Putin’s imperial hangover

By William E. Pomeranz
March 18, 2014

President Vladimir Putin’s impulsive incursion into Ukrainian territory has left Russia more isolated than at any time since the Cold War. Predictably, the European Union and the United States have loudly objected. More to the point, however, no country has rallied to Russia’s defense.

Such deafening silence reflects the degree to which Putin’s thinking is out of step with the modern world. With this action, Putin has revealed himself to be an imperial thinker in a post-colonial world.

Putin grew up at a time when Russia was the unquestioned center of a communist empire that had managed to suppress national challenges for decades. So while the rest of the world was dismantling their empires and transforming colonies into nations, the Soviet Union retained its empire until 1991. Putin — as the leading representative of the last Soviet generation — acquired the mindset of Russia’s natural hegemony and never accepted the post-Soviet republic’s place in the expanding community of nations.

For centuries the world order was built on the “imperial right” of the strong to rule over and “take care” of weaker peoples and lands. Colonies contributed to the wealth, prestige and power of the imperial center, and the last two great overseas empires — British and French — inherently believed in their rights to intervene militarily if certain fundamental national or economic interests were at stake.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, the British and French empires both collapsed. Though political and cultural ties remain between the former imperial nations and their ex-colonies, France and Britain no longer assert a mandate to control other countries.

Russia has been the one outlier in this process of decolonization. Its continental empire had expanded steadily under both tsars and Soviets to incorporate the surrounding national and ethnic groups. Like colonies, these conquered regions contributed significantly to Russia’s economic wealth and defense.

The Soviet Union further extended its military empire after World War II to include Eastern Europe. This external empire fell apart in 1989 and two years later the Soviet Union finally collapsed, replaced by 15 new sovereign nations.

Putin has at times expressed nostalgia for the Soviet Union and its old imperial ways. With the noticeable exception of his invasion of Georgia, however, Putin has been reluctant to play the imperial card in his foreign policy.

Even the creation of the vaunted Eurasian Union has been painstakingly slow and overly bureaucratic, as Moscow has tried to convince Belarus and Kazakhstan to integrate the three economies. Kazakhstan, in particular, does not want to be treated like a former colony. President Nursultan Nazarbayev insisted at the most recent meeting of the three countries that any new Eurasian Union should not be able to bind its members in international agreements and that each state must retain sovereignty.

The potential loss of Ukraine as a member of the Eurasian bloc, however, unleashed Putin’s innermost imperial thoughts. Ukraine strikes a unique chord in the heart of many Russians. It provides a historic and civilizational link for Russia — extending back to its origins in Kievan Rus.

A Ukraine aligned with Russia also represents Moscow’s last chance at great power status. That is why Putin wants Ukraine in the Eurasian Union, and why Putin could not allow Ukraine to sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union.

So Putin responded reflexively to the crisis in Ukraine, dismissing more than two decades of national sovereignty and asserting Russia’s imperial right to defend ethnic Russians anywhere it so chooses. Such an outlook is an anachronism to the modern world, long separated from 19th and 20th century colonial rule.

Putin however, represents a generation that was raised and educated when the Soviet empire was at its height. He even worked as an imperial functionary (a spy) during his time in East Germany. There should be little surprise that he still harbors an imperial mentality.

But the serious problem now is that Putin has acted on these beliefs. And they have produced a backlash that will define his presidency.

Ironically, by violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and threatening its borders, Putin has now done more to promote Ukrainian identity than any current national politician could have ever imagined. He has also forced the European Union and the United States to make a major financial commitment to Ukraine’s economic development — making it almost certain that the new Kiev government can now pursue the free trade area with the European Union that Putin so desperately tried to stop.

His decision to treat Crimea like a colonial outpost and accept the flawed referendum’s results means that he will facilitate a violation of international law that no other country will recognize.

Russia may soon find itself on the outside looking in — starting most obviously with the G8 — after it has struggled so hard to be recognized as an essential member of the international community.

In addition, Putin has opened a Pandora’s box that will undermine the country’s federal construction. The Russian Federation possesses major ethnic divisions within its borders — its own internal empire, as it were. Following Crimea’s example, other national groups in Russia may feel equally empowered to demand increased regional sovereignty, if not actual independence.   Russia now has adopted a principle that works directly against its own internal unity.

Putin’s imperial overreach also comes with real economic costs. His $50 billion investment in Sochi as a tourist attraction disappeared in a week. He will instead have to subsidize a rival tourist location in Crimea — where vacationers (if they come) will have to contend with an occupying army for the immediate future.

International investors will also view the Russian market with increased skepticism, especially after the Duma threatened foreign companies with the confiscation of their property if Western sanctions were imposed. Russian citizens will continue to vote with their money and send it abroad, depriving Russia of the very resources it needs to expand its economy and become a global power.

Putin believes that he can survive all these developments. His political grip on the country is still so strong that, in the short-term, he may be right.  His decision to play the imperial card, however, shows a man who is out of touch with the times. The people of Crimea, Ukraine and Russia will pay a heavy price for his imperious gesture.

