The Vision of an Empire Drives Russia’s Policy towards Ukraine
Wide apart. Photo: Sputnik/Kremlin pool photo/AP/TT

The Vision of an Empire Drives Russia’s Policy towards Ukraine

Analysis. The face-off between Russia and the European Union over Ukraine is a confrontation between the modern and the postmodern imperial-like entities. While the EU's vision promotes the association of nations based on values and principles, Russia clings to a model based on territory, kinship and the "unity of fate." These two approaches are hardly reconcilable, writes historian Igor Torbakov.

Publicerad: 2022-02-14

The confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine began eight years ago with the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian-backed insurgency in the Donbas. The standoff has now reached a very dangerous point as Moscow concentrated significant military force along Ukraine’s eastern border with an eye to pressure Kyiv (along with Washington and Brussels) to make concessions that Ukraine and its Western allies deem absolutely unacceptable. It is noteworthy for a historian of empire that the acute crisis in Russia's former prized imperial possession illustrates the extent to which the country's imperial identity, its international status, and its elite's perception of Ukraine are intimately intertwined.

The collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago left Russia in a unique geographical position – bordering more states than any other country in the world. Most of these neighboring states are former imperial borderlands, and most of the frontiers are former, Soviet-era internal administrative borders that are poorly delimited and demarcated. Thus, it should not come as great surprise that the Kremlin’s strategic planners distinguish between the Russian Federation’s formal state borders and what they consider to be Russia’s strategic frontiers defined largely by security and economic interests. The latter are much more expansive than the former and tend to coincide with the borders of the former Soviet Union.

This distinction is reflected in the existence of Russia’s customs and security borders that do not run along Russia’s de jure borders. The first example is Belarus, whose western border is a de facto customs border of Russia. The second example is Tajikistan, a country that does not have a common border with Russia, yet whose border with Afghanistan is Russia’s security frontier. Some other ex-Soviet countries – Moldova (with its secessionist and unrecognized enclave of Transnistria), Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, along with the separatist Georgian entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – play a similar role in Russia’s strategic calculus, as they host either Russian military bases and/or military facilities left over from the Soviet era. Russia’s major Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol definitely made Crimea – now seized from Ukraine and attached to Russia – a crucial aspect of Russia’s security frontier.

An alliance of ideas. Photo: Olivier Matthys/AP/TT

Then there is a much trickier issue of how Russia’s formal state borders relate to what can be referred to as “Russia's sphere of identity.” When Russian leaders discuss ethnic Russians in neighboring states, they use the term “compatriots,” which makes it clear that the Kremlin has made a distinction between the two. The distinction also provides an ideological foundation for the concept of the “Russian World.” In such a way, the Kremlin can justify to itself that a “genuine” Russia extends far beyond the Russian Federation’s borders.

When the Ukraine crisis erupted, the assertion that the Russians are the largest divided people in the world became the Kremlin’s ideological lynchpin. The need to protect Russian kith and kin was the principal justification for Russia’s land grab in Crimea and of its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine’s east. The existence of Russia’s multiple borders (both formal and strategic), as well as the gap between its “geobody” and “cultural body,” are viewed by Kremlin strategists as useful instruments of manipulation – largely soft power tools that can be deployed to establish Moscow’s controlling influence in post-Soviet Eurasia.

Russia would have preferred to preside over a pan-Eurasian “neo-imperial” structure, something akin to the European Union. But it has not turned out the way the Kremlin would have liked. The reason Putin made use of raw force despite his attempts to draw Ukraine into his pet project – the Eurasian Union – is that he felt he was losing ground in the geopolitical competition over Ukraine to the West. That is how Ukraine became Putin’s “last stand.”

Why would this be the case? As the heirs of a former empire, Russian political leaders are able to recognize an empire when they see one. The Kremlin appears to suspect the EU, which is backed up by U.S. military muscle in the form of NATO, of harboring imperial ambitions. Russian strategists view the EU’s behavior in Eurasia as that of an “empire of a new type” – a normative or bureaucratic empire that resolves its strategic problems through extending its internal bureaucratic norms and regulations. Such an empire’s primary means of exercising power is via the extension of norms, while its “imperial-like” territorial acquisitions are made not by conquest, but by the imitation of European ways by those who aspire to become part of European “normality.”

