Russia is the largest country in the world and one of the most sparsely populated. With about 20 million people more than Japan’s, it occupies a territory nearly 45 times larger than that of the island-country.
Yet Russia wants more.
It wants to restore “historical Russia,” which, Mr. Putin claims, includes Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Kazakhstan and the Baltic region. In fact, Mr. Putin insists, these countries would not have existed, if not for the Russian empire, and it was mistaken Soviet nationality policies that created those states.
Imagine the British government saying that because mistaken British policies in the past led to the emergence of the U.S. and Canada, they should now therefore be restored to the United Kingdom.
Recent past is littered with the shards of collapsed empires, but unlike Russia few of them embarked on a path of a full imperial restoration. After all, the British do not claim India, nor do the French claim Algeria. The last time the two powers tried to restore their imperial influence by military means was at the time of the Suez Canal invasion in October 1956, and that episode ended up in ignominy. Incidentally, during that same week, the Soviets invaded Hungary, and while the British and French withdrew from the Suez within a month, the Soviet troops stayed in Hungary until 1991.
But perhaps a closer parallel to Russia was the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires in the aftermath of World War I. We know how Nazi Germany tried to restore its historical empire by laying claims to German-speaking populations outside of its national boundaries, and we know that was only the beginning.
Is Mr. Putin’s vision limited to restoring “historical Russia?” Hardly. From Venezuela to Central Africa to Syria and Myanmar, Moscow is deeply involved in supporting local brutal regimes. Mr. Putin’s hostile rhetorical escapades against the West culminated in Russia’s occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008. Then there followed the occupation of the Ukrainian Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. Crimea was annexed under the slogan “Crimea is ours,” and now it seems that the slogan is being applied to Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.
The Kremlin has clearly reached a point of no return. Russia is besieged by multiple problems. First of all, there is a declining standard of living. The choice of militarizing the economy, reliance on massive state orders, and Western sanctions all exert a price. Russia’s economic development has been stunted in recent years declining from $16,000 per capita in 2013 to $10,000 in 2021. China, with a population ten times that of Russia, has now exceeded Russia’s per capita GDP.
Then there is Russia’s declining population. Like all statistics coming out of Russia, the official numbers are suspect, but the trend toward population decline was obvious even before the Covid-19. The decline of birth rates among the Slavic population, in particular, is apparent and much of the population growth in Russia now comes from Russia’s Muslims. Could Russia become a Muslim majority country in 30 years? By some calculations, yes.
But above all, it is a decline of Putin’s popularity that forces the Kremlin to make desperate moves. The rate of political repression accelerated last year with hundreds incarcerated for political activities and thousands forced to flee the country. Human rights organizations have been dismantled, Russian critics of the regime branded “foreign agents,” and those from the West labeled Russophobes.
By current standards, great Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy, who condemned Russian imperialism, today would have likely been imprisoned, Anton Chekhov, who often satirized the Russian character, denounced as a Russophobe, and Ivan Turgenev, known for his humanism and tolerance, accused as a “foreign agent.”
The current aggressive campaign against Ukraine is driven by Russia’s own internal reasons but also by a continuous perception of Western weaknesses. Putin had two decades to observe both the systemic weaknesses of a democratic system of government and the human weaknesses of specific elected leaders. The Kremlin elites have a low opinion of the Westerners, who, they believe, are fools and could be easily manipulated or seduced by a promise of profits.
One wonders sometimes whether those cynical and bigoted Kremlin rulers have a point. Just look how easily they changed the narrative concerning their own aggression and occupation of Ukraine into a story of defensively fending off NATO’s purported expansion. Reading the headlines of most Western media, one might believe that it is NATO that threatens Russia and Moscow has legitimate defensive concerns, while the situation is in fact exactly the opposite.
Disinformation and propaganda, as with so many things in Putin’s Russia, are a faithful continuation of Soviet norms. If there is anything that distinguishes the current occupants of the Kremlin, it is the particularly brazen nature of manufactured lies, which are based on two basic principles: charge your opponents with misdeeds that you yourself are committing and offense is the best defense. Because the West does not have a similar propaganda machinery, many of the falsehoods made in Moscow are not debunked and continue to linger in Western media.
But let us stop for a minute and think about what is really going on. One sovereign country, Russia, has assembled a huge army for an invasion of another sovereign country, Ukraine, but for what reason? Is Ukraine threatening Russia militarily? Is it persecuting the Russian-speaking minority which needs Russia’s protection? No.
Apparently, this time Moscow settled on a different canard, namely Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO. Should NATO station 100,000 troops along the border with Belarus and threaten invasion because the Belarusian leader chose a closer embrace of Russia and now allowed Russian troops on its territory? The absurdity of Russian excuses and demands is obvious. It is just as obvious that the very existence of Ukraine as a sovereign democratic state looking towards Brussels, not Moscow, is something that the Kremlin cannot tolerate.
We should all be grateful to Ukraine for forcing Mr. Putin to show his hand in the wake of the EuroMaidan revolution in 2014. Until then, NATO countries were asleep at the wheel, cutting their own defense budgets and supplying Russia with modern technologies, while Moscow was increasing its military budget in a drive to modernize the military. If not for EuroMaidan and Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO might have woken up one day with massive Russian troops build-ups at the borders of its member states and with little means to respond.
And yet Mr. Putin's geopolitical gambits will end up the same way that the Soviet ones did. Russia traditionally defined its greatness through territorial expansion, military might, and extension of its influence through intimidation and fear. Such is the nature of autocracy that it measures its greatness by projecting power abroad and by focusing on geopolitics at the expense of the domestic economy. After all, the USSR collapsed, among other reasons, because its leaders cared little about their own people and continued to invest limited resources into the military that by some estimates in the 1980s constituted two-thirds of the Soviet economy. Mr. Putin is repeating mistakes of the past by ignoring the Russian people at home in his pursuit of Greater Russia.
The country’s fossil fuel-based economy is inherently unstable and is made far worse off by the diversion of huge resources towards the military. But in the twenty-first century global world, this military is practically unusable, because any use of it will lead only to more sanctions and the further deterioration of the Russian economy.
One can only hope that one day, some sober minds in the Kremlin will realize that investing in Russia at home will bring far better returns than the pursuit of geopolitical grandeur and that the real danger to the regime comes not from abroad but from the Russian people taking to the streets as the only way to change Russia’s dangerous course.
Michael Khodarkovsky is a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago and the author, most recently, of “Russia’s 20th Century: A Journey in 100 Histories."