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War in Ukraine: Imperial Dreams ... that end up being counterproductive

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

(This photograph shows soviet troops retreating from Afghanistan in 1989. A few years later those soldiers will witness the collapse of the Soviet Union that they fought for. To my mind this illustrates a perfect example of when an Empire used force and said use turn against the Empire.)

“An empire based on arms needs to be supported by arms. ” Montesquieu

As we have seen previously, Russia's aggressive policy is counter-productive and always has been. The quote I have chosen for this new article is intended to illustrate that what is built by force is never strong enough to survive. Crushed by power, peoples can submit but this state of affairs cannot persist in the long term. As soon as the power weakens, the peoples will rise up again. So it was with all the Empires of the past.

This aggressive policy has a name: “imperialism”, and it seems that Putin's Russia has not yet learned that imperialism is a policy of the past. Force is never a lasting solution and should only be used if there is no alternative and only as a last resort. Moreover, it must always be justified.

We therefore come to an ironic conclusion: Putin has been seeking for years to restore Russian power (in other words to restore the Russian Empire in a new form) and his current policies have the effect of making this project impossible.

You have to understand the context. Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has been in crisis. These crises are numerous and range from identity to economic model. But one crisis in particular occupies the minds of Russians: nostalgia of the Empire. The Empire is not only this monarchical State which existed in Russia between 1721 and 1917 (and even before via Tsarism), the Empire is also the Soviet Union. The Empire represents for the Russians the “Great Russia”. The one who dictated its will to the world, the one who rivaled the United States in power, the one who was able to perform miracles like sending the first man into space.

But since the end of the USSR, Russia has become a Nation of unequaled corruption, social disparities, poverty (Russia's GDP is lower than that of Italy, while Russia represents one-sixth of the surface of the Earth, a huge amount of billionaires, huge resources on its territory and a well-educated population) and powerlessness (Russia has lost most of its influence abroad, and its former satellites have joined NATO and the EU).

Putin based his legitimacy on the notion of “the man who brought back Great Russia”. This exercise is clearly more propaganda than reality. But it nevertheless explains why he conducts his foreign policy as a show of strength proper to a newfound power: he seeks to prove to his people that he is worthy to rule as he rebuilds the Empire.

But this policy is illusory because what it does is that it makes this return to the Empire impossible. I will explain why.

The return of the Empire is not desirable for several reasons and I will surely dedicate an article to this subject in the future. But a return to political, economic and military integration in the post-Soviet space (which therefore corresponds to what the Russian Empire was) is desirable and largely inevitable (this subject occupies a large part of my column “Soviet and Post-Soviet Integration” which will be back soon). But this integration must take place according to a new model, much more adapted to the political reality of the 21st century and to the new methods of international relations. I am targeting here the model of European integration in particular.

The return of this integration using models of the past (Soviet or imperialist) is impossible and also has the effect of sabotaging a future attempt to create an integration in the image of a European integration.

What will other post-Soviet republics think if Russia invades Ukraine? That it is impossible to have sovereign, independent and respectful relations with Russia. They will therefore seek to guarantee their independence by moving away from Russia as much as possible. We have already seen how Lukashenko wanted to get closer to the EU in 2018 so as not to be swallowed up by the Russian neighbor and how even today he is resorting to a double game by seeking support from China so that Putin does not can succeed in his enterprise of a new "State of Union" between Russia and Belarus. We also see how other states in the Caucasus and Central Asia seek either to get closer to the West or closer to Turkey and China so as not to be under russian domination.

Is this how Putin will recreate a Russian Empire? Is this how he will succeed in reconstructing a model of integration in the post-Soviet space? By crushing by force on one side so that the others flee on the other? The use of force is impossible for Russia today because it will never have enough to keep everyone in line and because the use of force has the effect of creating what Putin seeks to avoid : fragmentation of Russia's sphere of influence.

Besides, what should we think of Putin's strategic genius if he is obliged to seek support from China to endorse his foreign policy? He seeks to submit his neighbors and to do this he is obliged to submit to his neighbor! So this is the Great Russia of the 21st century? Resorting to the tactics of the past as the world has moved on? Russians are becoming ever more impoverished and ever more isolated until they have to submit to their powerful neighbor?

But that's not all. So imagine if Putin decides to invade Ukraine. As we will see later, such an action can bring about the end of his regime and a Revolution against his person. Now imagine that a new power arrives in Russia and that this power succeeds in calming relations with the West. This new power will have inherited an unprecedented diplomatic disaster and will have to pay for Putin's policies. This implies not only reparations and endless lawsuits, it will also mean the abandonment of Crimea (which would be a catastrophe for Russia) as well as the refusal of the neighbors to want to integrate with Russia because their trust will be lost for a long time.

Thus Putin's policy may result in the loss of his only success abroad since his return in 2012 (Crimea) as well as an absolute sabotage of Russia's chances of ever being able to raise its head. So don't be mistaken: Putin's mistakes are going to be paid for by Russia. And the price to pay will be its future.

An invasion of Ukraine delays the prospects for a new regional integration of the post-Soviet space for at least a decade and this decade will be key for such an integration process…

That is why I say so : an invasion of Ukraine will not allow a return of the Russian Empire, on the contrary, it will prevent a process of reconstruction of the post-Soviet space. But as we saw last time, Putin's real reasons for acting are not security or foreign policy issues, but domestic political theater and regime survival. However, it is clear that he is doing it in an inept manner which endangers us all as much as it endangers the future of the country.

Before looking at possible developments of the situation, next time we will study the position of the West to have a better view of the international situation and understand the current crisis.


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