In a provocative March 27 column in the Financial Times entitled “Brexit and Imperial Amnesia,” Gideon Rachman chided the English for, as one reader put it, “a serious misunderstanding of [Britain’s] oppressive imperial past.” Aside from generating a lively and entertaining discussion of the issue, Rachman’s piece gave me a framework for understanding an even more remarkable article I had just read in the March 17 edition of Nezavisimaya gazeta. It was entitled “Главное—не повторять ошибки” (“The main thing is not to repeat mistakes”) and was penned by Aleksandr Khramchikhin, the Deputy Director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.
The “mistakes” referenced in the title are what Khramchikhin considers to be glaring historical errors committed by Russia (including in its Soviet incarnation) to the country’s long-term detriment. Interestingly, his list of faux pas does not include such tragic episodes as the deportation of the Circassians, the suppression of Polish independence, Stalin’s excesses, or the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. No, Russia’s grievous historical mistakes arose precisely from an excess of generosity and the consequent failure to exploit opportunities. Examples of this foolhardy Russian restraint include the following:
- During the Seven Years’ War Russia occupied East Prussia in 1758 and was poised to knock Frederick the Great’s Prussia completely out of the ranks of major European powers. However, the Czar who assumed the Russian throne in 1762, Peter III, idolized Frederick and pulled his country out of the anti-Prussian coalition, abandoning East Prussia. Khramchikhin regrets that Russia missed a golden opportunity to prevent or hobble German unification and avert World War I. Alternatively, if the war had occurred in some form anyway, the former East Prussia would have already been a Russian province, and Russian troops would have had a short and easy march from there to Berlin.
- Per Khramchikhin, in 1833 a Russian show of force saved the Ottoman Sultan from his rebellious vassal, the Egyptian Pasha Muhammad Ali. Rather than sparing Russia’s traditional Ottoman antagonist, posits Khramchikhin, Russia should have exploited the Turks’ weakness to seize all of European Turkey and a hefty chunk of Anatolia, “leaving the rest to the Egyptians.”
- Similarly, in 1848 Russia saved the Austrian Empire by quashing the Hungarian uprising. Russia could instead have used the occasion to annex Austria’s Ukrainian-inhabited territories of Galicia and Bukovina (“which were not then Russophobic like now, but completely pro-Russian”), or could have demanded them as payment from Vienna for services rendered.
- As the Communists seized power in China in the late 1940s, Stalin shortsightedly handed over to them the nominally Chinese but Soviet-controlled province of Xinjiang, which “sought at a minimum independence, and at a maximum incorporation into the USSR.” Even more regrettably, believes Khramchikhin, Stalin failed to pursue a “Korean scenario” that would have divided mainland China more or less equally between “reds” and “whites,” creating a permanent standoff that would have precluded any Chinese “external expansion.”
In a recent essay, the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov commented on the mindset of Russians convinced that “ice ages in Russia’s history—periods when cold-blooded leaders ruled with an iron fist—were good for the country. Thaws—periods of democratization and modernization—were bad, characterized by disruption and violence.” Khramchikhin’s essay suggests a foreign-policy corollary to this rule: The territorial expansion of the Russian state has always and everywhere been an unqualified good, and failures to expand are to be deplored.
It is always curious, to say the least, to hear Russians—whose country has been the largest in the world since at least the conquest of Siberia in the 16th century—complain about the quirks of history (not to mention the wicked machinations of their enemies) that have deprived the Russian state of still vaster territories. By contrast, it is difficult to conceive of an English analyst today regretting that the British Empire had failed to establish even more colonies (for example Tibet, Afghanistan, or a slice of Persia), or an American bemoaning the failure to absorb Canada or to seize broad swaths of Mexico when the latter was torn by civil war in the early 20th century. Just try to imagine the reaction if a German analyst were to regret his country’s inability to implement the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, arguing that it would have ensured the long-term security of Germany’s eastern approaches, precluded the emergence of a strong Soviet state, and averted World War II. Alternatively, if the war had occurred in some form anyway, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine would have already been German dependencies, and German troops would have had a short and easy march from there to Moscow.
