The Problem With Debates About Russian Expansionism: A Historical Consideration of Empire and Russian Foriegn Policy

September 2, 2016
September 3, 2016

Nearly two and a half years after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, and the Russian annexation of the Crimea, Russia's ambitions in the Ukraine are once more in the news. The Interpreter warned several days ago,that if Russia plans to attack the Ukraine it will do so in the next several weeks."

Whether Vladimir Putin will launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the near future or simply continue to engage in destabilizing sabre-rattling to undermine Kyiv and distract Russians from their problems at home in advance of the Duma elections and the international community from his actions is far from clear," Paul Gable warned, while addmitting that "One survey of regional experts found no agreement on what the Kremlin leader may do next, instead concluding that with Putin, “it is possible to expect almost anything” given that he has made surprise and unpredictability the centerpieces of his approach to policy making."

As helpful as that consensus may be, it is also revealing of a deeper problem with analysis of Russian intentions. Namely, that little to no effort is made to understand them. At their most simplistic level, Putin is alleged to be intending to "rebuild the Soviet Union", presumably on the basis of the fact that he once called its fall a "geopolitical disaster", which ignores both the impossibility of the task, and the fact that the quote in question comes from a longer interview in which he stated that "People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain."

Others have suggested, as the Interpreter does, that Putin is fearful of domestic opinion. It is true that Duma elections are scheduled for September 18th, but the Kremlin has more or less been able to contain electoral opposition by strategically denying registration to candidates in regions where they might win(Moscow, St. Petersburg) and registering an excess number of opposition parties elsewhere. While fourteen parties will contest the Duma elections, polls indicate that no genuine pro-Western or liberal one will get much over 2%.

In truth, the idea that Russia would even want to reconstruct the Soviet era borders is almost as implausible as the idea that Russia seriously could do so at the current time. It is however, regrettably common, an off-shoot of the conviction in most of the post-cold war generation of foreign policy thinkers that the West or United States won the Cold War, as opposed to the Russians losing it. In reality, Russia was not ousted from those territories, but gave them up, and gave them up for a reason, namely that the costs of occupation were undermining Soviet security and the whole state. While the efforts of the Baltic states to secede triggered a political and military crisis in 1990, the Central Asian republics wished to remain, and were for all practical purposes ejected by Boris Yeltsin, who did not want to have pay for them in his new Russian Federation. The Soviet Empire, both in the non-Russian republics, and its satellites in Eastern Europe, was one of the most dramatic demonstrations of a truism about empires. Contrary to the nonsense all too often preached by elements of the left, empires are generally a money losing proposition. Rare is the distant territory that generates more in revenue than it costs to defend, especially when such a territory has to be defended not just from acquisitive outside powers, but also from the domestic resentment of a hostile population. Generally this has been exacerbated by the fact that it is much harder to levy taxes on a hostile population, and that natural resources not only produce only a small source of revenue, but efforts to make them support government expenditures are disastrously inflationary as the experiences of the Spanish empire of the 16th an 17th centuries illustrates.

Why then do states seek empires? One could ascribe it to personally ambition. That definitely motivated Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Hitler. But all of their empires collapsed rapidly, a testament to the degree to which the market solves for irrational over-expansion, with an ever more rapid "solution" provoked by ever greater irrationality. But far more interesting is the rational basis for expansion. It is easy to see why an individual might value the prestige of conquest, but harder to see why faceless multitudes would happily pay taxes and send their children to die for one man's vanity. By contrast, it is far easier to justify intervention defensively.

The dilemma Russia has faced for the last three centuries is to how reconcile its position as a strong power bordered by weak states such that those states do not become a launching pad for more distant, stronger powers, to contain or attack Russia. Ironically, this was not always Russia's problem. Many analysts trace Russian insecurity back to the Mongol conquests. The reality, however, is that Russia's strategic problems have been cyclical, veering between two almost entirely inverse strategic problems. From the Mongol in the 1300s until the reign of Peter the Great, Russia was surrounded by strong powers, any one of which was potentially an equal if not a military superior. As late as the latter half of the 17th century alone, Russia managed to lose hard fought wars against Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Ottoman Empire. This situation was transformed, however, during the reign of Peter the Great, in the course of which all three of these rivals ceased to be a threat.

