Putin May Want to Be an Emperor, but Russia Isn’t an Imperial Power

Russia’s drive to expand its sphere of influence isn’t inevitable—or even in the country’s best interest.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall before a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 17, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall before a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 17, 2015. Sergei Ilnitsky/AFP/Getty Images

To an observer in 2019, it may seem like Russia has always had—and will always have—an immutable interest in maintaining authoritarian control at home and imperial control abroad. According to this line of thinking, Russian President Vladimir Putin is merely the latest in a long line of Russian rulers to pursue his country’s natural priorities vigorously. The implications for the West are obvious. If Putin is simply drawing on the same playbook as any other Russian leader, the available responses are either accommodating his authoritarianism and expansionism or war—and no one wants war.

But what if Putin is not pursuing immutable and objectively definable Russian national interests? It could be that he is captive to the same pressures as all other leaders: perceptions, ideologies, institutional legacies, and historical developments that lead to policies that are not necessarily in the best interest of his country.

As anyone with an appreciation of Russian, or any, history knows, no state can pursue identical interests for the duration of its historical existence, because states and their surroundings are always changing. The Russia of today is not the Muscovy of 600 years ago. The Mongols are not the West. And, despite some superficial similarities, Putin is no Ivan the Terrible. Immutability is a fiction. At the same time, geography and strategy do matter. As a result, foreign policy becomes a function of geopolitics, national interests, and ideologies, but also of regime type, personality of the leader, historical timing, context, and many other factors.

Understanding Russian foreign policy requires examining its historical evolution. Above all, it means viewing contemporary Russia as the heir to the Soviet empire—a highly centralized state in which the Russian core determined the internal and external policies of the non-Russian republics—and the product of that empire’s sudden collapse.

The historical record is replete with evidence of the mutability of Russia’s national interests. Back in the 13th century, the self-styled Muscovite state, the precursor of modern Russia, came into existence as a tiny principality competing for power with equally tiny principalities in its immediate neighborhood. They were all striving to throw off what was known as the “Mongol yoke.” In 1380, Dmitry Donskoy defeated the Mongols at Kulikovo; in 1480, Grand Prince Ivan III ended Moscow’s tutelage at the Ugra River; 70 years later, the Muscovites captured Kazan and Astrakhan. At that time, such supposedly immutable Russian interests as dominion over Ukraine or the Bosphorus concerned no one in Moscow, because Muscovy was too far, too small, and too fixated on the Mongol threat from the east.

Muscovy’s subsequent expansion into and conquest of Siberia, a process that lasted some 70 years, between 1581 to 1649, was largely driven by trappers out to make a quick ruble (and then followed by Cossacks and army units), and not by geostrategic consideration of national interests. Even by the 16th century, Ukraine and the Ottomans were not yet on Muscovy’s radar, while Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden, which were embroiled in wars with one another and with Muscovy, were. It was only in the second half of the 17th century, and as a consequence of incessant fighting among Poles, Muscovites, Ottoman Turks, Crimean Tatars, and Ukrainian Cossacks, that Muscovy annexed eastern Ukrainian territories and approached the Black Sea, thereby transforming Ukraine and the Ottoman realm into a region of strategic interest.

Peter the Great signally changed the definition of Muscovy’s national interests by deciding, after an extended visit to Western Europe, that Muscovy needed to modernize. He heeded the advice of Ukrainian clerics that his empire, now termed Russia, should claim lineage with the medieval Kievan Rus state, the core of which was located in today’s Ukraine. Neither of these ideological moves was dictated by immutable national interests. Peter could just as easily not have traveled to Europe. And Ukrainian clerics might just as well have not persuaded him that his empire’s legitimacy would be enhanced by misinterpreting history and claiming Rus as Russia’s ancestor.

Once the Russian Empire came into immediate contact with the Ottomans and their Crimean Tatar allies, tensions between the two great powers were probably inevitable. But Russia’s relentless expansion into the Black Sea after Peter’s rule was as much a function of growing Ottoman weakness and the Russian perception of the Turks as enemies of Christianity as of some inherent geostrategic imperative to control the Bosphorus. Weakness, decay, and a sense of mission civilisatrice also motivated Russia’s expansion into Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 19th century, finally producing the empire that collapsed in 1918 to 1921.

Empires end in two ways. Many decay and lose territory over time, with the result that the imperial cores emerge from the wreckage with minimal ideological, economic, military, cultural, and political ties with their former colonies. As a result, cores-turned-independent states rarely embark on campaigns to regain lost territories, for the simple reason that they lost the territories long before the empire completely ended. The Ottomans are a good example. Their losses started with the failed siege of Vienna in 1683 and were almost over by the start of World War I. The core of the empire emerged as Turkey in 1919, and its primary concern was not to reconquer imperial territories lost nearly 300 years before but to assert its independence and to deal with the Greek and Armenian minorities within its boundaries.

