Argument

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What the Fall of Empires Tells Us About the Ukraine War

Russia’s war can only be understood as a bloody post-imperial conflict.

By , a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Georgian soldiers
Georgian soldiers
Georgian soldiers escape their burning armored vehicle on a road near Gori, Georgia, during the Russo-Georgian War on Aug. 11, 2008. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The Soviet Union is commonly described in the West as the “Soviet empire”—or even “Russian empire”—and in key respects this was indeed the case. During the Cold War, Moscow occupied and controlled a collection of states along its periphery, and the historical record of Russia’s expansion through conquest and colonization is abundantly clear. But in neither journalism nor academia has this led to what should have been a logical conclusion when it comes to understanding conflicts in the former Soviet space: Namely, to place these conflicts into the wider context of what happens when empires fall.

This lack of interest seems odd, given the Western liberal intelligentsia’s deep concern with imperialism and its critiques. When I covered the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath as a journalist for the Times of London, my prism was shaped by years spent working in South Asia—first as a student of imperial history and then as a journalist. It was therefore natural for me to see the disintegration of the Soviet space as a post-imperial process. This was perhaps the greatest difference between my perspective and that of most of my Western colleagues.

The Soviet Union was, of course, a very special case among empires. But that, to a greater or lesser extent, might be said about all of them. Huge differences existed between the British, French, and Spanish empires, let alone the Ottomans or the Chinese. A fundamental dividing line, however, cuts across them all: that between land and seaborne empires. Russia was a land empire—and in some respects remains one, in both its composition and its politics. This has had critical consequences during and after the Soviet collapse, continuing until today.

The Soviet Union is commonly described in the West as the “Soviet empire”—or even “Russian empire”—and in key respects this was indeed the case. During the Cold War, Moscow occupied and controlled a collection of states along its periphery, and the historical record of Russia’s expansion through conquest and colonization is abundantly clear. But in neither journalism nor academia has this led to what should have been a logical conclusion when it comes to understanding conflicts in the former Soviet space: Namely, to place these conflicts into the wider context of what happens when empires fall.

This lack of interest seems odd, given the Western liberal intelligentsia’s deep concern with imperialism and its critiques. When I covered the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath as a journalist for the Times of London, my prism was shaped by years spent working in South Asia—first as a student of imperial history and then as a journalist. It was therefore natural for me to see the disintegration of the Soviet space as a post-imperial process. This was perhaps the greatest difference between my perspective and that of most of my Western colleagues.

The Soviet Union was, of course, a very special case among empires. But that, to a greater or lesser extent, might be said about all of them. Huge differences existed between the British, French, and Spanish empires, let alone the Ottomans or the Chinese. A fundamental dividing line, however, cuts across them all: that between land and seaborne empires. Russia was a land empire—and in some respects remains one, in both its composition and its politics. This has had critical consequences during and after the Soviet collapse, continuing until today.

Notwithstanding the brutal ongoing war in Ukraine and the similarly brutal suppression of the Chechen rebellion, the conflicts and disputes that followed the Soviet collapse have been far from the worst in the history of empires, including relatively recent ones. In every case without exception, the end of empire has led to massive violence. In some cases, this occurred during and immediately after the imperial collapse. In others, the violence occurred after several decades had passed. In Ireland, the Middle East, South Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, the consequences of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and British empires—and of the nature of their dissolution—are still working themselves out today, generations later.

The relationship between empire and local conflicts has been a thoroughly ambiguous one, summed up most famously in Tacitus’s epithet about imperial Rome, which the Roman historian placed in the mouth of a British chieftain: Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant—“they make a desert and call it peace.” The creation of empires involves massive violence, sometimes on a genocidal scale. Thereafter, however, the imperial power’s economic and political interests require the maintenance of peace across its territories. The claim to have ended conflict and brought peace—whether under a Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, or Pax Americana—is also fundamental to its legitimacy and sense of imperial mission.

In every case without exception, the end of empire has led to massive violence.

Yet empires notoriously also freeze, generate, and incubate conflicts. Sometimes this is because imperial rule suspends previous conflicts, as between Hindus and Muslims in British India or Armenians and Azeris under the tsars and Soviets. Sometimes the source of conflict is the empire’s creation of completely new states or states with new borders—such as Iraq in the Middle East—that lump together different ethnicities that had never previously lived in the same polity, divide a people among neighboring states, or force ancient enemies under one roof, as in the former Yugoslavia and many African nations. This leads not only to civil conflicts but sometimes to wars between successor states—as in Kashmir, the former Yugoslavia, and Ukraine—as successor states fight to redraw borders in accordance with their version of ethnic or ethno-religious legitimacy.

Sometimes bitter resentment is the result of mass migration set off by imperial economic development or targeted colonization: English and Scots to Ireland, Chinese to the East Indies, Indians to Fiji and the West Indies, Tamils to what is now Sri Lanka, Georgians to Abkhazia, Russians to the Baltic republics and parts of Ukraine. Nowhere have the results been free of serious tension.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is formal or informal arrangements such as those in Malaysia and the Baltic states, whereby the indigenous populations monopolize control over government and the security forces, while the descendants of Chinese and Russian immigrants, respectively, dominate much or part of the economy. The worst outcomes are dreadful massacres such as the killings of Chinese that accompanied the Indonesian coup of 1965 or violent spasms such as the Georgian-Abkhaz War of 1992-93 that began with Georgian armed pogroms against Abkhaz and ended with the ethnic cleansing of most of the Georgian population by the Abkhaz victors.