Two of them, Sweden and Poland, all but imploded not just as major powers, but virtually as any sort of independent actors whatsoever. Sweden, after some early victories which had Europe expecting the deposition of the Romanov dynasty, was stripped of its territories in Livonia after the Great Northern War(1700-1721), and just as importantly, saddled with a decentralized, parliamentary constitution which reduced royal power to a nullity and made effective government impossible. Poland too, ceased to function as an independent state in the course of the war, which ironically was instigated by its King August II, Elector of Saxony, who had induced Peter to join him in the initial attack on Sweden. In 1717, Peter the Great intervened to mediate a conflict between August and his domestic opponents, ostensibly for the purpose of maintaining peace in Poland while both it and Russia were still fighting Sweden together. At the infamous "Silent Sejm" of 1717, so-called because it met under Russian bayonets and no speakers were recognized nor debate allowed, a constitutional settlement was imposed which limited the Polish army to 24,000, restricted the power of the monarchy, and most importantly, enshrined the Russian emperor as the guarantor of the settlement. Any future dispute arising over any aspect of the settlement, or any effort to alter the Polish constitution in any way had to be submitted to Russian arbitration, and Russia reserved the right to intervene militarily to enforce its will.

Ottoman decline was largely a product of Austrian, and ironically, Polish, victories in the 1680s and 90s, but the Russo-Austrian alliance, established in the 1710s and which would last for the next 50 years, reduced it to a second rate power. 

As such, Russia in 1730 found itself in a very different position from where it had been in 1690. Rather than being surrounded by strong foes who threatened invasion, it was now surrounded by a Sweden and Poland which were too weak to govern themselves, much less threaten Russia, and the major objective was to maintain exclusive influence without allowing that very weakness to pull in other powers. Both Poland and Sweden had governmental systems which were prey to foreign influence, especially though bribery, and ironically the weakness of their governments meant that they were not able to suppress the activities of anti-Russian rebels. The the introduction of Russian troops was expensive, and resented by the natives who saw it as a hostile occupation. The alternative, to support independent governments strong enough to maintain themselves, raised the prospect that pro-Russian governments might become strong enough to no longer need to be pro-Russian, especially when it represented a domestic liability.

Catherine the Great's efforts at both approaches - greater direct intervention and reform under the aegis of a pro-Russian figure - in the 1760s backfired spectacularly, and ironically led to the first partition of Poland and an experiment in direct Russian rule. Initially, Catherine tried to buttress Poland's independence, intervening militarily to ensure the election of the first native Polish king in 67 years in 1764, her former lover Stanislas Poniatowski. Under pressure from Catherine, Poniatowski introduced a number of reforms, many of which promised to strengthen the state, but the sticking point of which was religious toleration for Protestants and Orthodox citizens who would now be allowed to hold office. These reforms could only be accomplished through Russian military coercion, and the result was to trigger a rebellion by the Confederacy of Bar that rapidly received support from France, Austria, and the Ottoman empire which looked to undermine Russian influence in Poland. Not only did Russia have to pour tens of thousands of troops into Poland to fight the rebels who could always seek refuge within Austria or Prussia, but in 1768 Turkey declared war, and France sent officers to train the rebel forces. Even Poniatowski, rather than backing Russia, saw the conflict as an opportunity to shake off Russian control. From the Russian perspective, tens of thousands of troops had been poured into Poland since 1764 along with untold amounts of money in order to keep in power a government that not only could not govern, but actively was intriguing against Russia. Russia's efforts to assert greater influence in Polish internal affairs has produced exactly the opposite outcome. The country was in arms, the fighting had drawn in neighboring powers, and by 1771 had even provided a pretext for Austrian and Prussian forces to occupy Polish territory under the guise of protecting their own domains from contagion. Russia's own proxies were discredited, not to mention alienated enough to be intriguing openly not just with foreign courts but with the rebel Confederates. Prussia and Austria, on whose division Russian influence in Germany depended were suddenly cooperating, and somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 Russian troops were busy chasing insurgents across the giant Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

To Polish nationalists, and even some international observers, the situation looked dangerous for Russia, and the Confederates appeared to be successfully undermining Russian influence in Poland. But in reality, it was Russia's policy of indirect rule in Poland, practiced since 1717 which had been undermined, not the balance of power between Warsaw and St. Petersburg. What looked like an opportunity for the Poles actually undermined their utility to Russia without in anyway providing them any further strength. While they could prevent the Russians from maintaining order, or make doing so costly, they could not defeat the Russians in the field or even resist an invasion, and even their trouble-making power was dependent on the support they received from Prussia and Austria. Any actual ability to assert independence from Russia and to embark on an anti-Russian policy would require either Austria or Prussia, and given the complexities of German politics, in practice both, to be willing to go to war with Russia on behalf of an unstable and indefensible Polish state.

