It is the hidden debate, the biggest unspoken issue of the moment, but everywhere the question is being raised. Beyond the disputes over the pace, scale and nature of the aid given to Ukraine, should it be desirable or not that a defeat for Vladimir Putin lead to the break-up of the Russian Federation and its 21 republics?

“Yes it should”, say a growing number of intellectuals, particularly Russians, and a number of minority but active MEPs, who are now calling for the break-up of the Federation to be encouraged. Anna Fotyga, a former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs and figurehead of the conservative PiS party, brought together in Brussels representatives of secessionist movements that are now totally marginal but could well make their mark one day. They came from the United States and Europe, often dressed in national costumes, and told appalling tales of repression in the past, as well as of men being sent to Ukraine by force.

Between drama and folklore, between history and the present, a virtual reality hovers in the halls because the fact is that if Vladimir Putin were defeated in Ukraine, a political crisis would open up in the Kremlin and the weakening of central power could lead to the detachment of several of the federated republics.

We are far from there. As long as the European promises to deliver aircraft and munitions have not been kept, the advantage will remain with the Kremlin’s troops, but if Ukraine starts to score points again and Russia slowly gets bogged down, the situation could start to unravel. Carried by the resentment that forced recruitment is creating in the peripheries of the Federation, independence tendencies could then develop, just as they did in the USSR when Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms weakened the Kremlin.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union would come the break-up of the Russian Federation, a break-up that all those who hope for it make a sine qua non condition for Russia’s democratisation. As long, they say, as a mosaic of such diverse nations populates the largest country in the world, Moscow will need a dictatorial or at least very authoritarian central power. If Russia, they continue, has only ever known rare and brief moments of freedom, it is because there is an incompatibility between democracy and its geography, between the rule of law and the heterogeneity of the 21 republics.

This reasoning can be defended. There is nothing absurd about it, but what would be the point of breaking up a country stretching from the borders of the European Union to the Pacific coast, with enough nuclear weapons to blow up the planet and with huge reserves of strategic raw materials to whet the appetites of many competitors?

For most Western political leaders, diplomats and military officers, the answer is clear. A break-up of the Russian Federation, they say, would usher in decades of civil war on the borders of Europe, the Middle East and Asia; lead to intervention by China and Turkey, and even Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan; allow jihadist movements to find new host countries; and, in short, create a situation of largely unmanageable international anarchy.

“That is exactly what we were saying when the USSR broke up”, the other side quips, pointing to the freedom regained by the Baltic states but forgetting that not everything has gone smoothly since independence in 1991. Unsurprisingly, the response they hear is: “How many more Ukraine’s, Georgia’s, Transnistria’s, streams of blood and decades of Russian savagery do you want?

The debate is passionate. It is reflected in the furious reactions to Emmanuel Macron’s comments on the need not to rule out anything when faced with Russian aggression. The German Chancellor fears chaos, and he is not alone. The Baltic states and many Poles dream of a Russian Russia rather than a federal one. Insults fill the air , but whether we see this Federation as a guarantee of international stability or as an obstacle to the democratisation of Russia, the certainty is that the longer this war goes on, the more centrifugal tensions will develop in the federated republics. Paradoxically, provided it happens quickly, it is Vladimir Putin’s defeat that can save the unity of this country and, for the time being, there is nothing to encourage or even to hope for but only three things to say to the Russian people and their elites.

The first is that Russia is European by virtue of its history and culture, and that we, the peoples of the European Union, consider it as such, and that it is in Russia’s interest to put an end to this aggression, to re-establish links with its European neighbours and certainly not let it vassalise itself to China by looking towards Asia.

The second is that if Russia wants to preserve the borders of the Federation, it needs to define new relations with the peoples that make it up, give them reasons not to want independence and, above all, stop treating them as second-class citizens and auxiliaries in imperial wars.

As for the third thing to say to the Russian people and their elites, it is that Vladimir Putin is in the process of destroying Russia even more surely than he is devastating Ukraine.

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