The Miscalculations of Empire

The history of Russia for hundreds of years has been a history of autocracy and dictatorship. The Soviet Union had an area of 22.4 million kilometers. The Russian Federation had an area of 17.1 million square kilometers. The lost 5 million square kilometers makes Russian Federation authorities nostalgic. For imperial self-assertion, they need to return the territories taken from the Soviet Union. These sentiments are the subject of a 2021 article by Russian President Vladimir Putin "On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.," The purpose of the article, published seven months before the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, was to prove the identity of Russia and Ukraine.  Putin states it this way: "…the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity." He strongly denies the independence of Ukraine and the Ukrainian nationality: "The name “Ukraine” was used more often in the meaning of the Old Russian word ”okraina“ (periphery), which is found in written sources from the 12th century, referring to various border territories. And the word ”Ukrainian“, judging by archival documents, originally referred to frontier guards who protected the external borders…Taras Shevchenko wrote poetry in the Ukrainian language, and prose mainly in Russian. The books of Nikolay Gogol, a Russian patriot and native of Poltavshchyna, are written in Russian, bristling with Malorussian folk sayings and motifs. How can this heritage be divided between Russia and Ukraine?"

Putin sharply criticizes the Ukrainian people's attempt to create their own independent state, the Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR) during the Russian Civil War after WW I: "The example of the UPR shows that different kinds of quasi-state formations that emerged across the former Russian Empire at the time of the Civil War and turbulence were inherently unstable."

Putin considers the formation of Ukraine a historical anomaly of Soviet production: "Therefore, modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era. We know and remember well that it was shaped -- for a significant part -- on the lands of historical Russia." He asserts the artificiality of the separation of the former Soviet republics of the USSR from Russia and undermines the idea of their independence:  "…inside the USSR, borders between republics were never seen as state borders; they were nominal within a single country, which, while featuring all the attributes of a federation, was highly centralized -- this, again, was secured by the CPSU's leading role. But in 1991, all those territories, and, which is more important, people, found themselves abroad overnight, taken away, this time indeed, from their historical motherland."

Putin the historian perceives Ukraine's independence as the malice of the "collective West": "Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia. Inevitably, there came a time when the concept of “Ukraine is not Russia” was no longer an option. There was a need for the “anti-Russia” concept which we will never accept." In July 2022, at a session in the State Duma, Putin denied that Russia started the war in Ukraine and accused the "collective West" of aggression against Russia: "For decades, the so-called collective West, led by the United States, has behaved extremely aggressively against Russia. [...] we hear today, that we started the war in Donbass, in Ukraine. No, it was unleashed by this very collective West, which organized and supported an unconstitutional armed coup in Ukraine in 2014, and then encouraged and justified genocide against people in Donbas."

He is convinced that the sovereignty of Ukraine is absurd and proclaimed only to harm Russia: "I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia... Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people."

Putin is the creator of a parallel history in which Ukraine is not a genuine country with no right to independence. He considers Ukraine an artificially created country. At the same time, he is convinced that Russia is a naturally created country. Imperial consciousness proceeds from its natural right to exist and the artificiality of the existence of opponents. Are all modern countries created naturally? Is it only the natural formation of countries that gives them the right to sovereignty?

The ideology of Russian imperialism underlies the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, along with Putin's contemptuous attitude toward the West and his belief that Western countries are weaklings that would not provide effective assistance to Ukraine if Russia attacked. His view is reinforced by the weakness of the West during Russia's attack on Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin was counting on the West's passive reaction to his aggression in Ukraine; he miscalculated. The West is resolutely and actively helping Ukraine.

Another motive has to do with Putin’s nostalgia for the imperial greatness of the Soviet Union. He resents the "unipolarity" of the world order and the dominant role of the United States. However, the world has long been bipolar, divided between the U.S. and China. The Russian Federation, claiming to be a superpower, has weakened rather than strengthened itself by attacking Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is not a world war, but it affects the situation elsewhere on the globe. Some wars can prevent other wars, as was the case with Finland, which will soon join NATO for self-defense.

The war in Ukraine could also mean the division of the world between the United States and China. A bleeding, weakened Russia loses its status as a superpower. Putin's references to Russia having nuclear weapons are his regime's recollection of its imperial power, which the Russian Federation is losing in the war in Ukraine. Russia is a colossus on clay feet. Putin reminds himself and others of his superpower status by mentioning his nuclear weapons. China, which remains a superpower, does not need to shake its nuclear weapons to prove its status as a world power. Rather, China is shocked by the powerful anti-Russian reaction of the West. Russia's war in Ukraine was a failed rehearsal of China's war in Taiwan. China also fears being a colossus on clay feet. Its fears are correct, for empires do not have the ability to retreat in wars. They must fight the war to the end. But that end is not always victorious. History is replete with examples of empires collapsing because of unsuccessful wars they started. The U.S. and France lost the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Algeria and withdrew their troops. The western superpowers are democracies with the capacity for self-criticism and self-control. The nature of these regimes allows them to stop wars, even if they lose them. Totalitarian countries like China and Russia need to win at all costs. The price of winning an empire may be too high, leading the empire to its destruction, as was the case with Tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, and with the Soviet Union in the war in Afghanistan. To paraphrase Putin's words that the collapse of the USSR was a national catastrophe, by attacking Ukraine he created the preconditions for an international disaster, as Ukraine bleeds and the Russian federation risks its own disintegration. However, perhaps the war in Ukraine prevented another international catastrophe: China's attack on Taiwan.

Image: EleNte

If you experience technical problems, please write to