Russia's imperial history is far from over for Vladimir Putin, who loudly declares that wherever Russians are is Russia. And the West should take him at his word.
MOSCOW — Russia, whether represented by the Kremlin walls or military barracks, has a long history behind her — much longer than America's. When the future U.S. was still an English colony, Russia had already long been a protagonist of the rising European power struggle.
Anyone today asking about the future of Russia after the Cold War, and its ambitions through Europe would have to accept the very different and sometimes contradictory scripts of Russia's envisioned roles. In her eyes, they are all of this moment.
Anyone wandering through the treasury of the Kremlin today will learn about diplomacy. Not only with the help of testimonies of Western ambassadors bowing to the Tsar, but also through the silverware that was bought across Europe and acquired in Augsburg, later to be humbly used to honor the ruler of all Russia and to win him over as an ally.
Nowhere else have diplomatic gifts been received in the same splendor and abundance as in the Kremlin. The Tsar's silverware was never meant to share meals, but was there to be seen; a sign of dignity, a symbol of power and, if necessary, currency reserves that could be melted down or sold. What remains of it today is still enough to recall Russia's epochal struggle for supremacy and security.
This struggle began while France, England, Spain and the Netherlands were fighting for hegemony and a balance of power, which allowed Russia to take Ukraine. But Russia did finally obtain her rank as a European power through the early 18th century's Great Northern War, taking place during the Spanish War of Succession. Peter the Great won the Maris Baltici Empire, which today includes the three Baltic States. That left the Tsar with power in the form of land and trade routes being developed with its German-Baltic subjects.
After the Seven Years' War — which had every characteristic of a World War except the name — Russia rose to a new height thanks to the guarantee of the Peace of Hubertusburg in 1763. This treaty established five major European powers and was a founding document of the European "Concert of Power": nothing should ever be held against the interests of Russia.
Russians marched across Germany and camped on Montmartre.
The Polish divisions proved that the treaty was not just empty words. Russia's projection of power started reaching deep into Europe. In 1783, the Russians snatched Crimea from the Turks and took a step closer to the Mediterranean.
In the Napoleonic era, Russian soldiers set foot in Central Europe and echoed the word of the Tsar: Russia is not to be underestimated. When Prussia almost fell in 1806, Tsar Alexander and the French emperor fantasized about the division of the world, muscling out the British empire. But such a dream faded quickly the "Grande Armée" fell victim to Napoleonic delusion and a Russian winter. As a revenge, the Russians marched across Germany and camped on Montmartre. Europe's core problem at the time was getting rid of them. In order to get the Russian bear to retreat, Poland was negotiated over and given to Russia. The Holy Alliance henceforth meant a mutual guarantee of the status quo.
Europe was then living sous l'oeil des Russes: watched over by the Russian. This was not an empty threat, as Saxony-Weimar had to withdraw its constitution under the pressure of the Tsar. When the "people's spring" happened in 1848-849, the national unification policy of Prussia woke up the Russians who sent threats of war.
The defeat in the Crimean War in 1853-1856, finally put an end to the list of imperial triumphs. The Tsar, who had called for the protectorate of Christians in the Ottoman Empire in the name of Orthodoxy, had to face a veto from the British, who opposed such a protectorate because it would have compromised the sea route to India and the Khyber Pass in Central Asia.
"Stephen Báthory at Pskov" by Jan Matejko — Source: Royal Castle in Warsaw
Prussia was the only one providing diplomatic support — the Tsar returned the favor in 1866 and 1870-1871 when Prussia won the war against France. But after those events, the relations between the German Reich and Russia went downhill, with violence almost unrestrained in the Great War of 1914. It was bound to be a disaster for the tsarist state, with a revolution, a civil war and the nation's virtual disintegration.
Russia is never as weak as she looks, but she isn't that strong either. Finland and the Baltic states were lost a century ago, but the Communists were certain that sooner or later, the lost terrain, including Germany, would be won again through the international revolution.
Stalin wanted to see the Western capitalist states rip each other apart, and decided at the last minute to intervene. It led to the infamous pact with Hitler. But instead, the "Enterprise Barbarossa" brought the Soviet Union to the brink of collapse, and Germany toward catastrophe.
The German split was planned between the Allies, but the world division that was to emerge between the Russian and American empires was not.
In the early years when the U.S. was the sole nuclear power, it put its technical superiority on the water and in the air to deny Russian supremacy through strategic balance: unlike in the 1920s, the U.S. demonstrated its power to the Russians through such policies as the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Pact that they were there to stay.
Thus, in the short phase of American nuclear superiority in 1949, the Western defensive shield was created. Mutual deterrence has allowed the long nuclear peace since then.
The bipolar structure of the world evaporated.
As the turn of the century approached, in 1989-1990, the bipolar structure of the world evaporated. There was a lack of power and vision to found the "New World Order" announced by President George Bush (father) in 1990. Instead of seeking new equilibrium, the West moved its border posts to the edge of Russia.
Such a move was not prohibited by international law, however, it was over-ambitious. At that time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the much-cited U.S. security advisor, wrote that Russia would again an be empire with Ukraine, but not without it.
The only person who understood the ambiguity of this situation was the future strongman, Vladimir Putin. The West, especially the EU decided to ignore the warning. But now, Russia is looking at the rubble of the past, reassembling it in order to strengthen her future.
Marx and Lenin are gone. But what about the rest? For Putin, Russia's history is far from over, offering the Eurasian world power's irresistible promise. He makes no secret of the fact that Russia is everywhere where Russians are.
The West should understand the history that shapes such ideas.