The Soviet Union is commonly described in the West as the “Soviet empire”—or even the “Russian empire”—and in key respects, this was indeed the case. During the Cold War, Moscow occupied and controlled a collection of states along its periphery, and the historical record of Russia’s expansion through conquest and colonization is abundantly clear. But in neither journalism nor academia has this led to what should have been a logical conclusion when it comes to understanding conflicts in the former Soviet space: Namely, to place these conflicts into the wider context of what happens when empires fall.
Russia is among the world’s most ambitious imperial nations. The dirty secret of the Russian military is that long-conquered subjects are the Kremlin’s cannon fodder.
This lack of interest seems odd, given the Western liberal intelligentsia’s deep concern with imperialism and its critiques. When I covered the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath as a journalist for the Times of London, my prism was shaped by years spent working in South Asia—first as a student of imperial history and then as a journalist. It was, therefore, natural for me to see the disintegration of the Soviet space as a post-imperial process.
The Soviet Union was, of course, a very special case among empires. But that might be said about all of them to a greater or lesser extent. Huge differences existed between the British, French, and Spanish empires, let alone the Ottomans or the Chinese. A fundamental dividing line, however, cuts across them all: that between land and seaborne empires. Russia was a land empire—and in some respects, remains one in its composition and politics. This has had critical consequences during and after the Soviet collapse, continuing until today.
Notwithstanding the ongoing war in Ukraine and the similarly brutal suppression of the Chechen rebellion, the conflicts and disputes that followed the Soviet collapse have been far from the worst in the history of empires, including relatively recent ones. In every case, without exception, the end of the empire has led to massive violence. In some cases, this occurred during and immediately after the imperial collapse. In others, the violence occurred after several decades had passed. In Ireland, the Middle East, South Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, the consequences of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and British empires—and of the nature of their dissolution—are still working themselves out today, generations later.
The relationship between empire and local conflicts has been a thoroughly ambiguous one, summed up most famously in Tacitus’s epithet about imperial Rome, which the Roman historian placed in the mouth of a British chieftain: Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant—“they make a desert and call it peace.” The creation of empires involves massive violence, sometimes on a genocidal scale. After that, however, the imperial power’s economic and political interests require the maintenance of peace across its territories. The claim to have ended the conflict and brought peace—whether under a Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, or Pax Americana—is also fundamental to its legitimacy and sense of imperial mission.
Yet empires notoriously also freeze, generate, and incubate conflicts. Sometimes this is because imperial rule suspends previous conflicts, as between Hindus and Muslims in British India or Armenians and Azeris under the tsars and Soviets. Sometimes the source of conflict is the empire’s creation of completely new states or states with new borders—such as Iraq in the Middle East—that lump together different ethnicities that had never previously lived in the same polity, divide a people among neighboring states, or force ancient enemies under one roof, as in the former Yugoslavia and many African nations. This leads not only to civil conflicts but sometimes to wars between successor states—as in Kashmir, the former Yugoslavia, and Ukraine—as successor states fight to redraw borders by their version of ethnic or ethnoreligious legitimacy.
Sometimes bitter resentment is the result of mass migration set off by imperial economic development or targeted colonization: English and Scots to Ireland, Chinese to the East Indies, Indians to Fiji and the West Indies, Tamils to what is now Sri Lanka, Georgians to Abkhazia, Russians to the Baltic republics and parts of Ukraine. Nowhere have the results been free of serious tension.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to understand Russian intentions—and what is at stake in the Ukraine war—is the significant divergence between how external observers see events and how the Kremlin views them. Things that appear obvious to some, such as Russia’s incapacity to achieve a military victory, are perceived completely differently in Moscow. The fact is that most of today’s discussions over how to help Ukraine win on the battlefield, coerce Kyiv into concessions, or allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to save face have little in common with reality.
Here I will debunk five common assumptions about how Putin sees this war. The West needs to look at the situation differently if it wants to be more effective in its approach and decrease the risks of escalation.
Assumption 1: Putin knows he is losing.
This stems from the mistaken idea that Russia’s main goal is to seize control of large parts of Ukraine—and therefore, when the Russian military performs badly, fails to advance, or even retreats, this amounts to failure. However, Putin’s main goals in this war have never been to acquire pieces of territory; rather, he wants to destroy Ukraine in what he calls an “anti-Russia” project and stop the West from using Ukrainian territory as a bridgehead for anti-Russian geopolitical activities. As a result, Russia does not see itself as failing. Ukraine will not join NATO nor be able to exist peacefully without considering Russian demands on Russification (or “denazification” in Russian propaganda-speak) and “de-NATOfication” (known as “demilitarization” in Russian propaganda terms)—meaning a halt to any military cooperation with NATO. To follow these goals, Russia must sustain its military presence on Ukrainian territory and keep attacking Ukrainian infrastructure. There is no need for major territorial gains or taking Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital (even if he initially dreamt about it). Even the annexation of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which Moscow sees as only a matter of time, is an auxiliary, local goal to make Ukraine pay for incorrect, pro-Western geopolitical choices over the last two decades. In Putin’s eyes, he is not losing this war. In fact, he likely believes he is winning and is happy to wait until Ukraine concedes that Russia is here forever.
Assumption 2: The West should find a way to help Putin save face, thus decreasing the risks of further, possibly nuclear, escalation.
Imagine a situation where Ukraine accepts most of Russia’s demands: It recognizes Crimea as Russian and the Donbas as independent, commits to a slimmed-down army, and promises never to join NATO. Will that end the conflict? Even if, to many, the answer appears to be an obvious “yes,” they are incorrect. Russia may be locked in a battle with Ukraine, but
geopolitically, it sees itself as waging war against the West on Ukrainian territory. In the Kremlin, Ukraine is seen as an anti-Russian weapon in Western hands—and destroying it will not automatically lead to Russia’s victory in this anti-Western geopolitical game. For Putin, this war is not between Russia and Ukraine—and Ukrainian leadership is not an independent actor but a Western tool that must be neutralized.
So, whatever concessions Ukraine could make (regardless of how politically realistic they may be), Putin will continue escalating the war until the West changes its approach to the so-called Russian problem and admits that—as Putin sees it—the roots of Russian aggression are the result of Washington ignoring Russian geopolitical concerns for 30 years. This has been Putin’s real objective for a long time and remains unchanged. Unrealistic Russian demands rejected by Kyiv are a way for the Kremlin to increase the stakes in a Russia-West confrontation, testing the West’s ability to stay united and consistent. The West today is looking at the problem in the wrong light: In seeking to stop Russia’s war, it focuses on Moscow’s artificial pretexts for its invasion of Ukraine and overlooks Putin’s obsession with the so-called Western threat as well as his readiness to use escalation to coerce the West into a dialogue on Russian terms. Ukraine is only a hostage.
Assumption 3: Putin is not only losing militarily but also domestically, and the political situation in Russia is such that Putin could soon face a coup.
The opposite is the case, at least for the moment. The Russian elite has become so worried about guaranteeing political stability and avoiding protests that they have consolidated around Putin as the only leader able to firm up the political system and prevent disorder. The elite are politically impotent, scared, and vulnerable—including those portrayed in Western media as warmongers and hawks. To make a move against Putin today is tantamount to suicide unless Putin starts to lose his ability to rule (physically or mentally). The regime stands firm despite new splits and cracks within the ranks and unhappiness with Putin’s policies. The main threat to Putin is Putin himself. Although time may be against him, the waking up of the elite is a process that will take much longer than many people expect.
It will depend on how to present Putin remains in day-to-day government.