Russia’s Recipe for Empire

Russia’s recent campaign against Georgia is a textbook example of how powerful states forged empires in centuries gone by. For those who have forgotten, here’s how it’s done.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images Imperial throwback: A detail of a replica of the famous Russian painter Ilya Repins work The Federal Assembly Session, created by Sergey Kalinin and Farid Bogdalov, shows Vladimir Putin (R) dressed as the czar.

Empires like the one Moscow has embarked on creating in this century proved an abject failure in the last. In fact, the colonial and imperial project has been recognized as folly for so long by so many that few today even recall how to go about building an empire. So for those who have forgotten, allow me to offer the recipe.

An empire requires three key ingredients.

First, find a neighboring national minority that can be used as a pretext for intervention. The character of the national minoritybe it racial, linguistic, or religiousis less important than that it reside within a state which is relatively defenseless as compared with ones own. The Ossetians and the Abkhaz have always been friends of Moscow, so absorbing them is far less perilous than, say, incorporating nationalistic Georgians or Ukrainians. Empires understand this, which is why they invariably settle their own populations in the region to not only administer the territory, but serve as a ready cadre of loyalists ( la French pied-noirs in Algeria).

Second, it is absolutely essential that the empire builder have regional military dominance. Such dominance will dissuade others who might be tempted to come to the aid of the unhappy host of the aforementioned neighboring national minority. In the past, possessing artillery was enough, but air power dominance became essential in the mid-20th century. In the current era, its nuclear weapons. Add a pinch of insecurity: If you can make the case that you need to acquire a bit more territory because youve been assaulted or abused in the past, this will help a great deal. Given Russias nuclear arsenal and its military punch in the region, the international community can hardly pry it from its new territorial possessions.

Third, the empire builder also needs something others want. Cash is always a good option. If not cash, then something easily convertible, such as gold, diamonds, or, if the states with the highest capacity or will to intervene are energy importers, energy (gas, petroleum) will do. Russias strategy of forming only bilateral agreements with energy-dependent European states is a classic divide-and-rule approach. Unless energy prices drop precipitously or Europe finds other suppliers, Europeans have scant leverage.

Once youve assembled your ingredients, its time to start cooking up trouble. First, stir up nationalist resentment in the neighboring national minority. Begin by encouraging obscure academics, artists, and intellectuals to create (if need be) self-awareness and foment nationalism. Create an impression of oppression. Events can be staged if necessary, but it is generally easier nowadays to simply purchase a media outlet in the target country. It helps if you can identify a common trait with the oppressed minority, but if not, you can do even better: In the last decade, Russia has decreed legislation that allows it the right to protect Russians in its near abroad and has formally granted citizenship and passports to those who want them, including many Ossetians and Abkhaz. So, when Russia declares that it is protecting its citizens, it is technically correct.

Next, come to the aid of the oppressed minority. Begin with diplomatic protests, bolstered by ominous troop movements, covert action, and lots of cash for minority leaders. Turn up the heat until the host government reacts; then characterize that reaction as brutal, or genocidal. In Moscows telling, Georgia committed genocide; genocide violates international law; and Russia had to act. (It is clear that the Georgians did move into South Ossetia with force, but no one credibly thinks they had embarked on genocide.)

The next part is the trickiest. Other states will protest, seeing through your deceptions. Short-circuit disaster by offering generous bribes or threatening dire costs if protesting states go public with anything more than pro forma objections. Combine your private bribes and threats with a public appeal to the international community, demonstrating how committed you are to peace, stability, and reconciliation. Remember Tibet? During a crisis, just keep up the diplomatic rhetoric until a larger, more pressing, international crisis emerges.

Carry off your bribes and threats well, and you can dramatically improve your chances of success by sending peacekeepers to act as a tripwire. Even if the host state scrupulously avoids engaging them, dont worry: You can always claim otherwise. Sooner or later the host state will crack under your pressure and you can actjust ask Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

All this will prompt disgruntled third parties to send missions to investigate and establish commissions to report on the facts. During the ensuing delays, escalate your bribes and threats, and then intervene militarily and firmly establish control of the disputed region in the name of human rights and international peace (in the old days one could say civilizing mission, but this is no longer in fashion). What matters is who has boots on the ground, not who huffs and puffs the loudest.

Russia has, of course, been busily cooking up South Ossetias and Abkhazias in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Crimea in Ukraine and Transnistria in Moldova are just two of many possible future Russian targets. But building an empire is an expensive undertaking. Russias appetite for expansion might only weaken it further. Ukraine, for instance, is deeply divided between Russian sympathizers and chauvinistic Ukrainians. Applying the recipe there would be far more costly than it was in Georgia. The Kremlin would be well advised to take empire off the menu.

Monica Duffy Toft is a professor of international politics and the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. She is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

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