The world is not enduring a “Ukrainian crisis”, but rather a Russian crisis. This was stated by the new German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, at the latest Munich security conference, which was dominated by the situation in Eastern Europe.
In fact, the Russian crisis goes even deeper than Baerbock probably meant. We are witnessing the last episode of a longer process. Russia is trying to decide whether it is a nation-state or a budding empire, and until that fundamental question is resolved, conflicts like the one over Ukraine will continue in various forms.
On paper, the Soviet Union was a multinational federation of republics. In reality, the Russians were firmly in control of a tightly controlled regime led by the Communist Party. One of the reasons for the Soviet collapse was that many of its constituent republics had become budding nation states or, as with the Baltic republics, were seeking to regain their independence. The most important factor was the Ukrainian referendum of December 1991, in which an overwhelming majority voted for independence. But then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s behind-the-scenes efforts to assert Russian sovereignty were also important.
At the time, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was still struggling to preserve certain state structures and he responded with hostility to the aspirations expressed by the three Baltic republics. But it was undermined by Yeltsin, who had recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania even before the Ukrainian referendum.
This was the beginning of the current Russian crisis, fueled by the conflict between building a modern state and economy, on the one hand, and imperial nostalgia, on the other. As a result, Russia’s economic and political modernization has been hampered and the security of its neighbors has been put in doubt.
The best way for Russia to guarantee its own security would be to foster friendly relations with its neighbors, so that they themselves can feel secure and stable. But he didn’t, and now a growing number of Ukrainians want to join NATO. Unrealistic as it may seem, they recognize that their own national aspirations are directly threatened by Russian imperial revanchism.
In an infamous essay published last July, Russian President Vladimir Putin articulated his vision of a great Slavic empire, reminiscent of 19th-century czarist rule rather than the Soviet Union. Sensing an opportunity to further this vision, he engineered the current crisis.
But Putin’s machinations are not new. In 2014, he annexed Crimea and launched an incursion into the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, as he wanted to prevent Ukraine from seeking closer ties with the European Union. While this would not have harmed Ukrainian cooperation with Russia or threatened Russian security, such developments ran counter to Putin’s quasi-imperialist dream.
Putin took his fantasy to a new extreme in his recent speech announcing that Russia would recognize the independence of the two breakaway Donbass regions it has supported since 2014. Putin openly questioned the existence of a Ukrainian nation and insisted that Ukraine is a “historically Russian nation”. land.” Although there was a state of Kyivan Rus long before any Russia arose, Putin attributes the emergence of a Ukrainian state to Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
The irony of this history-driven strategy is that if one were to look at Europe a thousand years ago, there would be no Russia to speak of. Rudimentary Slavic state structures had begun to emerge in the region stretching from Novgorod to Kiev, along the old trade routes between the Baltic and the Black Sea. But Constantinople was the imperial metropolis. What we now call Russia would only take shape centuries later, as a result of gradual military expansion in different directions.