Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Putin’s Denunciations of Western Imperialism Ring Hollow

Russia is among the world’s most ambitious imperial nations.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Putin's face is shown on a large video screen in front of a crowd waving Russian flags.
Putin's face is shown on a large video screen in front of a crowd waving Russian flags.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a video screen in Moscow’s Red Square as he addresses a rally and concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine on Sept. 30. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

With his army’s situation in Ukraine increasingly desperate, Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks has been doing his best to adopt the guise of an evil madman, bordering on the style of a cinematic villain. With his over-the-top performance on Friday, when he railed against Western imperialism, engaged in whataboutism about the U.S. use of atomic weapons against Japan in World War II, and accused the United States of engaging in “satanism,” I found it hard to put aside thoughts of old James Bond villains who constantly try to hold the world to ransom—or perhaps, given the preposterously strained quality of his language, the even more colorful bad guys in the Austin Powers movies.

Putin’s recent brandishing of the threat to employ nuclear weapons is not meant to make people laugh, of course, but rather to shudder in fear. And while there is plenty of reason to worry about the prospect of his resorting to weapons of mass destruction, the common nervous response to the Russian leader’s escalatory rhetoric makes it hard to think clearly about whether there is, in fact, anything truly new to Putin’s threats.

News coverage of Russia’s debacle in Ukraine last week focused on two details: that Putin was speaking very loosely about using nuclear weapons and that he was claiming to have legitimately annexed a portion of his neighbor’s territory roughly the size of Portugal following a referendum exercise in those territories regarded as so dubious that most mentions of it in the international media appended the term “so-called” to the vote. As Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted after the faux referendum, it flew in the face of the results of the 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence, in which every single region of the country, including those where Russian speakers predominate, voted in favor of independence, most of them overwhelmingly.

With his army’s situation in Ukraine increasingly desperate, Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks has been doing his best to adopt the guise of an evil madman, bordering on the style of a cinematic villain. With his over-the-top performance on Friday, when he railed against Western imperialism, engaged in whataboutism about the U.S. use of atomic weapons against Japan in World War II, and accused the United States of engaging in “satanism,” I found it hard to put aside thoughts of old James Bond villains who constantly try to hold the world to ransom—or perhaps, given the preposterously strained quality of his language, the even more colorful bad guys in the Austin Powers movies.

Putin’s recent brandishing of the threat to employ nuclear weapons is not meant to make people laugh, of course, but rather to shudder in fear. And while there is plenty of reason to worry about the prospect of his resorting to weapons of mass destruction, the common nervous response to the Russian leader’s escalatory rhetoric makes it hard to think clearly about whether there is, in fact, anything truly new to Putin’s threats.

News coverage of Russia’s debacle in Ukraine last week focused on two details: that Putin was speaking very loosely about using nuclear weapons and that he was claiming to have legitimately annexed a portion of his neighbor’s territory roughly the size of Portugal following a referendum exercise in those territories regarded as so dubious that most mentions of it in the international media appended the term “so-called” to the vote. As Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted after the faux referendum, it flew in the face of the results of the 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence, in which every single region of the country, including those where Russian speakers predominate, voted in favor of independence, most of them overwhelmingly.

Yet little of what Putin did last week was new—revealing just how bankrupt the thinking of a man long regarded by some as a master strategist has become. Putin’s nuclear threats have been a constant in this war, by turns implicit and explicit. Early in the conflict, for example, he warned darkly about the consequences for Ukraine and NATO of any attempt to attack his forces on Russian territory, even as his forces used Russian borderlands for logistical support and the staging of missile attacks on Ukraine. Washington’s early caution in publicly acknowledging that it was helping to arm and support Ukraine through the sharing of intelligence and other means was based, at least in part, on a fear of a direct, escalatory conflict between the United States and Russia on this basis. All along, Russia’s targeting of nuclear plants in Ukraine also clearly seems to have been designed to raise nuclear anxiety in Europe and beyond.

Nor is the attempted annexation new. Indeed, this war began with Russia’s bold and straightforward attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. And, of course, Russia has already had experience annexing Ukrainian territory—most famously Crimea, which it took over outright in 2014, after a creeping special operations infiltration involving Russian troops wearing generic uniforms that masked their provenance. Ever since, Russia’s goal has been maximalist: either swallowing Ukraine whole or forcing it into abject vassaldom, which would itself likely be a first step toward the reabsorption of its neighbor.