While Austria and Prussia might enjoy seeing Russia discomforted in Poland, their goal was to prove their own indispensability to Russia's security, not to perform charity for Poland. Both hated the other more than Russia, and a Prusso-Russian alliance against Austria or a Austro-Russian alliance against Prussia presented a much more winnable war than a joint offensive against Russia on behalf of Poland, which was likely to sputter out in the Russian winter. Without an army, the only thing Poland could offer was territory, and Russia too could offer Polish territory, and do so without the added burden of having to fight a general war. Hence the Poles, convinced that their guerrilla war was bleeding Russia dry, and that they enjoyed the tacit moral support of Vienna and Berlin suddenly discovered that the Russians preferred to cut a deal with the other two powers over their heads. Unable to dominate a semi-autonomous Poland, Russia invited the German powers into partnership to divvy up the region.

Poland, ironically was to make the exact same mistake twice within 20 years. In 1788 Russia again found itself at war with Turkey. It again faced discontent in Poland, which again was stirred up by the governments of Austria and Prussia which wished to place pressure on Russia rather than to help Poland. Prussia went so far as to offer Poland an alliance in 1790, and blindly counting on that support, reformed its constitution, expelled Russian troops, and adopted an anti-Russian policy, only to find itself invaded in 1792, and its erstwhile ally Prussia joining in the feast the following year.

Ultimately, the partition illustrated a truism about the security of small states on Russia's borders. At most they have nuisance making power, and the extent of that power itself is dependent on Russia's inability to exercise its overwhelming advantage in force, either to wipe them off the map, as it did to the Baltic states in 1940, or to show that it could do if anti-Russian policies continued, as it did with Georgia in 2008. Georgia was able to sponsor insurgencies within Russian "protected" regions of South Ossetia and Akhbazia because the Georgian government was convinced that the fact that the US encouraged such policies, both by providing arms and training, and by holding out the prospect of NATO membership, meant that Russia could not actually invade Georgia itself. Ultimately, however, this was as ephemeral as Prusso-Austrian sympathy for Poland in the 1770s. The United States clearly supported Georgia's anti-Russian actions, because they made America a player in Russia's backyard, and put pressure on Moscow to include the United States in any efforts to settle conflicts in the region. But when it came down to it, the United States was using Georgia, and was never likely to incur substantial costs to defend Georgia. As Russia was  not likely to invade anyone if such invasions could be repulsed at almost no cost by foreign powers, any such implied promises were only operative as long as Russia was too weak for them to ever need to be invoked. While the costs of ignoring explicit promises such as Article 5 protection to the Baltic states would be higher, it is worth noting that Ukraine also never received any concrete promises of support whatsoever from anyone, only "encouragement".

For Russia, they illustrated the second approach to security. Having failed to maintain an independent Poland as a cost efficient buffer, Russia decided that the only way to ensure that it would not be hostile would be to rule it directly. In this, Russia failed miserably. The Poles revolted repeatedly, and from the Polish territories revolutionary ideas spread throughout the Russian empire. Russia had virtually no Jewish population in 1772. It is a testament to the consequences of partition that many of the social conflicts most identified with Russia before the revolution came from the effort to govern those territories. Furthermore, even from a security standpoint, it made Russia more, not less vulnerable. A weak, nominally neutral Poland had made Russia invulnerable to attack in the 1700s. While Russian armies legally could pass Poland, for the Austrians or Prussians to do so would have constituted an invasion. Russia was to lack this luxury in the 19th century when it faced first an invasion by Napoleon, then by the British and French into the Crimea, another semi-independent satellite Russia had annexed after finding it unmanageable in 1783.