Photo (TOP): Vladimir Putin. REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin; Portrait of Catherine the Great by Johann-Baptist von Lampi the Older. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (2nd R), Crimea’s Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov (L), parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov (2nd L) and Sevastopol Mayor Alexei Chaliy shake hands after a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Yekaterina Shtukina/RIA Novosti/Pool

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Members of a pro-Russian self-defence unit stand in formation as they ready to swear an oath to the pro-Russia Crimea regional government in Simferopol, March 13, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

(ras)Putin had his military lease. He chose, in addition, to start a war with Ukrainian slavs and annex Crimea. (ras)Putin has started a war with 1 million Ukrainian partisans (40 thousand new national guard signed up in the last 2 weeks) , in a country he can’t possibly control , which hosts his pipeline of gas to feed Russia’s war machine.
Will Ukrainians fight to stop Putin’s theft and murder of Ukrainian soldiers? I think at this moment everyone in the Kremlin is holding their breath to find out. Only the Ukrainians can answer this question. Putin I think has bitten off way way more than he can chew.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

what i find a little terrifying that no one seems to know how “serious” the KGB Colonel is about “his intentions” here. Certainly no one in the media is asking these questions. Is he actually going to launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine? The questions abound here…Chancellor Merkel has already said “he is out of touch with reality”…that strikes me as “more important than a Malaysian jetliner.”

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

I think you can only judge Putin in so far as he seeks to emulate the international style of the United States.

However, in this specific case, Russia’s manoeuvring has been totally correct in terms of protecting their interests. They will still have final words on energy transport through the axis and will still control the South Sea project. There will be no pro-EU antagonist messing with their oil deliveries across the Black Sea, or heaven forbid, promoting the competition.

In all this snooty commentary in the Western outlets, I hear the underlying whine of a kid who almost got to have his and his classmates’ cake.

Posted by helloway | Report as abusive

Ukrainians, 1 million of them with loaded guns, beg to differ. Case closed.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

If Putin has an imperial hangover, then the political establishment in Washington is completely inebriated.

The USA has 1,000 military bases around the planet. How many does Russia have?

There’s only one possible justification for a military-industrial complex as large as that of the USA, or for its massive military presence abroad: World domination.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Dear UScitizentoo, please stop writing nonsense. Use your own head if you have one.

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive

I hope the author, William Pomeranz, is correct that his thinking is out of touch with the times. I fear the partial restoration of the Soviet Union.

Posted by EthelGoodhill | Report as abusive

What the article says is quite simply what the rest of the world already knows and understands. Mr Putin has cut his own nose off to spite his face and now millions of Russians will have to suffer, (again) Well done for such a clear and concise article.

Posted by Odessa100 | Report as abusive

The whole of the US was annexed. Return it to the native Americans please.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Ukraine will fight Russia over Crimea? there there, little @UScitizentoo, don’t cry. I know you are scared but you should really calm down and face reality.

Where are the adults on this forum?

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

It is good for a man to be serious in his intentions, rather than just writing Rock-Star lyrics
that make it sound like he’s serious when in reality he’s ‘just not that into you’, and really it is
all just about sex (or the spilling of lots of blood) and exploitation. Of course, we all know that
‘lyrics and lies’ work better for implementation of the ‘shock-and-awe’ technique, but that technique is not
a long term, sustainable approach and in the end makes a people (or a woman) start looking around for
the real thing. So much for the hook-up scene and the attraction of sincere sounding, but empty popular culture. Signed, I’m still angry.

Posted by LisaAgnesG | Report as abusive

aren’t china and the utd states both empires too?

members of the RUSCs (russia us & china)

Posted by ed_martin | Report as abusive

“What Peter says about Paul says more about Peter than Paul” ― Baruch Spinoza

Dr. Pomeranz let readers realize that (some? many?) British people perceive the dissolution of Soviet Union in general, and the current events in Ukraine and Crimea particularly, via analogies with British history.

There are deep analogies, indeed – but there are also important differences, where analogies not only do not help, but lead to wrong conclusions.

Like British Empire, Russian Empire used to have at least two distinct sorts of colonies. One set consisted of countries and territories with a big local population, and/or substantially different cultures and climate. India, Malaya, Burma, Egypt – and Central Asia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, etc. Relatively few British or Russian people moved there. The second set of territories was colonized in the classical sense of the word: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand by British – Volga region, Ural, Siberia by Russians.

Now the first big difference: The oversea territories colonized by British settlers effectively split from UK even earlier than India or Malaya. On the other hand, territories that originally were similarly colonized by Russian settlers did not split, because their population feel being a part of Russia. The underlying reason, probably, is a difference between a continental, territorially contiguous empire and a maritime one, with far away territories feeling as separate countries.

The second mistake in Dr.Pomeranz reasoning concerns specific cases, Ukraine and Belorussia. The best analogy for British would be not colonies, but countries of UK proper: England, Scotland, and Wales. It would insult a common sense to treat Scotland and Wales as English colonies. They are just too close for this culturally, historically, and geographically and too intimately intertwined by marriages, kinship, friendship, family, business, language and other relationships.

Posted by yurakm | Report as abusive

“For centuries the world order was built on the “imperial right” of the strong to rule over and “take care” of weaker peoples and lands. Colonies contributed to the wealth, prestige and power of the imperial center, and the last two great overseas empires — British and French — inherently believed in their rights to intervene militarily if certain fundamental national or economic interests were at stake.”

Yes, Putin’s actions do mirror this somewhat and Crimea is doomed to become a holiday destination. However, those exact same words could be used to link to American Imperialism during the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

Posted by harveyjohns | Report as abusive

Putin Is a dummy- hanging tough as he admires himself in the mirror. I am boycotting anything Russian other than the news.

Posted by thoma | Report as abusive