Updated: April 2, 2022 2:56:50 pm
After the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a passionate speech about the historic injustice of Ukrainian independence. Earlier this year, he returned to that line of rhetoric, insisting that Ukraine was a part of Russia and lambasting it for its so-called “atrocities” against ethnic Russians. On Thursday, Putin expanded upon his earlier sentiments, stressing that Russia’s actions were justified as the West continually threatened Moscow’s strategic interests.
Speaking directly about NATO expansionism, he said, “for our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. … It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty. It is the red line which we have spoken about on numerous occasions. They have crossed it.”
In this epoch of time, Russia’s actions may seem incomprehensible, but for centuries, conquests and annexations were a prerequisite for state building. It was only after the collapse of the colonial order in the wake of the Second World War that perceptions surrounding imperialism changed. Apart from a few notable exceptions including Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, North Vietnam’s absorption of South Vietnam in 1975 and Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014 respectively, territorial expansion at the cost of sovereignty, has been rare since the 1950s.
Russia’s expansionism and imperialism takes root in its own conflicting identity of being both European and Asian without ever being fully embraced by either one. The leading European powers in particular were constantly at war with Russia and despite brief periods of peace, Russia remained the perennial outsider.
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Russia was first made aware of its own limitations during the thirteenth century when the Golden Horde of the Mongols blazed their way across Russia, capturing vital cities like Kiev, Vladimir and Moscow in the process. In the bloody years that followed, the Mongol Empire grew so large that it created a vast buffer between Russia and Europe. As a result, Russia was denied access to the European Renaissance, and, according to noted scholar Robert Kaplan, would be “branded forever with the bitterest feelings of inferiority and insecurity” towards its Western neighbours.
More than these exclusionary affronts, Russian imperialism primarily stems from its glaring geopolitical disadvantage. Russia has never had stable access to warm water ports and would spend many millennia desperately seeking precious port access. The rest of its geography doesn’t help either. Russia is a vast flat expanse that lacks natural borders like mountains or steppes to offer it any protection from invasion.
Speaking to that geographical misfortune, in the 19th century, US historian Alfred Mahen wrote that Russia’s “irremediable remoteness from an open sea has helped put it in a disadvantageous position,” and, “this being so, it is natural and proper that she should be dissatisfied, and dissatisfaction readily takes the form of aggression.”
Sea access brings with it several benefits. According to Kaplan, “in addition to the cosmopolitan influences it bestows by virtue of access to distant harbours, (it also) provides the sort of inviolate border security necessary for liberalism and democracy to take root.” The late American political scientist, Nicholas Spykman further stresses the importance of access to the sea, noting that “since the time of Peter the Great (late 1600s), Russia has attempted to break through the encircling ring of border states and reach the ocean. Geography and sea power have persistently thwarted her.”
Indeed, in pursuit of warm waters, Russia has pushed towards Afghanistan as a buffer against the British Empire and into the Far East as a buffer against China. Russia has also engaged in a cycle of conquering and losing the Caucuses, a strategic mountain range that protects Russia from attack via the Middle East. The prospect of dipping their toes into warm Russian water evoked a passionate and deadly desire in a slew of Russian leaders — such was the significance of a warm water port.
The 20th century was a busy one for Russia. It saw the overthrow of the ruling Romanov dynasty in the 1920s, sent and lost many soldiers to both World Wars, and was engulfed by the underlying but all consuming threat of conflict for nearly half a century as the Cold War loomed colossal.
Starting with the tsarist era, which only lasted 20 years into the 19th century, Russia mimicked the memories of its headstrong past, competing with great nations for colonial conquests and maintaining its strong ties to other European Royal families.
While the tsarist government had annexed adjacent territories in all directions, its successor, a socialist government led by Vladimir Lenin, was notably anti-imperialist. In a pamphlet published during the First World War, Lenin decried the evils of imperialism, calling it “the highest stage of capitalism” that needed to be confronted decisively. The Bolsheviks subsequently renounced the territorial acquisitions of tsarist Russia and publicly disavowed the tsar’s secret treaties with other world powers.
Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, had other ideas. Stalin was a staunch imperialist, who believed that Russia’s security and status was contingent upon its reign over weaker states. In 1939, despite knowing the ambitions of Hitler, Stalin signed a secret alliance with Germany under which the latter agreed to give Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Poland to the Soviet Union in exchange for material assistance. This secret pact remained in place for two years until Hitler abrogated the treaty in 1941.
