Staunton, July 22 – Like his various predecessors over the last century, Russian President Vladimir Putin is leading his country into yet another period of imperial collapse by his counterproductive efforts to save or even restore that imperial state, according to the editors of Azerbaijan’s Minval.az weekly.
In an introduction to a special issue of that news magazine entitled “Putin: From Euphoria to Reality” released today, the editors argue that Russia has passed through three stages of imperial decay over the past century, is now thanks to Putin in the fourth, and will soon enter its final fifth stage (minval.az/news/56787).
As many have pointed out before, the Russian Empire was fundamentally different than its European counterparts, and consequently, its demise has been different than theirs. Unlike the European countries which acquired and then gave up empires abroad, Russia expanded its empire contiguously and has had far more difficulty in dealing with its collapse.
The result has been, the editors of Minval say, that the demise of the Russian empire has spread over a century and “is at risk of lasting several more decades.” According to their enumeration, Russia and its neighbors will before the final demise of the empire pass through five stages.
The first stage began with the start of World War I and culminated with the 1917 revolution and the succeeding civil war. The Bolsheviks won that and succeeded in retaining most of the empire because they, unlike their opponents, “understood the necessity of a compromise with the national borderlands who were striving for self-determination.”
“The new empire, the Soviet Union, appeared as a union of nominally independent states, although real power in this modernized empire was the communist party apparatus and the nomenklatura.” But despite that, the ideological basis of the state contained within it a delayed action mine that ultimately destroyed it.
The second stage began with the death of this ideology in 1991 and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. “For [Azerbaijan] and Ukraine,” the weekly says, the CIS became an instrument for a civilized divorce, [but] for the Kremlin it was the hope for the restoration of the empire in a new form.”
Moscow devoted enormous efforts to “convert the new independent states into real satellites of Russia,” a process the Russian center hoped would allow it to form “a new empire.” But the process of state formation in the region went its own and very different way, and Moscow’s clumsy efforts to reverse that, as in Georgia in 2008, only accelerated that process.
The third stage of Russian imperial dissolution began, the Baku editors say, with Putin’s annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of a new war in eastern Ukraine. Those actions “have led to a sharp and final division of Russia,” on the one hand, and Ukraine, “the chief figure of any of [Russia’s] imperial and neo-imperial projects.”
In the hopes of rebuilding the empire, Putin has finally and irreversibly put Russia at odds “with its neighbors and the civilized world” and made his country “an unattractive model for the non-Russian republics of Russia and regions of Siberia and the Far East.” Their moves toward the exit from empire marks the beginning of the fourth stage.
During the fourth stage, the Minval editors say, several states of both a national and a “quasi-imperial” type will appear and then come together for the establishment of a new Russian commonwealth “which will recall that of the already existing British Commonwealth” rather than the Commonwealth of Independent States.
But despite those centrifugal forces, “the Russian Peoples Republic with a capital in Moscow will preserve in this commonwealth the dominant position and attempt to transform it into a new federative state.” Fearful of what nuclear weapons in this state could mean, the international community will insist on “the establishment of a nuclear free zone on the territory of the countries of the Commonwealth.”
And the fifth stage of imperial decay will begin when “one after another” of the members of this new Commonwealth leave it to go their own ways. “An effort by the Russian Peoples Republic to interfere with that process by provoking internal conflicts in Tatarstan and Sakha will lead to its military defeat and temporary isolation,” the editors say.
After a period of chaos, genuinely democratic groups will come to power in the Russian Peoples Republic and seek membership in the European Union and NATO, Minval suggests, membership that will become possible when Moscow recognizes the independence of the Far Eastern Republic and the Democratic Republic of Siberia.
With those steps, “the history of the Russian empire will finally approach its end, and many residents of the post-Russian space will view neighboring Ukraine as its successor.” Indeed, the editors say, this could lead to the realization of the dream of the by-then “half-forgotten second president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.”
That could come into existence by an agreement between Ukraine, the Kuban Republic, and the South Russian Republic to form a federal state.
Minval’s description of what has happened up to now is extremely accurate, but its suggestions about the future may prove fanciful, although they too are very suggestive. Indeed, even if the editors’ specifics are wrong, their conceptualization of the process of the approaching end of the Russian empire points to three important conclusions.
First, each stage of imperial decay has been triggered by an effort to restore or expand the empire rather than by those who want to leave it. Second, the empire’s demise has been slowed when Moscow is willing to compromise rather than when it seeks to impose its own way. And third, the decay of the Russian empire has not ended but only entered a new phase.