President Putin's Mirage of Russian Empire

In a speech at West Point on December 5, 1962, the former U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson candidly remarked, “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.  The attempt to play a separate power role … is about played out.”  The actions of President Vladimir Putin today suggest he, like Britain fifty years ago, is searching even more desperately for a role to replace the empire that ended in 1991.

That search had involved both aggressive military activity in Ukraine and the creation of a trade and political bloc that is supposed to stretch from China to the borders of the European Union (EU).  Emulating the EU itself, the bloc claims to be a step toward the creation of a supranational union of sovereign states, but it may be the forerunner of an empire.

The Russian empire was a reality, starting with the annexation of Novgorod in 1478, then Kazan in 1552, Astrakhan in 1554, east to Siberia in 1582, west to Ukraine in 1667, and south to the area of warm water and agriculture, to Crimea in 1783, where Catherine the Great set up the naval base for the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol and developed the coal and iron industries.

Russia therefore has been bifocal – part Western, part Slavic.  A symbolic synthesis might be the ballets of the Ballets Russes, devised under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev – part tradition, part Western modernity.  Yet Putin’s political objectives are clear, based on his statement in 2005 that the demise of the Soviet Union, the USSR, in 1991 was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.  In his eyes, for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy.

The tragedy would be overcome be creating two new structures in December 1991.  The Commonwealth of Independent State (CEI), a group of sovereign and independent states, was established.  It now has 9 members, and 2 participants, one of which is Ukraine, which does not regard itself as a member.  The real successor to the USSR is the Russian Federation, now a body of 22 republics including Crimea in 2014 but not Ukraine.

Putin aims to end that “genuine tragedy” by assertion of Russian power.  In his address on June 17, 1992 to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, Boris Yeltsin said it was Russia that had put an end to the imperial policies of the past and was the first country to recognize the independence of the Baltic Republics.  His chosen successor, Putin, however, held that after the difficulties of the 1990s Russia was a major player on the international stage.  Russia should count because of its size and its natural resources.  If it could not challenge the U.S., or prevent the expansion of NATO that now includes member-states of the USSR, at least it could be on an equal footing with the EU.

To reach that level, Putin organized a series of agreements among friendly states, leading to a Customs Union on January 1, 2010, with hopes that it would spread from Europe to the Pacific.  His ambitions have grown, resulting in the signing on May 29, 2014 of a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) among Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.  It is officially due to go into effect on January 1, 2015.  The three countries in the EEU account for 173 million people and have a GDP of $2.4 trillion.  But the EEU is unlikely to attract other countries, except Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

It is membership of this projected union that has led to the conflict with Ukraine.  Putin realized that the European Union was interested in stronger relations with Ukraine and had proposed an association agreement on March 30, 2012.  Ukraine would become integrated into Europe.  Such an event would make the Eurasian Economic Union less powerful.  As a result of Putin’s pressure, the then president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych , in February 2014 decided not to sign the association agreement. In return, Putin promised a stimulus of $15 billion and cheaper gas exports to Ukraine.

Russian troops then marched into Crimea and annexed the area, and then aided the pro-Russian insurgents in areas in eastern Ukraine to rebel against the official government.  Two of those areas held referendums and declared independence in May 2014.  Fighting between these insurgents, helped by Russian “freelance volunteers,” and Ukraine have resulted in at least 4,000 killed and 5,000 injured.

Russia has acted illegally in annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine.  Putin may have envisaged Ukraine in the future joining NATO, which would then have access to the naval base in Sevastopol.  The NATO meeting at Newport on September 5, 2014 denounced that invasion.  But the Western response has been inadequate.  It has so far been limited to travel bans, to prevent export of certain services and technological materials to Russia, and imposing economic sanctions on businesses, banks, senior officials, and individuals said to be close to Putin and part of the ruling elite in Russia.  The West should do more.

Admittedly, the issue is mixed.  Ukraine has a long history and has been under the control of foreign powers for most of that time, including the brutal regime of Stalin, whose agricultural policies of collectivization led to the Holodomor, or extinction by hunger in 1932-33 during which millions of Ukranians died of famine.   The country is divided by language, politics, and ethnicity.  About one third of its population speaks Russian as a native language, and many others speak it.  About one sixth is believed to be ethnic Russians.

Yet the presence of this important minority group and protection of it do not justify Putin’s actions.  Nor do these excuse the timidity of European response.  For the West, the economic dilemma is understandable for two reasons.  More than one quarter of Europe’s gas comes from Russia, and half of that goes through Ukraine.  Four countries get all their gas from Russia.  Yet the EU countries need not submit to any Russian threat to cut off the energy supplies.  In a world now flush with oil, and with Saudi Arabia maintaining its large production, alternative oil is readily available, as is liquefied natural gas that comes from Lithuania. 

But a second reason is the considerable business, about $350 billion, between the EU countries and Russia, far more than U.S.-Russian trade.  German exports to Russia in 2013 amounted to $51 billion.  Total EU-Russian trade is about $275 billion.

Ukraine, though having only 46 million citizens, is the largest state in Europe and the breadbasket for the area, a source of food for Russia.  It has shown in the October 26, 2014 election that the pro-Western political parties dominate the political system.  Indeed, no member of the Communist Party was elected to the parliament.  The EU should appreciate that Ukraine has taken a stand different from other groups and units – Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian minorities in Baltic states, and the areas of Donbass and Lugansk – that are associated with Russia.

Western countries must help ensure the independence of Ukraine.  More than one commentator has remarked that without Ukraine, Russian cannot be a Eurasian empire.  The creation of such an empire is dangerous, as Russian actions have shown.  Pressure is being exerted by Russia on Moldova and Georgia not to join the EU.  Almost certainly, Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine were responsible for using a surface-to-air missile on July 17, 2014 to shoot down Malaysian aircraft MH 17, killing all 298 people on board.  It is admirable that Russia seeks regional cooperation with its neighbors, but it is menacing if Russian domination of that cooperation means the recreation of empire.