Staunton, Mar. 13 – Vladimir Putin may think he is restoring the Soviet empire; but in fact, he is willy-nilly recreating the conditions which led to its demise – and in a way that ensures that the approaching end of a new Moscow-centered empire will be more profound and more violent, quite possibly “the Yugoslavia with nukes” the West feared in 1991.
One of the most important triggers of the demise of the USSR was demographic. By 1989, the non-Russians formed almost half of the population of that country. After it fell apart, the Russian Federation was initially as much as 80 percent ethnic Russian making that country easier to rule and with fewer challenges to its territorial integrity.
If Putin manages to absorb Belarus and Ukraine, he will create a Moscow empire that will once again be where the Soviet Union was at the end of the 1980s, a state in which the ethnic Russians and the ethnic non-Russians will be once again nearly equal. And Putin will face problems from both that make serious violence more likely than in 1991.
Not only is there lacking an overarching ideology of internationalism that had a profound effect on Russians and non-Russians alike, but conditions on both sides of this divide are much more radically inclined against the other, even as they are divided among themselves and far more ready to fight than most were 30 years ago.
Putin has promoted a kind of Russian nationalism that is offensive to almost all non-Russians but that has proved incapable of uniting ethnic Russians. Instead, while offending non-Russians is its most obvious consequence, his “ideology” such as it is has failed to unite Russia’s regionally diverse populations.
And the non-Russians have had a longer and more recent experience with independence and, if forced for a time to yield it, they will be more prepared to fight not just against the imperial center of Moscow but also against each other. Conflicts between Russians and non-Russians will become commonplace, and conflicts among non-Russians far more frequent.
In that situation, the Russian military is likely to disintegrate and weapons of all kinds, including weapons of mass destruction like nuclear warheads, won’t be under any one center’s control. Instead, they will be available to people on various sides precisely “the Yugoslavia with nukes” the West so feared in 1991 but that didn’t occur.
These prospects have been largely ignored, and a major reason for that involves the implications of what the international community should do to stop Putin in Ukraine. Many are holding back because they fear a nuclear conflagration. But if one understands what Putin is pushing toward, they may recognize that if he wins there, that becomes more not less likely.
That is not to argue for rash actions. Nuclear war is something that should be avoided at all costs. But there should be a recognition that the policy of not confronting Putin more bluntly now may not spare the world that kind of war. If that is understood, the challenges Putin’s war in Ukraine can be approached more soberly.
Putin must be stopped there because if he isn’t, the Kremlin leader will be setting the stage for exactly the disaster that many believe they are avoiding by not backing Kyiv. Indeed, the disintegration of Russia and much of Eurasia as well will likely become more likely if he is successful in his war in Ukraine than it is if he is defeated.
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