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Imagining the unimaginable with Ukraine

It’s time for policymakers to start imagining the unimaginable with regard to the Russo-Ukrainian war.

That won’t be easy. It takes far less effort to imagine the imaginable: that the Russian Federation will continue to be a great power, that Ukraine will learn to live in Russia’s shadow, and that Europe will emerge relatively unchanged from the war.

Unfortunately, the imaginable is unlikely to happen, because the next few years probably will witness a huge realignment of Eurasia’s geopolitical map. Instead of thinking that the status quo somehow will survive, policymakers would be well advised to think seriously about the unthinkable scenarios that are usually consigned to the realm of far-fetched speculation.

Why? Because after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unexpectedly barbaric invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s equally unexpected ability to hold Russia at bay, Germany’s shocking abandonment of its dalliance with Russia, the European Union’s utterly surprising decision to grant Ukraine candidate membership status, and Bulgaria’s historically unprecedented expulsion of 70 Russian diplomats — it’s clear that what seemed absolutely impossible just a few months ago has violated all expectations and become real.

This isn’t the first time that the impossible became real. Who thought that the mobilization of European troops in the summer of 1914 would turn into a four-year slog that would cost millions of lives? Who could have imagined that Vladimir Lenin’s tiny band of Bolsheviks would seize and retain power in Russia and its neighboring states? Who would have believed the Germans — the nation of poets and thinkers — could exterminate 6 million Jews? And just how many academics and policymakers predicted the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991?

This isn’t a question of fluttering butterflies or black swans changing the course of history. Rather, it’s a question of our failing to imagine just how the course of history could be changed, with or without butterflies and swans.

What should we be thinking about even if — or because — it seems completely unlikely? Three things: a smashing Ukrainian victory, the fragmentation of the Russian Federation, and the formation of a confederation including Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.

We erred in thinking that Russia’s armed forces would capture Ukraine in a few days and that the Ukrainians could not drive the Russians out of much of their country. Now that the Ukrainians seem to have stalled and the Russians are making incremental progress in the Donbas, it looks like Moscow’s virtually endless supply of soldiers and tanks eventually will overrun Ukraine.

That expectation is likely to be as accurate as previous ones. Ukraine enjoys the support of over 50 countries, NATO, the EU, and the G-7. Heavy weaponry is about to flow into Ukraine in large numbers. The Ukrainians might succeed only in stopping further Russian advances. But they also might succeed in driving the Russians out of all the occupied territories, including Crimea and the Donbas. If that happens, Putin almost certainly will be deposed and his fascist regime could collapse.

More importantly, a huge systemic shock could easily lead to the break-up of the Russian Federation. The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires all collapsed as a result of World War I. The Soviet Empire fell apart in 1989-1991 after Mikhail Gorbachev eviscerated the Communist Party and ruined the central planning economic system. Another such collapse is perfectly plausible, especially since Russia’s provinces historically have seceded for a variety of reasons.

We usually assume that secession presupposes a strong nationalist movement, but the reality is quite different. In 1991, for instance, the Baltic states and Ukraine had such movements, while the Belarusians and Central Asians did not. Yet all became independent. We also tend to assume that benighted regions will be more likely to secede than rich regions, but once again the historical record shows that both rich and poor — again, the Balts and the Central Asians come to mind — can secede.

We need to remember that secession as often occurs as a result of systemic developments in the central state as it does as a result of political inclinations in the provinces. When states are embroiled in costly wars or become unstable and dysfunctional for reasons of their own, provinces that had no desire whatsoever to secede may do so because secession represents the only escape from a collapsing system.

If the Russian Federation disintegrates, or even if it merely experiences Putin’s demise, Alexander Lukashenka’s ability to hold onto power in Belarus will dissipate overnight. If he and his regime disappear and are replaced by the democrats who organized the mass demonstrations in 2020, the door will be open to closer cooperation among Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.

There will be several good reasons for forming such an alliance. One concerns security. The Russo-Ukrainian war has demonstrated that Russia is and will long remain inveterately hostile to Europe, that Ukraine is essential to European — and especially Eastern European — security, and that too many NATO countries may be fair-weather friends. A second is economics. The war has shown just how interdependent these four economies are, and should be. A third is cultural: These four nations have many historical ties (going back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) that could promote closer cooperation.

None of these impossible scenarios may come to pass — or all of them may become reality. It makes no sense to pretend that we are living in ordinary times and that the present is a foretaste of the future. Impossibilities may become the norm for several years, and policymakers would be wise to start exercising their imaginations more imaginatively — lest they be caught, again, utterly unprepared for the impossible.

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 Alexander Lukashenka Eastern Europe Eurasia Russian Federation Ukraine war Vladimir Putin

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