Putin’s War in Ukraine May Destroy Russia

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Michael Khodarkovsky headlined “Putin’s War in Ukraine May Destroy Russia”:

The Western media for decades has hailed Vladimir Putin as a great strategist. But if the past eight months have proved one thing, it’s that this strategic wizard often achieves the opposite of his intentions.

Mr. Putin has promised many things, including to make Russia an attractive place to live by 2020. Instead, millions of Russians have left and settled in the West. Russia’s economy remains largely dependent on oil and gas—and gross domestic product per capita income has fallen nearly 60% since 2013. Government efforts to slow demographic decline have failed, and the Kremlin’s military mobilization for its war in Ukraine has pushed more than 300,000 Russians to flee the country. Many of those unable to escape or bribe their way out of the draft are non-Russians from remote and impoverished regions in the east and south.

These factors paint a grim picture with clear implications: Rather than resurrecting his country’s greatness, Mr. Putin might be presiding over the collapse of the last Russian empire. Russia has always been a colonial power in denial. While conquering and ruling multitudes, it insisted that—in contrast with violent Western conquests—the indigenous peoples themselves sought Russian protection and that Russian rule was benign. This gap between rhetoric and reality is evident in the country’s current designation as a “Russian Federation.”

There are 21 republics within Russia, each with a titular non-Russian ethnic group. In Soviet times, Moscow drew the territorial boundaries and allowed each its own cultural autonomy. After the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991, these small republics demanded genuine administrative and political autonomy. A new democratic Russian government under Boris Yeltsin was prepared to concede as much and signed bilateral treaties with all but one: Chechnya. When the Chechen Republic refused to comply, demanding instead full autonomy, the Yeltsin government sent in troops in what became the First Chechen War (1994-96).

During those few years of democracy, once-forbidden topics came to light. New research revealed that Russia was an expansionist empire bent on subjugating indigenous peoples. Mr. Putin curbed freedom and open discussion after becoming president in 2000. He brutally suppressed Chechen independence aspirations and ordered the celebration of anniversaries that marked indigenous people’s choice to “voluntarily join Russia.” He resolved to undermine the autonomy of indigenous republics, to erase their ethno-territorial borders and to turn them into regular Russian administrative entities. To this end, the Kremlin ordered that instruction in indigenous languages be cut back, and it appointed Russian loyalists to local posts. In July 2017, the Kremlin terminated the last and longest surviving power-sharing treaty, with Tatarstan.

The pace of this so-called Russification wasn’t swift enough for Mr. Putin and his allies. The Kremlin understands that Russia’s demographic trends are disastrous. The ethnic Russian population has declined precipitously over three decades, while the non-Russian population grew rapidly. According to some estimates, Russia could become a majority-Muslim country by the 2050s.

Mr. Putin is obsessed by the Russian gene, which he labels “special” and “endangered.” He invaded Ukraine in part to increase the Slavic population of Russia by incorporating the Ukrainians, whom he considers “Little Russians.” This attitude, together with Mr. Putin’s aspirations for “Russian world” in which all Russian speakers are united under Moscow’s rule, bears strong resemblance to 1930s Germany. It’s why Moscow has been kidnapping and transferring people—particularly children—from occupied Ukrainian territories to Russia.

Moscow has long considered Russia’s multiethnic character a potential threat to its ideal of a unitary state. With his war in Ukraine, Mr. Putin seems to have found an answer to his Russification efforts: genocide of various non-Russian peoples. Since the early days of its February invasion, Moscow has been disproportionately recruiting and drafting non-Russians, including Tatars from the illegally annexed Crimea region of Ukraine.

Yet non-Russian regions are beginning to wake up to Moscow’s nefarious designs. In recent weeks protests have broken out in several Muslim regions of Dagestan and Bashkortostan, and in Siberia. After Chechnya recently claimed to have fulfilled its quota and refused to send more men, Yakutia, a large region of Siberia, did the same.

The significance of those protests hasn’t been lost on Ukrainian authorities. On Sept. 29, President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a speech in front of the memorial to Imam Shamil, the 19th-century North Caucasus leader, who commanded the Muslims’ war against Russia for nearly 30 years. Mr. Zelensky appealed to the peoples of the Caucasus and other non-Russians to prevent their sons from dying in the fields of Ukraine. Their cause, he added, was the same: to be free from Russian domination.

Mr. Putin should look to history. During World War I, Russian authorities tried to conscript Muslims from Central Asia. The result was a major uprising in summer 1916, which took months and tens of thousands of Russian troops to suppress. In the end, none of the Muslims were sent to battle—and, by withdrawing army units from the front to confront the internal uprising, Russia expedited its eventual defeat. Less than six months later, the czar and his government were forced to resign.

By sending poorly trained non-Russian men to Ukraine, Moscow may soon meet a similar fate. Centuries of pent-up bitterness and frustration over rule by Moscow may spill into a military confrontation and civil war. Given Russia’s current military defeats, this isn’t a distant prospect. If and when that happens, Russia will fall apart as the empire of the czars and Soviet Union did. It would be ironic if the man who wanted to revive the U.S.S.R. instead ushers in the twilight of Russia’s last empire.

Michael Khodarkovsky is a history professor at Loyola University Chicago.

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