Putin’s anti-modern empire

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Seventy-five years ago, on Sept.ember 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and began what would become the bloodiest war in human history, World War II. Throughout the 1930s, the nature of the Nazi regime and its intentions were quite obvious. Yet the major European powers, which could have prevented the war, were preoccupied with narrow national concerns and continued playing geopolitical games.

It is a frightening perspective that one day the same thing might be said about 2014, the time when Russia still could have been stopped in Ukraine but was not.

Can Russia be stopped? While much of the world is busy trying to figure out President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, his behavior is best understood in the context of Russian history.

Since the middle of the 16th century, when Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tatar city of Kazan, Moscow has expanded in all directions under both czars and Soviet leaders. That is why the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved to be such a traumatic experience for many Russians. For the first time in modern history, Russia shrank, not expanded.


Historically, Russia’s expansion was driven by geopolitical and ideological concerns, which almost always trumped any commercial and economic considerations. Russia’s expansion was also opportunistic. Moscow pushed as far as it could, routinely disregarding treaties signed with other empires and pledges given to local rulers.

The expansion stopped only when Russia encountered a viable threat of force from an equal power or stumbled into wars it could not win. For example, throughout the first half of the 19th century, taking advantage of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, Russia greatly expanded in the Balkans and Caucasus. Neither the international treaties signed by Russia nor the proxy wars supported by the European empires could change its behavior. When the European powers finally realized that if unchecked, the Russian forces would soon occupy the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, and control the strategic Bosporus strait, Britain and France sided with the Ottomans in a war against Russia, which became known as the Crimean War (1853-56). Russia suffered a humiliating defeat, and its ambitions in the Balkans and the Middle East were temporarily deflated.

A decade later Russia moved east, conquering Central Asia and advancing toward the Pacific.

At the turn of the 20th century, Russia’s rapid expansion in the Far East at the expense of a weakened China was ultimately arrested by the Japanese military. Once again Russia paid dearly for the hubris of its ruling elite and suffered another humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Eventually, Russia and Japan signed a peace treaty, mediated by US President Theodore Roosevelt, that blocked Russia’s further advance in the region.

This, too, did not last long and did not deter Russia from engaging in bellicose behavior a decade later and becoming one of the parties responsible for starting World War I.

In the wake of defeats in the Crimea and the Far East, the Russian government initiated its most comprehensive liberal reforms. The Great Reforms of the 1860s introduced the Western judicial system and emancipated the serfs, while the reforms of 1905 led to the creation of a parliament and first constitution.

What is remarkable, however, is that while the military defeats brought Russia closer to Western standards, the Russian empire never ceased to grow, whether its ruler had progressive or conservative leanings. Expanding and projecting its power was a part of Russia’s raison d’etre, and it was deeply ingrained in the nature of the Russian state and the Orthodox Christianity that invariably remained subservient to it.

The expansion took different guises: securing the frontiers, liberating the Orthodox Slavs from the Ottoman yoke, bringing civilization to Central Asia, colonizing the vast expanses of the steppe and Siberia, gaining access to seaports. Whatever the reason, the Russian empire continued to advance at the expense of its weaker neighbors.

In this context, Putin only continues the time-honored tradition of Russian autocracy under the czars and Communist leaders. He taps into a deep historical reservoir of Russian insecurities, xenophobia and spiritual superiority. His massive propaganda unleashed a huge wave of Russian chauvinism, and his government’s pronouncements reached the new heights of cynical mendacity.

His is a restoration project intended to follow the Russian tradition of expansion and bringing back under Moscow’s thumb the former lands of the Russian empire from Ukraine to Georgia, from Armenia to Kazakhstan. Like his predecessors, Putin will push as far as he can using threats and intimidation as much as promises and pledges that he does not intend to fulfill. He will do so until he confronts a determined resistance or faces a war in which he cannot prevail.

Putin presides over an anti-modern empire. He continues to live in the past, in the world of traditional values and geopolitical concepts, which no longer apply in the 21st century. It was famously observed that since the early 18th century, Russia was expanding at the rate of one Belgium a year. Crimea happens to be almost exactly the same size as Belgium. The year is 2014. It remains to be seen whether this time the West can merely curtail the Russian expansion as it did in the past or perhaps alter Russia’s traditional historical trajectory once and for all.— ©2014 Chicago Tribune / Distributed by MCT Information Services

Michael Khodarkovsky grew up in the Soviet Union and teaches history at Loyola University Chicago. He is at work on the history of the Russian empire from the Eurasian perspective. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

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