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Can Russia Ever Learn To Live Without Its Imperial Ambitions?

Russian ambitions to expand its empire have existed for centuries. But are they doomed to be this way forever? Janusz Onyszkiewicz, the former defense minister of Poland, digs into the history — and the future.

image of Russian solders in front of the red square.

A Victory Day military parade in Red Square.

Janusz Onyszkiewicz


WARSAW — For Moscow to finally let go of its imperial ambitions, it must lose the war it has been waging in Ukraine. As the history of the last few hundred years shows, this is the only way Russia will change.

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The idealogue at the head of Putinist Russia, Vladislav Surkov, has made his vision of an ideal Russia very clear. In his view, Russia is a country that “having stopped falling, has begun to rebuild itself and returned to the natural and only possible state of a great, growing and land-collecting community of nations."

Surkov says that Russia makes "no promise" of peace. “The immodest role given to our country by universal history does not allow us to leave the stage or remain silent in the crowd," he declared.

Faith in a 'historical mission'

This feeling of Russia having a historical destiny, and an imperative to expand its territory is not new. It goes back as far as the 15th century, after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks when the ruler of Moscow considered himself the successor of the Byzantine and Roman Empires, and the only defender of the true Christian faith, untainted by what they believed to be Latinism and sterile rationalism. Even the title of tsar adopted by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century was a reference to the Roman title of Caesar.

Pavel Miliukov, the 20th-century historian and political activist, wrote 100 years ago about the tsars’ ambitions. According to him, if you asked about their program of action, "They would probably not be able to develop a program other than the old, traditional one, which has become an instinct: to seek and collect even more."

Almost 200 years later, Peter I solemnly assumed the title of Emperor of All Russia. Russia was officially becoming an empire, and, thus, the main function of the empire was constant territorial expansion.

Jan Kucharzewski, the historian and former Prime Minister of Poland, likewise acknowledged Russian imperialism. “Russia, in its wars of conquest, has used (the same) traditional methods for centuries," he wrote. “When seizing lands, it claimed that it was regaining them, even when it came to the Amur Land, and that it was liberating the people of these lands either from the yoke of a foreign nation or from the yoke of political and social oppression," he added, arguably predicting the Russian narrative of “liberating” or “de-nazifying” Ukraine.

For Kucharzewski, these imperial conquests were always justified “on the basis of some alleged old titles and demagogy, national and social, applied to the country against which the fight is being waged in order to weaken it internally," which he also referred to as “political means used to justify and support military action."

Endless expansion

The accuracy of this assessment is backed up by Russia’s past, as well as by the government’s current choices. When Soviet commander Semyon Budyonny's horse army approached Lviv and Zamość during the Soviet-Polish war in 1920, it was supposedly fighting, as Russian writer Isaac Babel wrote, not against Polish workers or peasants, but was “attacking the nobility."

According to the Russian narrative, Putin's shameful attack on Ukraine is aimed not at subjugating Ukrainians, but at "denazification" , that is, freeing them from the oppressive and anti-national regime of President Zelensky.

The expanding borders of the Russian Empire were drawn in the mid-19th century by the Russian poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev:

Seven inner seas, seven rivers

From the Nile to the Neva, from the Elbe to Cathay

From the Volga to the edges of the Euphrates, Ganges, and the Danube

It is said that when Vladimir Putin asked a young boy where Russia ends, and was told "at the Bering Strait near Alaska", that he smiled and said: "No, Russia doesn't end." This is very similar to a common joke in Poland, which reads, "With whom does Russia share a border?" "With whoever it wants to."

image of a protest with a woman holding a sign saying "no to Russian imperialism"

A protest in New York City against Russian Imperialism.

Michael Brochstein/ZUMA

Superpower pride

Russians have almost always been aware of comparisons made between them and the West, especially when it comes to the standard of living and the degree of economic development. In their own view, the lack of freedom was to be compensated by the sense of the country's greatness and strength and the importance of the historical mission it supposedly had to fulfill.

As Mikhail Lermontov wrote: "Let me be a slave, but a slave of the tsar of the world," and the 19th-century historian Sergei Soloviev claimed that for an autocratic state the goal is not prosperity, but "the glory of the citizens, the state and the ruler," and that "national pride arouses in the nation governed by authority, the sense of freedom that drives them to great deeds no less than freedom itself."

"You will get rich quickly, but don't interfere with my rule."

We find all of these ideas lingering today, in the narrative and policy of Putin's Russia. When the 2008 financial crisis exposed the country's economic weakness, citizens lost the belief that Russia would soon become one of the largest economic powers, that the ruble would be the world's reserve currency next to the dollar, and Moscow would be one of the financial centers on a par with New York, Frankfurt and London.