It’s enough to make Rudyard Kipling blush. After all, former imperial powers are supposed to be ashamed of their conquests, not feel sorry that their territorial aggrandizement had not been even more extensive than it was.
Khramchikhin largely glosses over the not-inconsequential matter of popular opinion in the territories that could (nay, should) have been added to Russia. Well might the Ukrainians of Galicia and Bukovina have embraced Russian rule in 1848—at least initially – but I find it hard to believe that the Germans of East Prussia gave the Russian army a particularly rapturous welcome in 1758, any more than in 1914. The numerous Turks in the Balkans and Anatolia would have made especially difficult subjects for the Czar, but even Balkan Christians would have proven restless. They spent the 19th century resurrecting and consolidating their own nation-states and would have found the Russian Empire, no less than the Ottoman, an unwelcome impediment. Admittedly, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when most Europeans east of the Rhine lived either in multinational empires or subnational statelets, territories were routinely transferred with no regard for the wishes of their inhabitants. This practice became increasingly problematic with the 19th-century rise of nationalism, and quite untenable thereafter—which is precisely why the major empires unraveled. It would be curious for anyone to imagine that the Russian Empire might have dodged this bullet by becoming still larger and taking on even more sullen, aggrieved non-Russian subjects than it already had.
The topic of imperial collapse raises another important point. I hope I am not reading too much into Khramchikhin’s analysis, but it would seem to have a subtle but chilling implication. It would appear pointless for someone to bewail missed historical opportunities to add further provinces to the Russian Empire if those territories would eventually have become independent anyway in 1917, 1991, or at some other date. Regrets about the phantom loss of territories that never even belonged to Russia suggest a much more poignant longing for the empire that actually was. Khramchikhin’s essay therefore strikes me not so much as an exercise in “what if” speculation as an implicit reproach against the collapse of Moscow’s empire, and the subsequent post-Soviet decolonialization of the Russian borderlands—in other words, as a clinical case of imperial nostalgia.
Moreover, once you head down the path of regretting missed historical opportunities (often seen only in lengthy hindsight), there is no end to the arguments you could contrive against the moderation of your imperial appetites. Khramchikhin could have lamented Russia’s abysmal and incomprehensible failure to use its positions in Alaska and California in the 18th and 19th centuries to throttle the North American imperialist entity in its cradle, or at least to deny the Americans (and their Canadian lackeys) access to the Pacific Ocean. And how inexplicably shortsighted was Czar Alexander I when he pulled the Russian army out of occupied liberated Paris after the defeat of Napoleon?
More to the point is the question of where such vulnerabilities exist today—the situations where Moscow’s shortsighted restraint and inordinate gentleness threaten the long-term interests of Russia. Where, nowadays, is Russia in danger of repeating its mistakes?
Interestingly, Khramchikhin has little to say about Russia’s relations with the perfidious West, where there is presumably not much danger of undue sentimentality in the Kremlin’s current approach. He is wary instead of the Russo-Chinese “strategic partnership,” decrying the lack of more fulsome Chinese support for Russia in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, and urging Moscow to follow Beijing’s example of rigorously pursuing its own national interests. Precisely because China is Russia’s new BFF, a word of caution about Russia’s lamentable proclivity to get shortchanged by its allies would appear to be in order.
However, it is in the post-Soviet space, and particularly Ukraine, where Khramchikhin sees a critical imperative to adopt a strict “no more Mr. Nice Guy” approach. He maintains that “the idea of an independent Ukraine is Russophobic by definition. That is, either Russia and Ukraine are one country, or they are enemies.” Khramchikhin decries Moscow’s supposed pre-2014 policy of meekly “funding Ukrainian Russophobia”; only the “openly anti-Russian” coup in Kyiv in February 2014 bestirred Moscow to give Ukraine the treatment it deserved. Even then, Russia contented itself with half-measures—“we should have acted with the Donbas precisely the way we did with Crimea.” Now, concludes Khramchikhin, it is time to cease the mindless twaddle about “fraternal peoples” and treat Ukraine as an outright enemy. Russia should not gratify the Kyiv regime with a direct invasion, but simply give the tottering Ukrainian government a timely push and allow the enemy’s internal contradictions to take their course. “Our goal,” he concludes, “should be the collapse of the current Ukrainian state and its regime, and their consequent complete political and territorial reorganization.”
