Staunton, August 10 – At the Territory of Meanings Youth Forum, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said that his country knows how to rebuff foreign threats “but there is a more frightening aspect which over recent decades has turned into the main danger. This is the internal threat” arising from the fact that “society gradually undermining the unity of the country.”
Shoygu said that Russia’s opponents “would like us to be mired in internal discord so that we will eventually start feuding on ethnic, religious and class grounds.” If Russia doesn’t block that now, “then what happened in Syria, Libya, Yugoslavia and many other countries will happen” to Russia as well (tass.ru/obschestvo/12099913).
On the one hand, Shoygu’s words are intended to send a message that he has everything in hand at the defense ministry which is after all responsible for preventing and/or repulsing foreign threats. As such, that part of his remark may be the more important in his own mind because it highlights his success.
But on the other hand, for anyone as senior as Shoygu to suggest that Russia could as a result of clashes along ethnic, religious or class lines end like Yugoslavia is to raise the specter of a repetition of what happened in 1991 inside the current borders of the Russian Federation, a specter frightening not only to Russians but also to their neighbors and to the West.
His words not surprisingly have sparked a lively discussion in Russia, three aspects of which are especially noteworthy. First, Shoygu like Putin blames these problems first and foremost on the actions of outside actors, an assessment that may justify having the defense ministry take charge of countering them but misses their domestic roots.
Second, instead of focusing on one such divisive challenge, Shoygu list three together, ethnic, religious and class, an indication that he and perhaps others in the Russian leadership recognize that these are interacting with religious divisions heightening ethnic ones and class tensions heightening both.
And third, by even mentioning Yugoslavia which disintegrated into a number of independent countries, Shoygu has raised the stakes not only in Russia but in the West over this threat. On the one hand, he is saying that despite everything Putin has done, Russia still faces many of the same problems that led to the demise of the USSR.
On the other, the Russian defense minister is reminding Western leaders of their fears in the late 1980s that the demise of the USSR could lead to “a Yugoslavia with nukes,” in the words of Secretary of State James Baker, a view that led Washington to stick with Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR far longer than would otherwise have been the case.
Thus, it may even be the case that what Shoygu has done with his observation is to provide an argument for those who want a new approach to Russia that they must stick with Putin and his regime and not do anything to destabilize an increasingly fragile Russia or the Yugoslav specter will return.
If that is the case, then Shoygu may be sending a message that Putin and Russia are in a far weaker position than almost anyone else has now suggested.