Will secession seal Putin’s doom?
Russian President Vladimir Putin chose a referendum on secession, attended by 15,000 menacing troops, as the means to pry Crimea away from Ukraine. This choice runs directly counter to his long-held beliefs about the need to maintain the integrity of his nation at all costs.
With the results in, it may seem that Putin has achieved exactly what he set out to do: restore Crimea to Russia after 60 years as part of Ukraine. But promoting the principle that secession can be legitimate on the basis of a single hastily-arranged plebiscite in the middle of a military occupation provides a precedent that may prove Putin’s ultimate undoing.
Until Putin annexed Crimea, secession was the dirtiest word in his playbook. He watched, appalled, as one after another former Soviet republic opted for independence from Russia. He has repeatedly punished those brave dissenters who dare advocate leaving the Russian federation.
By legitimizing secession, however, Putin has opened the door to all those nationalists, Chechens, Muslims and other minorities who believe their future prosperity and human rights are best served by detaching themselves from Russia’s centralizing grasp.
For a short term gain, Putin has inadvertently legitimized the right of minority communities to go their own ways with the help of a foreign government. When former Soviet republics like the Baltic republics escaped their Russian masters by voting to secede from the old Soviet bloc, the Western powers cheered that after 70 years of colonization, the people had chosen self-determination over satellite status.
But Putin believes that the secession movements that followed the ignominious collapse of communism brought Russia low. He considers the “near abroad” republics’ decision to abandon the ruins of the Soviet Union as nothing less than “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century.”
Putin insists that the West took advantage of communism’s demise when the interests of Greater Russia fell into the hands of the drunken Boris Yeltsin. As soon as he succeeded Yeltsin in 1999, Putin tried to put a swift end to former Soviet republics abandoning the embrace of Mother Russia. While Chechnya had slipped Yeltsin’s grasp during the First Chechen War of 1994-1996, Putin spent 10 bloody years taking Chechnya back in the Second Chechen War of 1999-2009.
Putin’s use of brutal force in Chechnya made it clear to all other republics considering independence that as long as he was in charge, there would be no further crumbling of the borders of the old empire.
Putin is no communist. His fierce nationalism was inspired by the romantic vision of an eternal Russia conjured up by, among others, one of the Communist Kremlin’s most virulent and outspoken critics, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Putin sees his first duty — as any president might — as maintaining the integrity of the borders of old Russia.
Which is why, paradoxically, Putin has promoted a secession movement in Crimea. Even though there was little evidence that anyone wanted to leave Ukraine and forge closer ties with Russia before the January revolt in Kiev forced out the Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovich. The Crimea voters have spoken and, given a Hobson’s choice, have asked to return to Russia.
Unless Putin ultimately agrees to a more generous arrangement between Crimea and Ukraine, he will have succeeded in winning back a piece of Russia that was thought permanently lost. It has been part of Ukraine since 1954, when the Communist leader of Ukraine, Nikita Khrushchev, awarded Crimea to the Soviet republic as a parting gift.
Putin’s victory may be short lived, however.
Secession is the most debilitating threat to a nation. Few countries are entirely homogenous. Sentimental notions about place, language and lineage often coagulate into a nationalist movement that threatens to wrench away part of a larger nation. Because secession movements cut to the heart of a nation’s existence, they are invariably resisted by those who govern the central state.
Secession movements can be found all around the globe. In places such as the Basque country in Spain or Republican areas of Northern Ireland or South Sudan, force is met by force. Running battles over secession can often tip into civil war.
Few countries have witnessed the horrors of a secessionist war more than the United States. Between 1861 and 1865 the U.S. North and South took up arms against each other. By the end of the war, slavery was deemed to be the cause. At the start, however, it was a theoretical debate about whether states that had voluntarily joined the Union had the right to secede. By the time Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, a total of 359,528 Americans had been killed — the most Americans killed in any war.
Some Americans do not appear to have learned the lessons of the Civil War. Since the election of President Barack Obama, 20 states have petitioned him requesting they be allowed to secede from the union and form their own separate government. Yet there is still no genuine threat to the integrity of the United States, even when popular leaders such as Governor Rick Perry of Texas bandy around secessionist language.
Russia is different. Without true democracy, without rule of law, and without prosperity — Russia has an economy about the size of Italy and it is largely dependent on energy exports to the West — the Russian confederation is highly vulnerable to breakaway states that think they would fare better on their own.
So what lesson should those states considering a divorce from Russia take from Putin’s actions in Crimea? The first is that force can be justified if independence from a central state is the object.
The second is that inviting outside countries to help facilitate secession is legitimate.
The third is that a single rushed referendum offering two poor alternatives, held at gunpoint without extensive debate and without a free press or freedom of speech is enough to establish a separate state.
Those who live by secession die by secession. Putin’s unilateral action in Crimea, unanimously condemned by the Western powers, is an open invitation to the peoples living in his own land that secession by any means is legitimate and desirable. It is a signal to Islamists, for example, that the principle of self-determination they are fighting for has been conceded by Putin.
Back in the days of Russian Communism, the Kremlin set great store by its consistency. It had ideologists, high priests of Marxism-Leninism, who decided conflicts over the way forward for the Soviet state. Now Russia has returned to a form of monarchy, in which a single man and his acolytes rule the roost.
No doubt Putin is proud to have made himself a 21st century tsar. But, like the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was murdered in cold blood at the hands of revolutionaries, Putin lives in constant fear of a coup that will oust him from power.
His embrace of secession as a weapon against his foreign enemies has let Putin’s internal opponents know that they no longer need to rely on legitimacy and ordered protests. No rules apply anymore.
All gloves are off.
PHOTO (TOP): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends the closing ceremony of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, March 16, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk
PHOTO (INSERT 1): A Ukrainian naval officer (C) passes by armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, as he leaves the naval headquarters in Sevastopol, March 19, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the Nobel laureate’s mansion in Moscow, September 20, 2000. REUTERS/Itar Tass
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Members of a “Maidan” self-defense unit stand guard in front of a Ukrainian parliament building in Kiev, March 17, 2014. REUTERS/Alex Kuzmin