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Playing With Pandora's Box
Putin’s Nationalist Gamble

In justifying his intervention in Crimea with a duty to defend Russians abroad, Putin is fueling the destructive fire of nationalism. It could be Russia’s undoing.

Published on: March 14, 2014
Raymond Sontag received his doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford in 2011. He previously served as the program officer for the National Democratic Institute's political party program in Moscow.
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  • Pete

    Defending russians in the Ukraine is only the pretext for the Crimea’s annexation into Russia proper. The real reasons was to 1) protect his naval base and 2) make destabilize the Ukraine so it could not be iuntegrated into the Europe and NATO in particular.

    • Arimathean

      First, there was no danger to Russia’s Crimean naval bases. Second, detaching Crimea from Ukraine will have the opposite effect: By reducing the number of Russian-leaning voters in Ukrainian elections, Putin has made it more likely that Ukraine will elect Western-leaning governments in the future.

  • Andrew Allison

    I conclude that TAI is utterly clueless about geopolitics.

  • Jim__L

    Success in any of these regions is likely to cause those percentages to grow.

  • Bretzky1

    It is highly unlikely that Moscow will be able to hold on to the better organized, non-Russian parts of its empire for more than about 30 years. Russia as a political entity is slowly morphing from an empire into a nation-state. The ethnically Russian people are growing tired of the sacrifices required of them to hold the empire together when they see little benefit accruing to them for maintaining it. Russian territory with a majority Russian population or a majority minority population too weak and disorganized to secede is, after all, a great majority of Russia’s present extent, so letting places like Chechnya and Dagestan secede will do little harm to one of Russia’s great geopolitical strengths: its immense size.

    There are only a small number of traditional empires left in the world (i.e., a unified, multi-ethnic state in which one ethnic group dominates the government with only token participation from the other ethnic groups and with no chance for them to hold the highest seats of power). Of those empires that are left, only Russia and China have any real importance on the world stage. Both will be facing enormous pressure from their ethnic minorities over the coming decades for the dissolution of those empires. Beijing has a greater incentive to hold onto its minority regions as they constitute a far greater proportion of Chinese territory than do Russia’s minority areas relative to its territorial extent. The Han Chinese will also have a greater ability to continue to impose their imperial rule on restive minorities as they constitute a greater percentage of the total population of their country and have shown a willingness to move to these minority areas so as to dilute the importance of the minority population in the region. Russians, by contrast, are a smaller and shrinking percentage of Russia’s population and generally want no part of moving to regions dominated by ethnic minorities. And also, the Chinese state is simply stronger than the Russian one at the moment and likely will continue to be for some time to come, so the dangerousness and attractiveness of Beijing’s strength might be able dissuade the development of strong pro-independence movements in China’s minority regions, whereas Russia’s weaker (and, quite frankly, weakening) state will likely encourage such break-away movements.

    By 2040, Russia will likely have shed most of its troubling regions while China, if it doesn’t make the transition to a liberal democracy, or, at the very least, a faux democracy, will be knee-deep in its own anti-secessionist fight. In ten years time, we will likely be seeing regular news broadcasts about terrorist bombings in China committed by various ethnically-based secessionists movements.

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