Towards the twilight of the war, in 1945, Stalin met with the leaders of the US and UK to discuss how they would construct the new postwar order. At the same time, he propped up dictators and strongmen to ensure Moscow-dominated regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and later, East Germany.
Ukraine, in particular, bore the brunt of this strategy. As a Soviet state, and the former heartland of the Russian Empire, Ukraine in the late 1900s was as much a point of contention for Russia as it is now. During the Soviet era, Russia used harsh means to consolidate power in Ukraine and developed the republic into a major centre for arms production and high technology.
Russia maintained an iron grip on Ukraine but also entrusted it with key production centres and a vast majority of its nuclear apparatus. Taking this surprising approach of benevolence forward, after the Cold War ended, Russia under President Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the first to send congratulations to Ukraine when it voted for independence in 1992. However, less than a decade later, Putin would captivate the political landscape and would prove to be more in the mould of Stalin than Gorbachev.
Post-Cold War and NATO
In 1991, when the Soviet Union officially disbanded, Russia was reduced to its smallest size since before the reign of Catherine the Great. However, despite the loss of ground, Russia remained the largest country in the world, with territory spread across a third of mainland Asia, stretching across 11 time zones from the Gulf of Finland to the Bering Sea. However, this vast expanse, no longer protected by mountains and steppes at its fringes, had a population smaller than that of Bangladesh. In the words of Kaplan, “perhaps never before in peacetime, was Russia so geographically vulnerable.”
Additionally, Russia had to contend with NATO expansion. Established to protect Western Europe in 1949, NATO was originally formed as a deterrent against potential Russian aggression. After the Cold War ended, US President Bill Clinton assured Moscow that NATO would not expand the alliance but since 1997, it has opened its ranks to over a dozen new members, some of which, like Poland, were former Soviet satellite states, while others, like Latvia, were former members of the Soviet Union. NATO entered Russia’s ‘near east’ and were threatening to control many of the natural borders that Russia relied on.
Initially, Russia made overtures to join NATO, and the EU, but both alliances rejected its participation. They did proceed to sign multiple partnership associations with Russia, but stopped short of bringing Moscow into their fold, citing concerns over the Kremlin’s poor democratic record. This snub would subsequently give Putin political legitimacy as it supported his claim that NATO was a foreign, hostile entity that existed to antagonise Russia. When NATO made loose promises of membership to Ukraine and Georgia, that further improved Putin’s favourable domestic image. Positioning NATO as Russia’s bogeyman, Putin, a charismatic machismo leader, captivated the loyalty of Russians by promising to reclaim Russia’s great fallen empire by reintegrating the former states that were lost.
Return of the Holy Rus
Post-Soviet Russia’s imperialistic tendencies first reared their head just after the turn of the century. Going back to its need to protect its Southern border, Russia has historically worked or fought to extend its influence over Chechnya. For two centuries, Chechnya and Russia have been constantly intertwined. Chechnya is a vital region for Russia, both due to the Caucasus Mountain range that provides Moscow with a natural land border to the south, and because of its access routes to the Black Sea. Additionally, if Russia lost Chechnya, it would presumably also lose Dagestan and with it, the entire Caspian seaboard. Once again, Russia’s defensive needs and desire to control warm water access dictated its foreign policy.
After Chechnya’s independence referendum in 1994, Russia attempted to quash local independence movements, leading to nearly a decade of conflict. In 2004, under pressure from the Kremlin, Chechnya approved a new constitution that stipulated it was a part of Russia. Although Russia did not invade the region, it is likely that Moscow would have, were Chechnya to continue rebuffing its overtures.
Putin proved as much in 2008, when he invaded neighbouring Georgia in the span of days, over fears that the republic was veering too close to NATO. Similar to Chechnya and later Ukraine, Georgia refused to toe the line drawn by Moscow. In response, Putin swiftly invaded the country, abandoning hostilities only after Georgia agreed to relinquish Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia then recognised as separate republics.
The international reaction to Russia’s military campaign was muted, with the EU in particular calling for a ceasefire that seemed to favour Russian interests. Georgia subsequently severed diplomatic ties with Russia, but by then, the damage was done. Putin had tested the limits of Western resistance and had come out vigorously on top. Till date, Russia occupies around 20 per cent of Georgia’s territory.