Then there is the other way for empires to end. Peter the Great’s creation, the Russian Empire, collapsed in 1918 to 1921, at the height of its territorial expansion. As might be expected given the suddenness and comprehensiveness of the imperial breakdown, the ideological, economic, military, cultural, and political ties between Bolshevik Russia and the former colonies were still strong. The Bolsheviks felt impelled to embark on a campaign of reimperialization that ultimately culminated in the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922.

That empire collapsed in the years between General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and the formal dismantling of the Soviet Union on Dec. 31, 1991. Virtually overnight, 14 independent non-Russian states emerged, but with many of the formerly imperial ties that bound them to the core—Russia—still intact.

Most Russians viewed their state and nation as superior and still in possession of a civilizing mission with respect to the non-Russians. Russian language and culture continued to dominate, in no small measure due to decades of Soviet Russification policy. The infrastructure of the single economic space—among many other things, oil and gas pipelines that guaranteed continued dependence on Russia—persisted. Meanwhile, Russia inherited a huge army and weapons arsenal, while the non-Russian countries had to scramble to remake the bits and pieces of the Soviet military they inherited into something resembling independent armies. Non-Russian elites were intertwined with Russian elites, and their loyalties were not necessarily centered on their own states. Finally, Russians in general and their elites in particular felt humiliated by the loss of empire and were determined to make their countries great again.

Small wonder, then, that Putin, and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, pursued reimperialization. Under Yeltsin, reimperialization was “soft,” centering on attempts to promote the Commonwealth of Independent States and defend the supposedly aggrieved Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the non-Russian states. But Yeltsin also presided over the economic collapse of post-Soviet Russia; it was on his watch that criminality and corruption flourished. Putin had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. When he became prime minister and president, Russia’s economy was finally rebounding, and energy prices were about to go through the roof. That enabled him to act the strongman.

Seen in this light, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have little to do with immutable Russian interests. Rather, Putin wanted to make Russia great again and was paranoid about NATO and the West; but, even more, he saw that the Maidan revolution had weakened the Ukrainian state, made it an easy target for expansion, and threatened his dictatorial rule by suggesting that democracy and people power could have positive results. Imperial ideology, Ukraine’s weakness, and a sense of vulnerability came together to make an invasion highly likely if not inevitable.

If the West’s strategic goal—one perfectly compatible with a democratic, non-expansionist Russia—is the creation of a stable set of prosperous non-Russian states able to resist Russian domination and willing to engage Moscow in friendly and mutually beneficial relations, then how should the West and Russia’s neighbors best deal with Putin’s imperial ambitions?

First, they should not feed Russia’s imperial megalomania by arguing that its national interests necessarily entail hegemony over its neighbors, thereby giving legitimacy to its imperial project. There are no immutable Russian national interests, and all former imperial states lose their ideological drive in time. The same will happen with Russia, unless misguided Western policymakers prevent it.

Second, they should avoid strengthening the economic, political, and military links between Russia and its former colonies. Those links need not be completely severed—after all, it makes perfect sense for neighbors to have close economic relations—but they should not be premised on Russian domination. The West in general and the United States in particular can help level the economic, political, and military playing field between Russia and its neighbors by encouraging ever closer non-Russian integration into European security and economic institutions, providing targeted defensive military assistance that would enhance smaller nations’ ability to resist aggression, and, above all, promoting energy diversification, assisting the non-Russians in developing their own energy resources, and refraining from encouraging Russian energy monopolies. At the very least, the West should never again pursue a pipeline like the Nord Stream 2 or kowtow to Putin in the manner of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, the West must also prepare itself for the worst-case scenario for Russia: state disintegration and possibly even collapse.

Back in 1918, the Russian post-imperial core easily outmatched the newly independent non-Russian states. Reimperialization took place relatively quickly and easily. Today, Russia, while still a regional great power, lacks the hard power to reestablish a real empire. It can capture bits of countries or small countries, such as Estonia and Latvia, but there is no way that Russia could reconquer Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or Ukraine. Nor is it clear that Russia could conquer Belarus. Unfortunately, the attempt to reestablish an empire could destabilize some of Russia’s neighbors and Russia itself.

Putin has grandiose geopolitical ambitions—extending all the way to Africa and the Middle East—while his economy lags far behind. Such imperial overreach cannot be sustained for long. At some point in the not-too-distant future, his foreign-policy commitments will resemble those of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, and some form of organized or disorganized withdrawal will become imperative.

No less important, Putin has constructed a quasi-fascist state that is overcentralized, corrupt, incapable of modernization, and good only at repression. Since he’s that state’s linchpin, his departure will expose its internal weaknesses and make it ripe for assault, whether by ambitious elites or disgruntled masses. Ironically, Putin has become Russia’s worst enemy, precisely because he is determined to make Russia into an authoritarian empire—a role it cannot sustain.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

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