermarriage is common, and the Russian language serves as a lingua franca in many regions with separate ethnic enclaves. These demographic trends have been underway for hundreds of years; to reverse them now without bloodshed and major population shifts would be impossible. THIS applies not only to the regions where the Russian presence is overwhelming but also where it is relatively light. Thus, kinship-based rivalries among the diverse ethnic groups populating the northern Caucuses are intense. Christian Northern Ossetia has deep suspicions about Muslim Karachay people. The Chechen and Ingush regions, artificially welded together into an autonomous republic, are divided by ancient strife. Consider the Yakut autonomous republic that now demands self-rule. Its territory is equal in size to California and Texas combined; its population barely exceeds 1 million, and less than one-third are native Yakuts. Given its rich resources, the republic may well survive on its own, but since Russians are the majority in the republic and a driving force in its economy, secession would be unjustified. As this example suggests, not every sovereignty claim is rooted in nationalistic aspirations. Quite a few ethnic Russians are willing to support local separatists because they feel they can improve their fortunes by severing ties with a politically weakened and economically laggard Moscow. Hence, Mr. Yeltsin's predicament. His heavy-handed tactics in Chechen-Ingush were rightly repudiated by the Russian Parliament, but his readiness to challenge proliferating sovereignty claims and his desire to preserve the Russian Federation shouldn't be treated lightly. Shared culture, kindred language, common economic sphere, respect for minority rights, and a commitment to international disarmament treaties are among the criteria by which we can judge a region's readiness for statehood. Few autonomies inside Russia currently meet these criteria. In the future, some might be ready to shoulder the responsibilities that come with full sovereignty. Until then, it behooves the West to do what it can to encourage autonomies to exercise their rights within the framework of t he Russian Federation.