No Russian Empire

Image: Natalie Wu

By Coleman Hopkins

Despite the much-discussed political divide between Left and Right in Western democracies that supposedly renders bipartisanship impossible, there is remarkable unanimity amongst social democrats, Christian conservatives, and even some libertarians, from Washington to Paris, on Russia. The consensus is that, under President Vladimir Putin, Russia is a security threat to Western democracies because of the Russian leader’s desire to remake its lost empire. As with anything, one must ask why this consensus exists. Why do so many see Russia as a resilient, rapacious, illiberal behemoth that must be stopped? Why would so many people with such different worldviews conclude that Russia is a resurgent power with dreams of global dominance? Could all those people possibly be wrong?

To fairly assess the claim that Putin does intend to construct a Russian empire, it is necessary to first examine the evidence put forth in favor of it. According to many experts and commentators, Putin is nostalgic for a time when Russia was larger, more powerful and better respected in the world, which it was during in the 1980s when it dominated Eastern Europe. The Russian president’s actions substantiate this conclusion, they contend. For instance, he did annex land from Ukraine only four years ago; Russia has been engaged in military operations in Syria for several years; and the Russian military has tangled with neighboring states, many of which used to be Soviet satellites.

The upshot of this thinking — a perspective that can be referred to as the liberal internationalist view of Russia and/or Putin — is that the imperial ambitions of the Russian president invariably lead him to belligerent and unacceptable policies that would, if followed to their end, see the revival of Russia as a great imperial power. This development in turn would bring about a new international struggle for the fate democracy, capitalism, and perhaps even liberalism itself. In other words, Putin is the head of a nascent but burgeoning empire. Hence unified opposition is absolutely necessary if Western states and institutions are to successfully repel the great Russian bear from clawing back its old territories in Eastern Europe as well as its influence in the world.

Appealing as the liberal view is on its face, it is wrong. To be specific, it’s wrong for one very simple reason: it’s founded upon mistaken premises that see Russia’s actions through an overly manichean lens while ignoring the broader context of events and interactions that, when read together, provide a more convincing and complete picture of why Putin acts as he does. In order to understand why liberal internationalists incorrectly analyze Russian history and the actions of its government, it’s necessary to more closely examine their arguments, especially with regard to the evidence that they cite. The obvious starting place looking is at Russian culture and politics.

Compared to the various countries in Western Europe, Russia’s government is far more socially conservative and nationalistic (a trait it shares with other Eastern European countries, including some of our NATO allies like Poland and Hungary). Observers in London, Washington, and elsewhere tend to regard these traits with suspicion because they do not coincide with contemporary Western theories of justice, tolerance, and democracy. This has the effect of causing many in the West see Russia as the embodiment of illiberalism, a view of the country that dates back to at least the 19th century. What this means is that Russia’s profound differences with the West confer upon it a status as “the Other” in relations with its neighbors. This distinction colors Russia’s appearance to those in the West and unsurprisingly has a negative overall effect on its standing in the global community.

These stark differences between Russia and the West matter because they oftentimes cause liberals in America, Great Britain, and elsewhere to badly misconstrue Putin’s comments and/or to ignore them (especially the ones they don’t like) altogether. It also causes them to attribute the most malevolent motives to Russia’s foreign policy actions. In sum, the cultural, historical, economic, and social gap between Russia and the West causes many in the latter to have a distorted image of the former.

When one considers the Western assessment of Russia’s recent actions in its own backyard (and elsewhere) alongside the broader cultural, historical and political schism between the particular country and the general values of the Western World, it becomes obvious as to why those doing the judging of Russia — NATO, Uncle Sam, etc. — might not be willing to acknowledge that its action are based on understandable strategic calculations rather than malicious intent. For example, consider how many liberal internationalist commentators and experts depict the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Their telling casts Putin as solely to blame for the trouble. Just look at the result of the conflict, they say! Russian tanks in the borders of Georgia; a decisive Russian victory; an international condemnation of Putin’s actions — all proof that Russia, the aspiring empire, is to blame.

