Putin’s resistance to Russia’s imperial decline and fall will prove futile


I scuttled through Moscow’s backstreets early in October 1993, skirting the soldiers besieging the White House, Russia’s imposing parliament building. My destination: Lefortovo prison, where I was to interview nationalist parliamentarians and gunmen opposed to President Boris Yeltsin — who had locked them up before they could join the legislature’s revolt against his government.

It was a time that in many ways resonates with our contemporary turmoil.

The disheveled men rounded up in that notorious political prison loathed Yeltsin and his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev for their part in dismantling the Soviet Union. has lamented its collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Already in Lefortovo in 1993, the sense of humiliation was palpable.

Ironically, dissolving the Soviet Union had been furthest from Gorbachev’s thoughts when he wound up its wider informal empire in eastern Europe: the former satellite states of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany that now constitute much of NATO and the European Union’s eastern flank. Though rightly mourned by many in the West this week for his role in ending the Cold War, Gorbachev also sanctioned military force in a vain attempt to preserve the empire: 21 protestors died in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi alone; dozens more were killed in Riga and Vilnius, the capitals of Latvia and Lithuania in 1991 after the peoples of the Baltics and Caucasus on the Soviet periphery declared independence.

Even Yeltsin, who along with the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan formally dissolved the Soviet Union, was later prepared to spill rivers of blood to prevent the Chechens from breaking away from the Russian Federation.

It is hard, if not impossible, to stop the tapestry of empire unraveling once the threads have been pulled. That’s my perspective as a citizen of the successor state of the greatest empire the world has ever seen: Britain. The process may be prolonged but it is ineluctable. The Ottoman Empire was the sick man of Europe for three centuries, but it took a world war and three rival imperial powers to finish it off. After 1945, overseas European empires vanished within decades.

How long has Moscow’s empire got? Two years was all it took to roll back the Kremlin’s legions to Mother Russia after the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine today is an attempt to turn back the clock, but if his attempt fails, his successor will face new independence movements from within the Russian Federation. More than 20% of its citizens are not ethnic Russians and those minorities are overrepresented in the armed forces fighting in Ukraine. If those soldiers return home in defeat, the consequences could be dire.

Other European empires failed in similar attempts to arrest decline. The French, Belgians, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and British have been reduced to their metropolitan core (though Scottish and Catalan nationalists would dispute that) but, like Moscow’s leaders, they often fought to stop the process.

The Allied victory in World War II gave the old empires illusory hopes for a revival. The British may have reluctantly given up on India — “the Jewel in the Crown” — in the immediate postwar years but they fought to retain an imperium in the Middle East until military intervention in the Suez crisis of 1956 met US disapproval and dashed the enterprise. The winds of change roared through its African colonies too. By 1967, London could no longer afford a Southeast Asian commitment “East of Suez” either, despite military victories racked up against Communist insurgents and predatory powers.

But unlike Moscow, London was able to put a gloss on winding up its empire. Tory and Labour prime ministers alike loathed surrendering Britain’s place at the top table with the US and the Soviet Union. As late as 1965, Harold Wilson boasted of the country’s frontiers being on the Himalayas. The veneer of unflappability and a stiff upper lip helped the UK save face.

As the historian John Darwin puts it, the transition from empire to a Commonwealth of free nations headed by the Queen could be presented for public consumption “as an act of farsighted statesmanship, a triumph of vision, not a failure of nerve.” The new nation states were loyal to the Crown; Britain’s liberal imperial mission was fulfilled; patriots could rejoice.

And so the British comforted themselves with the euphemism that they “managed decline,” while the French “suffered military defeat” in Indochina and Algeria and the Belgians left “chaos” in their wake. This is a comforting narrative, but a suspect one.

There has been no face-saving formula for Russian nationalists and no economic gain to ease the pain of decline and fall. The former European powers enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity postwar as they shed their empires, but Russia saw its economy shrink by almost half in less than 10 years in the 1990s. The Soviet Union’s former “colonies” revile Moscow to this day and shudder at any Commonwealth-style association that acts as a cover for Kremlin domination. Nor does Russia have the comfort blanket of NATO — or the European Union, which gave a new lease on life to would-be French imperialists, if not British ones.

Today, Putin enjoys popularity at home based on the success of Russian arms in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and the Donbas. Even Gorbachev erroneously supported some of those interventions. The exploitation of natural resources has brought temporary prosperity and stability. But Putin’s imperial gamble in Ukraine could well be his Suez, his Algeria or his Vietnam. When the empire strikes back, it usually leads to disaster.


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