Russia follows traditional imperial and Soviet patterns

Russian analysts like Dmitri Trenin (Carnegie Moscow Centre) and Fyodor Lukyanov (Russia in Global Affairs) see a changing attitude in the Kremlin’s reactions to crises in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan. In their view the Kremlin is becoming more pragmatic. It rejects nostalgia, starts looking after its own interests and acts with more restraint in its 'near abroad'.  German Russia expert Hannes Adomeit disagrees and argues that Russia just follows traditional imperial Russian (and Soviet) patterns of behaviour.

belarus poetin sloganRussia loses support in Belarus because of its support for Lukashenko (picture twitter)

by Hannes Adomeit

Some of the chief exponents of the narrative of Russia’s alleged turn to ‘post-post-imperial’ attitudes and policies in its self-declared sphere of influence are Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center; Vladimir Frolov, a renowned Russian international affairs expert; Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine; and Aleksandr Tsipko, senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of International Economic and Political Studies. The Kremlin-friendly assessment has been widely disseminated through reputable newspapersand specialist academic publications outside Russia.

The diagnosis of a significant change in Russia’s neighbourhood policies takes as its background the Kremlin’s watchful waiting and then acceptance of Armenian opposition leader and member of parliament Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister as a result of massive popular demonstrations in 2018.

They link up Moscow’s grudging nod to this change of leadership with its reactions to the events of the second half of 2020, including, after the fraudulent presidential election Belarus in August, the large-scale demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets of Minsk and other Belarusian cities, ushering in months of unrest and forcing Lukashenko to solicit Moscow’s support; after September. They add to that the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh during which it decided not to intervene militarily on behalf of its ally and where it was instrumental in the conclusion of a ceasefire agreement to be guaranteed by the stationing of an approximately 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force for a minimum of five years.

In October, after the political opposition in Kyrgyzstan demonstrated against rigged parliamentary elections and stormed government buildings in the capital Bishkek, Moscow-friendly president Sooronbai Jeenbekov was replaced by prime minister Sadyr Japarov. In November, finally, in Moldova the election of European-oriented challenger Maia Sandu defeated the pro-Russian incumbent president Igor Dodon.

moldova maia sanduIn Moldova young reformer Maia Sandu won the presidential elections

The Kremlin’s reaction to these events allegedly confirmed that the Russian Empire last year had ‘died once and for all’. Russia had entered a ‘post-post-imperial’ phase of its development. In its policies in the Russian neighbourhood it was now implementing a concept of ‘strategic restraint’. And it was giving primacy to Russia’s own ‘sovereignty and economic interests’.

Four deficiencies

Fundamentally, there are four major deficiencies in this alleged post-post-imperial model.

The first is the gross neglect of the interrelationship between domestic and foreign policy that is valid for any political system but especially for Russia, and in particular for the links between the Putin System and Russian policies vis-à-vis its self-declared sphere of interest. Given the close connections between these two dimensions, how could a deepening authoritarianism, centralization, nationalism and militarism in domestic affairs be combined with liberal, laissez faire attitudes and policies towards the countries in the Kremlin’s neighbourhood?

Surely, such connectivity is irreconcilable with political logic. A divergence between the Kremlin’s internal politics and policies in its neighbourhood makes even less sense in view of the fact that its undemocratic and illiberal policies at home are fully aligned with its confrontationist stance towards the countries of the Euroatlantic world.

Second, the ‘post-post-imperial’ theories fail to appreciate the difference between objectives and results, and between ambitions and the possibilities for their realization. There is no evidence that the Kremlin has consciously and deliberately elaborated some concept of restraint and is now following its precepts. The facts of the matter are rather that the constraints and challenges to imperial policies have grown, thereby reducing the chances for a successful retention of control over the destinies of the independent countries of the post-Soviet space and the people who live there.

In Putin’s Russia, economic rationality continues to be subordinated to internal security concerns

Third, while there is some merit to the claim that Russia has become more cost-conscious of its imperial constructs on post-Soviet space it is wrong to see this as a fundamental reorientation. Taking economic costs into consideration does not, as Aleksandr Tsipko states, amount to giving ‘primacy not only to our own sovereignty but to our economic interests’. In Putin’s Russia, economic rationality continues to be subordinated to internal security concerns − to the ruling elite’s unchallenged hold on power and ownership of the country’s resources.

That’s entirely logical for a system aptly named a ‘kleptocracy’ in which the siloviki − people who work for, or who used to work for the ‘power ministries and agencies’ (silovye ministerstva) charged with wielding coercion and violence in the name of the state – play a large role. The Kremlin’s policies towards Belarus provide an apt example of the merger of the ruling elite’s internal security policies with its economic interests, and the precedence that the former takes over the latter.