The liberal view of the conflict between Russia and Georgia gets the story almost completely wrong. Though Russia did indeed go to war with the Georgians, it only did so after Georgia launched a military attack on the separatist republic of South Ossetia. While most of the international community does not recognize South Ossetia as an independent country, Russia nonetheless had a right to act as a peacekeeper in the region under a 1992 treaty between Russia and Georgia, a point that the subsequent EU backed report highlighted in its findings. In August 2008, the Georgian army launched a massive assault on South Ossetia and quickly seized the capital of Tskhinvali. Russia retaliated by sending troops in to expel the Georgians. The war expanded and soon Russia was bombing military bases and an airport near Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. In only a week the Russians had routed the Georgians and was poised to push further into the former Soviet satellite.

With only a bit more effort Russia could have easily taken Tbilisi, which would be the natural next move for an aspiring empire. And yet, only a month later, Russia was bringing home the last of its troops. Though he could have conquered Georgia, a neighboring state with historical significance to the recent Russian experience (it is the home of Stalin, after all), Putin did not do so. This restraint suggests that Russia’s actions in actions in 2008 were aimed at achieving limited strategic objectives (remove Georgian forces from South Ossetia and intimidate them from trying to return) rather than being part of an effort to restore empire. Such a retaliatory strike bears no resemblance to the actions of the USSR in the 1950s or Hitler’s conquest of Western Europe in the 1930s.

As a final point, some in the West like to say that, although Putin may have had a right to act as a peacekeeper in the region, he didn’t need to push the Georgians back himself — other actors could have done so and made less of a controversy in doing so. True, but how would that reflect on Russia within Eastern Europe? Likely not well, at least not for Putin. Because of the instability in the region and the precariousness of Putin’s position within Russia, refusing to act was no option at all, lest he appear weak and indecisive.

Making the same argument i.e., that Russia is not seeking empire is admittedly more difficult in the case of Crimea. Put differently, Putin was reactive in regards to Georgia (responding to Tbilisi’s attack on South Ossetia) and proactive in Ukraine (annexing Crimea and backing separatists in the East). While this distinction may appear to strengthen the liberal view, it actually does not. It certainly does not prove that Putin wants to take the rest of Ukraine, let alone reabsorb the rest of the old USSR. Again, it is necessary to review the background of the conflict itself.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea, a strategically located peninsula on the border of Russia and Ukraine, was rash and morally wrong, but it was not irrational; nor was the seizure of the region part of a larger scheme by Putin to retake old Russian lands. Instead, it was an impulsive reaction to Western actions that Putin viewed as aggressive and ultimately unacceptable.

Before looking at the specifics of the Ukraine crisis, some larger historical context is needed. After the USSR fell, both NATO and the EU took steps to integrate former Soviet states in parts of the world where Russia had enjoyed hegemony until very recently. At the time, a far weaker Russia was unable to voice serious opposition to the actions of those in its sphere. Fast forward to the present and a much stronger Russia can make its displeasure known, and it often has. That Putin and Russia should feel anxious about the slow advance of NATO and the EU should not be surprising. Nonetheless, those in the West refuse to see Putin’s action in Ukraine as anything other than premeditated and expansionist. Given these organizations’ opposition to Putin’s government, their disregard for Russia’s genuine security concerns, and their close relationships to states, politicians, and alliances that explicitly refer to Russia as an enemy, it only makes sense that those in the Kremlin would interpret their advance into Eastern Europe as a hostile move and would in turn react accordingly. Any rational state in Russia’s position would also be weary of a political, economic and/or cultural rival moving into its neighborhood.

Tensions that began to simmer when NATO first began its trek eastward came to a boiling point in 2014, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was chased out of office by an uprising that received major public support from prominent U.S. politicians and senior State Department officials, some of whom even flew over to Kiev to participate in anti-government protests. Putin calls these protests against Yanukovych an American coup, a charge that may seem hyperbolic at first glance, but when one considers the terrible optics created by members of Congress and the Obama administration, one can easily see how he came to that conclusion. It was not too much of a leap of logic for the Russian president to imagine that if top American government figures were willing to march alongside the anti-Yanukovych protesters, then the United States may have had an significant role in the protests behind the scenes. While the American desire to voice solidarity with pro-Western Ukrainian forces was laudable, it unnecessarily stoked Russian fears.

