The Inevitable Fall of Putin’s New Russian Empire

Foreign Policy, 05.11.2023
Alexander J. Motyl, a profesor de ciencia política (Rutgers University-Newark)
  • What history tells us about collapsed empires trying to restore their former possessions

The Russian Federation is the product of the Soviet empire’s collapse, just as the Soviet Union was the product of imperial Russia’s collapse. Looking at the long history of empires, it’s not at all surprising that today’s Russia has embarked on a project of re-imperialization—the attempt to recreate as much of its former empire as it can. Equally unsurprisingly, Russia’s effort will fail.

The vast majority of seemingly stable empires decay over time until all that is left is the imperial center. The Byzantine and Ottoman empires are perfect examples of this dynamic: Each lost more and more territory until all that remained of the former was greater Constantinople and of the latter the lands that became Turkey. Neither rump state attempted to re-imperialize. The same was true of the European overseas colonial empires: The British withdrew from most of their possessions more or less voluntarily and without firing too many shots, whereas the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish tried harder to hang on but lost to national liberation movements. All subsequently refrained from re-imperialization.

Russia falls into a different, more volatile category of imperial decline. At the height of their power, some empires fall apart suddenly and comprehensively, usually as the result of cataclysms that rip apart the formal ties between core and periphery. Imperial Russia, Wilhelmine Germany, and the Soviet Union all met this fate. Up to the moment of sudden collapse, the structural and institutional ties between the core and periphery were still vibrant. More importantly, the imperial ideology remained alive and well after the collapse, leading to attempts by the imperial center’s elites to recreate all or parts of their former empires.

Thus, the Bolsheviks—who never concealed their desire (and supposed right) to reconquer all of the Russian Empire’s territories, which even Vladimir Lenin rejected as Russian imperial chauvinism—recreated the empire in the form of the Soviet Union, brutally snuffing out more than a dozen newly independent states who’d seized the chaos as an opportunity to escape Russia’s colonial grip. The Nazis, on the other hand, tried but failed to regain Germany’s lost lands and build an even bigger Reich.

Success or failure of re-imperialization generally depends on the balance of power among the core, periphery, and any intervening states. The Bolsheviks were militarily and economically stronger than most of their neighbors and could revive the Russian Empire. The Nazis took on too many opponents and failed. Here, post-Soviet Russia’s trajectory is highly similar to interwar Germany’s: The German collapse in 1918 and Soviet collapse in 1991 were followed in each case by economic chaos, the delegitimization of a new democracy, and the mobilization of radical forces, which in turn gave rise to a strong leader who revitalized the imperial ideology, promised to restore the empire, and proceeded to annex bits and pieces of the former empire before launching a full-scale war.

Two other empires are illustrative, even though they fit the pattern of sudden collapse and re-imperialization only imperfectly. Although Poles lacked an autonomous state after the last of three partitions in 1795, the imperial ideology of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth thrived, motivating Polish elites to attempt to reestablish the commonwealth in several unsuccessful rebellions in the 1800s. As soon as Polish independence was restored after World War I, the new state set off to reconquer some of the formerly imperial Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian territories. Enjoying the support of the Entente powers, and especially France, the Poles succeeded. Only a cataclysmic defeat by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union finally ended Polish imperial dreams.

Austria-Hungary was torn to pieces in a catastrophic defeat but did not attempt to re-imperialize like the other cases in this category. The empire had been irreversibly decaying for half a century. The Hungarians—and later, the Czechs and Poles, assisted by the national movements of other restive nationalities—succeeded in getting Vienna to devolve authority to them to such a degree that leading Austro-Hungarian policymakers even discussed transforming the empire into a federation of semi-autonomous states. Defeat in World War I severed Vienna’s ties with its periphery, much of which immediately sought independence. Austria made no attempt to re-imperialize, as it lacked a virulent imperial ideology, powerful army, and strong economy. Its government was also in disarray. Likewise, Hungarian elites had no imperial plans, confining their ambitions to revanchism over Hungarian territories given by the Western Allies to Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

Russia’s career as an empire—in the forms of imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation—began in the 14th century with the relentless expansion of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, reached its totalitarian apex in the 20th century with the subjugation of Central and Eastern Europe, and went into steep decline around 1990, when the Eastern European satellite states broke free and the non-Russian Soviet republics became independent. Even in its diminished form, the Russian Federation—first quasi-democratic, then authoritarian, today fascist—is the heir to a vast internal empire, with dozens of conquered and colonized non-Russian peoples still imprisoned inside its borders.

The political scientist Rein Taagepera graphed the territorial gains and losses of past empires. Not surprisingly, the graphs resemble parabolas: Empires rise, persist, and then fall. Equally unsurprisingly, empires that manage to survive into the persistence phase generally last for centuries. Those that fall quickly usually do so after their founders enjoyed rapid military success and then die, which throws the nascent empire into crisis. Alexander the Great’s sprawling, unconsolidated realm is the classic example of this dynamic.

Some wide, some narrow, the parabolas are never smooth—not even in the seemingly stable persistence phase. Instead, they resemble the movement of the stock market: constant ups and downs that, when viewed over time, do in fact mark upward or downward trends. At times, empires can end temporarily before being revived, as was the case with Byzantium after the Fourth Crusade in 1204. It took several decades for the Byzantine emperors to regain what was left of their terrain. Imperial Russia collapsed near the end of World War I, only to be quickly revived by the Bolsheviks. In turn, the Soviet Union met its end in 1991 and has yet to be resurrected—though not for want of trying. Russian troops occupy parts of Moldova, Georgia, and, of course, Ukraine. Belarus, meanwhile, has been progressively sucked into Russia to the point that it nominally still exists but is largely bereft of sovereignty, having been reduced to a cross between a vassal state and colony.

