Beyond the punctual unrest enabled by the Kremlin’s support to separatist groups, a broader trend is emerging. In September of last year, Moscow hosted a “Dialogue of the Nations” event. In attendance was a veritable who’s who of the separatist international with representatives from, among others, Iranian, Irish, Lebanese, Italian, and even American dissident groups. By convening forums for these groups, Moscow is encouraging the creation of a network of actors who are united in their desire to break up Western states.
Tellingly, Moscow’s strong support of foreign separatist groups contrasts strikingly with its treatment of its own aspiring independent provinces. Under Putin, simply issuing “public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” is punishable by several years in prison, to say nothing of the brutal military suppression of Chechnya’s independence movement. To be sure, the Kremlin excels at co-opting democratic language on supporting self-determination and local rule beyond its borders, especially when this support can then be used to legitimize its own illegal actions (as in Crimea), but the Kremlin’s real goal is to divide and dissolve democratic nations that, when united, can check Moscow’s ambitions to disrupt the postwar liberal international order, in Europe and beyond.
In the aftermath of the unconstitutional referendum in Barcelona, the Scottish government released an official statement which stressed that “all peoples have the right to self-determination.” To avoid arrest in Spain, Catalonia’s separatist leaders have found refuge in Brussels and will meet Flemish politicians. With some assistance from Moscow, these movements are challenging the existing borders of Europe. As richer regions in Italy, Belgium, and Germany grow increasingly dissatisfied at the prospect of paying for the poorer parts of their countries, we should anticipate an emboldened Russia to provide even more of its fission know-how to various separatist movements across the European continent.