The former nationwide safety adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski as soon as stated that with out Ukraine, Russia would stop to be an empire. It’s a pithy assertion, however it’s not true. Even if Vladimir Putin fails to wrest again Ukraine, his nation will stay a haphazard amalgamation of areas and nations with vastly different histories, cultures, and languages. The Kremlin will proceed ruling over colonial holdings in locations together with Chechnya, Tatarstan, Siberia, and the Arctic.
Russia’s historical past is considered one of virtually ceaseless enlargement and colonization, and Russia is the final European empire that has resisted even fundamental decolonization efforts, akin to granting topic populations autonomy and a significant voice in selecting the nation’s leaders. And as we’ve seen in Ukraine, Russia is prepared to resort to conflict to reconquer areas it views as its rightful possessions.
During and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Russian empire hit its trendy nadir, the United States refused to safeguard the newly received independence of a number of post-Soviet states, citing misplaced considerations about humiliating Moscow. Emboldened by the West’s reluctance, Moscow started to reclaim the lands it misplaced. Now Russia’s revanchism—aided by our inaction and broader ignorance of the historical past of Russian imperialism—has revived the opportunity of nuclear battle and instigated the worst safety disaster the world has seen in a long time. Once Ukraine staves off Russia’s try to recolonize it, the West should help full freedom for Russia’s imperial topics.
The U.S. had a possibility to unwind the Russian empire earlier than. In September 1991, because the Soviet Union was falling aside, President George H. W. Bush convened his National Security Council. In the lead-up to the assembly, the White House appeared not sure the best way to deal with the splintering superpower. Some of Bush’s closest advisers even known as for attempting to maintain the Soviet Union collectively.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was not considered one of them. “We could get an authoritarian regime [in Russia] still,” he warned in the course of the assembly. “I am concerned that a year or so from now, if it all goes sour, how we can answer that we did not do more.” His finish purpose was clear: as Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates later wrote, Cheney “wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world.”
Bush demurred. Rather than speed up the Soviet disintegration, he tried to keep away from antagonizing Moscow, whilst President Boris Yeltsin’s administration started pushing the anti-Ukrainian animus that Putin now embodies. For years—as Russia stabilized and ultimately prospered, and as Cheney masterminded a few of the most disastrous American foreign-policy selections in current a long time—many believed that Bush had chosen the higher technique. Armageddon, as one historian phrased it, was averted.
In 2022, as Putin tries to revive the Russian empire by littering corpses throughout Ukraine, Bush’s place seems myopic. He—and American coverage makers after him—didn’t see the top of the Soviet Union for what it was: not only a defeat for communism, however a defeat for colonialism. Rather than quash Russia’s imperial aspirations once they had the prospect, Bush and his successors merely watched and hoped for the perfect. As Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft later stated in regards to the Soviet collapse, “In the end, we took no position at all. We simply let things happen.”
We now not have that luxurious. The West should full the undertaking that started in 1991. It should search to totally decolonize Russia.
Many of Russia’s former colonies, together with locations akin to Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, succeeded in reaching and sustaining independence after the autumn of the united statesS.R. But solely Ukraine’s independence has change into an obsession for Putin. It’s not laborious to see why. Stiff-arming Russia at each flip, Ukraine emerged as the most important hurdle to the Kremlin’s efforts to reconsolidate its empire and undo the independence actions of the early Nineties.
Not each one of many Kremlin’s colonies was so profitable in reaching independence in these years. Scores of countries—“autonomous republics” in Russian parlance—by no means escaped the Kremlin’s management. For many, the method of decolonization made it solely midway.
Chechnya, as an illustration, endured a number of horrific wars after declaring independence within the early ’90s. Yet when Chechen management turned to the West for support, U.S. officers seemed the opposite means. Many throughout the West remained blinded by the “saltwater fallacy,” which posits that colonies will be held solely in distant, abroad territories. Instead of viewing locations akin to Chechnya as nations colonized by a dictatorship in Moscow, Western officers merely noticed them as extensions of Russia correct. So somewhat than acknowledge the Chechens’ battle as a part of the worldwide push towards decolonization, American President Bill Clinton in contrast them to the Confederacy and backed Yeltsin regardless of his brutality. Clinton’s place not solely successfully sanctioned the horrors unleashed on harmless Chechens, however it confirmed Putin, then a rising bureaucrat, that Russian drive would go unchallenged by the West. As former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar stated, Western strain might have prevented the violence in Chechnya. Analysts agree. Yet Washington twiddled its thumbs, and Grozny was flattened.
