By Yaroslav Yurchyshyn
Sept 16, 2023
Last month, Ukraine’s parliament established a special committee to formulate a legal framework for interactions with small and indigenous national movements within Russia. Its underlying goal is to establish enduring peace for both Ukraine and the trans-Atlantic community.
No treaty, political engagement, diplomatic arrangement or extensive dialogue has proven sufficient to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations to impose his will on other nations. The contemporary Russian political tradition is notorious for disregarding commitments made to those perceived as rivals, rebels, or revolutionaries who challenge the ruling clique in Moscow. The imperial mindset, characterized by notions such as “civilizing missions,” “natural spheres of influence,” “non-historic nations” and “hierarchy of cultures” is deeply ingrained in the political culture of this vast multi-ethnic state created through conquest.
Resurgent Russian imperial ambitions shine through in the backing of separatists in Moldova and Georgia during the early 1990s, as well as subsequent invasions of Chechnya and Georgia. More recent cyberattacks against Estonia, France and Romania, along with ongoing efforts to manipulate public opinion in the U.S., demonstrate that even a weakened imperialist Russia remains a significant threat to NATO.
Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine marked the culmination of a deliberate strategy set in motion decades earlier. Consequently, it will not be enough merely to compel Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. This will not quell Kremlin ambitions or offer a lasting solution. Instead, drawing from our painful experiences, a broad consensus prevails across the Ukrainian political spectrum that Russia will continue to pose a threat to its neighbors as long as it clings to its current political mindset and retains its imperialistic past.
Many of our partners believe that effecting change entails engaging with the Russian democratic opposition and pressuring the Kremlin to embrace a diversified political system. We remain deeply skeptical. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine revealed that Russian society is broadly either cheering or ignoring the war, with a negligible minority actively opposing it. Simultaneously, numerous leaders within the Russian democratic opposition exhibit the same imperialistic mentality as the current regime, vehemently attacking grassroots initiatives that challenge the concept of a “united and indivisible Russia.”
The majority of genuine de-colonization initiatives, shunned by the Russian opposition, originate from various ethnic groups resisting the forced Russification of their societies. Although ethnic groups in Russia briefly experienced political and cultural autonomy following the Soviet
Union’s collapse, this was swiftly reversed in the early 2000s. The Russian government has since worked to dismantle any traces of political autonomy in ethnic regions. It has also reintroduced Russification policies into the educational and public spheres, and eroded financial independence, which previously allowed ethnic republics to sustain themselves.
This, in conjunction with a subtle campaign to vilify those openly opposing Russification, has multiplied tensions in these ethnic regions.
Russia’s current descent into full-fledged authoritarianism, coupled with media restrictions reminiscent of China’s approach, fosters societal animosity toward dissenters from the “great mission of Russia.” Meanwhile, the ongoing decline of Russia’s federal system and economy compels the government to lean on its military and secret police to ensure stability and survival of its regime.
This leaves underfunded the local administrations responsible for supporting deteriorating infrastructure and social services. Such developments, combined with the push for Russification, could lead to a grim scenario, dreaded by many in Washington — either the rapid decline and violent disintegration of Russia, or else its transformation into a new Soviet Union that actively strives to dismantle the Euro-Atlantic community.
We believe that the main challenge to Moscow’s imperialism will arise from the efforts of ethnic minorities inside Russia to decolonize themselves. Their sheer numbers preclude coercion or intimidation into silence. Their grievances are too conspicuous to be disregarded indefinitely. Their current predicament leaves them with few alternatives: either total erasure of their identity or engagement in a political struggle to challenge the existing status quo.
If properly supported, a drive for decolonization can generate enough momentum to foster a potent political discourse, founded on non-imperialistic values such as inclusivity, rejection of Russification, genuine diversity, and acknowledgment of ethnic minority rights. This can also lead to the establishment of stable, non-authoritarian political entities in the event of Russia’s disintegration.
For this vision to materialize, active engagement with these ethnic groups that advocate for non-authoritarian governance is imperative. We must establish communication channels with such groups, engage their leaders, and explore frameworks of mutual responsibilities, particularly centered around the commitment to non-violence and inclusivity.
We are confident that this engagement will bolster Euro-Atlantic security and reduce future threats by constraining Russia’s ability to lash out at its neighbors. An internal political transformation can deter aggressive wars by a decolonized and diminished Russian state.
Yaroslav Yurchyshyn is a member of Ukraine’s parliament and head of its Temporary Special Commission on Development of Basic Principles of State Policy for Cooperation with National Movements of Small and Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Federation .