A soldier of the Kremlin guard stands at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin Wall on Feb. 7, 2022. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/TT

However, it is necessary not to lose sight of the sensitive interrelationship between politics and territory. The EU and NATO double enlargement entailed more than merely a transfer of standards and procedures. Enlargement was grounded in larger strategic considerations – it was in fact an exercise in power politics, a move aimed to fill the unprecedented power vacuum in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

It can be argued that one of the most crucial implications of empire is geo-strategic: like all imperial formations before, the EU is destined to expand as its peripheral members will feel constantly exposed to various types of threats emanating from the “barbarous” lands beyond the “imperial” frontier. The only solution an empire knows is to enlarge and absorb potentially destabilizing territories after their prior internal transformation through the export of “imperial” norms and rules. 

The EU also has a “sphere of identity,” but its modus operandi is diametrically opposite to that of Russia. Being a norms- and values-based entity, the EU cultivates an identity that essentially is not territory-bound. This incompatibility of principles makes an EU-Russia accommodation, in terms of delimitating their respective “spheres,” extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible. Whereas Russia’s sphere of identity is limited to the “Russian World” (however broadly understood), for the EU there is potentially no limit, as technically it can expand as far as where its norms and values are welcomed and adopted.

It was perhaps inevitable that Ukraine was the place where Russian and EU principles would clash. For years, Moscow had managed to keep Kyiv within its orbit by manipulating identity. And when the Kremlin sensed that the “European values” underpinning the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution seemed to have triumphed over the Moscow-sponsored ideal of “Slavic/Eurasian unity,” Russia resorted to an “old-school” solution, and sent in its troops.

It is worthy of note that over the last hundred years the Russian Empire – first as the realm of the Romanovs and then as the Soviet Union lived through imperial collapse twice, in 1917 and 1991, and in both cases the Russo-Ukrainian war became an unfortunate subplot of the post-imperial drama. In the first case, the empire imploded within the broader context of World War I, which was waged – at least on the Eastern front – by the belligerents (all of them empires) who were above all seeking control over Ukraine. Very soon the Bolsheviks would be fighting Ukrainian leftwing nationalists precisely because they were convinced that without Ukraine’s resources their newly born Soviet state (incipient communist empire) would not be viable. 

A view of Kyiv with the Motherland Monument on the right, Feb. 13, 2022. Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/TT

The 1991 crisis and its aftermath saw a repeat of the pattern – albeit with a quarter-century interval between the collapse of the empire and the outbreak of a new Russo-Ukrainian conflict. There is of course one intriguing question: why is there a time lag between the empire’s end and an eruption of a borderland conflict? Scholars pursuing comparative empire studies have demonstrated that the effects of an empire’s demise might make themselves felt in the next generation or even later.

One fundamental factor that explains a relative quiescence in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet empire’s disintegration is the international context. 30 years ago, the imperial collapse took place in a relatively relaxed atmosphere of détente created by the preceding East-West rapprochement and hopes of a future integration of the bulk of “imperial debris” into the “civilized community” of liberal democracies.

Today, the international atmosphere is vastly different. Russian elites have a sense that they are under attack spearheaded by two imperial-like polities: the United States and the EU. The latter’s concept of “enlargement” has long been perceived by the Kremlin as particularly worrisome: Russia appears to be confronted by an assertive neighbor whose eastern border is not fixed but indeed moving steadily further eastward, gobbling up, piece after piece, what used to be parts of the “outer” and even of the “inner” Soviet empire. The EU-sponsored policy of “Europeanization,” Russian strategists hold, infringes on what they consider post-imperial Russia’s legitimate sphere of interests and in general undermines Russia’s “strategic depth.”

Empires die hard. The Soviet Union ceased to exist in December 1991. Still, 30 years later, national identity concerns, “imperial” rivalries, and Russia’s quest for great power status have combined into a volatile mix that has led to the current crisis in Ukraine. 

Igor Torbakov
Senior Fellow at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University.