A Russian Civil War? Be Careful What You Wish For
The aborted Wagner coup in Russia shows how a "war of all against all" might begin, and there are plenty of other militia factions opposed to the Kremlin, including separatist groups. Though it may appear to solve some big problems, including the war in Ukraine, history has shown that Russia exploding into civil war is unlikely to end well.
KYIV — As Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner mercenary group, advanced his troops towards Moscow, speculation of a potential second Russian Civil War began to circulate. As we know, the would-be rebellion was short-lived, with Prigozhin ultimately backing off and Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking a compromise to avoid bloodshed.
Nonetheless, the situation inside Russia has been increasingly compared to a century earlier, when Vladimir Lenin mobilized convicts to launch the 1917 Russian Revolution. Indeed, rumblings of civil strife are not limited to Wagner and Prigozhin. Hundreds of kilometers away, the fighters of two anti-Putin militias, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion, continue to capture Russian border regions and establish their order there.
Has a "war of all against all" begun? Or are such discussions a trick for the media, experts, bloggers and even officials like the head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, Kyrylo Budanov, to reassure the public?
But as enticing as it may seem for Ukrainians and the West, a Russia that devolves into civil war does not bode well for itself, its neighbors or the world at large.
Heorhii Kasianov, Ukrainian historian at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin Poland, explains why we should be careful what we wish for:
Subconsciously, Russia's political elites harbor a persistent fear of separatist tendencies emerging within the country. Their memory of the wave of declarations of sovereignty by various Soviet republics in the 1990s, commonly known as the Parade of Sovereignties, has worsened these concerns.
Chechnya was one of the regions that launched a bid for independence at the time, but by killing tens of thousands of civilians, and destroying Grozny, the Kremlin, though not overcoming the resistance, resorted to the typically imperial tactic of divide and conquer. They bought the loyalty of one of the Chechen clans.
Another way was to appoint subservient regional governors. After the 2012 elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin was even dubbed the “president of the regions” because he attained the best results in the peripheries.
PMC Wagner fighters take cover outside the Southern Military District building in Rostov-On-Don.
Erik Romanenko / ZUMA
Paths to fragmentation
Moscow tries to unify the country ideologically. It resisted national revivals of the regions in the 90s. It promoted unifying historical myths, where the central theme became the victory during the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War), and that Russia was the liberator of Europe.
Despite attempts by the central government, ethnic and cultural regionalization in Russia persists. It represents an underlying issue that is being tackled through diverse approaches, such as employing foreign policy or military actions that aim to foster national unity in the face of external threats.
What they call a "special military operation" provides an opportunity for ideological mobilization around a perceived common goal, and to thereby overcome potential separatist tendencies.
If Russian ethnic nationalism were to prevail in Russia, it would undoubtedly lead to its fragmentation.
It is difficult to say whether the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) currently poses any real threat to the Putin regime. I don't see much potential there.
They exist and they are “trolling” the Kremlin on the border with Ukraine. But are they really that strong? To what extent are they being helped by the Ukrainian intelligence services?
If Russian ethnic nationalism were to prevail in Russia, it would undoubtedly lead to its fragmentation. The second path to fragmentation is democratization. If Russia were to suddenly become a country with a genuine democracy, not just a facade of one, it would immediately begin to disintegrate.
Just recall 1917. The integrity of Russia can only exist under an authoritarian or totalitarian regime. Currently, we are witnessing a sort of corporate state, with its backbone consisting of intelligence services, bureaucracy, oligarchs who are nurtured by the state, and oligarchs who are indirectly under its control.
The prospect of these corporations somehow relinquishing power is practically dim. There may be some reshuffling, a shift in power among certain groups, but the nature of the regime will not change.
A beautiful, flourishing, peaceful Russia is an idyllic image. But I don't believe in it. History does not provide us with the appropriate material.
The political history of Russia in recent centuries is one of constant expansion, war and violence. Except for the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is difficult to find anything there that would justify claims of a remarkable contribution to world history.
Prigozhin is no Lenin. He does not have the power to bring down the government.
I think that the confrontation between Prigozhin and Shoigu is a publicity stunt, successfully regulated by the Kremlin.
I do not rule out a real confrontation between Prigozhin and the elites, but this is, as they say, internal bickering, a showdown that hardly affects the essence of what is happening. Both Shoigu and Prigozhin are not so much fighting against each other as against Ukraine.
Prigozhin claims that he is not allowed to kill as many Ukrainians as he would like. If we want to draw historical parallels, maybe we should recall the disputes between the Nazi party and Ernst Rohm, a top Nazi party leader and head of the party's paramilitary wing, the SA, who Hitler had killed in an attempt to shore up his power.
Perhaps we should compare the Wagnerites and the SA troops? But, of course, every historical event is unique.
A policeman stands on guard Sunday at the closed Red Square in Moscow.
What is called "imperial nationalism" is emerging.
There is a prevailing myth of the Russian Empire, but the Russian Empire does not truly exist. Russia has long since lost its peripheries. But the imperial consciousness has remained since the 19th century. It is not a national way of thinking, but an imperial one.
This worldview is acquiring national features. What is called "imperial nationalism" is emerging. It sounds like an oxymoron, but perhaps this is the unique feature of 21st-century Russia.
In addition to imperial consciousness, Russians have the idea of a "special path" and a special calling.
The “Russian carousel” is always spinning, always presenting the same spectacle. This Russian merry-go-round is now turning back to the 19th century, when the idea of Russia's special path in the imperial context was finally formed. According to this idea, Russia is a state that combines features of the East and the West, and is therefore absolutely unique in culture, spirituality, and so on, giving Russia special rights and a special position in the world. People who live in Russia believe they are different than everyone else because they have a "special mission." That's why they feel the need to organize others, but not themselves.
This ideal of the "special" path, feeling of uniqueness and aggressive ethnic irredentism directed outward recalls Germany in the 1930s. The idea of the “Sonderweg," or "special path," was used before that, but it reached its absolute height in Nazi Germany.
If we want to make analogies, Russia continues to hold a very similar worldview.
Russia's ruling class is set for a long war of attrition. A large part of the Russian population is gripped by great-power chauvinism.
Internal tensions related to social and regional inequalities have been successfully transformed into tensions of confrontation with the "hostile West." Ukraine is no longer seen as a part of the Russian historical body; it is now a territory of struggle with the West.
The expectation that a miracle, such as a coup, Putin's death or an economic catastrophe will occur in Russia, and everything will be fine, is political infantilism. History suggests that such Russian “miracles” usually have had negative consequences for their neighbors.
We need to make a miracle in Ukraine. We need to pay attention to ourselves first.
The Russian invasion, and Putin's intention to destroy Ukraine as a political entity, dramatically highlight the challenges: corruption, low trust of citizens in state institutions (except for the military), a weak economy and so on.
No one has killed as many Russians as Putin.
Talk of Ukraine having a "special mission" is not new. Previously, it was either a civilizational bridge between the East and the West, or a barrier between them. Now, the idea of a European savior mission has been renewed, and we hear that Ukraine will be Russia's graveyard. Russia's gravedigger is more likely to be Russia itself. Given everything that is happening now, Putin himself is already successfully destroying it.
No one has killed as many Russians as he has recently. No one has driven as many of them out of the country as he has. No one has killed as many Russians in Ukraine as he has. No one has been as successful at changing the perception of Russia: no longer ballet, Tolstoy and Chekhov, but Bucha, the destruction of Bakhmut and nuclear threats.
So let's not think about how to liberate other nations, or about overcoming someone else's problems. Let's take care of our own first.
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