Ukranian revolution could encourage other attempts to unseat Moscow regime.
The conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the new government in Ukraine is intensifying. Russian forces have already seized control of Ukraine's Crimea and a nearby gas depot, and a referendum Sunday is intended to legitimize Crimea's secession from Ukraine. Crimea's annexation by the Russian Federation will likely be decided by the Kremlin in the coming days.
But Ukraine's partition — whether by vote or by force — would not only result in a permanent breach between Ukraine and Russia, but could presage civil war, ethnic conflict and even Russia's possible disintegration.
As anger at the corrupt government expands through Russian society, the experience of Ukrainian revolutionaries could prove invaluable. It revealed that demonstrations led by activists willing to risk their lives can topple a regime that looks impregnable. Ukraine's success might encourage similar attempts to unseat a corrupt Russian regime.
Up to now, Russian public passivity has allowed Putin to strengthen his hold on power and implement an array of repressive legislation. But resentments will deepen as economic conditions deteriorate, and the Sochi Olympics underscored the unrestrained corruption of the ruling elite. The crisis will be compounded if, as expected, the U.S. and European countries impose economic sanctions on Russia for its occupation of Crimea.
The potential annexation of Crimea could also enflame 300,000 Crimean Tatars who will reject Moscow's domination. With painful memories of extermination and mass deportations within the Soviet Union, Tatars — who are Muslim — could become a new source of anti-state militancy and radicalize Muslim populations elsewhere in the federation. Russia's estimated 20 million Muslims already are the Kremlin's primary scapegoat because of the spreading insurgency in the North Caucasus.
Nearly a quarter of Russia's population of 143 million are non-Russians. In many of the 83 federal regions, resentment against Moscow's failing economic policies and repressive centralism is escalating. This is especially evident in the 21 non-Russian ethnic republics. But even in Siberia and the Far East, the ethnic Russian population is steadily declining while the Chinese proportion is growing, as are their political aspirations.
In several border regions, from Kaliningrad, an exclave surrounded by European Union countries, to Tuva, along the Mongolian frontier, local populations are seeking international connections without Moscow's interference. The option of sovereignty will become increasingly attractive in an artificial federal structure that is unable to control so many alienated regions.
In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, we should be preparing for a coming Russian implosion.
Janusz Bugajski is the author of 19 books on Europe, Russia and trans-Atlantic relations. His newest book is entitled Conflict Zones: North Caucasus and Western Balkans Compared.
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