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Delusions of empires past

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is simply another imperialistic adventure. As history has shown, the end of an empire does not mean the loss of imperial ambitions. Unless Russia faces a complete and total defeat in Ukraine and is forced to contend with its past and current aggressions, there is very little to suggest that Russia will end its imperialistic mindset.

May 26, 2022 - Daniel Jarosak - Articles and Commentary

Russian two-headed eagle on top of the gates of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Photo: Andrei Kholmov / Shutterstock

No matter the timeframe, weapons used, or justifications, every war in mankind’s history shares a single commonality: they are all utterly and completely pointless. Some conflicts are caused by inertia and the ensuing apathy of a population. Others are built on the lies of a single individual or nation. The current war that plagues Ukraine has been directly caused by one man’s twisted ambitions. Yet it would be inaccurate to state that he shoulders one hundred per cent of the blame. The general population of the Russian Federation shoulders a not so insignificant portion of responsibility. Additionally, history shows that unless a population is forced to come to terms with its actions, toxic notions of imperial greatness are unlikely to dissipate.

A history of oppression

Russia, historically, has been viewed as a great power. Arguably, this status was conferred upon it after it was able to defeat the Swedes in the Great Northern War in the early 18th century.  This Russian Empire, under the rule of the Romanovs, was the world’s pre-eminent land power. Despite being one of the weakest of the great European powers by the mid-19th century (surpassing only the flailing Ottoman Empire), it was still able to exert influence on the European stage.

After this form of empire collapsed in 1917, it was replaced by a new form of imperialism. While the Soviet Union was nominally opposed to “western imperialism”, it constantly meddled in the internal affairs of the Eastern Bloc (its proto-colonies). It also attempted to “Russify” the lands that it overtly conquered (including Ukraine) by flooding regions with ethnic Russians.

The third incarnation of the Russian Empire came after the collapse of the USSR. While the 1990s saw some instances of imperial actions (the wars in Chechnya being one key example), it was not until the mid-2000s under Vladimir Putin that overt imperialism once again became popular. First, it took the form of protests against countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, which began to pursue independent and pro-western foreign policies to the detriment of Moscow. In 2007, this interference became blatant following a cyber-attack on Estonia. From there, Russia progressed to initiating armed conflicts against its former holdings in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as in its “backyard” in Syria.

Unlikely to learn their lesson

Unfortunately, even as the Russian military continues to inflict untold and almost innumerable human rights abuses on the Ukrainian population, it is highly unlikely that the Russian population will ever confront their heinous actions the same way that the Germans were forced to face theirs after the Holocaust. Looking at the conflict’s four potential outcomes, it becomes apparent why such a historical reckoning is so unlikely.

The first potential outcome would see Russia annex large swathes of Eastern Ukraine and/or install a puppet government in Kyiv. Of course, there would be no reckoning with the Kremlin’s actions in this case. The “special military operation” would be seen as justified by Moscow, which would then likely turn its attention to Moldova and the region of Transnistria.

The second potential outcome of the war is a partial Russian victory. This would likely come in the form of Russia keeping Crimea and either annexing the Donbas or creating puppet states in Donetsk and/or Luhansk. While this would fall far of a complete victory, the Kremlin’s now total control of the media would allow it to present the conflict as a victory to the Russian population. Additionally, it is highly likely that Putin and his cohort would be humiliated by a partial victory against a smaller and poorer nation. This could lead to further meddling in Russia’s former colonies and client states.

The third possible outcome of the conflict would be Russia’s complete eviction from Ukraine, which would once again control its pre-2014 borders. A Russian retreat without realising a single goal would be catastrophic for Putin and his inner circle. The rhetoric and false justifications that were espoused before the invasion would mean that such a failure would be met with scorn within the country. Putin might even be forced out of power. This outcome could potentially lead to the Russian nation finally coming to terms with its past and current imperialistic actions.

However, even if Putin were to be forced out, there is no reason to assume that a western-style liberal or progressive would come to power. The Siloviki that currently run the country simply have too much to lose if someone not from their ranks took charge. In the best case scenario, Alexei Navalny would come to power in the country. However, this is no guarantee that Russian imperialism and nationalism would be rejected by the new government. While he claims that his previous association with far-right nationalists was purely political, actions tend to speak louder than words.

It must also be remembered that national humiliation would follow such a catastrophe. As history has shown, the defeat and humiliation of a major power can so easily cause hatred to fester. France losing the Franco-Prussian War helped fuel the irredentism that, in part, led to the First World War; the results of the Treaty of Versailles helped give rise to the Nazi Party; the Treaty of Trianon now plays a major role in modern-day Hungarian nationalism. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Russia would not be immune to this curse of defeat if it were to pull back from Ukraine.

The final, and least likely, potential outcome for the conflict is the complete collapse of the Russian Federation. This could happen as a result of third parties joining the conflict, or the internal population overthrowing the government. If this unlikely scenario were to occur, it would be the only real way for the Russian population to come to terms with its troubled past. Similar to Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, an outside group would force the Russian nation to truly examine and come to terms with the consequences of its past actions.

The problems outlined are compounded by a single fact: hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country. Those fleeing have some semblance of understanding as to what is happening in their country. The current invasion has caused many to opt out of Putin’s reality and flee. Granted, Russia has been at war with Ukraine for eight years, so perhaps the threat of conscription, or the loss of their middle or upper-middle class lifestyles, have played a role in their decision to leave the country. With their departure, there are far fewer individuals inside Russia who have access to the tools necessary to see through the Kremlin’s lies.

The culpability of empires

It is clear that Putin initiated this war for the sake of vanity. However, it would be inaccurate to lay all of the blame at Putin’s feet. The Russian nation as a whole also bears responsibility. Putin has been in power for 22 years. Of course, elections are no longer fair, the country’s security system is nearly complete, and the Russian economy has faced many problems. These are all incredibly difficult obstacles to overcome. Yet, this does not absolve the Russian population of the current chaos in Ukraine. An examination of opinion polls throughout Putin’s rule shows that a majority of the population supports the Russian president. Parents have allowed their children to join pro-government youth movements. The annexation of Crimea was met with almost comically high approval. Putin’s takeover of the state was not done in one fell swoop. Instead, it was gradual. The Russian population could have voiced stronger opposition to these changes before the state could become as oppressive as it is today.

The Russian nation is responsible for the crimes in Ukraine the same way that your author is responsible for the historical, and present-day injustices that his country commits. While it is true that one may not directly participate in the actions undertaken by the state, those who are not the target of oppression often benefit from its existence. All corners of society in former empires must look at themselves in the mirror and ask, “what could I have done to prevent this tragedy?”

Daniel Jarosak does contract work for the US government. He was a former Researching Editor for New Eastern Europe and has an educational background in Eastern and Central Europe.

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