Decolonizing Putin’s empire
Decolonization is in the news. Most Ukrainians now view the Russian aggression against their country as the Kremlin’s attempt to re-establish an empire. They therefore see their anti-imperial resistance as a form of decolonization. Many Eastern Europeans agree.
Western academics are also grappling with the decolonization issue, with some adopting the term and others resisting. Some journalists and policymakers also have gotten on the decolonization bandwagon.
This isn’t the first time that decolonization has been on people’s minds. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, as anti-imperial national liberation movements emerged in much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, decolonization preoccupied governments, academics, journalists and, of course, revolutionaries.
Several decades later, the Soviet Union’s rapid and unexpected end, and its equally rapid loss of control over the Eastern European satellite states, struck many as an instance of imperial collapse. The anti-Soviet popular movements that greatly contributed to the end of what President Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire” were thus viewed as anti-imperial causes aimed at decolonization.
Because the USSR’s collapse was so rapid, Russian elites, who claimed that the Russian Federation was the Soviet Union’s successor state, retained the imperial worldview that underpinned the Soviet empire. Moreover, the rapidity of the collapse meant that most of the economic, political, cultural and social ties that bound the former Soviet colonies to the Russian metropolis were still intact.
As a result, in contrast to most empires — which decay and lose territories in the course of decades or centuries, and therefore become progressively acclimated to their loss of imperial status — the sudden replacement of the Soviet empire with a host of quasi-independent states was regarded by Russian elites as a gross injustice to Russia or, as Russian strongman Vladimir Putin put it in 2008, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Russian elites generally agreed that such a tragedy had to be undone. Even in the 1990s, when the pro-Western, quasi-democratic Boris Yeltsin was Russia’s president, Russia consistently tried to reestablish its hegemony over its non-Russian neighbors. It did so with five main weapons. The first was the Commonwealth of Independent States, which Moscow hoped would serve as a transitional form of proto-empire that eventually would morph into a genuine empire. The second was the non-Russians’ dependence on Russian energy, which Moscow used to bend them to its will. The third was the Russian language, which Russia falsely insisted was being discriminated against in the non-Russian states. The fourth was the Russian-speaking minorities in the non-Russian states, which were progressively transformed into destabilizing fifth columns. The fifth was Russia’s unparalleled ability to project military power.
Putin remained true to these methods, while upping the ante and making no secret of his intent to reestablish a Russian empire. Naturally, like most modern-day imperialists, he didn’t call it that. Instead, the preferred terminology centered on reestablishing Russia’s historical territories, protecting Russian language and minorities, providing security to the non-Russian states, and ensuring that their domestic and foreign policies did not contravene perceived Russian interests — which were, above all, the rejection of people power, democracy, Western alliances and liberal values.
Unlike Yeltsin, who preferred to eschew violence (the First Chechen War, which Russia lost, being the main exception), Putin embraced it, realizing that “soft power” went only so far in his attempt to reestablish Russian imperial control. Russia could support local satraps willing to convert their states into vassals, but too many non-Russians had crazy notions about self-determination and human rights and were willing to go to great lengths to preserve their nations’ sovereignty. The Chechens were crushed in Putin’s first war, 1999-2008. They were followed by the Georgians in 2008 and the ever-troublesome Ukrainians in 2014-2023.
Strictly speaking, Ukraine’s current effort to resist Russian imperialism is less a case of decolonization — after all, the new Russian empire has not yet been established — than a case of anti-imperialism: of opposition to the establishment of a Russian empire. In that sense, Ukraine’s ongoing armed opposition is just a continuation of the nonviolent opposition it has pursued since achieving independence in 1991.
Call it what you will, Ukrainian resistance is the only thing that stands in the way of Putin’s Russian empire. This means two things.
First, Ukraine should be the darling of the Global South, inasmuch as its struggle is identical to theirs. By refusing to condemn Russia and support Ukraine, the former European colonies of Asia, Africa and the Middle East are effectively depriving themselves of whatever legitimacy they acquired from their anti-imperial struggles. If opposition to imperialism doesn’t matter in all colonies, then it matters in none. And if it matters to none, then the countries of the Global South should stop bemoaning the lingering effects of their colonial legacies.
Second, Westerners who wonder whether supporting Ukraine is worth the effort should realize that the war isn’t just about Ukraine, however worthy it might be of being spared genocide. The war is about Russian imperialism and the Russian empire. If Ukraine wins, Russia’s imperial projects could end. If Russia wins, its imperial projects will be invigorated and legitimized. Kazakhstan, Georgia, Poland and the Baltic states will be next to experience imperial Russia’s wrath — and then it won’t be Ukrainian blood that will be spilled.
It’ll be American, British, German and French blood.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”
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