Nina L. Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at The New School and the co-author (with Jeffrey Tayler) of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.
Paratroopers from Russia’s elite Spetsnaz brigade, the shock troops of the Russian military, are now in Kazakhstan helping to suppress violent protests against the country’s Kremlin-friendly regime. The action comes at a time when Russian troops are already massed near Ukraine’s border, and just 15 months after a Russian rifle brigade intervened to end the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Is President Vladimir Putin really attempting to rebuild the Russian Empire?
Whatever Mr. Putin’s intentions, his actions are fatally undermining the idea that underpinned the Russian Federation’s creation 30 years ago.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, is rarely a topic of conversation nowadays. Yet it was Mr. Yeltsin who recognized the monumental costs of sustaining the Soviet empire – costs that contributed to immiserating Russians and keeping them imprisoned in a police state. Only by dissolving the empire and establishing a free-market economy could Russia deliver liberation and prosperity to its people.
But by handing power to Mr. Putin on New Year’s Eve in 1999, Mr. Yeltsin might have doomed his own vision. While Mr. Putin may not seek to rebuild the Russian Empire per se, he seems resolved to establish suzerainty over former Soviet states – a highly costly proposition.
The precise share of Soviet GDP that went toward maintaining the empire is unclear. But, given the demands of industrial production and the Soviet military-industrial complex – which together claimed up to 80 per cent of all government revenues – it is safe to say that the Soviet Union could not afford, say, subsidies to unproductive factories in isolated areas of its constituent states. And this is to say nothing of the empire’s price in blood.
These costs were not lost on ordinary Russians, who resented having to shoulder them, just as British, French and Austro-Hungarian citizens did during their own empires’ heydays. But from the czars to Lenin and Stalin to Mr. Putin today, Russia’s leaders have almost universally believed that the cost of empire was justified.
As the Palestinian scholar Edward Said observed, every empire “tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.” Russians have said much the same about their empire, particularly when discussing the Belarusians and their “little brothers” in Ukraine.
If Russia’s leaders did believe in la mission civilisatrice, they believed even more strongly that the empire strengthened national security. But history tells another story: Imperial control quickly leads to overreach, makes a power less secure, and hastens the empire’s collapse.
Today, the costs of Mr. Putin’s ambitions are mounting. The country’s military expenditure increased from 3.8 per cent of GDP in 2013 – the year before Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and supported secessionist forces in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – to 5.4 per cent in 2016. While this declined in 2017 and 2018, that share is now climbing again, with Russian troops stationed in the occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia, the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus.
More difficult to quantify are the strategic costs of empire, which Mr. Putin is loath to recognize. The Kremlin’s imperial agenda, especially the annexation of Crimea, has called into question the post-Cold War settlement in Eurasia, from the Baltic to the Bering Sea. The world’s other powers are also strongly invested in upholding the status quo that Mr. Putin is seeking to upset.
The post-Cold War settlement enabled governments to divert resources from military budgets to social programs. The peace dividend not only enabled Russia’s economic transition; it also supported the long economic boom in the West that ended with the 2008 financial crisis.
But the biggest beneficiary was China. Recall that 40 years ago, vast armies were positioned along the Chinese-Soviet border, and thousands of Russian nuclear warheads were trained on Chinese cities. The Cold War’s end thus enabled China to successfully redirect resources toward economic development and poverty reduction. Against this backdrop, one wonders how Chinese President Xi Jinping views Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan, which shares a nearly 1,800-kilometre border with China, especially in light of Mr. Putin’s earlier comments diminishing the history of Kazakhstan’s independent statehood.
The domestic costs ought to be sufficient to persuade Mr. Putin to abandon his imperial ambitions. If not, the possibility of reigniting a rivalry with China surely should. But it is far from guaranteed that he will give reason its due. After all, he is already ignoring the lessons of Russia’s own history.
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