Chechnya’s story is considered one of many. Nation after nation—Karelia, Komi, Sakha, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Kalmykia, Udmurtia, and plenty of extra—claimed sovereignty because the Soviet empire crumbled round them. Even areas that had been colonized by the Kremlin for hundreds of years pushed for independence. In a 1992 referendum in Tatarstan, practically two-thirds of the inhabitants voted in favor of sovereignty, regardless that Soviet authorities had drawn the republic’s borders to exclude some 75 % of the Tatar inhabitants. As election observers wrote, the republic was motivated by “years of pent-up resentment” towards Russian colonialism, and noticed “huge support” for the referendum in ethnically Tatar areas.
Instead of propping up these emergent nations, the U.S. prioritized stability. Washington feared that any volatility within the area would possibly trigger Russia’s nuclear and organic weapons to fall into the incorrect palms. Administration after administration made the identical mistake. In his “Chicken Kiev” speech, George H. W. Bush warned Ukrainian separatists towards “suicidal nationalism” (which Ukrainian separatists promptly ignored). Bill Clinton saved up his buddies-and-belly-laughs relationship with Yeltsin whereas Russian forces slaughtered Chechens en masse. George W. Bush took a hands-off strategy to the entrenchment of Putin’s regime, whilst Russian forces steamrolled into Georgia. Barack Obama’s blinkered “reset” coverage set the stage for Putin’s preliminary invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Donald Trump fawned over Putin and subordinated Ukraine’s pursuits to his pursuit of home political acquire.
The consequence: Chechnya stays dominated by a Kremlin-appointed despot. Tatarstan noticed any pretense of sovereignty snuffed out by Putin. On and on Moscow marched, reclaiming nations determined to flee its embrace. In Ukraine, we see the identical story. Moscow is unlikely to cease there.
Russia shouldn’t be the one polyglot nation that has failed to handle its legacy of colonization. China presently oversees the largest concentration-camp system the world has seen for the reason that Holocaust, devoted to eliminating Uyghurs as a definite nation. And a lot of the U.S. nonetheless refuses to view its personal historical past as considered one of rote imperial conquest, from the Founding Fathers seizing Indigenous lands to the ongoing colonial standing of locations akin to Puerto Rico.
But it’s Russia—and, extra particularly, Russian imperialism—that presents probably the most pressing menace to worldwide safety. Now the invoice of permitting Moscow to retain its empire, with none reckoning with its colonial historical past, is coming due.
Decolonizing Russia wouldn’t essentially require absolutely dismantling it, as Cheney proposed. The push towards decolonization might as an alternative give attention to making the form of democratic federalism promised in Russia’s structure greater than a hole promise. This would imply making certain that every one Russian residents, no matter area, would lastly be given a voice in selecting their leaders. Even merely acknowledging Russia’s colonial previous—and current—would make some distinction. “As much as decolonizing Russia is important for the territories it formerly occupied, reprocessing its history is also key for the survival of Russia within its current boundaries,” the students Botakoz Kassymbekova and Erica Marat not too long ago wrote.
Until Moscow’s empire is toppled, although, the area—and the world—is not going to be secure. Nor will Russia. Europe will stay unstable, and Ukrainians and Russians and all of the colonized peoples compelled to battle for the Kremlin will proceed to die. “There is no way for Russia to move forward with Putin and there is no way for Russia to move forward without addressing its imperial past and present,” the analyst Anton Barbashin not too long ago tweeted. “Give up empire and attempt to thrive or hold [on] to it and continue degrading.”
Russia has launched the best conflict the world has seen in a long time, all within the service of empire. To keep away from the chance of additional wars and extra mindless bloodshed, the Kremlin should lose what empire it nonetheless retains. The undertaking of Russian decolonization should lastly be completed.