Paratroopers from Russia’s elite Spetsnaz brigade, the shock troops of the Russian military, have arrived in Kazakhstan to suppress violent, nationwide protests against the country’s Kremlin-friendly regime. The action comes at a time when Russian troops are already massed near Ukraine’s border, and just 15 months after a Russian rifle brigade intervened to end the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Is President Vladimir Putin really attempting to rebuild the Russian Empire?
Of course, it is impossible to know with any certainty what the Kremlin sphinx has in mind. But, whatever Putin’s intentions, his actions are fatally undermining the idea that underpinned the Russian Federation’s creation 30 years ago.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, is rarely a topic of conversation nowadays. If Russians mention him, they are most likely recalling his excessive drinking or, more important, the inflation and poverty that pervaded Russia’s transition to a market economy. They are probably not crediting him with profound historical insights.
It was Yeltsin who recognized the monumental costs of sustaining the Soviet empire – costs that contributed to immiserating Russians and keeping them imprisoned in a police state. Only by shedding these costs – by dissolving the empire and establishing a free-market economy – could Russia deliver liberation and prosperity to its people.
But, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin might have doomed his own vision. The man to whom he handed power that night now seems determined to discard his keenest insight. While Putin may not seek to rebuild the Russian Empire per se, he seems resolved to establish suzerainty over former Soviet states. That is a highly costly proposition.
The precise share of Soviet GDP that went toward maintaining the empire is unclear. But, given the demands of industrial production and the Soviet military-industrial complex – which together claimed up to 80% of all government revenues – it is safe to say that the Soviet Union could not afford, say, subsidies to unproductive factories in isolated areas of its constituent states. And this is to say nothing of the empire’s price in blood, highlighted in the years following the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
These costs were not lost on ordinary Russians, who resented having to shoulder them, just as British, French, and Austro-Hungarian citizens did during their own empires’ heydays. But the same cannot be said of those in charge. From the czars to Lenin and Stalin to Putin today, Russia’s leaders have almost universally believed that the cost of empire was justified.
This may partly reflect ideology. As the Palestinian scholar Edward Said famously observed, every empire “tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.” Russians have said much the same about their empire, particularly when discussing the Belarusians and their “little brothers” in Ukraine.
If Russia’s leaders did believe in la mission civilisatrice, they believed even more strongly that the empire strengthened national security. But history tells another story. In fact, imperial control quickly leads to overreach, makes a power less secure, and hastens the empire’s collapse.
For Russia, the costs of Putin’s ambitions are mounting. Consider the country’s military expenditure, which increased from 3.8% of GDP in 2013 – the year before Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and supported secessionist forces in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – to 5.4% in 2016. While military expenditure as a share of GDP declined in 2017 and 2018, it is now climbing once again. With Russian troops stationed in the occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia, the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus, this is not a surprise.
More difficult to quantify are the strategic costs of empire, which Putin is loath to recognize. The Kremlin’s imperial agenda, especially the annexation of Crimea, has called into question the post-Cold War settlement in Eurasia, from the Baltic to the Bering Sea. The world’s other powers – particularly the United States and China – are strongly invested in upholding the status quo that Putin is seeking to upset.
The post-Cold War settlement enabled governments to divert resources from military budgets to social programs. The peace dividend not only enabled Russia’s economic transition; it also supported the long economic boom in the West that ended with the 2008 financial crisis.
But the biggest beneficiary was China. Recall that 40 years ago, vast armies were positioned along the Chinese-Soviet border, and thousands of Russian nuclear warheads were trained on Chinese cities. The Cold War’s end thus enabled China to redirect resources toward economic development and poverty reduction. China’s success on these fronts over the last 30 years speaks for itself.
Against this backdrop, one wonders how Chinese President Xi Jinping views Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan, which shares a nearly 1,800-kilometer (1,120-mile) border with China, especially in light of Putin’s earlier comments diminishing the history of Kazakhstan’s independent statehood. (He has shown similar contempt for the independence of Belarus, the Baltic states, and Ukraine.)
The domestic costs – and polling by the Levada Center in Moscow suggests that few Russians are willing to trade their living standards for enhanced global status – ought to be sufficient to convince Putin to abandon his imperial ambitions. If not, the possibility of reigniting a rivalry with China surely should. But it is far from guaranteed that Putin will give reason its due. He is already ignoring the lessons of Russia’s own history.
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