Staunton, January 16 – Russia’s existential problem, a Moscow commentator says, is that “Russia can be an empire without Ukraine, but without Ukraine, it will not be able to remain Russia,” an underlying reality that drives the Kremlin’s efforts to prevent Ukraine from being truly independent and part of Europe.
Were Ukraine to leave the Russian orbit, Moscow could still construct an empire in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Aleksandr Vasiliyev writes; but that empire, because such a large part of it would be Islamic, would ultimately destroy Russia as an Orthodox civilization especially given the increasing number of Muslims in Russia itself (rus-obr.ru/ru-web/28934).
A Moscow-dominated empire of that kind could still be a very powerful entity, despite suggestions to the contrary by writers from Otto von Bismarck to Zbigniew Brzezinski, but it would not be Russia in anything like its current sense, a historical sea change that sparks fears among many Russians.
These reflections, Vasiliyev writes in “Russkoye obozreniye,” are prompted less by von Bismarck’s writings than by Brzezinski’s observation that “without Ukraine Russia will cease to be an empire” but with it “Russia will automatically become an empire,” an observation many cite and accept without looking at the historical record or considering the current situation.
It is certainly true that the absorption of Ukraine allowed Russia’s rulers to extend their borders to the south and west, but these actions “did not produce an ‘automatic transformation’” of Russia into an empire. Instead, Vasiliyev argues, “the key factor” was the opening to Europe with the establishment of St. Petersburg.
(It is worth remembering, the Moscow commentator says, that under Catherine the Great, Prince Potemkin pushed for shifting the capital to the south to Yekaterinoslav and found some support for that idea. “It is difficult to say what Russia’s fate would have been” had that choice been made, Vasiliyev continues.)
“In any case,” he says, “the main thing in the Russian imperial project was not Ukraine but rather an orientation toward stormily developing Europe.”
Today, any suggestions that the Kremlin wants “to swallow Ukraine whole or in part” are “exaggerated” and certainly not necessary for the Russian state to build a new empire across Eurasia. What matters in this case, however, is something else, Vasiliyev suggests, something not limited to Ukraine as a consumer or pipeline route west.
“Geopolitically,” he says, even “with the loss of Ukraine and the Baltics, Russia has preserved its way out to the seas,” something that helps explain why Moscow has chosen to build pipelines bypassing the two rather than assuming it had no choice but to build them through those countries.
In the coming century, however, Russia will be increasingly focusing on Asia, and Vasiliyev expresses the hope that “the city of Vladivostok [which means ‘ruler of the east’ in Russian] will live up to its name with new and real content.”
But at the same time, “Russia is experiencing objective and extremely sharp social problems as a result of the mass migration of people from Central Asia and the Caucasus,” a trend that is challenging the existing ethnic balance inside the Russian Federation. And it is here that Ukraine matters in a Russia-led Eurasia.
“Russia without Ukraine undoubtedly will again be able to become an empire,” Vasiliyev concludes, but if it does so without Ukraine being a part of that entity, Russia will hardly be able to remain Russia” but rather become something unrecognizable to its own titular nation and to everyone else.