Putin’s most recent claim to have annexed Ukraine’s far east not only was made amid a messy and humiliating retreat on the battlefield but was also, in fact, an inadvertent admission of futility. Moscow is seeking through bogus legalism to achieve what it could not win by arms and is hoping—I believe vainly—that this will dispirit the Ukrainians and soften European support for Ukraine enough to drive it to the negotiating table, where it would have to concede sufficient amounts of territory, thus allowing Putin to claim victory before domestic audiences and save face.

Among all of the things he has said recently, Putin’s strained references to Western imperialism are among the most interesting—but not because they should be understood in the way he intended. In his speech Friday, Putin denounced a long list of Western imperial sins, including “the global slave trade, the genocide of Indian tribes in America, the plunder of India, Africa, the wars of England and France against China, as a result of which it was forced to open its ports for trade of opium.”

It is true, of course, that Western history in the modern era and Western wealth, too, have been driven by empire, a story that begins in the era of slave labor used to produced lucrative commodities such as sugar in the Caribbean.

This is the history I document in my book Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. It is also true that although Americans tend to have a gigantic blind spot toward their country’s imperial history, the United States has very much constituted an empire. This history began no later than the conquest of territories west of the Allegheny Mountains, at the expense of native populations that were victims of settler violence and repeated military campaigns.

As Daniel Immerwahr details in his excellent book How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, America’s push for imperium accelerated in the late 19th century, with the defeat of Spain and the acquisition of colonies in the Philippines and Caribbean, as well as the takeover of Hawaii. Albeit often more quietly, America’s global imprint has continued to grow ever since, to the point where the U.S. military now has scores of bases, large and small, in countries and territories all over the world.

Yet the problems with Putin’s denunciation are numerous—starting with the fact that Russia itself is very obviously among the world’s most ambitious imperial nations. In fact, as Dominic Ziegler notes in his 2015 book, Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empire, Russia pursued its own empire-building over a series of centuries but accelerated this campaign in the 19th century, very much with America envy in mind.

This meant subduing, displacing, and assimilating its own native populations as ethnic Russians pushed deeper and deeper into the country’s vast eastern hinterlands. There, the sable, a small weasel-like mammal hunted for its fur, played the role of the American bison, both nearly driven to extinction in the search for profits. To make the comparison yet more compelling, Russians, just like Americans, were driven by a gold rush in their newly seized territories. And as with the United States, the story of Russian empire continued well into the 20th century, with the formation of the Soviet Union—an imperial construct par excellence—as well as with the establishment of a bloc of subordinate countries in Eastern Europe that often had little choice but to follow Moscow’s dictates in matters of ideology, trade, economics, diplomacy, and geopolitics.

Isn’t this, at last, what has brought Ukraine to grief? Even though the Soviet Union is a fading memory barely known to young people today, Putin, who was a spymaster late in the Soviet era, has never gotten over the way that empire cracked up.

The current crisis doesn’t just take us back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union two years later, though. It also brings to mind a much more obscure date but one that everyone concerned by events in Ukraine should be thinking about: 1648. That year, a pact among European nations called the Treaty of Westphalia ended a seemingly endless period of continental conflict that encompassed both the Eighty Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War. Most importantly, this was also the beginning of the end of old-fashioned empire via territorial aggrandizement.

This was, in effect, a before-and-after moment in history. Prior to Westphalia, empires were mostly understood to be borderless affairs: Their dimensions were limited only by the sheer territorial reach of their rulers. Since Westphalia, sovereignty has been understood in an entirely different way. It reflects a collective understanding among nations about one another’s territory and legitimacy within those boundaries.

The 1991 Ukrainian independence referendum—uncontested by Russia at the time—spoke eloquently about the desire of the Ukrainian people to govern their own affairs. Since then, the world has ratified this desire in the most Westphalian of ways, by recognizing Ukraine, establishing relations with it, and recently even helping it to defend itself.

For all his recent anti-imperial rhetoric, Putin would like to take the world back several centuries, to a time when nations were like amoeba, with borders that mutated, expanded, and shrank according to the will, whims, and power of their leaders. That was the old imperial way, and however difficult the situation in Ukraine might look today, who could wish to revisit the conflict and suffering that this would unleash?

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.