Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
Russia, we keep being told, must be held together. Western politicians and commentators (though, significantly, not intelligence agencies) shudder at the prospect of warlords in breakaway regions squabbling over nuclear arsenals.
Better the devil you know, they say – especially if that devil has been left exhausted.
We risk repeating the mistake we made in 1991, when George Bush Snr travelled to Ukraine to warn the Soviet republics against secession.
“Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism,” he told his stony-faced audience. “They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”
Poor old HW got a lot of flack for the “Chicken Kiev” speech, but he was voicing the standard view of Western elites. What we missed then, and what we are missing again, is that it is not in our gift to forestall secessionist movements.
What is in our gift is the kind of relationship we have with any new states. They will want recognition, and we should think hard about what we ask in return, from democratisation to denuclearisation.
But there is a more serious critique of our present policy. It supposes that Russia is worth preserving.
In fact, Russia in its present form – an imperial and multi-national Eurasian state – is a thorn in the side of the free world. Its dissolution is much more of an opportunity than a danger.
It might not happen, of course. Perhaps Ukraine’s counter-offensive will fail. Perhaps the conflict will reach a stalemate. Perhaps Vladimir Putin will somehow recover his authority.
But let’s at least allow the possibility that Ukrainian troops break through, reach the Azov Sea and cut Russia’s land connection to Crimea. At that point, the peninsula would become impossible to resupply, the large Russian garrison there would be kettled, and Ukraine would, to all intents and purposes, have won the war.
There is no way that the Russian president, or those associated with him, could survive such an outcome. Who or what would follow?
Putin suggested one possibility in his sepulchral television address during the Wagner mutiny, when he warned against a 1917-style breakdown. He may have spoken truer than he knew.
In 1917, Russian morale at the front collapsed suddenly, and soldiers turned angrily on their leaders. For a time, the Russian Empire fragmented into a series of squabbling successor states: Siberia, Eastern Okraina, Karakorum, the Kuban Rada, the Provisional Government of the Urals, and so on.
Might something similar happen today? There is no reason to assume that Russia’s various military units – regulars, paramilitary police, FSB, territorial militias and, not least, the private armies recently acquired by big corporations – would recognise a single command. Nor that the leaders of the various federal republics would acknowledge the same tsar.
There are lively independence movements in Buryatia, Sakha, Dagestan, Chechnya, Kamchatka Krai, Komi, Novosibirsk, Archangel, and Tatarstan; local elites are preparing for a clean excision, a chance to join the comity of nations as (in many cases) resource-rich republics.
To repeat, we can’t ultimately stop them. All we can do is determine whether they start out as our friends.
What of the rump Russian state? Well, such a state would need to rethink its identity, rather as Austria and West Germany did after 1945. And this, I submit, would be no bad thing.
Consider, after all, what Russia has been since Ivan the Terrible became its first tsar five centuries ago. Yes, it has had some superficial resemblances to the West: courts of law, schools and, even, from time to time, advisory councils called dumas. But not independent institutions of a kind that any European would recognise.
Let me quote a passage from Orlando Figes’ The Story of Russia:
“European visitors to Moscow were astounded by the extent of the Tsar’s power over his subjects, including the nobility. Ivan referred to his servitors as ‘slaves’ (kholopy). Protocol required every boyar, even members of the princely clans, to refer to themselves as ‘your slave’ when addressing him—a ritual reminiscent of the servility displayed by the Mongols to their khans. This subservience was fundamental to the patrimonial autocracy that distinguished Russia from the European monarchies.”
Right up to 1917, Russia was set apart by its authoritarianism, cruelty, and pogroms. After that, it was set apart by its secret police, torture chambers and gulags.
Sure, there were some liberal Russians. There was even a quasi-constitutional monarchy after 1905, when Nicholas II created the first State Duma. There was a social democratic regime between February and October 1917, which ended when Alexander Kerensky fled in a car borrowed from the US embassy.
We might stretch a point and count the early Putin years, like the Yeltsin years, as more or less democratic. But that’s it. From 882 to 2023 Russia has been an autocratic state for all but – to be as generous as I can – 24 years.
There is no liberal inheritance to fall back on, no long-standing civil institutions, no tradition of the rule of law. What does being without these things mean for a country? Well, here is one striking metric.
In 1900, the United States and Russia had the same population. By 2000, differing rates of immigration, life expectancy and abortion (more pregnancies are terminated in Russia than anywhere else in the world) meant that there were twice as many Americans as Russians.
To borrow from Lenin, Russia exports its internal contradictions. Repression at home means aggression abroad. Figes tells us that “between 1500 and the revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire grew at 130 square kilometres on average every day.” It did not stop after 1917, either. From Czechoslovakia to Afghanistan, the USSR went on to grow, as Henry Kissinger quipped, at the rate of one Belgium per year.
Expansionism is wired into the Russian psyche. The wars in Georgia and Ukraine, the threats to Latvia and, now, to Poland, all stem from what Russians feel as an amputation.
They did not experience the end of empire as the British, French or Portuguese did: as former colonies going their own way while leaving the old country intact and secure in its identity. Russians’ nationality was intertwined with their empire. Putin, like most Russians, is tortured by the phantom pains of the severed republics.
As long as Russia hangs onto its remaining subordinate nationalities, its self-identity will not change. Its people will continue to back even the most tyrannical leaders as long as they terrorise neighbouring states, which is what they mean by “maintaining Russia’s standing in the world”. Seventy per cent of Russians have a positive view of Stalin. Imagine how we’d feel if 70 per cent of Germans had a positive view of Hitler.
In fact, West Germany became a model democracy in a miraculously short time, partly because it had more liberal muscle-memory than Russia to fall back on, and partly because defeat, occupation and partition snapped the continuity with the pre-1945 regime.
While occupation is plainly not on the cards this time, defeat and partition are. A smaller Russian successor state (let’s call it Muscovy) might think differently, freed from its imperial burdens. It might define itself, not as the successor to Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, but as a country that can pursue democratic modernisation, rather as Turkey did when it shed the Ottoman Empire.
I’m not saying that such a thing is sure to happen. I’m not even saying that we should try to make it happen. All I’m saying is that we should not stand in its way.