Concerning the economic dimension of the Kremlin’s policies, according to some estimates, between 2005 and 2015 Moscow granted up to US$100 billion worth of subsidies to Belarus. In some years its support represented as much as 25 percent of the country’s GDP. A large part of the subsidization came in the form of cheap Russian crude oil that Belarus would refine and exports at market prices to European countries. But after 2014, with Russia’s economy in decline, the rising burden of empire due also to Western economic sanctions and faced with Belarusian companies’ efforts to bypass Russian sanctions on the import of food products from Western countries by re-stamping goods, Russia revised the agreements on oil and gas prices with Belarus by lowering the subsidies through the reduction of duty-free oil shipments. It also engaged in what has been referred to as a ‘tax maneuver’, which consists in replacing crude oil export duty fees with a mineral extraction tax.

belarus lukashenko geen majdan foto belta 2The Kremlin still props up Lukashenko's highly unpopular repressive regime (picture Belta)

Subsidization, however, hasn’t stopped. To maintain Lukashenka’s repressive system, Putin has felt constrained at his meeting with the Belarusian leader in Sochi in September 2020 to extend financial support to the country amounting to 1.5 billion US dollars. There is no reason to believe that Russia’s previous pattern of providing assistance will change. It will in all likelihood continue to tie economic and financial aid to the transfer of Belarusian assets to Russian ownership. Examples of this can be found in the 2011 acquisition of the strategically important Belarusian gas pipelines used to transit Russian gas to Poland and Germany by the Russian energy giant Gazprom. Russia also owns a 42.5 per cent stake in Belarus’s giant Mozyr oil processing facility via Slavneft, which is controlled by Rosneft and Gazpromneft.

Colonial-style integration of Crimea

The colonial-style attempt to gain compensation for the military and security expenditures for maintaining imperial control is evident also in the outlays for the integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the significant expansion and modernization of the Sevastopol-based Black Sea Fleet; the financial and military support extended to the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist entities; the subsidization of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the military bases it maintains there; and the alimentation of Transnistria and the military presence it also keeps there.

Whatever the costs may be for the maintenance of imperial control in rubles and kopecks, they most likely dwarf in comparison with what economists call opportunity costs, that is, what the state of affairs would be, or would have been, if economic decisions of one sort or another had not been taken but different economic policies had been pursued.

What, for instance, would have been the economic benefit if Russia had in any meaningful way implemented the agreements, the first of which concluded with Germany and then with other European countries and the EU, for a comprehensive ‘modernisation partnership’? And what would now be the prospects for Russian economic growth if the Kremlin had not embarked on national-patriotic mobilization on an anti-Western confrontationist basis and thereby provoked international economic sanctions?  They would most likely be both beneficial and significant.

krim 18 maart 2019Putin visits Crimea on 18 April 2019, 5 years after the annexation (picture Kremlin)

Fourth, underlying the ‘end of empire’ theories seems to be the assumption that the true test of whether the Kremlin’s attitudes and policies are imperial or post-imperial (or ‘post-post-imperial’) depended on the overt use of military force. They convey the notion that force would have had to be applied to keep supposed or real friends in power – in the current context that Moscow should have intervened to keep in power Sargsyan in Yerevan, Jeenbekov in Bishkek and Lukashenko in Minsk, and that it should have dispatched troops to Nagorno-Karabakh to save its ally Armenia from defeat.

Throughout the history of empires, however, just as the metropole replaced local leaders they considered to be inefficient or disloyal, it also accepted leadership changes at the colonial periphery provided that they did not affect the imperial center’s control. Similarly, faced with serious troubles at the periphery, it all depends on perceived costs and risks whether to intervene militarily or not to do so.

A telling example of such assessments and their resolution is the reaction of the Soviet leadership during the ascent of the Solidarność independent labour movement in 1980-1981 and thus the beginning of the disintegration of the communist system in Poland and ultimately in the bloc.

Putin in Brezhnev’s footsteps

At the time, the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev was exerting extreme pressure on the Polish leaders. It deployed several divisions of combat ready troops around Poland’s borders and in the western military district of the USSR and conducted a long series of military exercises. However, the corresponding documents of the CPSU Politburo unambiguously show that the pressure Moscow exerted was for the Polish communist party to restore control and that the Soviet leadership was adamantly opposed to bloodying its hands. Thus, Politburo member and KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who had played an important role as Soviet ambassador to Budapest in crushing the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, stated in a discussion of the Politburo on 29 October 1981 that ‘the Polish leaders are talking about military assistance from the fraternal countries. However, we need to adhere firmly to our line – that our troops will not be sent to Poland’ (italics mine.)

facing up 3d
Illustration Nanette Hoogslag

Defence minister Dmitri Ustinov concurred with this position and stated: ‘In general one might say that it would be impossible to send our troops to Poland. They, the Poles, are not ready to receive [sic] our troops.’ This acknowledgement was evidently a euphemism for what threatened to be a repetition on an even larger scale of what Andropov had experienced in Hungary: that its high command would disintegrate; the military would refuse to fire on their fellow citizens; and some or many soldiers would fight the foreign invaders.

