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How Putin's Imperialist Narrative Fails in Former Soviet Republics

The war in Ukraine reveals how far from the former Soviet republics President Vladimir Putin is. The invasion of the neighboring country has been going on for longer than the main Russian authorities predicted, which highlights one of the reasons for this: the pro-Russian separatists are not as strong as Putin believed and, more than that, they very much agree. less with the war than his imperialist optimism could have calculated.

Resistance to the war has been strong throughout Ukraine since February. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has more than half its population made up of Russians, made it difficult for Putin’s soldiers to enter. Mariupol, one of the main targets of the invasion, also has a large part of the population composed of Russians and, even so, it has become a symbol of resistance.

Contrary to what Putin’s propaganda about Russians says in Ukraine yearning for a rapprochement with Soviet ideals, when humanitarian corridors were created to evacuate citizens from Ukraine to Russia, we did not see Russian-speakers desperate to return to Putin’s arms, as Sergueï Jirnov, a former KGB who worked with Putin and is now one of the great critics of the Russian president.

Even in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, not internationally recognized as separate from Ukraine – except for Belarus, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, India and China – Resistance prevails amid Russian attacks. Dubbed “puppet republics” by Jirnov, they served as a pretext for Russia to invade Ukraine, reinforcing the discourse that the people there want to get rid of the Kiev government.

However, in 2014, the invasion of Crimea was engineered by Moscow and it was not just a spontaneous demonstration of pro-Russian separatists, as Jirnov recalls in his book L’Engrenage (The Gear, in free translation into Portuguese of the material published by the publisher Albin Michel).

While he fed the narrative that there are restless pro-Russia militants in the neighboring country, Putin tried to focus on separatist movements against their own government in the Russian Federation. Formed by 85 members, of which 22 republics, it is what remains of the former Soviet Union, and its districts are mainly concentrated in the North Caucasus, in the area between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains and in the region of Lake Baikal. All these territories are subject to the Russian Constitution, despite having their own languages ​​and different cultural manifestations.

“Obviously, the Russian Federation will be shaken by this frenetic activism. Several separatist movements have been around for a long time. Often repressed, more or less controlled by power, they run the risk of being the detonators of the bomb made by the Kremlin despot”, describes Jirnov.

One of the main movements against Moscow takes place in Chechnya. The historic conflict dates back to World War II, when communist leader Josef Stalin accused the independent republic of contributing to the Germans. Disputes continued for decades, and in the years 1990, Russia twice attacked the territory during attempts at separation.

Chechnya then became the protagonist of the separatist struggle against the Kremlin. The territory is considered an autonomous region, with a republic constituted, but still belonging to Russian territory. Now led by Ramzan Kadyrov, of the United Russia party, tempers have calmed down politically in the region, despite the separatist force persisting in civil society.

Dagestan has also become one of the most dangerous autonomous republics, with frequent bomb attacks, especially aimed at political authorities.

Meanwhile, other autonomous districts of the Russian Federation continue to be under-mentioned in the international debate and provide a lot of profit for the coffers commanded by Putin. Chukotka, for example, is a Jewish territory as large as France, but has only 50 a thousand inhabitants. Open to the Arctic and Pacific oceans, rich in oil, gas and coal, it could be an independent country, making direct trade with the United States and the rest of the world.

Yakutia, which is nearby to the polar circle, it has three million square meters and represents 1/6 of the territory of the Russian Federation. Despite the glacial temperatures, it has a subsoil rich in diamonds, gas and oil. It would also have everything to be a separate republic, trading freely with the world, but despite being culturally different from Moscow, it belongs to Russia.

In an analysis of the war in Ukraine made for the BBC, researcher and reporter Allan Little quotes a Russian saying, which in the original language rhymes perfectly, but in Portuguese it means “A chicken is not exactly a bird; and Poland is not exactly abroad.” Putin’s nostalgic, Soviet, tsarist view is this: that the former republics of the Soviet Union are still his backyard. Especially Ukraine, whose name derives from a Russian word meaning “periphery”.

But the conflict in the independent country of Russia since 2004, whose population returned to the streets in 2004 against authoritarian regimes, begins to wake Putin from his imperialist delusions. Perhaps now, the importance of the warning of Leonid Ivachov, a renowned Russian military, in January becomes clearer this year, just under a month before the invasion of the neighboring country. He created a declaration signed by members of the General Assembly of Russian officers, stating that attacking Ukraine was “crazy.” According to Ivachov, Putin needed to be fired, for he could “destroy the Russian state once and for all”.

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