Why Putin Would Fail if He Succeeded

Old generals, it is often observed, refight the last war; but old politicians often recapitulate the mistakes that led to those wars, confident that the forces in play are not the same. That is what is happening now both in Western capitals and in Moscow. In Western capitals, of course, there is the widespread conviction that what they are doing, however much it looks like pre-World War II appeasement, is something else and therefore will have a different outcome. And in Moscow, Vladimir Putin seems confident that he can restore something like the Soviet empire without recreating the forces that tore that country apart.

The Kremlin leader couldn’t be more wrong, but if the appeasement of Putin by Western leaders has attracted a great deal of attention and criticism, the reasons why Putin’s efforts to restore something like a USSR Version 2.0 are doomed have not, nor has there been any discussion of why he would fail by succeeding and in ways far greater than he appears capable of imagining.

There are three reasons for that conclusion, all obvious to anyone who studied why the Soviet Union broke apart almost a quarter of a century ago. First of all, despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s claims and their widespread acceptance by many Western leaders, a liberal Soviet Union was always going to be a contradiction in terms. A Russia shed of its imperial possessions quite possibly might become a liberal state, but a restored Soviet-style empire could not possibly be one.

Such a state was and would have to be a totalitarian nightmare, with the tightest kind of central police control. Very rapidly that would in the future just as it did in the past preclude economic modernization and growth, forcing Moscow’s rulers to choose between stability and economic growth. If they opted to try for economic growth by loosening up, they would unleash the forces of instability. But even if they opted for the former at the cost of the latter, they would soon discover that they would lack the resources to pay the increasingly large and ravenous forces that they would need to keep the population, Russian and non-Russian, subservient. The choices of all involved haven’t changed.

Second, as Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has wisely observed, if the Russians come back another time, «they won’t be constrained by communism.» At least nominally, the USSR was committed to internationalism, but because of its implicit Russian-centricity, it nonetheless gave birth to powerful nationalist forces among many of the non-Russian nations within its borders. A Putin empire would be a Russian nationalist one, and that would trigger more nationalism and more resistance, leading to a spiral of violence and repression that would ultimately tear such a state apart. The resistance that the Ukrainians are showing today is an indication of what such a state would face.

And third, this ethnic mobilization would affect groups within the borders of what is now the Russian Federation. If the first round of Soviet imperial decay resulted in the loss of Eastern Europe in 1989 and the second included the loss of the union republics, the next would almost certainly involve the loss of Moscow’s control over the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation and over many regions populated by Russians but who will turn to other identities in horror at the ways in which such a Putin-led empire would act. In that event, the end of that state might take the form that so many feared the end of the USSR would assume — a nuclear Yugoslavia.

Many commentators have suggested that Putin will turn away from his current imperial course because of the costs it is already imposing on his economy. We can only hope that will be true. But if it isn’t, and Putin’s lack of concern about how the Russian population lives suggests that it won’t be, he will be forced to turn away from it as a result of the successes he is likely to claim on the way. If he doesn’t, he and the country he currently heads will be swept away, just as certainly but quite possibly more violently and completely than was the USSR in 1991 — and, as neither he nor many others now recognize, for many of the same reason.

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Paul Goble

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