Staunton, April 9 – It is now common ground that Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea represents a revision of the 1991 settlement involving the end of the USSR, with some portraying this as an indication that “Russia is back” and others viewing it as the kind of revanchism that inevitably threatens the international system.
But in a certain sense, this revision of the international order is less important than two other acts of revisionism the Kremlin leader is engaged in, acts that unlike the first have immediate consequences beyond the border of what was the Soviet Union because other countries, even those which did not emerge from imperial collapse, may pick up on.
The first of these is Putin’s revision of the 1945 settlement, not the division of Europe into spheres of influence but rather the insistence of the founders of the United Nations that citizenship is more important than ethnicity and that no country can assert the contrary, even though under the right of nations to self-determination, ethnic groups sometimes can.
The reason for the enshrinement of that principle, of course, is Europe had just survived a world war against a German dictator who insisted the contrary, who arrogated to himself the right to defend ethnic Germans regardless of their citizenship and location and who did so through the use of massive force.
From the Sudetenland on, Hitler acted to bring political borders into line with ethnic ones, an approach that in his case not only entailed aggressive wars at home but genocide at home and abroad in the name of the new world order he wanted to create. Fortunately, he was defeated, and the United Nations sought to prevent anyone from doing that again.
Tragically, 69 years after the Third Reich was destroyed, Putin’s regime is pursuing a program that also elevates ethnicity over citizenship at least with regard to ethnic Russians and that claims that the Russian state has the right to use force to protect ethnic Russians who are not its citizens abroad.
The consequences of this are truly horrific for three reasons. First, there are more than 15 million ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republics and formerly occupied Baltic states who would be the object of such a policy – or what is almost as bad, the assumed object of such a policy, thus generating uncertainty about their loyalty and destabilizing these countries.
Second, the nationalistic impulses behind such a policy are unlikely to be kept only in the foreign policy realm. Instead, those who push for using force to defend ethnic Russians abroad are almost certainly going to be tempted to use force against the quarter of the Russian population that is not ethnic Russian at home.
On the one hand, that could quickly lead to an expansion of the pogroms we have already seen against migrants to other groups, especially if the Putin regime continues to rely on informal militant groups to “maintain order.” And on the other, the threat that this could happen will certainly make many in these groups less interested in and willing to integrate into Russian life.
As a result, Putin’s much ballyhooed defense of ethnic Russians abroad will lead either to greater authoritarianism at home, with all the negative consequences that will have for Russians and non-Russians alike, or to efforts by some of the minorities to break away and form their own states as their last remaining defense against his regime.
And third, unlike the specific case of the Russian Federation and the post-Soviet space, this kind of dynamic can spread to a variety of other places in the world, especially given that the Kremlin is now promoting ties with leaders and groups who have already shown themselves contemptuous of the rights of minorities of all kinds.
The other Putin act of revisionism concerns the settlement of 1919. Putin and even more some of those around him are celebrating the virtues of empire, of the right of powerful states to hold less powerful peoples in thrall, in the name of some grand vision or simply in order to further enrich those in control.
One can debate the implications of Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to the right of nations to self-determination, but one cannot deny that it signaled the death knell of empires as the basis of political organization first in Europe where World War I had destroyed them and then elsewhere when the US pushed for the end of European empires in Asia and Africa.
By celebrating empire, the Russian leadership is not just revising the settlement of 1991 or that of 1945. It is challenging this settlement of 1919 and pushing the world back to one where some nations claimed the right to rule others without their consent and use the latter for their own benefit.
Some Russian commentators have already become shills for empire, and some in the West have now come to see “the virtues” of such political arrangements, forgetting of course that in many cases, their country got its start by breaking away from an empire and that they in no case see themselves as being a dependency of another state.
Putin and his supporters in Moscow and the West would like to keep the focus on what Putin is doing in Ukraine as narrow as possible. Diplomats are likely to say that is the only way to make “progress.” But Putin’s three-fold revisionism of the hard-won settlements of the 20th century is so dangerous that they and the rest of us need to recognize what is at stake.
Restoring Ukrainian control in Crimea won’t be easy, nor will preventing further Russian aggression elsewhere in Ukraine. But in the name of the principles of 1919, 1945, and 1991, those goals must be pursued until they are achieved, or the world will become a much more horrific place and not just in and around Russia.
Putin clearly understands that what he is doing is not just about Crimea or Ukraine or some other former Soviet republic. It is a challenge to the international system as such. Many in the West are reluctant to see that because if they acknowledge that fact, they must act to block him or show themselves poor stewards of the ideals they say they are for.