Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, stated on Wednesday that Russia will “disappear” if it loses the war in Ukraine and that “it will be torn to pieces.” This statement should be taken seriously, reflected upon with imagination, and not dismissed as yet more Russian propaganda and bluster.
Russia is a diverse country: According to the latest CIA estimate, Russia has nearly 200 national or ethnic groups, with Russians constituting nearly 80 percent of the total population of 142 million. While many minorities are extremely small, there are about 20 million Muslims in Russia, according to an estimate by the Wilson Center. These Muslims are largely indigenous to Russia, having been absorbed by the expansion of the czarist empire over several centuries. Conflict in the Caucasus against the separatist forces of Chechnya has antecedents in the time of the czars, and Dagestan separatism dates to 1999.
Over the years, U.S. foreign policy and national security leaders have shown a lack of imagination with respect to threat definition. By letting China into the World Trade Organization in 2001, and with multinational trade and investment, the West has made China what it is today, erroneously thinking that, through prosperity, China would be committed to the world order and the rules for trade and investment that have prevailed since the end of World War II.
Europe’s naïve reliance on Russia for oil and gas was similarly based on the premise that commerce translates to peace and security. Further, there was the pre–9/11 failure by European and U.S. intelligence to piece together al-Qaida’s aviation training efforts and modus operandi.
Not only that, the blowback and rise of ISIS after the fall of Baghdad reflected limited understanding of the Sunni–Shiite divide, which dates to the selection of the first caliph after the death of Muhammad in 632. The removal of Saddam Hussein, the secular Iraqi strongman, in 2003 caused a Sunni backlash in the Levant and emboldened the mullahs in Iran. And following the chaos during the evacuation of Afghanistan, the capability of the Afghan Taliban and Pashtun nationalists was badly underestimated. The common denominator in foreign policy has been a lack of understanding of tribalism and ethnic nationalism. (RELATED: America Repeats Its Mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq)
The stakes in Russia are too high for any misjudgment of the national and ethnic divisions in its 21 republics. If a defeated and humiliated Russia was to become fractured, one may envision pandemonium in the streets from a lack of food and malfunctioning infrastructure; elements of a rogue Russian army bent on its own survival; China’s seizure of Siberia for its oil and gas, coal, and iron ore; China’s opportunistic attack of Taiwan while the West is preoccupied with a disintegrating Russia; secession of fissiparous ethnic and national regions in Russia; a coup d’état that installs the Wagner Group, a private army; and questionable oversight for Russia’s nearly 6,000 strategic nuclear weapons in varying degrees of readiness.
President Joe Biden has demonstrated leadership in mobilizing NATO to meet the Russian onslaught in Ukraine. His presence in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — and later in Warsaw with leaders of nine potentially vulnerable countries — demonstrated American resolve to help stop Russian aggression — however, unrealistic promises of unending military support for Ukraine need recalibration.
U.S. and NATO military support should be designed to put a stop to further Russian offensives, while at the same time avoiding what Moscow would define as a defeat. We must be wary of the consequences of a defeated and humiliated superpower. The 20th century’s history is evidence of victors going too far, with a humiliated Germany rising from the ruins after World War I to later menace most of Europe.
No one can possibly know what would be in the mind of the Russian leader, should he be on the verge of going down. And while distasteful to many, and as advised in January to the World Economic Forum by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Russia, with its energy, mineral, and agricultural resources, will need to be part of an integrated world order again — but under new leadership and with the eventual relaxation of sanctions and asset freezes. A contrite Russia seeking to rejoin a league of nations might be receptive to trials for war crimes.
In spite of the current rhetoric and hype about giving Ukraine the means to defeat Russia — F-16s, MiG-29s, platforms for Army Tactical Missile Systems, and sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles — the solution should be to stop Russian aggression rather than to defeat the country.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, the University of Chicago, and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.
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