Imperial mania. The road to the third empire
Growing Sino-American rivalry has directly influenced Vladimir Putin’s plans to restore Russia’s sphere of influence in our part of Europe. In order to create the country’s third empire, Putin needs to concentrate on three states: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Of the three of these countries, the most important is Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden has continued to pursue a China-focused foreign policy ever since his election victory in 2020. This pivot to Asia is clearly not the only legacy from the previous Donald Trump administration. During the first decades of the 21st century, America’s increasing focus on China and the challenge of a potential war in South-East Asia influenced US foreign policy in other regions of the world, including Central Asia and Central and Eastern Europe.
This policy has been pursued in order to encourage Russia to either stay neutral or take the US side in the event of a conflict. As a result, there are now more and more voices saying that it is high time to pursue the so-called “reverse Kissinger” policy, as it was cleverly termed by Robert Zoellick. Similar to the 1970s when Henry Kissinger discouraged Chinese support for the USSR, it is now believed that the US would benefit from the reverse, namely a policy that would hinder Russia’s support of China. The US obsession in this regard has been clearly noted by the Kremlin.
Putin’s greatest dream
In response to this development, advisors to Vladimir Putin quickly drew up a new plan to save their boss and his authority, which has clearly been tarnished by recent domestic failures. This is ultimately what accelerated plans regarding Putin’s greatest dream: the reconstruction of the Russian empire. For the relatively weak Russian Federation, a new window of opportunity emerged to place this previously unrealistic idea on the political agenda. The first Russian empire was ruled by the Romanovs, a dynasty that came to an end in 1917. The second was the Soviet empire, which collapsed in 1991. Now, 30 years later, there has been plenty of time to analyse the consequences of this event. The recreation of Moscow’s empire has clearly been on Putin’s mind since 2000. For this reason, he has both revived the memory of Soviet era heroes within Russian public life and made multiple references to the imperial history of the Romanov times.
Russian imperial thinking today places a great emphasis on the issue of territory and its relationship with “strategic depth”. In other words, a focus on the maximum distance between the enemy potentially crossing the border and Moscow. For the last few decades, Russia did not see much possibility of regaining large swathes of territory that it had lost in the early 1990s. Thus, the process of bringing back the regions of the former empire was slow and not very effective. Every day of independence for countries like Ukraine worked to their advantage and pushed these states further away from the spectre of reintegration.
Various signs of weakness among western bodies, such as NATO and the EU, ultimately proved to be a key catalyst for modern Russia’s foreign policy. At the same time, the spectre of a potential Chinese-American conflict perhaps influenced this policy even more. The uncertain energy policies of many European states, including Germany’s agreement to implement the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, only further encouraged the Kremlin’s imperial mania.
A paradox is clear here, as the West (largely the US and the EU) is much stronger than either it or Russia thinks. Simultaneously, the Kremlin clearly overestimates its potential to influence global affairs. Regardless, the Kremlin’s clear obsession with building a third empire is increasingly pushing the world towards the next war. Due to these naïve dreams of securing Russian support in the conflict with China, the West did not say “no” to the Kremlin at the right time. The authorities in Moscow look at this mistake as an acceptance of their neo-imperial policies and activities in their “sphere of influence”.
As a result, the last year and a half has seen Putin put his neo-imperial plans into action. For example, he managed to practically regain full control over Belarus. Now, Russia not only controls the country in military and economic terms but also oversees its propaganda messages. The key to the Kremlin’s rule in Central Asia was to regain its position in Kazakhstan. In this case, the main problem was actually the country’s autocratic leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who guaranteed Kazakhstan’s independence from Moscow for many decades. His foreign policy was marked by attempts to balance between Russian, Chinese and American influences.
The Kremlin achieved its goals in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 with relatively little effort. In response to mass demonstrations caused by a rise in energy prices, the Kazakh authorities (the president of the country was one of Nazarbayev’s close associates) invited Russian forces into the country under the pretext of CSTO support. Of course, Russia remains the de facto leader and decision maker within this body. The outcomes of this blitzkrieg operation are important for both the Kremlin and a global system increasingly dominated by Sino-American rivalry. Russia not only removed Nazarbayev from Kazakh politics after 30 years but also increased its chances of gaining control over the country’s natural resources. This could result in increased control over deliveries of natural resources to the West. Moscow was able to show both the US and China that Kazakhstan remains firmly in Russia’s hands and is not an independent player. Lastly, Russia has gained renewed influence over the situation across post-Soviet Central Asia, which also includes countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the situation in Kazakhstan has encouraged a renewed Brezhnev doctrine in Moscow. This doctrine was formulated by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1968 in response to attempted reforms in Czechoslovakia. The idea stressed that the members of the Warsaw Pact “had the right” to intervene in other countries where the communist system was in danger. Today, the CSTO is essentially the new Warsaw Pact. Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan, concealed as international support, was motivated by a desire to protect a friendly government against a large number of protesters.
