The outcome of the broader war Vladimir Putin has launched in Ukraine on February 24 is far from clear; but one thing is obvious: every victory the Kremlin leader may achieve on the ground sets the stage for the collapse not only of his new empire but of the Russian Federation as well (see EDM, February 8). The reason for that is simple. Putin seems oblivious to the fact that he will potentially be bringing back under Moscow’s rule millions of people who do not want to be there; and in doing so, he is recreating some of the most potent factors that led to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now, with his sharply escalated aggression against Ukraine, Putin is putting at risk the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation—perhaps not today or tomorrow, because he can use repressive force to temporarily hold things together, but eventually because the level of force required to do so is incompatible with the growth of the Russian economy that any leader in Moscow needs (see EDM, October 25, 2021 and February 10, 2022).
For 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 (Kremlin.ru, February 21). Vladimir Lenin had specifically added in this option as an attractor, with the hopes of eventually expanding the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to include other peoples as well as sparking the world revolution he anticipated would spread beyond the borders of Communist Russia. But Moscow never expected those constituent republics to exploit that right. Undoubtedly, that Leninist approach contributed to the way in which the USSR fell apart, but it does not elucidate fully why it happened. A comprehensive 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 “federative” country had been growing at a much more rapid rate than the ethnic-Russian areas, and they formed almost exactly half of the population of the USSR on the eve of collapse. Due to the concomitant changes in the level of their expectations, the constituent non-Russian nations were no longer prepared to accept the dominance of the Russians, particularly since the latter were so obviously headed toward minority status within the Soviet Empire.
In discussions about Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, he, most Russians and many in the West have forgotten that lesson. Therefore, too few commentators note that with whatever territorial gains Putin makes by force of arms, he is bringing even more non-Russians within the borders of the absurdly misnamed entity of “the Russian Federation.”
Before the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the population of Russia was roughly 80 percent ethnic Russian, not counting the immigrant workers (Gks.ru, accessed February 24). Now, it is certainly less than 75 percent, whatever the falsified 2020/2021 census returns will say. And every Ukrainian brought within the borders of that empire will add to that dilution. Indeed, were Putin to annex both Ukraine and Belarus, the ethnic core of the Russian Federation would be reduced to just about what it was when the Soviet Union disintegrated—Putin’s denials that Ukrainians and Belarusians are separate nations and his claims of rebuilding a Russian “world” notwithstanding.
The peoples who would form half of that new empire might not have the stated right to withdraw from the union. But they would be ungovernable except through heavy repression given that many of them, including most prominently the Ukrainians, would have had the experience of fighting against Russian aggression in the field, only forced to submit because of the imbalance in power. They would not become happily obedient to the Kremlin just because that is what the Kremlin wants and expects. Instead, they can be expected to resist in various ways, some by simply dragging their feet and others by taking more active measures. And their behavior would inevitably inspire others living under Moscow’s fiat to do the same. In that event, it seems highly improbable that any Moscow regime could maintain order for long. That new empire, like the Tsarist and even more like the Soviet one before it, would begin to fall apart.
As such, whatever victories Putin claims (and that some in the West seem prepared to accept without effective resistance) sets the stage for the collapse of the Moscow-centric state. That collapse will be far more sweeping than was 1991—a “Yugoslavia with nukes” that the West three decades ago feared so much but of which the world was spared. Therefore, resisting Putin’s aggression is ultimately not only in the interests of Russians and the West but, ironically, of Putin himself. If he “succeeds” in Ukraine and Belarus, he will ultimately fail far more grandly than those he has criticized as the authors of 1991. He will be remembered not for his victories but for his final failure: the end of the Russian state itself within its present-day borders.