It should be obvious in comparative perspective that the Kremlin’s modus operandi in Belarus in 2020-2021 is essentially the same as that displayed by Brezhnev’s Politburo in Poland in 1980-1981. The ‘restraint’ shown by Moscow is not part of a fundamental turn away from a repressive imperial mindset but a preference for ‘internal intervention’ − for the local leaders to bloody their hands rather than their masters.

The same reasoning applies to Russia’s failure to intervene militarily in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Failure to intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh

But why should Moscow have intervened? The separatist republic governed by ethnic Armenians after Armenia’s victory over Azerbaijan in the 1992-1994 war was never internationally recognized, including by Russia. Putin, therefore, on 7 October justified Moscow’s stance to the effect that whereas Armenia was a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Russia had ‘certain obligations as part of this treaty’ and would ‘always honor its commitments’, the fact was nevertheless that the hostilities ‘are not taking place on Armenian territory’. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was more explicit, saying that Russia's obligations under the CSTO ‘do not extend to Karabakh’. The same applies to the provisions of the August 2010 bilateral Russian-Armenian security treaty.

karabach turkse delegatie in baku bij alievTurkic delegation in Baku. To Moscow's surprise Turkey heavily supported the regime of Heidar Aliyev

Moscow, of course, was aware of Baku’s preparations for war but like Yerevan was surprised, if not shocked, by the speed and effectiveness of the Azeri offensive and the military support provided by Turkey, including by the dispatch of Syrian mercenaries and above all the equipment of the Azeri armed forces with combat drones and the instruction and training it provided for their employment in the war. Having dispatched a peacekeeping force to guarantee the ceasefire and thus prevented the occupation and control over all of Karabakh by Azerbaijan, Moscow has reasserted some control over developments in the southern Caucasus but the Turkish-Azeri political and military cooperation has set limits to Russian influence in the region.

The conclusion to be drawn from this, however, is not that this limitation has occurred as the result of conceptual ‘strategic’ self-restraint but as a consequence of the Kremlin’s increasing capacity to impose its will.

What, one should ask, would a genuine ‘post-post-imperial’ design look like, and are there any historical precedents for it? There are. One example was provided at the dusk of the Soviet era and another during Putin’s first term in office as president.

‘Freedom of choice’ and ‘liberal imperialism’

In October 1989, Soviet foreign ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov appeared on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ programme to discuss a speech delivered by his superior in which he said that the Soviet Union now recognized the ‘freedom of choice’ (svoboda vybora) of all countries, specifically the Warsaw Pact nations. ‘We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine’, he said, referring to Sinatra’s song ‘I Did It My Way’. ‘Every country [could] decide on its own which road to take.’

Asked if that included the rejection of military force against any Eastern European country, Gerasimov replied: ‘That’s for sure [. . .] political structures must be decided by the people who live there’ (italics mine). The importance of the clarification of the Doctrine lies in the word ‘people’ because in the decades and centuries prior to that, Moscow may have been willing to grant some leeway to local leadership changes within the established imperial structures but never to the people of a satellite and systemic change.    

‘We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine: every country can decide on its own which road to take’

Another concept substantially to change the coercive and repressive quality of traditional Russian and Soviet imperialism was developed during Putin’s first term in office as president. In October 2003, the then head of Russia’s United Energy System, Anatoly Chubais (he later held several influential positions in government, party politics, the economy, and science and technology management) published a manifesto for Russia’s priorities in the 21st century. He suggested that the Russian government should ‘seriously work to protect Russian culture and the Russian people − those people who consider themselves Russians through their culture and language − outside Russia. The government should maintain an active stance concerning the expansion of Russian businesses outside the country […] and it should actively support freedom and democracy outside Russia. This is what I call liberal imperialism.’ Liberalism and imperialism, however, are antitheses. Not surprisingly, therefore, nothing came of the idea.


The narrative to the effect that in 2020 Russia was turning ‘post-post-imperial’, carrying out a concept of ‘strategic’ restraint and giving primacy to economic over perceived domestic political and geopolitical interests, if true, would be a surprising but welcome development. It is, however, to be considered more as an expression of hope and wishful thinking than a correct portrayal of reality. There is no indication that the Russian power elite is prepared to grant the people in its neighbourhood the ‘freedom of choice’ if that choice were to be the European path of development.

This article is a response to the article of Dmitri Trenin 'Russia is getting used to being just Russia, without imperium'

See also a summary of the discussion in Russia (in Dutch) De nieuwe terughoudendheid van het Kremlin: façade of koerswijziging?