The question facing Russians, their neighbors, and the world is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s realm can succeed in holding on to, and possibly expanding, the territories that it has effectively seized. Or will the Russo-Soviet empire’s remains continue on their downward trajectory until the Russian Federation itself cracks? A look at the factors that have accounted for the rise and fall of other empires will help answer this question.

Necessary conditions for re-imperialization are a powerful military, a strong economy, and an effective government. Facilitating conditions include preexisting institutional ties between the imperial core and the periphery, outside powers that are either indifferent or receptive to imperial expansion, and authoritarian rule at the core. The final push to action is an imperial ideology that spurs the desire for empire.

But consider what happens to a would-be reborn empire if the three necessary conditions are not met—even if the facilitating factors and an imperial ideology are present. If expansion is attempted without a sufficiently strong military and an economy capable of sustaining it, the result will be overreach and failure. Without an effective government, the sustained effort needed for expansion cannot be maintained. Overextension and defeat—and quite possibly regime change or state collapse—become probable.

A few examples from history will illustrate Russia’s inevitable failure to re-imperialize. Western Rome didn’t meet the three conditions, decaying and finally collapsing in the face of declining military effectiveness, an economy incapable of producing a sustainable surplus while under incessant barbarian attacks, and increasingly ineffective governance. The empire’s eastern half was distant from the main barbarian invasion routes, but there were other reasons it survived for another 1,000 years. Except for Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s reconquest of significant territories in the 6th century—territories quickly lost again after his death—the eastern empire refrained from trying to reach its old boundaries. That would have required taking on militarily stronger adversaries, including the Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Bulgars, and Rus’. No less importantly, Byzantium was continually wracked by internal power struggles and lacked an aggressive imperial ideology, preferring to see itself as the bearer of Orthodox Christianity. Byzantium therefore managed its remaining possessions and mostly refrained from overreach. As a result, its decline took many centuries.

Post-Ottoman Turkey refrained from re-imperialization because its ideology had shifted from allegiance to the empire to allegiance to the nation-state. Kemal Ataturk ethnically cleansed Asia Minor of the Greek population, but he avoided expanding Turkey’s boundaries to include Greece, focusing instead on relocating Turks from the former empire into the new country. Strong outside powers also hemmed in the new state.

The European overseas colonial powers all shared an imperial ideology as they expanded, but they abandoned it as they faced their own military and economic weaknesses following two world wars, national liberation struggles, and the international community’s growing condemnation. They didn’t all abandon their empires without a fight, but neither did they attempt to revive them.

Post-World War I Germany retained the aggressively imperial Weltmacht ideology that had motivated Emperor Wilhelm II’s expansionist policies. Despite the post-war economic collapse, the economy quickly revived after the Nazis took power in 1933. Adolf Hitler also revived the military and established a powerful government. With the necessary conditions and ideology in place, Nazi Germany unsurprisingly embarked on re-imperialization. It might have succeeded had Hitler confined his ambitions to the large swaths of Europe he controlled by 1941. After invading the Soviet Union and declaring war on the United States, however, he created a power imbalance that made defeat inevitable.

Like Nazi Germany, the Russian Federation will fail to re-imperialize. Its military is demonstrably mediocre, its economy is about as big as that of Italy or Texas, and its governance has become increasingly ineffective and unstable as elites begin to jockey for power in what they view as the rapidly approaching post-Putin era. The immediate future could be even worse, especially if the regime remains guided by the whims of a single autocrat and continues to discourage technological innovation and economic growth.

In a word, Russia’s imperial aspirations are dead, even if the Kremlin thinks otherwise. And the man who presided over their destruction is Putin. Could things have worked out differently for Russia? Could Russia have resisted the re-imperialization temptation? Given the vitality of its imperial ideology and the strength of its institutional and economic ties with the former Soviet republics and, at least until recently, the former Eastern Bloc states, the answer is probably no.

What should the West do? Since the Russian Federation’s re-imperialization project is doomed, all that anyone can realistically do is prolong or hasten the process, not stop it. Prolonging it means prolonging the misery incurred by the non-Russians targeted for re-annexation and by the Russians tasked with bringing misery to these targets. Anything that hastens re-imperialization’s inevitable end would reduce death and destruction.

Specifically, because the history of empires leads us to expect Russian imperialism’s demise, it makes sense for the West to take a page from the philosopher Karl Marx and “hasten the birth pangs of history.” Fortunately for the West, whose attention is currently taken up by the crisis in the Middle East, the United States and its allies only need to do a bit more than what they are already doing: supporting Ukraine in liberating its territories from Russian occupation by providing it with the weapons it needs—rather sooner than later. Should the West continue to slow-roll military deliveries—or even decrease them—it will only prolong an inevitable process and increase the suffering. Either way, Russian re-imperialization is destined to fail.

Since Putin has thrown all his resources and political capital at the war against Ukraine, stopping him there means stopping him and his re-imperialization project everywhere. As much as defeat will induce some in the Russian elite and general population to reconsider questions of empire, there is, alas, no reason to believe that Russia’s imperial ideology will meet a quick end. Rather, it will be long-term decay that guarantees that outcome. Russia will become a more or less normal, non-imperial nation-state only if it continues to lose territory it has occupied, and not just in Ukraine—a prospect that seems perfectly possible if Russia loses in Ukraine, the Putin regime collapses, and Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, and even some of the non-Russian peoples in the Russian Federation decide to escape the resulting chaos by retaking their occupied territories or otherwise cutting ties with Moscow. In the absence of defeat, a militarily and economically weak and misgoverned Russia will remain in thrall to the ideology and attempt, yet again, to re-imperialize—all but certainly with the same results: failure, death, and destruction.

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