A few observations are in order.
Khramchikhin, like many Russians, appears to assume that Ukrainian hostility toward Russia (exaggerated by many Russians, but a fact nevertheless) is utterly gratuitous—the ungrateful reaction of a selfish, stubborn, backward peasant people (khokhly) to centuries of unstinting Russian benevolence. The key to understanding this seemingly inexplicable behavior, however, lies not in some defect of the collective Ukrainian psyche, but precisely in Russian imperial amnesia. For instance, Khramchikhin notes correctly that the Ukrainians of Galicia and Bukovina were thoroughly pro-Russian in the 19th century, but are antagonistic toward Moscow now. He betrays no indication, however, that he has the slightest idea how this transformation in Ukrainian attitudes came about. Perhaps he believes, as many Russians evidently do, that Ukrainians have simply been brainwashed by anti-Russian propaganda. As regards Galicia and Bukovina, an honest historical examination of the period following the incorporation of these territories into the Soviet Union in 1939 would clear up any mystery about the local population’s change of heart toward Moscow.
Russian imperial amnesia finds its counterpart in the sheer ignorance about the war’s historical Russo-Ukrainian context on the part of many Western analysts, who can only perceive the conflict through the distorting prism of great-power rivalry or some hackneyed “Great Game” analogy. I was struck by one Western commentator who noted, in an inept bow toward evenhandedness, that there is, after all, ample historical precedent for Russian troops tromping about Ukraine. One should hasten to add that there is also precedent for American forces tromping around the Caribbean, or German armies tromping through Belgium. Moscow doesn’t deserve a pass for reverting to malevolent historical type in Ukraine, and no one should consider Russian intervention in Ukraine, any more than these other “precedents,” as representing any kind of normative—and therefore excusable—behavior.
Incomprehensible, both to such Western analysts and many Russian observers, is the notion that Ukrainians might value their national identity and be prepared to defend it. Ukrainians are, in fact, fighting a belated war of independence to preserve the statehood that landed peacefully and unexpectedly in their collective lap in 1991. The only surprise here is that anyone would find Ukrainian patriotism surprising.
Either Russia and Ukraine are one country, or they are enemies. This is emphatically a Russian, not Ukrainian, sentiment. It is Russians who have defined Ukrainian statehood—indeed, the very idea of a Ukrainian ethnos—as intrinsic and unjustifiable Russophobia. For their part, prior to 2014, Ukrainians remained persistently and irrepressibly well disposed toward Russia and disinterested in, or even hostile to, NATO membership. Analysts who claim that Russia intervened in Ukraine to stop NATO enlargement have gotten the causality exactly backward. Russian policy is not to keep NATO out of Ukraine, but to eliminate any Ukrainian national entity that NATO could ever possibly receive as a member. The goal is “the collapse of the current Ukrainian state and its regime, and their consequent complete political and territorial reorganization.” And it was not any near-term prospect of NATO enlargement (there wasn’t any) that triggered an urgent and justifiable Russian response; rather, it is Russia’s opportunistic invasion that has driven so many Ukrainians to view NATO membership as an attractive proposition. Moscow’s role as NATO’s chief recruitment officer is a recurring historical error that Khramchikhin curiously fails to identify, even though it fits perfectly with his narrative of Russia abetting its own adversaries.
