Putin’s war in Ukraine is going quite badly for Russia.
But how bad could things get?
Could it mean the end of Russia?
On February 26, in an interview with the TASS news agency, Putin effectively claimed that Russians don’t exist. After saying that “the West has one goal—to liquidate the Russian Federation,” Putin made the following remarkable statement: “If the West succeeds in breaking up the Russian Federation and establishing control over its splinters, the Russian people might not be preserved.” Instead, there “will be Muscovites, Uralites, and others.”
It’s important to keep in mind a distinction that doesn’t exist in English.
The Russians use the word russkii to denote the ethnic Russian population; they use the word rossiiskii to denote the inhabitants of the Russian Federation [Rossiiskaya Federatsiya].
Significantly, in speaking of the “Russian people” Putin used the modifier russkii—the ethnic designation.
One can easily imagine that the collapse of the Russian Federation—a scenario that is now actively discussed in Russia and abroad, by both supporters and opponents of Putin’s regime—would lead to the break-up of the rossiiskii people.
Many non-Russian regions would secede and opt for independence. Some Russian regions, especially those distant from Moscow, would likely follow suit.
But for Putin to suggest that ethnic Russians might also fall apart is tantamount to denying their common nationhood and unifying identity.
That is, Russians, according to Putin, are not a nation!
Moreover, Putin’s claim amounts to a backhanded recognition of the fact that the Russian Federation is the product of imperial expansion.
The region centered on Moscow established the Muscovite State long before Peter the Great established the Russian Empire [Rossiiskaya Imperiya] in the early 18th century.
And it was the Muscovites who founded the Muscovite State that expanded their rule over Moscow’s competitors, some of whom, like the Novgorodians, had their own identity and state.
In effect, Putin has unwittingly admitted that Russia is an empire and that its majority nation—the so-called Russians—is really an artificial amalgam produced by imperial expansion.
Consider the policy implications if Putin is right. If and when the Russian Federation does indeed fall apart—not because of anything the West desires or does but because of Putin’s hare-brained schemes and criminal war—“the” Russians will not confront the non-Russians in some bloody battle.
Since “the” Russians will break apart into regional subunits, they are far more likely to engage their non-Russian neighbors in coalitions than in conflict. Russia’s collapse could turn into a bloodless affair.
Ironically, Putin may just have inadvertently assuaged Western concerns about the Russian Federation’s eventual disappearance. All the more reason, perhaps, to prove Putin to be right?
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A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”