Below is the text from which I spoke to the Sixth Forum of Free Peoples of PostRussia, Washington, D.C., this past week. A Russian translation is available at region.expert/1918-1991/.
Approaching End of Today’s Russia More Likely to Resemble 1918 than 1991
Ever more people around the world recognize that the Russian Federation is on its way the dustbin of history, but most of them assume that the coming disintegration of that country will resemble what happened in 1991. While there are some elements likely to be in common with the events of 30 years ago, the future disintegration of the Russian Federation almost certainly will be like not the remarkably quick and easy divorce of 1991 and resemble instead the vastly most complicated, difficult, and in part quickly reversed results of the events of 1918 when Russia earlier fell apart along ethnic and regional lines only to have much of its territory reunited under Moscow’s yoke because of divisions among its opponents and the facility with which the Bolsheviks exploited them.
Understanding why the events looming on the horizon are going to be fundamentally different than those of 1991 and fundamentally similar to those of 1918 is critical not only for the peoples involved and the strategies they should adopt but also and perhaps especially important for outside governments who are again going to face a greater challenge than three decades ago, one that they need to meet in radically different ways, lest the gains of disintegration be lost by a reintegration made possible as was the case a century ago by the outsiders doing just enough to contribute to the rise of a new kind of patriotism but not enough to achieve what the outsiders in fact hoped for then or now.
Obviously, these differences between now and 1991, the similarities between the present situation in 1918, and the consequences for both those immediately involved and those who want to help them are numerous and ramified, far too large to cover in a single comment. But there are at least five major reasons in each case that deserve to be mentioned and may serve as a warning against fighting the wrong war as all too often happens with politicians as well as with generals. At the very least, even these can serve as a cautionary notice to those who now assume that what they hope for will be achieved easily and quickly.
Among the reasons that 2024 will not be like 1991, the following five are especially important:
· First, in 1991, almost everyone knew what the prospects were as far as the numbers of countries that would emerge from the disintegration of the USSR and what their borders would be. There were 15 union republics, if one counts the occupied Baltic states among them, and thus there would be 15 countries. And the administrative borders they had would become state borders at the insistence of both Moscow and the West. Now, no one has any idea how many states will arise from the demise of the Russian Federation, with numbers running from one – the Kremlin’s preference – to more than a 100; no one knows what their borders will be; and no one knows who will be in charge of particular places. That very complexity and its dangers leads many to adopt a status quo approach but such an approach by definition only lays a delayed action mine under the entire situation as Putin’s moves in Ukraine and elsewhere show.
· Second, ethnicity is not going to be the only factor in the future as it was in 1991. Regions and sub-ethnic groups are going to play a role, either by separating or uniting; and that means that no one can say in advance what the principles will be for state organization – unless and until outsiders declare certain ideas such as democracy and non-aggression as fundamental. State structures are going to have to be built from the bottom up rather than simply rechristened as was the case after 1991. Again, that makes the entire situation more uncertain and more complicated and will dispose many to favor the status quo as perhaps the lesser evil.
· Third, at least in principle, the disintegration of the USSR took place according to the Soviet constitution. The future disintegration of the Russian Federation will not have that advantage – or alternatively that constraint. Because what happened could be presented as “legal” and hence “legitimate,” it was far easier for those who rechristened themselves as democratic and national leaders to win out than it will be for those without that asset but at the same time, the new leaders who do emerge likely will be more genuine than many of those who held on to power between soviet times and the aftermath.
· Fourth, in 1991, Russia had a leader committed not to using massive force to preserve the status quo. Gorbachev was guilty of using force on occasion, especially in the Caucasus and the Baltics; but he was not prepared to drown opposition in blood. Does anyone think that Putin is the same?
· And fifth, and perhaps most important, in 1991, the non-Russians had an ally in Boris Yeltsin who wanted to escape from Kremlin control and was prepared to have the non-Russian republics leave in order for the Russian Federation to be on its own. Obviously, there are some Russians who think the same way now; but there is absolutely no one in a position of power in Moscow who does. Moreover, there are too few even among those who are called the Russian opposition to change this balance quickly.
Among the reasons that 2024 will resemble in some critical ways 1918, the following five are especially important:
· First, in 1918, the Russian state had disintegrated and various groups small and large sought a place in the sun, forming their own republics and armies and both cooperating and competing with each other. The situation in the future is likely to be far more similar to that than was 1991.
· Second, 1918 was about regions not just ethnicities, with regional identities far more important in much of the country than ethnic ones. That is also true now, and I stand by my argument that regionalism is going to be the nationalism of the next Russian revolution.
· Third, like in 1918, Moscow remains committed to recapturing the entire periphery; and outsiders, including the West are divided between those who favored a weak but single state and those who feared a strong state that had gotten rid of what for many was ballast.
· Fourth, because outsiders were divided, they collectively did just enough to tar those Moscow opposed as “foreign agents” and to develop a Red patriotism which ultimately allowed Moscow to defeat most but not all of those who sought to form their own countries.
· And fifth, the diversity of the structures first created from below and then destroyed by Moscow’s reoccupation was so daunting that many outsiders viewed the restoration of order as more useful than it was, failing to see that the restoration set the stage for repression and imperial revenge.
And among the reasons that those outsiders who want to help the peoples of northern Eurasia achieve freedom, peace and democracy need to recognize, the following five are especially important:
· First, the West needs to recognize its mistake in 1991 when it proclaimed just about everyone a democrat and assumed privatization of the economy would solve everything, including weaning leaders from aggressive and repressive tendencies. If one wants democracy, rule of law, and obedience to international law, one must work to promote those things; if one assumes the economy will do that as all too many in the West did 30 years ago, the results will be what they have been.
· Second, for all the problems that disintegration of the Russian Federation will inevitably involve, if the goal is to eliminate repression and imperial revanchism, that is the only way forward in the case of many areas. Hence being for what some call secession is in fact the best way to achieve what are the most important goals of the West now. Short of that, the West must promote genuine federalism for those parts that don’t go their own way. That will require a far more interventionist approach but there is again no other way.
· Third, the West, as well as the non-Russians and many regionalists, must recognize that there will be some Russian state left at the end of the decolonizing and de-imperializing effort. That state must be a democracy and a federation. Otherwise, it will be a threat.
· Fourth, the West must recognize that its role will have to be far larger than it has ever been in the past and far more invasive as far as many in Russia will view it. Managing that will not be easy; but failing to adopt that strategy will only postpone problems rather than prevent their reemergence. Had the West insisted on genuine federalism in the Russian Federation, there would have been no Putin and no war in Ukraine.
· And fifth, the West must promote cooperation among Russians and non-Russians rather than assuming that this is impossible; and it must take the lead in having them talk to each other. If that doesn’t happen, then there is a very real danger that 2024 will end not as 1991 but as 1918 – and that will be a tragedy for everyone.