Neither international law nor democracy provides clear-cut answers to any of these disputes. It was the theory of ethnic self-determination in the name of democracy, as adopted by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the conclusion of World War I, that provided an ostensibly liberal rationale for violent separation and cleansing across the vast ethnic tapestry of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. As in Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Crimea, the principles of international law and democracy often work against each other, with the result that states pick and choose between them depending on their own advantage. Majoritarian democracy is a notoriously dangerous principle in ethnically divided societies with different national allegiances, as the history of Northern Ireland from the 1920s to the 1990s so vividly demonstrates.

Finally, it is hardly reasonable to expect local people and their leaders to be automatically obedient to international laws they never made or agreed to. When the British, Ottoman, Habsburg, and Soviet empires collapsed and Yugoslavia disintegrated, it was very natural for Northern Irish Catholics, Kurds, Sudeten Germans, Kosovar Albanians, Kashmiri Muslims, Bangladeshis, Biafrans, Serbs, Croats, Pashtuns, Chechens, South Ossetians, Karabakh Armenians, and Crimean Russians to seek or support independence and/or union with co-ethnics in a neighboring state. Sometimes, as in Ireland, South Asia, and Sudan, the result (after much violence) has been internationally accepted partition. In a majority of cases, things have been decided by some combination of pragmatism and superior force.

There is, however, one great difference in this regard between the aftermath of sea and land empires: Sea powers can go home across hundreds or thousands of miles of water and separate themselves (albeit often only after dreadful independence wars, as in Indochina, Algeria, and Kenya) from the conflicts they leave behind. In former land empires, the old core imperial nation remains on the borders of its former imperial possessions, and its own majority and minority populations often extend across those borders.

This has been true of Turkey, which includes a huge Kurdish population that overlaps with the Kurdish minorities of Syria, Iraq, and Iran and naturally has aspirations to join with them in one Kurdish state. Turkey would have faced similar problems with its large Armenian and Greek minorities had it not murdered or expelled virtually all of them. Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, as the successor state to the German empire and bordering many of the lands of the former Austrian one, faced this issue in the opposite direction: large ethnically German minorities in neighboring states that desired reunification with Germany. The countries of the former Soviet Union contain both of these features.

In one case, a sea empire (Britain) also controlled a colony on its immediate border (Ireland), with the result that those belonging to the imperial settler minority (whose descendants are the Irish Protestants) remain citizens of the former imperial state. A consequence has been that to this day Britain rules part of Ireland and, until the 1990s, was involved in what amounted to a postcolonial war. Saying this is not to blame the British politicians of recent generations. They were not around in the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s and Oliver Cromwell’s bloody conquests, nor were they responsible for confiscating Irish land and settling English and Scots on it. In any case, try, if you can, to navigate the modern issues of Irish independence and partition according to any clear-cut versions of either democracy or international law.

None of this is to excuse the Russian invasion of Ukraine, any more than it excuses the frequently horrendous behavior of other imperial and post-imperial states. What it does suggest is two things: First, that Russian wars in Ukraine and the Caucasus are not part of some wider plan for aggression against the West. The Russian war in Ukraine is about Ukraine. We can therefore seek a pragmatic solution to the war without fearing that this will embolden Russia to threaten NATO and the European Union, with the possible exception of the Baltic states—and then only if the Balts were to take some recklessly aggressive action against Russia (for example, by cutting communications to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad).

Contrary to much Western reporting, there has been little evidence of any concrete Russian intentions to invade the Baltic states, let alone Finland or Poland. As a Russian official once told me, “We ruled Poland for almost 200 years, and all it brought us was endless trouble. Why on earth would we want to swallow that hedgehog again?” From the point of view of vital Western interests, it is therefore unnecessary to seek permanently to disable Russia.

Secondly, we should approach the search for a settlement in Ukraine in a spirit of ethical realism, aimed at a lasting peace that will secure Ukraine’s independence and potential path toward joining the EU, rather than in a mood of hyper-legalism and hyper-moralism that is all too likely to make peace impossible and which our own history does not justify. In the other post-imperial cases I have mentioned, only very rarely has absolute victory for one side or the other been possible—and then only at the cost of prolonged war and huge suffering. In the majority of cases where some sort of peace, however flawed, has been achieved, it has been through some form of pragmatic compromise. That is the best we can and should work for in the case of Russia and Ukraine.

One funny aspect of contemporary Western liberals is that even as they have publicly beaten their own breasts with contrition and shame for the past sins of Western colonialism, they go on to claim moral superiority over other countries that have inherited some of the same problems and committed some of the same sins. This sort of behavior has a prominent place in the history of religion but is neither moral nor practically helpful.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, with John Hulsman.

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