Moreover, the actions of US officials had the possible additional effect of shifting protestors away from compromise and democratic procedures. The presidential election in Ukraine was scheduled to take place the subsequent year, providing opponents of Yanukovych with a more peaceful route to effecting a change in leadership. They had little reason to wait or seek compromises with the government, however, when the strong moral support coming out of Washington and the capitals of Europe suggested that the West had no objections to them pursuing drastic action. Had the opposition waited for the election, Ukraine might be in a much better place right now. Getting rid of Yanukovych through the ballot box would polarize Ukrainian society far less than doing so through revolution, making it more difficult for Moscow to capitalize on discontent in Crimea and Donbass. Moreover, while the Kremlin would not be happy with a pro-Western government in Kiev regardless of how it came to power, it is far from certain that its hostility would be so visceral if Yanukovych had simply lost the next election rather than be toppled through a street uprising. We will never know how things might have been, but we have good reason to believe that the situation would be more stable than it is right now.  

In light of Putin’s interpretation of the US’s actions, the Russian president had no choice, in his mind, but to make the best of a bad situation: take the most vital part of Ukraine and accept that relations with the Ukrainians would almost certainly grow worse. If Putin had done nothing then in all likelihood he would have been forced to accept sharing a border with a government aligned with Western powers that detest him and his government. Again, this is because there is no chance that the vote in Crimea to join Russia, even if it had followed all international norms, would have been accepted as legitimate by international bodies. To believe otherwise would mean that one has to accept the idea that the West would set its existing grievances towards Russia aside and recognize a referendum that would grant it a strategically important territory. Again, Putin’s actions in Crimea are not morally justifiable based on the carnage in the region alone. But effects of those actions do not make the actions themselves strategically incoherent or irrational.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, then, does little to bolster the liberal assessment of Putin as a modern imperialist. In fact, it cuts the other way. Given the wide-ranging support for Putin’s Russia in Ukraine before the annexation, one is left to wonder why Putin would not have been bolder. Why not absorb more of Ukraine? Why not, as any good Russian nationalist would, reclaim lands with historic significance to Russia and with a significant ethnic Russian population? These types of questions pose deep problems for liberal internationalists who wish to paint Putin as an imperial nationalist whose aim is to resurrect deceased Russian empires from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In truth, these seemingly contradictory events and decisions really only make sense when one looks at the broader context outlined above. To reiterate, that context shows Putin’s actions to be limited and defensive (his aim being to prevent further Western political/military presence on Russia’s border), two qualities that one does not usually associate with empires, and certainly not those of Hitler and Stalin, the two supposedly paradigmatic cases that are so often invoked in the same breath whenever Putin’s Russia is mentioned.

The unfortunate conclusion of the liberal view is that it actively works to misunderstand Russia and its president. This deliberate distortion of Russia’s actions and its leader’s ambitions has the effect of creating friction and distrust where there need not be any. Given all that Putin has said about the USSR, the concerns he has expressed about NATO, and his desire to forge economic relations with the West, a reasonable person could see that while Putin wants Russia to be a great power, he is not hellbent on imperial revival and confrontation with the West. Nevertheless, the likelihood of establishing a normal relationship between Russia and the West is and will remain low so long as Russia is seen through a misleading liberal kaleidoscope that misconstrues Putin’s actions and aims to further the perception of an ongoing, existential war between liberalism and illiberalism, East and West, Moscow and Washington. Rather than aspiring to empire, it seems that Putin wishes for Russia to be treated as a sovereign state, and one that is allowed to exist outside of the influence of cultural capitals like London and Paris. The sad irony is that many of Russia’s problems with the international community stem not from the fact that Russia is trying to build an empire, but rather because Russia wishes to exist apart from the international liberal democratic political community held together by American money and power.

In closing, Putin’s actions — though heavily criticized for being imperialistic and aggressive — are no different from the actions that any other state would take if its security were threatened. The limited nature of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia suggests that Putin too wants normalcy in relations with his neighbors as opposed to hegemony and the conflict that invariably accompanies it. Still, despite President Trump’s stated openness to a true reset with Russia, it doesn’t appear that there is a coming shift away from the liberal view in the near future. As such it seems certain that the myth of the acquisitive Russian bear will live on, much to the detriment of all parties involved.

Coleman Hopkins is graduate of the University of Michigan with degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. He intends to enroll in law school next year to focus on environmental and/or appellate law. At some point in the future Coleman would like to teach.

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