Staunton, Feb. 23 – As those of you who follow Window on Eurasia on a regular basis know, I am currently some weeks behind in my coverage and am trying to fill in rather than skip a period that has been full of stories from Eurasia that deserve more coverage than they have received so far.
But the vicious actions of Vladimir Putin in expanding his invasion of Ukraine require comment from someone who watched with some care the collapse of the USSR 30 years ago. And what I want to introduce into the debate about what will happen next is something the Kremlin dictator and those in the West who either support him or think he can win.
For almost three decades, Putin has been saying and many in Russia and the West have followed him in this that the Soviet Union came apart because the Bolsheviks set up union republics and gave them the right to leave, a right Moscow never expected them to claim but added in the hopes of eventually expanding the USSR to include other peoples as well.
There is no doubt that that Leninist approach contributed to the way in which the USSR fell apart, but it does not explain fully why it did. That explanation lies in two other spheres, demography and popular participation.
When the Soviet Union was created, the ethnic Russian core was overwhelmingly dominant in terms of numbers; but by 1991, the non-Russian nations within that country formed almost exactly half. And because of development, the peoples of that empire were no longer prepared to accept the dominance of one nation, especially one headed to minority status.
In discussions about Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, he, most Russians and many in the West have forgotten that and therefore do not see that whatever territorial gains Putin makes by force of arms, he is bringing within the borders of “the Russian Federation” – and that absurdly now misnamed entity must be put in quotes – ever more non-Russians.
Before the Anschluss of Crimea in 2014, the population of Russia was roughly 80 percent not counting the immigrant workers. Now, it is certainly less than 75 percent whatever the falsified census returns will say. And every Ukrainian who is brought within the borders of that empire will add to that number.
Were Putin to be foolish enough or lucky enough to occupy all of Ukraine, he would change the demographic balance inside “the Russian Federation” in fundamental ways. And if he brings in Belarus as well, he would create a country that he would celebrate as Russia rising from its knees but one that would more or less instantaneously begin to fall apart.
More than half of the people of that new empire would be non-Russians. They might not have the stated right to have republics with the right to secede, but they would be ungovernable except at a level of repression that it seems unlikely any Moscow regime could maintain for long – and that empire, like the tsarist and even more like the Soviet, would begin to fall apart.
That suggests that whatever victories Putin claims and that some in the West tragically are prepared to accept without effective resistance sets the stage for the collapse of that Moscow-centric state. And that collapse will be far more sweeping than was 1991, a “Yugoslavia with nukes” that the West three decades ago feared so much but that the world was spared.
What this means is this: resisting Putin’s aggression is ultimately not only in the interests of Russians and the West but of Putin himself. If he “succeeds” in Ukraine and Belarus, he will fail far more grandly than those he has criticized as the authors of 1991 – and will be remembered not for his victories but for his ultimate failure, the end of the Russian state itself.