It is hard to predict the outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though we can be reasonably certain about two things concerning this crisis. First, it will eventually end. Second, Russia will continue posing a significant security threat to Europe regardless of how the war ends. If Russia takes over Ukraine, the Kremlin’s expansionist foreign policy is very likely to engulf other neighboring countries. If, on the other hand, Ukraine manages to drive Russia out from its territory, resentment and revisionism will sweep the Russian elites and influence the Kremlin’s foreign policy in the future. Historical examples of Russian behavior after victories and defeats abound to support this claim.
Russia’s unprovoked, large-scale invasion of Ukraine and the atrocities Russian forces committed will make it difficult to negotiate and find a lasting peace settlement. Both Russian and non-Russian intellectuals have labeled Putin’s Russia as a fascist state, although others have regarded such labeling as inaccurate.
When envisioning a transition to peace in the near future, some intellectuals have called on Russians to admit collective responsibility for Russia’s actions and restore relations with Kyiv, the West, and other affected countries after the war. The claim is based on the fact that the majority of Russians support the invasion as well as President Putin. The initiative has received little support — and even encountered significant pushback — from the intellectual class. Some want to distinguish between collective guilt and collective responsibility, arguing that individuals can only be held responsible for their own actions while collectivities can — and should — subject themselves to common guilt.
Both supporters and opponents of the collective punishment recall the example of Nazi Germany after its defeat in 1945. The Allies divided Germany into occupation zones. Ethnic Germans were expelled from post-war Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Eastern Prussia (Kaliningrad) among other territories in the east and their lands were annexed. Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung coined the notion of collective guilt (Kollektivschuld) in 1945. German philosopher and psychologist Karl Jaspers, writer Thomas Mann, and others have supported the notion. Collective guilt was attributed to Germany and its people for perpetrating the Holocaust and other atrocities in WWII. The Allied forces attempted to instill de-Nazification programs in their respective zones with limited success. Even the punishment of active Nazis in German-speaking Europe effectively ended by 1948 and was a forgotten issue by the early 1950s.
The example of Germany’s de-Nazification and subsequent rise of the notion of collective guilt provide a few cues for the understanding of what is likely to happen if Russia loses the war in Ukraine. Some historians point out that, after the humiliating defeat in WWI and severe war reparations, Germany rebounded and launched a retaliatory large-scale war. As a result of WWII, the German nation suffered the loss of territories, foreign occupation, and the division into East and West Germany, yet it did not succumb to revisionism. After a (hypothetical) defeat in Ukraine, Russia would be unlikely to be occupied by foreign powers or lose territories, although it would be expected to pay reparations for damages to Ukraine. This situation would not pose a profound catastrophe of a comparable scale as Nazi Germany’s in 1945. Rather, it would resemble Germany’s experience after WWI. Hence, it is improbable that the notion of collective guilt or a lasting political liberalization might take hold in the country. Instead, Russia’s trajectory will most likely follow the familiar pattern of the last century. A brief period of disorder, resembling a political thaw, will be succeeded by a new revisionist regime that will seek to restore Russia’s greatness and capture “ancient Russian” lands once again.
Though this grim scenario is likely, it is not bound to happen. A number of Russian intellectuals are wondering whether Russia will always go in circles: from dictatorships through revolutions to political liberalizations and back to dictatorships. Some opposition figures are hopeful that a promising future lies ahead for the country once Putin’s regime ends. Germany’s example in the aftermath of the two World Wars indicates that a military defeat followed by a change in government does not constitute a sufficient driver for profound social changes in the country. The end of imperialism is associated with substantial territorial losses.
While there is no external power capable of imposing territorial concessions on Russia at this time, some territories might seek secession if Moscow’s power crumbles following a potential regime change or intra-elite conflict. The North Caucasian republics (especially Chechnya), Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in Volga region, the Republic of Sakha in Eastern Siberia are often mentioned among the first-row candidates for self-determination. The West can — and should — contribute to decolonizing Russia by providing support to the regions and to regional activists. The exact mechanism behind the relationship between countries’ peace status and losing colonial possessions is unclear. Countries that do not have to suppress and fight domestic insurgencies and secessionist groups might be generally less likely to fight interstate wars, too. Some attribute the positive relationship between civil and interstate wars to spillover effects, while others emphasize diversionary incentives for rulers in highly unequal societies.
Russia and Chechnya provide some clues on the relationship between civil and interstate war. Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 1999 started off with the launch of the second Russian-Chechen war. Virtually unknown to the Russian public, he became the most popular politician in the country within a few months. If Russia had no Chechnya among its regions (which are de facto colonial possessions) to fight, Putin’s rise would have been more difficult if not impossible, and, at the very least, it would have required much less bloodshed. Having learnt that the Russian public appreciates (victorious) wars, Putin has gone on to replicate his rewarding Chechen experience on an increasingly large scale. Russia’s decolonization would save the world from another crisis as in Ukraine. It would also transform Russia into a more manageable country that does not have to resume to warfare to maintain its empire.