Russia Is Not Prepared to Restore the Empire
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

When the Baltic
countries entered NATO and the European Union a couple of years
ago, many thought it was the end of the centuries-old «red line.»
Euro-Atlantic organizations had crossed into the former Russian and
Soviet empires. Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine; pro-European
enthusiasm in Moldova; the reorientation of Central Asia,
especially Uzbekistan, to a more pro-Western stance; Kazakhstan’s
quick transformation into a regional power: it seemed that Russia
had lost its exclusive sphere of influence, and that «geopolitical
pluralism» had won out across the former Soviet Union. It seemed
that the empire could never again be rebuilt as it was just five
years after the 1917 Revolution.

international system at the start of the 21st century is unstable,
however, and what seems irreversible might not prove to be so. If
two or three years ago the prospect of Russia once more
establishing its «historical» borders seemed unrealistic, today it
doesn’t pay to be so unequivocal. And it isn’t just a matter of an
economically strengthened Russia feeling a rush of self-confidence.
If external circumstances conspire, Moscow could be drawn into the
big game of empire building against its will.

Imagine a
scenario which, sadly, is all too probable. The United States
ultimately fails in Iraq and is compelled to leave the country in
short order, without worrying about the consequences for the
region. Revenge and the struggle to divide up the country’s
resources would make internecine war inevitable. The country would
most likely break into three parts: the Kurdish state that already
exists de facto; Shiite territory, actually controlled by Tehran;
and the Sunni areas, which could well turn into a version of
Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Both Iran and
Turkey would inevitably be drawn into the conflict as well. The
appearance of a Kurdish state would create an enormous problem for
Ankara. Iran would emerge as a local superpower, and the issue of
nuclear restraint would acquire new significance. At the very
least, Saudi Arabia would perceive Iran as a clear threat,
especially given the increased activity of Shiites across the
Middle East. And all of this would be happening in a situation
where the United States no longer enjoyed any prestige in the
region and it had a limited capacity for influencing events

The chaos in
Iraq and Iran’s increasing authority would also affect Central
Asia. A sense of uncertainty would certainly engulf the region; the
threat of destabilization would grow, and a surge of extremist
activity would be likely. The previously theoretical issue of
security guarantees would assume greater urgency. Who apart from a
weakened Washington could offer such guarantees? Moscow. As a
member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which also
includes Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, Russia
is obligated to make such guarantees.

Add to this the
growing Taliban resistance in Afghanistan and it becomes a remake
of the situation prior to September 2001. At that time Moscow was
concerned about a Taliban breakthrough into northern Afghanistan.
And it is worth considering the Azeri factor. Any significant
change in the balance of power in Iran would create problems for
the Azeri minority, which could have repercussions for Azerbaijan
itself. Today few take the idea of a «greater Azerbaijan»
seriously, but that could change. It is obvious how Armenia — a
military ally of Russia — would react to such

If events in
Iraq spin out of control, Moscow could be forced to resume a major
role in international affairs, not as an «energy superpower,» but
as a participant in the global military balance of power. There
would be a strong temptation for Russia to play the role of patron
to countries that have recently tried to distance themselves from
it and have made advances to its rivals. Moreover, the ideology of
revenge and righting «historical injustices» is a powerful tool in
rallying societies.

The Kremlin’s
current attempts to create a national ideology have been
unsuccessful. On the one hand, its intellectual speculations on the
idea of sovereign democracy are incomprehensible to the public and
not terribly convincing. On the other hand, people feel alienated
and tend to focus on solving their own problems, and for this they
have no real need for ideology. But they will. Politically active
people will eventually recognize the boundless cynicism, greed and
ideological bankruptcy of the current ruling elite, and this will
lead to a rejection of the leadership. Those who succeed the
current elite will have to demonstrate that they are different both
morally and in the breadth of their agenda.

Could this be a
new historic opportunity, and could the rebirth of a truly great
power begin with a return into Central Asia? If so, then the entire
political geography of the former Soviet Union will begin to change
before our eyes.

The situation to
the west of Russia is also somewhat ambiguous, after all. Countries
that apparently made their geopolitical choice find themselves in a
strange position. Ukraine, which surged toward the West in 2004,
ran into the slammed door of the European Union. Brussels was
simply taken aback by Kiev’s eagerness. And recently the EU
officially announced a freeze on expansion. In so doing, the EU
lost its main lever for influencing neighboring countries — the
promise of membership. It was this promise that transformed Central
and Eastern Europe.

There seems to
be more geopolitical pluralism in the former Soviet states than
there actually is. The United States doesn’t have a very good
handle on what is happening, and its hands are bound by other
foreign policy problems. The EU is divided. Russia’s position could
be strengthened not by its own successes, but exclusively by the
difficulties of others.

Despite its
growing self-confidence, however, Russia is not prepared for
expansion. If it is driven in this direction by external factors,
expansion will compromise internal development, as has happened
many times in Russian history. The temptation to engage in
geopolitical «charity work» is great; for some reason this is
always more appealing than solving tedious but pressing problems at

officials have already begun to change their tune. Sergei Rogov,
director of the USA and Canada Institute, said last week that a
NATO failure in Afghanistan could open the way for Russia to return
to regional politics. In discussions of the Caucasus region, some
have begun to argue that in the early 1920s the Red Army brought
peace to the region, which couldn’t live in peace without an
external patron.

After the
breakup of the Soviet Union, the victors in the Cold War set out
zealously to carve up its geopolitical legacy. But they didn’t have
the strength to digest it. Now a newly strengthened Russia is ready
to join the battle for what was lost but has yet to find a new
master. It this happens, the development of Russia will proceed
further along the same old historical spiral.

| The Moscow Times