Both approaches were tried by the Soviet Union, which in the 1930s saw the Baltic states and Finland draw closer to Germany out of fear of Moscow, and after World War II when the decision to establish satellite states created not just an economic drain, but the undying enmity of millions of East Europeans who had to be kept down. The decision to pull out of Eastern Europe in 1989 was made for economic reasons, but also based upon political hopes. There was an expectation, or at least a hope in Moscow that what the Soviet Union was doing was not handing Eastern Europe over to NATO but neutralizing it. Gorbachev even thought he had secured agreement from George Bush not just to delay German reunification but to keep a united Germany out of NATO, much less admit former Warsaw pact members. But this agreement broke down even before the Soviet Union did. George Bush could afford to live with a neutral East Germany, but the East Germans themselves could not. Having just escaped from the Soviet embrace, remaining separate from West Germany and outside NATO meant that there was nothing to stop the Soviets from coming back any time. Only by joining West Germany, could they ensure there was no going back. Hence the very effort to keep East Germany neutral spurred reunification, and once the East Germans made clear their desire, it was impossible for any West German government to resist them. At which point the only option the US would have had would have been to expel Germany from NATO, which politically would have been too costly.

At the time there was little the Soviets could do. The Soviet Union itself was breaking up. The Baltic states, never reconciled to Soviet rule wanted to secede, and even Russian nationalists saw little justification for keeping them. But in the long-run, the handling of the East German issue provided a precedent which ensured the failure of Gorbachev's policy from a Russian perspective. Russia had established an empire in Eastern Europe at enormous economic and political expense because Soviet leaders believed that independent states in the region would inherently become anti-Russian. East Germany, by promptly joining West Germany and NATO within less than a year of leaving the Warsaw pact arguably vindicated this view. And if East Germany did not, the decision to admit first Poland, and then the Baltic states reinforced the view expressed by Jakub Berman, the Polish Communist secret police chief that there was no possible existence for a neutral Poland. It would either be anti-Russian or pro-Russian.

The conflicts in Georgia and the Ukraine have to be understood in this context. It is not Russia which has insisted that elections and political struggles between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces in Eastern European countries have to be zero-sum, but rather those countries themselves, and arguably the West. For the complaints that Russia launched aggression against Georgia to "punish" it for seeking to join NATO, one must recall that the experience of Russia on the previous two dozen occasions when no intervention took place was to find former territories part of a hostile alliance. It is also worth asking how the United States would react to Soviet efforts to add an independent, seceded Texas to the Warsaw pact. In effect, the lesson has been sent to Moscow that if it does not respond to events, like those which took place in Kiev in February of 2014, then it will find itself facing a Ukraine in NATO.

That said, Russian history also provides context for viewing the conflict in the Ukraine. Ukraine's revolution in 2014 bares more than a passing resemblance to that of the Confederacy of the Bar in Poland in the 1760s, or to Poland's efforts to break free of Russia in the 1790s. The West clearly did not care for Viktor Yanukovych, and clearly desired to see an end to Russian influence in the Ukraine. But while the Ukrainians tragically as not just a prospect of EU membership, but as signs of a Western willingness to fight for Ukraine, that could not be further from the truth. It is doubtful if Germany and other EU states would even want the Ukraine in the EU with Russia's blessing. Given the degree to which low-wage migration from Romania and Bulgaria has led to the rise of Euroskepticism, and Greece's difficulties have undermined the European economy, it is almost inconceivable the EU would want to take on an economic basket case of 50 million. And there is almost zero chance they would risk the serious economic damage of a confrontation with Russia, much less the unknowable catastrophe of an open conflict. For the EU, and especially Germany, it was always going to make more sense to come to a deal with Russia, likely on the basis of a neutral Ukraine barred from EU or NATO membership, than  to fight a war to enable an unwanted outcome. The same, to a lesser extent is true of the United States which has too many interests elsewhere. It enjoyed seeing Russia discomforted. It has no real interest in the venue.

Russian "expansionism" then has to be understood not in terms of territorial ambitions, but on setting territorial limits. The United States and EU have made clear they will continue pushing until Russia pushes back, at which point they will howl, express outrage, mobilize a few thousand rapid reaction troops, and then ultimately deal at the expense of the buffer states. Russia's moves in the Ukraine have not been about a desire for Donetsk or the Crimea, but more generally about setting limits to Western influence in the Ukraine, a task at which Moscow has by and large succeeded at, much as its intervention in Georgia in 2008 ended NATO's expansion into the Caucuses. Putin may have come off looking like an "aggressor", but Georgia rapidly threw out its pro-American government and came to an accommodation, one that involved no further talk of NATO accession, and Ukraine, bankrupt, with no prospect of military support, and with a pro-Western political class rapidly discrediting themselves through corruption will almost certainly follow suit. Russia may make further moves, but if so, it will be because they are necessary to accomplish traditional Russian objectives, not because Putin is manhandling his globe while laughing maniacally.


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