Putin’s War in Ukraine has Opened the Way for Circassians to Achieve Their Goals
Window on Eurasia
The First North Caucasus Conference
Ethno-Cultural Problems of the Circassian Nation
November 7-9, 2022 Potockich Palace, University of Warsaw
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has given Circassians greater opportunities than ever before to overcome the divisions of the past, to achieve justice for the crimes that have been committed against them, and to restore a state in the North Caucasus that will ensure the future of the nation. In less that a year, Russia’s self-inflicted wounds both within and beyond the current borders of the Russian Federation, the changed attitude of the international community to the continued existence of a Moscow-centric empire, and the amazingly rapid growth in the international role of Ukraine and its willingness to address the problems of the peoples still under Moscow’s yoke have changed the world in which Circassians can operate. There is every indication that these three interrelated developments are going to accelerate in the coming weeks and months, and both Circassians and all who care about that nation must understand what is going on and be ready to seize the initiative. If they don’t, then this opportunity may pass; and it might not come again soon.
That Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 has been a disaster for Russia internationally is now common ground. That country has been subject to near universal condemnation by the international community – the near unanimous votes against Moscow at the United Nations are only the most obvious measure of that — and to massive and unprecedented sanctions by the leading economic powers of the world. As a result, Russia never been more isolated internationally than it is today. Indeed, and this must be remembered, it is now far more isolated than the USSR was even in the coldest days of the Cold War.
But it is the disaster that Putin’s decision has inflicted on Russia itself that is if anything an even more serious self-inflicted wound. The isolation he has produced has left almost all Russians poorer than they would otherwise be, his pursuit of a new Russian empire styled as “a Russian world” has infuriated many who might otherwise be his allies, his decision to use men from Russian regions remote from Moscow and especially from non-Russian regions rather than from big Russian cities has exacerbated ethnic, class and regional tensions. All these things together have made people beyond the ring road ever more anti-Moscow in their orientation with those who had tolerated the situation now demanding greater autonomy and those who had wanted more autonomy increasingly calling for outright independence. The Kremlin dictator still enjoys majority Russian support, but it is obvious that that support is increasingly both conditional and fragile and that in many places and above all the non-Russian republics, the population has turned against him.
A year ago, anyone who talked about the disintegration of the Russian Federation was viewed as a marginal even by regime critics; but now the prospect that the country won’t remain in its current borders for much longer has gone mainstream even in Moscow, with even those who might be expected to back Putin no longer confident that he can hold things together Indeed, he has been compounding his mistakes in the mobilization campaign by planning to more refugees from Ukraine to non-Russian areas and thus reduce the relative size of their titular nationalities and put them on the way to amalgamation with Russian areas and by creating regional military units and even regional commands. The full impact of these steps is yet to be felt, but already in republic after republic, ever more non-Russians see the Kremlin ruler as a threat to themselves and their future.
Such anti-Moscow attitudes are now stronger than at any time since 1991 – and in many places, they are far more intense today than they were 30 years ago. If then only a few of the autonomous republics within the RSFSR had populations interested in pursuing independence, now certainly more than half do, including places no one ever thought would be thinking of that. Putin still has the coercive resources to deploy against them, but coercion by itself only works for so long. And it is likely the case that the Kremlin leader will soon be in a situation analogous to someone who throws water at a grease fire: what looks like enough to extinguish one flame will in fact have the effect of spreading that flame to others. That is something even Putin loyalists in the security services likely understand, and if they are ordered to act in ways they conclude will be counterproductive, they may turn on the Russian leader in the hopes of saving themselves.
This is not to say that all of Russia’s regions will go their own way or that Eurasia will soon have 30, 40 or even more new countries. Many of the republics and even more of the majority ethnic Russian oblasts and krays will likely seek to form some kind of confederation, but they will insist on being its creators rather than allowing Moscow to usurp all their powers as it rapidly did after the USSR came apart. And at the same time, the cleverest of them will recognize from the outset that such a confederation will be possible if and only if a number of non-Russian republics and even some predominantly ethnic Russian regions spin off and become independent countries. That is a new reality, one very different from a year ago, and one that is affecting not only Russian and non-Russian calculations within the country but perhaps far more importantly the thinking of the international community.