In other parts of the former empire, Russia is also making progress in bringing back the imperial order. In the South Caucasus, it has managed to increase its influence in Armenia. Nikol Pashinyan, the country’s prime minister who not that long ago came to power as a result of election protests, supported Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan. The only problem for Russia in this region is Georgia, which is trying to maintain its pro-western course.
As a result, the key to Russian domination in the region lies in Ukraine. According to Russia’s strategic thinking, Ukraine is (along with Belarus and Russia itself) one of the three territories essential to rebuilding Moscow’s empire. It is also the country that now is the hardest to gain control over. The revolutions that took place here in 1990, 2004-05 and 2013-14 proved that Ukrainian society is fully aware of its distinctiveness from Russia. Russia’s experience in Ukraine (intervention in Donbas and annexation of Crimea in 2014) shows that it is incapable of creating an occupational system of power. The Kremlin subsequently had to opt for military pressure, which is only strengthened by ongoing energy conflicts. From the Russian perspective, however, this strategy is not enough. It ultimately needs a friendly government in Kyiv that will be willing to work with the Kremlin.
Alongside its resurgence in Belarus and Central Asia, Russia recently forced the pro-western Moldovan government to agree to extend a key gas agreement. Among the post-Soviet states, the majority are now fully or partly controlled by Moscow. The three small Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) thankfully remain outside of this sphere of influence. This is only because they are members of the EU and NATO.
Azerbaijan is also a difficult case for Russia, as the potential replacement of President Ilham Aliyev with somebody more pro-Russian would undoubtedly generate a negative reaction in Turkey. This is because Ankara now treats Azerbaijan as a key part of its own sphere of influence. Putin cannot yet open up another frontline.
In order to create Russia’s third empire, Putin needs to concentrate on three states: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. These three countries have become closer to the EU in recent years and they all now demonstrate a pro-western orientation in their foreign policy. Of the three of these states, however, the most important is again Ukraine. If Kyiv is dominated by pro-Russian elements, the whole idea of western co-operation with the former Soviet republics will collapse.
When looked at as a whole, we can see that all three of these countries share several things in common. They are all pro-western and overall interested in joining the EU and NATO. They have all been member states of the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme, which was established in 2009. Within the framework of this programme they signed the three key agreements with the EU: the Association Agreement, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and visa liberalisation agreement. In addition, Ukraine and Georgia are active partners of NATO and since 2008 have been waiting for their invitation to become members of the Alliance. We can even argue that in legal and economic terms, these three countries, often called the Associated Trio, are partial EU member states. Indeed, no other states outside the EU have built such close relations with the community as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The ongoing Sino-American rivalry is influencing the implementation of Putin’s plans regarding these countries. However, recent Russian policy in the wider context of Sino-American relations shows that in the short term the game is not only about Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The fate of these countries is now directly related to the position of the US (and more broadly of the whole West) in its competition with China. The Kremlin could simply implement its plans and end the naïve western dreams of Russian support against Beijing. As a result, America’s bargaining position will become weaker.
Apart from the Associated Trio, all of Moscow’s other strategic dilemmas have already been resolved to its benefit. The reconstruction of the empire is a deadly threat to Poland and Central European states. Perhaps Hungary, which is pursuing an openly pro-Russian foreign policy, is an exception here. Yet, for countries such as Poland or Romania and Slovakia, having borders with the new empire will mean a great increase in military spending and propaganda pressure from Russia. This will include growing Kremlin support for pro-Russian parties in these countries and changes in their power structures. It will also result in a change of societal attitudes regarding the West, as well as increased economic corruption. Of course, there will be greater Russian influence in political life and energy policy. Issues surrounding energy will encourage economic blackmail regarding the transit, export and import of natural resources.
We have been able to observe a variety of great changes in Eastern Europe over the past 30 years. At the same time, these changes have sometimes been very dangerous for the security of Central Europe. The region’s foreign policy experts, journalists and general public were naturally appalled by the words of Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, commander of the German Navy, who during a speech in India said that “Crimea is gone and will never come back”.
As expected, he paid the price for these words and had to resign. Yet we all know that the statement that he made illustrates the thinking of many members of the political elite in Germany, as well as other western states. Russia’s audacious demands towards the US and NATO, which it put forward before the talks in Geneva, have been “refuted”. But let us ask ourselves, could things be any different? In reaction to Russia’s blitzkrieg, we need to act, not make declarations. Signs of western submission regarding Russia’s foreign policy is neither a new Ostpolitik, nor is it a new realism. It is fear of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy.
Right now, Russia can only be stopped if it gets a clear signal that the EU will enlarge should our Eastern partners wish it. The same should also be said about NATO. It is not Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova’s political elites but their societies that should receive reassurances that their sacrifices in reforming their countries have not been in vain. For the last three decades, time was overall working against the idea of rebuilding Moscow’s empire. In the last two years, things have changed dramatically. Yet, the West has a chance to stop this project from going any further.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Paweł Kowal is a member of the Polish parliament (Sejm) and deputy chairman of the Sejm’s Commission on Foreign Affairs. He is also an adjunct professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy and a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board.