According to a report by the Atlantic Council, “the 2008 Russo-Georgian War is now widely recognised as a landmark event in the transition from the era of post soviet cooperation between Russia and the West towards today’s Cold War climate.” Russia was once again beginning to adopt the mantle of global superpower and was willing to defend that position by any means necessary. Putin would demonstrate that when he invaded Ukraine in 2014.
Using the same rhetoric that Russia had perfected since the 17th century, Putin justified his 2014 annexation of Crimea by evoking the region’s historic ties to Russia and pointing to the significant Russian population that resided in the peninsula. What Putin did not acknowledge is that Crimea is also home to the strategic port of Sevastopol, which gives Russia access to the Black Sea and by extension, the Ottoman Strait, the Suez Canal and ultimately, the oil rich Persian Gulf.
Like its response in 2008, the West was once again silent in the face of Russian aggression. It imposed economic sanctions on Moscow, which did admittedly hurt the Russian economy, but largely ignored calls from Kiev to provide meaningful military assistance. Bolstered by this, Putin launched a campaign of support for separatists in south-eastern Ukraine, and used every tool in his arsenal to undermine the authority and sovereignty of the Ukrainian state.
Putin’s actions over the last two decades are morally questionable but would be widely understood through the lens of Realpolitik. No Russian leader would have tolerated Ukraine even considering joining NATO and would likely have been deposed if they did. Similar to how Washington would not allow a hypothetical Chinese military alliance to invite Canada and Mexico into its fold, Russia could not allow its neighbouring states to become, justifiably or not, alleged puppets of the West.
Noted scholar Stephan Walt and fellow academic, John Mearsheimer, speak to the same Russian realpolitik concerns. Addressing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Walt writes that “had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism, and relied instead on realism’s core insights, the present crisis would not have occurred.” Simply, the West knew about Russia’s perennial infatuation with Ukraine and were foolish to think that Putin would tolerate any attempts to undermine his grip over Kiev. It is important to note that Walt and Mearsheimer analyse the situation from a realist perspective, and therefore do not consider Ukraine’s right to sovereignty or Russia’s moral obligations to an independent nation. They plainly state that given the circumstances, many leaders would understand why Putin acted the way he did.
When the Mongols first isolated Russia from the world in the 13th century, the die was cast. Excluded from the renaissance, consistently villainised, snubbed and belittled, Russia seemed perennially at the cusp of joining the old guard, but true acceptance remained beyond its reach. If Europe wouldn’t embrace Russia, it aimed to create a Mackinderesque heartland of its own that could stand its ground against both Europe and Asia, perhaps even transforming into the great Eurasian superpower along the way.
Most aspects of Ukraine’s strategic significance to Russia have been covered in great detail over the last couple of months and many of them have been alluded to in this article. However, one glaring reason for Moscow to covet Ukraine lies in this deep rooted hubris of desiring to be seen as a Eurasian superpower
Putin knows that the Soviet Union can never be reconstituted; however, a looser form of union extending to the Middle East and India is still possible. To form that union, Russia would need to issue a rallying cry, providing former Soviet allies with a reason to align themselves with Moscow over Washington. Zbigniew Brzeziński, author of the Grand Chessboard writes that, beginning covertly in the 1990s, Russia began to resurrect the nineteenth century doctrine of Eurasianism as an alternative to communism in order to lure back the non-Russian peoples of the former Soviet Union.
Spreading from Europe to the Far East, yet anchored in neither, Russia, better than anyone, represents the concept of Eurasia. However, Moscow’s ability to promote this narrative is contingent on Ukraine. Located next to the Black Sea in the south and former Soviet satellite states in the West, Ukraine’s very independence challenges the notion of a Eurasian alliance led by Russia. Without Ukraine, Brzeziński writes that Russia can still be an empire, but would be reduced to a primarily Asian one, drawn into conflicts with Caucasian and Central Asian states. However, with Ukraine under Russian domination, Moscow adds 46 million people into its Western-oriented demography, thus positioning itself as a formidable Eurasian nation in its own right.
When Russia formally invaded Ukraine earlier this year, many were taken by surprise. However, given Putin’s reputation, his fear of NATO, the need to establish a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, and Russia’s historic ties to the region, arguably, the writing has been on the wall.
Since the end of the Cold War, territorial expansion has often been used synonymously with the term ‘sphere of influence.’ Despite these semantics employed to justify Russian (and Western) aggression, the elements of imperialism remain the same. Russia has always been a country that uses expansion to consolidate power and further its own security interests. In that context, Putin’s recent actions claim precedence from centuries of Russian history.
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