Staunton, Feb. 26 – Vladimir Putin has always believed the state itself is essential to Russian nation and so it is perhaps no surprise that in an interview today with Russia 1 he declared that if the West divides the country up, he “doesn’t know if the Russian people will remain a nation. Instead, you will have Muscovites, Uralians and others.”
This is the Kremlin leader’s clearest statement yet that what he fears the West is promoting and that may be at risk of happening is not the disintegration of the Russian Federation along ethnic lines, with the non-Russian republics going their own way, but rather the coming apart of what he and others have defined as the Russian nation itself.
On the one hand, his words are clearly intended to rally Russians around his regime in order to prevent the Russian nation from coming apart along with the Russian state, precisely what one would expect him to do as the war in Ukraine has ground on without the success he had assumed and promised (rbc.ru/politics/26/02/2023/63fb07d49a794704d80eb239).
But on the other, Putin’s comment suggests that even he is aware that language alone won’t hold the Russian nation together and that there is a possibility that there could be multiple Russian-speaking states in the future just as there are multiple English-speaking countries at the present time.
In that, he is ahead of many in the West who remain trapped in the view that any coming part of the Russian Federation will follow ethnic lines just as the disintegration of the USSR did three decades ago. And his words suggest as well that Putin is far more worried about regionalist challenges than many in the West are.
Given his statist understanding of nationality, Putin may as a result pursue an even more centralist policy than he has to date; but if he does, that in and of itself could spark more regionalist challenges to Moscow’s rule and have the same effect on the regions that Gorbachev’s turn to the right at the end of 1990 had on the non-Russian union republics.
It is all too often forgotten now that the Soviet Union came apart less because of Gorbachev’s liberalization than because his liberalization was followed by a harsh turn to authoritarianism, a turn that caused his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, to warn of a dictatorship and resign.
Obviously, the regions of Russia are less well positioned to withstand such a policy and Putin has not made his pursuit of centralization and authoritarianism all at once but rather slowly over time, something that has made it more acceptable to both the people within the Russian Federation and the West.
But despite that, Putin’s own words now show that he is worried about regional challenges far more than almost anyone in Moscow or in the West has been. And that in and of itself is a revelation of what is going on in his mind and what is likely to guide his policies in the coming weeks and months.