Khramchikhin is being disingenuous when he urges Moscow not to give the Kyiv regime the satisfaction of a direct Russian invasion. Russia’s current military engagement in Ukraine is no less direct by being limited and sub rosa. Moreover, Russia’s failure to pull off its Crimea gambit in the Donbas was not due to a lack of resolve or an untimely bout of traditional Russian tenderheartedness. Rather, in the decisive “Russian” spring of 2014, Moscow was cruelly hampered by the sheer lack of personnel who could be readily deployed at short notice to Ukraine. With Crimea given priority, there simply weren’t enough “polite green men” to go around. Russia seeks to remedy this problem by building or rehabilitating a number of military bases near the Ukrainian border. In the not-so-distant future, tens of thousands of “polite green men” will already be deployed in the proximity of Ukraine to serve as the driving force in the “spontaneous, indigenous” uprisings that Moscow will instigate against the “fascist junta” in Kyiv.
Many Russians seem to fantasize that a gentle fraternal nudge is all it will take to topple the government in Kyiv, destroy the Ukrainian state, and end the whole unseemly Ukrainian national project. However, Moscow’s Novorossiya fiasco in 2014 ought to give Russians pause. The Kremlin conjured up a mythical entity that it dubbed “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”), complete with a flag, to serve as the vehicle for a hoped-for mass separatist movement by Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The project flopped when most Russophone Ukrainians, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, opted to stick with Ukraine instead. By analogy, if one judged the fervor of Irish sentiment for rejoining the United Kingdom by the amount of English heard in the streets of Dublin, one would fall very wide of the mark. Moscow made a similar error with Novorossiya, and it is not clear even now that Russians have drawn the requisite conclusions. The flag of Novorossiya still flies in the occupied Donbas, suggesting that the Novorossiya project is being held in reserve, to be trotted out again should a favorable moment present itself.
Indeed, we can anticipate numerous and vigorous pushes from Moscow over the coming years to topple the wobbly but preternaturally tenacious Ukrainian state. From the Kremlin’s perspective, it would be foolhardy—indeed, it would be another of Khramchikhin’s classic Russian mistakes—to cut a deal now that leaves Ukraine still standing, when the country’s chronic corruption, toxic politics, and fragile economy provide so much fodder for Russian optimism. Truly, one should never underestimate Ukraine’s capacity for self-inflicted injury. Could Ukraine’s Russophone population, filled by revulsion and despair at the country’s sorry state of affairs, yet be induced to abandon Ukraine and embrace Novorossiya? It is a tempting supposition, and one likely to animate Russian policy for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, even as it lurches from one crisis to the next, Ukraine has, by most accounts, succeeded at least in consolidating the population’s sense of national identity. And certainly the Ukrainian army will never again present as feeble an opposition as it did in 2014. Dream what they may, Russians will not find Ukraine a pushover.
They say that opportunity knocks but once, and 2014 might prove to have been Russia’s last chance to obliterate Ukrainian nationhood. The war in the Donbas has become one of attrition—a waiting game driven by the Russian hope that opportunity might yet be cajoled into knocking a second time. Even if Russia can’t drive a stake through the heart of the Ukrainian national project, can it at least cripple Ukraine by tearing away the fairy-tale land of Novorossiya? Or can the unruly but wily khokhly, proverbial for their stubbornness and guile, contrive to outsmart or outlast the richer, more powerful, more numerous Russians? It will probably be many years before we find out.
In the meantime, the Russian belief in Ukrainian Russophobia is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The war is having the entirely predictable effect of replacing, in Ukrainian minds, warm thoughts of Russo-Ukrainian brotherhood and solidarity with images of the darker pages from their shared history: restrictions on the Ukrainian language, forced Russification, Soviet-era repressions, and above all the holodomor—the catastrophic famine of 1933. Largely oblivious to these realities, the mass of Russians perceives only an inexplicable ingratitude by the khokhly toward all of Russia’s selfless acts of kindness and generosity—above all, the noble effort to free Ukraine from the fascist junta imposed by Western intelligence services. The consequent sense of wounded righteousness will inspire redoubled Russian efforts to put an end to the noxious Ukrainian national project once and for all, and bring surly, shambolic Khokhlandiya back into the bosom of Russia where it belongs. And so the vicious circle will perpetuate itself.
Not at all in the way Khramchikhin imagines, Russia indeed appears condemned—thanks to imperial amnesia—to repeat its mistakes.