President Putin has again been making his claim that the West is trying to break up Russia into multiple constituent parts. Is this true? The following is my hypothesis on this question; I think the main idea in the West has been to insist on Ukraine’s “sovereign right” to join NATO. John Mearsheimer makes the point that liberals are so convinced that their system is superior to autocracy that they find it very hard to even negotiate with autocracies. To negotiate with Russia and recognize their “security concerns” would be a very significant move. The current ideology or official narrative is that there is “rules-based world order”. In this “rules-based world order” Ukraine has every right to join NATO and NATO has every right to move right up to Russia’s borders. Of course the “rules-based world order” is just a cover for a US dominated world system. Were the US to negotiate with Russia on the NATO question this would completely upend the notion of a “rules-based world order”. We would be back to standard Great Power politics. The reality of US domination (presented as “rules-based world order”) would crumble. They cannot negotiate with Russia on the NATO question.
I don’t think there is much evidence that the West is trying to break up Russia (though no doubt some dream about it). They just have to insist on NATO in Ukraine as a point of principle – to show that they don’t have to listen to Russia, and to maintain their overriding superiority. Were Ukraine to join NATO this would create pressures on Russian society and political structures. It would be an obvious humiliation for the leadership and thus embolden reform-minded opposition figures. it would cause Russians to doubt their own national ideology. (Some people make the argument that a Ukraine enjoying prosperity in the EU would also destabilise Russian society – the example of liberal prosperity would entice Russians to, at last, embrace liberalism. I am not so sure this is the key point. The war aside, it would be years before Ukraine even raised itself to the level of Russia). But, it is not, as Putin thinks, that they are trying to break Russia up. That is a side-effect of their policy and, if they even think about it, they would see it as a sort of natural correction. If Russia broke up as the result of putting NATO in Ukraine that, they would reason, would be the fault of this illegitimate autocratic system, and serve them right. But it is not the aim.
The confrontation between the US “rules-based international world order” and Russia is fundamental. As of now no one is even talking about a solution to this problem. Putin is right; solving the Ukraine war has to involve solving the clash between the “rules-based international world order” and Russia. Unless of course Russia is somehow defeated in this or it escalates to a nuclear catastrophe.