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The ‘Putin Principle’ could bring peace to Eurasia

Sometimes even Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has a good idea.

For years, he has insisted that Russia has a right to territories that were historically Russia’s and whose inhabitants are “our own.” Hence, Putin’s claims on Ukraine’s Donbas and Crimea, which have large Russian and Russian-speaking populations. This is also his justification for the genocidal war he launched against Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Since, according to Putin, Ukrainians are really Russians, Russia must be perfectly entitled to do with them what it wants.

In fact, Putin is spot on to say that Russia has a right to its historically Russian territories. It’s just that he doesn’t understand what the consequences for the Russian Federation would be if the “Putin Principle” were to be consistently applied to his homeland.

In a word, the Russian Federation would cease being a federation and instead shrink to a moderately-sized statelet centered on Moscow. Who could argue with such a happy prospect for the world’s largest country?

Start with the fact that the Muscovite tsars conquered Siberia in the 16th and 17th centuries by subjugating the native peoples who inhabited this vast expanse of land. So, Siberia would have to go. But so, too, would much of southern Russia, which historically was populated by various nomadic peoples and belonged to the Mongols before the Muscovites drove them out.

Putin would also have to say good-bye to northern European Russia, which formerly belonged to the Novgorod Republic (populated by Slavic, Finnic and Baltic tribes), which the Muscovite ruler Ivan III unceremoniously destroyed in 1478. According to the Novgorod Chronicle: “Thus did Great Prince Ivan advance with all his host against his domain of Novgorod because of the rebellious spirit of its people, their pride and conversion to Latinism. With a great and overwhelming force did he occupy the entire territory of Novgorod from frontier to frontier, inflicting on every part of it the dread powers of his fire and sword.” Oh, and there goes St. Petersburg, which was founded in 1703 on land inhabited by the Finnic Ingrians and their Swedish conquerors.

That leaves Belarus and Ukraine, which Putin claims were Russian since the days of the Kyivan state called Rus’. Except that they weren’t. The Rus’ state was founded by the Vikings in the 9th century, and the name Rus’ was Scandinavian in origin. As Harvard University historian Serhii Plokhy explains, “Most scholars today believe that the word ‘Rus’’ has Scandinavian roots.” Thus, the “Rus’ Vikings” were “a conglomerate of Norwegian, Swedish and probably Finnish Norsemen,” and not Slavs.  

The Scandinavian Rus’ established a state whose inhabitants were primarily East Slavic tribes who spoke their own versions of what eventually would become Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian. The tribes in the Kyivan core of Rus’ spoke proto-Ukrainian. Those farther north spoke proto-Belarusian; those on the northern periphery spoke proto-Russian. Their languages differed, but so did their cultures and economies. Proto-Ukrainians lived in warmer climes in semi-wooded areas bordering on the Black Earth steppe, where they were directly in touch with Byzantine influences and practiced agriculture. Proto-Russians lived in cold climes and heavily forested areas closer to the non-Slavic peoples of the far north and Siberia and pursued such trades as trapping and logging. The bottom line? Putin would have to leave these historically Ukrainian and Belarusian lands to the Ukrainians and Belarusians.

The Crimean peninsula, so beloved of Russian nationalists, also would have to go, because its inhabitants were — long before the first Muscovite appeared on its shores — Tatars, a Turkic people.

What, then, would be left of the Russian Federation as it currently exists, if the Putin Principle were to be applied across the board? Very little: roughly the area bounded by the cities of Bryansk, Ryazan, Vologda and Smolensk, with Moscow in the middle.

Such a Russia would be a geopolitical godsend. Smaller and less powerful, Russia would cease being a threat to its neighbors. Bereft of its imperial territories, it might even be able to adopt some form of sustainable democracy. All in all, Putin’s vision — if applied rigorously — would actually bring peace to much of Eurasia.

Naturally, Putin knows this, so his selective application of the Putin Principle is just his coy way of justifying historical Muscovite expansionism and current Russian aggression. The irony is that, given the brittle nature of Putin’s regime, the parlous condition of his economy, and the Russian army’s scandalously poor performance on the battlefield, it’s increasingly likely that the Russian Federation may collapse. Putin then would experience the ultimate humiliation: Rump Russia would survive, but be surrounded by newly independent states associated with the non-Russian nations Muscovy robbed.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

Tags Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian Federation Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Vladimir Putin

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