Vladimir Putin and his government have been successful surely of one thing – of duping a lot of pseudo-intellectuals, journalists, talking-heads and what not that there is a historical legitimacy to Russia’s current insistence in ensuring that Ukraine remains under its sphere of influence. The internet is awash with pundits speaking about Russian history showing off their skills in memorising the names of Russian diplomats and Tsars who in some way or another have contributed to the expansion of great Mother Russia.
Well, I’m sorry to tell you that you have all been duped and the idea of Russian imperialism is dumb, frivolous and disingenuous at best. Most importantly, Russian history has got nothing to do with what is going on today and if you think otherwise, then I am sorry to say you believe Russian propaganda.
I’m not an expert in Russian history but I am a qualified historian (big deal) who happens to know several basic facts. I will tell you some things that I know as a historian which are fundamental in understanding why history doesn’t matter in what is going on today.
Imperialism is a thing of the past and geo-politics is mostly about imperialism and spheres of influence. The US doesn’t have a sphere of influence today as it used to back in the Cold War. For example, the US doesn’t have a host of dictators in Latin America or the Middle East whom it can call to do covert deals and wage wars with at will: Russia, however does. Putin wants a sphere of influence because he wants countries to trade with Russia on his own terms and his own rules. Well, Putin is not really a democrat, isn’t he? Killing and jailing opponents while amassing a fortune with his oligarch friends isn’t really acceptable in a liberal-democracy. Putin is a dictator who runs Russia as an empire, and this means being bellicose and expanding the empire. What’s an emperor got to do?
The Russian Empire is a frivolous idea that has historically served first and foremost the interests of those who run it.
So what’s Russia exactly? Russia was an empire founded by ethnic slavs which conquered other people and embedded them in its empire, like Tatars or Mongols. I am being very simplistic here, and this was the order of the day in Medieval Europe. Russia eventually become a super-power in the 19th century and lost its superpower status after the First World War. All the traditional empires in Europe began collapsing after the First World War and those which remained collapsed after the Second World War. Enter decolonisation and independence. The Russian Federation is a remnant of an imperial past long gone, however, it survived thanks to Stalin. Putin knows this and has even admitted this several times in several interviews. Most of the online pundits speaking about Russia seem to have a gap in Russian history that starts from the Bolshevik revolution. What happened then? Russian lost a war with Germany and ceded large parts of its territory including Ukraine: the infamous Brest-Litovsk accords which Putin considers as a great betrayal to the Russian empire. Russia was devastated back then. And Russia kept being devasted by civil war as the Bolsheviks struggled for power.
Enter Stalin the Butcher
After the Bolsheviks won the civil war, they practically won over a devastated and hungry empire, but not really. In reality, the power and influence of the Bolsheviks were limited to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In order to exert control over the massive swathe of Russian lands power needed to be exerted. Stalin preserved the Russian empire by forcing collectivisation and industrialization at gunpoint and butchered many people in the process. First and foremost he butchered his party comrades who genuinely believed that the Russian State could never control the countryside and replaced these conservatives with his young cadres. Then Stalin butchered the people in the countryside who opposed his collectivisation programme. Stalin’s Soviet Union was the Russian Empire revived into super-power status and Moscow had finally gained more control over its empire than it ever had before. Stalin went on to defeat Nazism, conquer Eastern Europe and send the first man to space.
The formula is simple: human lives don’t matter in the great cause of the Russian empire.
Stalin has often been redeemed by Russian historians because they are proud of him as a symbol of their historic victory against Nazism. They are empirically correct: had Stalin not revived the might of the Russian empire, Germany would have defeated Russia once again and Hitler would have won the war. The largesse of Stalin’s USSR has been built with the blood of millions, including those in Ukraine who died of the famine during the collectivisation process. On the other hand, Putin’s new imperialistic largesse will have no redemption in history: it is only imperialism for imperialism sake that comes with all its intents and purposes of serving the emperor first and foremost. Putin knows all this and he has direct experience of it. When he needed to quell the insurgency in Chechnya, he simply bombed it, killed tens of thousands of civilians in the process, and installed a brutal dictator to lead the region at his will.
Europe has all the cards
Europe has basically all the cards against Putin: foreign currency. Without Euros or Pounds, Putin can not finance his war nor his regime. Therefore, the end game should be clear if Europe wants to preserve its dignity and sovereignity : No peace, no trade. Stalin succesfully restored the power of Russia by re-igniting exports once again. Russia lost a lot of precious currency when its grain exports were cut, and the USA benefitted greatly with this by replacing the Russian market. If Putin sells gas for Chinese Yuan and that wouldn’t make a difference cos the Yuan isn’t useful in international markets, but Europe can still print Euros and find new energy sources from its allies.