Putin's informal deal with Russians had been "You will get rich quickly, but don't interfere with my rule." But the crash showed that this could soon stop working, and had to be replaced with something else — something well embedded in the Russian tradition: to replace bread with imperial games, and a sense of imperial grandeur. Russia under Putin’s rule was to become great again and, just as the country had defended the world from Nazism, now it was to face American hegemony and the nihilism of the West, threatening the true Christian civilization represented and protected, as always, by Russia.

Putin cannot co-exist with Ukraine

Since then, Putin himself has crafted a new role. As Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote: “At the end of his four-year term, Putin seemed imbued with a sense of history and God's mandate. Perceived as a pragmatist and outspoken public official, the country manager turned into a missionary. Putin not only appealed to God in his public speeches, but also behaved as someone who was carrying out a work entrusted to him by the Almighty. Later, during the 2014 Ukraine crisis, it allowed Putin to remain calm and confident that God was on his — and Russia's — side in a new, fierce competition with the United States."

There are many indications that this new legitimization of Putin's power has been accepted by many in the country. Putin describes himself as "a leading Russian nationalist." And a Russian nationalist, as sociologist Irina Glebova wrote, "refers to memories of the power of the Soviet state and the Russian Orthodox superpower greatness and satisfies the spontaneous social demand for it," which results in an increased support for the government.

The return of the imperial idea and the complete rejection of the West does not have to be permanent.

This makes a permanent treaty ending the war with Ukraine, which in Putin's propaganda is compared to the Great Patriotic War with Hitler's Germany, virtually impossible. At least as long as imperial and nationalist intoxication persists in Russia.

Is a gentler Russian nationalism possible?

In spite of its long tradition, this imperialism does not have to last forever. First, it is not entirely clear to what extent the public actually support President Putin and his policies. It is important to remember the political conditions in which surveys are conducted and the degree of refusal to respond.

Secondly, one cannot underestimate the courage and determination of those, many of them, who demonstrated against the war. Today, such demonstrations are not visible, but these people did not disappear, even if many of them fled abroad. The return of the imperial idea and the complete rejection of the West does not have to be permanent.

It is worth recalling what Vladimir Putin himself said relatively recently. He made a clear proposal that only in cooperation with Russia can Europe become a powerful and independent factor in world politics. The well-known Russian political scientist Alexei Arbatov envisioned Russia's entry into the EU as late as 2007, which he believed would prompt the creation of "the most powerful global center of military, economic and cultural power."

As for today's emphasizing of the fundamental and supposedly insurmountable differences between European and Russian civilization, it is worth remembering what Putin himself or Sergey Lavrov said about Russia's Europeanness: the latter claimed that there is no conflict of values between Russia and the West.

image of Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Gavriil Grigorov/Kremlin Pool/ZUMA

Stuck in the old world

In turn, another significant Russian political scientist and politician, Vladimir Lukin, wrote that "Russia has always been part of the Old World ... and will be able to resist the pressure of Asia, America and other civilizational centers of gravity only if it is with Europe."

The awareness of the failure of Putin's policy, which led to the loss of chances to win over Ukraine, to the collapse of the myth about the strength and greatness of the Russian armed forces, to the international isolation of Russia and to its increasing dependence on the increasingly stronger and potentially dangerous China, has the potential bring about a redefinition of Russian nationalism.

One thinks of General Aleksandr Lebed, a Russian nationalist and veteran of many battles, who claimed in the 1990s that “the era of empires is over. You can pity her, she was great and proud, but a new era is beginning — the construction of a full-fledged Russian nation state. In the international arena, pragmatic nationalism means that ... Russia does not intend to pay a disproportionate price for a return to the imperial chimera”.

So, Russian nationalism may take a less threatening form. Maybe Russia will follow in the footsteps of other countries that have dealt with their imperial past.

A necessary condition: Russian defeat in the war with Ukraine

Russia will not disappear from the map. The problem is whether it will continue to build its greatness on constant expansion and domination, or on the strength of its culture, economy and prestige resulting from compliance with the rule of national and international law.

For Russia to change, it must lose the war with Ukraine. As the history of the last few hundred years shows, Russia has changed only in such a situation. This was the case after the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, after the First World War and after the Cold War.

The military defeat should become an opportunity for those who think about a different Russia, but are unable to do anything today. These people must be remembered. And remember that whatever Putin says today: Russia, although it will probably remain outside the European Union, will remain part of Europe.

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