Because Putin’s invasion of Ukraine almost perfectly coincided with the 30th anniversary of the disintegration of the USSR, many in the West are drawing conclusions about what needs to be done to ensure that Moscow will not invade other of its neighbors. In 1991, as ever more people now recognize all too many leaders believed that if those leading the Russian Federation ceased to call themselves communists, they would inevitably become liberal, democratic and free market allies of the West and would cease to be a threat to their neighbors or the world. Today, there is a growing recognition that the Russian Federation is a USSR in miniature, that changing the leadership in Moscow was not in the past and is not now enough to address the threats that arise from that, and that more sympathy and support should be shown to the regions and republics and greater demands should be placed on Moscow with regard to its actions toward them. At the very least, there is now widespread recognition of the inherently close links between what the Kremlin does to its empire within the current borders of the Russian Federation and what it does to those now beyond those borders but that it still believes are properly Russia’s.
In brief, if Moscow is to stop conducting imperialist wars, it must stop being an empire; and because the West doesn’t want any more such wars, it is increasingly driven to the conclusion that Russia must be compelled to stop being an empire even within its own borders.
To say this is not to say that the West is ready for the demise of the Russian Federation or is planning to dismember Russia as some in Moscow insist. It wasn’t ready for the demise of the USSR; and it didn’t promote it, even to the point of being exceedingly cautious with regard to the recovery of de facto independence by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania whose de jure independence the United States at least had recognized without interruption since the 1920s. Indeed, many Western governments opposed the coming apart of the Soviet Union right up to the end, violating their principles for the sake of convenience. It is not ready now as many commentators have noted, and it isn’t promoting disintegration however much Moscow claims otherwise.
But – and this is a very big deal – there are far more voices in the West who recognize that installing liberals in the Kremlin won’t solve the problem as such liberals will tend to become imperialists and who are thus insisting that the remaining “inner” empire must be dismantled lest its rulers continue to seek revenge against its lost “outer” ones. Because that is so, the non-Russian republics and Russian regions have a very much more sympathetic set of interlocutors in Western capitals than the union republics did in 1990 and 1991. Whether that will last will likely depend on the course of the war in Ukraine, but this shift is palpable, welcome and something I believe the Circassians as well as many others must take advantage of right now.
However, it is the third change that is the most obvious and may prove the most consequential — the emergence of Ukraine as a spokesman for and even leader of peoples still under Moscow’s yoke. In the face of continuing Russian aggression, Ukraine has taken two pages out of the American Cold War playbook: its parliament has called for international recognition of the right of the peoples of the Russian Federation for self-determination and its president has referred to Putin’s Russia as an updated version of the evil empire. The first of these echoes the 1959 US Congress Captive Nations Week resolution but goes even further by denouncing Moscow of carrying out acts of genocide against the non-Russians within the current borders of the Russian Federation including through the use of selective mobilization. And the second echoes the words of US President Ronald Reagan who in 1983 described the Soviet Union as an evil empire. Those positions contributed to the demise of the USSR. Ukraine’s positions can contribute to the demise of the Russian Federation.
But now Ukraine has gone even further that the West did, recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as being “under temporary Russian occupation.” That is short of even de facto recognition, but it is further than any other member of the international community has yet been willing to go. But as those who remember the importance of Iceland’s becoming the first country to recognize Lithuania’s de facto independence in January 1991 will remember, once one country does so, it becomes far easier for other. And as a result, I can only express my whole-hearted agreement with Avraam Shmulyevich’s observation that this Ukrainian move will be followed by other countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region and then by others and that that will open the way for Ukraine first and then other countries to recognize that Circassia too is a country under temporary Russian occupation and that its people have been the victims of a genocide conducted by the Russian state.
Some will dismiss what Ukraine has done as nothing more than a wartime expedient by which a country seeks to weaken its opponent by mobilizing the support of the opponents of its enemy. That is certainly a factor at work, but it is not the only one. Ukraine has long recognized and been very clear to its interlocutors in the West that what happens within the borders of the Russian Federation is driving what Moscow does with regard to its neighbors and to the world. A Ukrainian victory in the current war thus must be about far more than driving Russian occupiers out of Ukraine: it must be about driving Russian occupiers out of all the other places where Russia is a occupier to this day – including in particular the nations within the current borders of the Russian Federation.
For those of us who have tracked Moscow’s imperialism for decades, these are most welcome developments. They aren’t a guarantee that the Circassians or other non-Russians will necessarily succeed. The obstacles against them are formidable. But today there is a chance that the Circassian miracle, as Adel Bashqawi has called it, will finally be realized. And that is both a cause for celebration in and of itself and a call to action for the leaders of the Circassian people and their friends to work closely with Ukraine, with the West and with other non-Russian and Russian regional groups so that that longstanding goal of the Circassian people will finally be achieved.