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The long history of Russian imperialism shaping Putin’s war

Russia’s imperial history is driving Putin, but today’s global order may not reward him

Activists hold a placard depicting Vladimir Putin and reading “Empire must die” at a Feb. 22 rally outside the Russian Embassy in Kyiv. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

The world is trying to make sense of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violent invasion of Ukraine. But his attack is not rooted in any rational calculation of costs and benefits.

Instead, Putin is making an ill-conceived gambit to reclaim his nation’s stature as an imperial power and assert Russia’s prestige, authority and will on the world stage. Putin has positioned himself as a frustrated representative of an aggrieved fallen empire — for example, lamenting “the paralysis of power and will” that led to the complete “degradation and oblivion” of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though this grievance seems situated within what Putin has called the tragedy of the Soviet collapse, his imperial inspiration extends even deeper into the country’s past. As Putin described it in a 2012 speech, the revival of Russian national consciousness necessitates that Russians connect to their past and realize that they have “a common, continuous history spanning over 1,000 years.”

Putin understands the post-Soviet global order through the prism of Russia’s long history. And that history is inextricably tied to Russia’s dynamic imperial mission both in the past and today.

The first “Russian” state was established in present-day Kyiv in the 9th century. But Kievan Rus’ fell into ruin with the Mongol conquest of the 13th century, becoming a decentralized group of principalities that each owed fealty and tribute to the Mongol khans.

By the late 15th century, though, the principality of Moscow, led by Grand Prince Ivan III, turned the tables of fortune on the Mongols. Ivan, known to history as Ivan the Great, renounced his land’s subordination to the Mongols and declared the sovereignty of Russia. Ivan then subdued his neighbors, annexed their territory and centralized Moscow’s authority.

Ivan the Great came to power less than a decade after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Cultivating his imperial standing with his marriage to the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Ivan claimed Byzantium’s legacy for Muscovite Russia and adopted the title of czar for himself. As czar, he asserted Russia’s international influence and stature by establishing diplomatic relations with foreign powers and building the Kremlin to serve as an architectural manifestation of Russia’s new imperial power.

By the start of the 16th century, the Russian czars firmly conceived of their land as a great empire. For them, Moscow was the Third Rome — the heir to the Roman and Byzantine empires. Though their imperial predecessors’ empires had fallen, the Russian czars resolved to hold absolute power to ensure the dynamic and continued expansion of theirs.

In the 1550s, the czar known later as Ivan the Terrible extended his country’s territory along the southern Volga down to the Caspian Sea. Twenty-five years later, Ivan sponsored expeditions that initiated several decades of conquest and colonization of Siberia and large swaths of Central Asia.

By 1648, Russia had moved across a continent and reached the Pacific coast to become an enormous state with an unrivaled land mass. It was a full-fledged colonial enterprise.

In 1654, Czar Alexis seized the territory that lay between Russia and the Dnieper River. This included much of present-day Ukraine, including Kyiv. While the dominions around Moscow were known as Great Russia or simply Russia, much of what is present-day Ukraine was deemed Little Russia in a clear reflection of its peripheral, colonized status.

Alexis’s son Peter the Great took Russia’s imperialist mission to new heights. With a revamped army and newly founded navy, Peter the Great defeated Sweden and expanded his empire in every direction. In recognition of his military victories and territorial conquests, Peter in 1721 declared Russia to be an empire and he, its emperor.

Several decades later, another great, the Empress Catherine, pushed the empire’s boundaries farther west through the partitions of Poland. Catherine also took advantage of the weakening power of the Ottoman Empire to expand Russia southward and create the region of Novorossiya, which included the southern sections of present-day Ukraine. She then solidified Russia’s position on the Black Sea by annexing Crimea in 1783.

Many of Russia’s imperial conquests were hard-won. In 1818, when Russian forces attempted to conquer the Northern Caucasus, they encountered a population that refused to be subdued. In answer to the guerrilla warfare that the indigenous population unleashed against the invaders, Russia burned villages to the ground, incinerated forests and took civilians as hostages. Although by 1864 Russia had incorporated the region into its empire, ethnic and religious tensions percolated and would erupt in a new wave of violence over a century later with the Chechen Wars in the 1990s.

Convinced that Russia’s status as a global power depended on its expansive empire, Russian czars — safe and secure in their St. Petersburg palaces — expended vast sums of money and the lives of young Russian soldiers to maintain imperial glory. Territory was purchased with the lives of both conquering armies and their resisters while Russian rulers transformed the cities of the metropole with monuments erected to honor imperial victories and expansion.

When Russia erupted in revolution in 1917, the empire collapsed. Initially, the Bolsheviks expressed antipathy toward imperialism. Indeed, they contended that regions like Ukraine that declared their independence would be free from the weight of empire. But the dislocation that came with the end of World War I did not bring the worldwide socialist revolution that Vladimir Lenin expected. As a socialist island in a sea of global capitalism, the Russian Empire was resurrected by Lenin and the Bolsheviks within the federal structure of the Soviet Union. For the next 70 years, Russia’s traditional imperial mission became entangled with the expansionist aims of communism.

To meet the surging economic and military power of the United States, the Soviet Union in the late 1940s established satellite states throughout Eastern Europe, with communist governments overseen by Moscow. Using tanks, artillery and repression, the Soviets kept the communist bloc until the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev could no longer use military force to retain power. The Soviets’ imperial project was in peril.

These liberatory impulses unleashed a ripple effect within the Soviet Union itself, with the Baltic States and the Caucasus calling for independence from Moscow. By the end of 1991, nationalist sentiments within the assortment of nations that the Soviet Union had inherited from the czarist imperialist state led to demands for autonomy and spelled the end of the U.S.S.R.

When Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation in 1999, he claimed that his country was entitled to exert a privileged influence over the post-Soviet states. Yet many of these nations balked at the local cronyism and corruption that seemed to come with Moscow’s continued influence. In the early 2000s, popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan — collectively deemed the Color Revolutions — demonstrated these countries’ spirit of independence and, thereby, the limits of Russia’s and Putin’s control of the region.

For Putin, this equated to an inglorious lack of prestige and power. Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity that overthrew Putin’s supporter, President Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014 only intensified this perception. The Russian president’s decision to move into eastern Ukraine and annex Crimea was the opening salvo to reclaim the power that imperial failure had eroded.

Beyond economic sanctions, Putin faced little consequence for this 2014 power play, and his geopolitical machinations surged. Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Donald Trump’s subsequent derision of NATO probably convinced Putin of his ability to extend Russia’s global sway without substantial obstacles.

Over the past several years, as Putin has increasingly constricted Russian civil society, limited his country’s independent media and news sources, and imprisoned domestic opposition leaders, he has enhanced his ability to pursue his aims unencumbered. Reviving the imperialist dreams of his czarist forebears, Putin moved to reclaim the empire that he believes was unjustly pilfered from Russia.

But the determined resistance of the Ukrainian people to Russian aggression has shown the folly of Putin’s vision of renewed imperial grandeur. Having found independence from Moscow in the years since 1991, Ukrainians have no desire to return to their previous colonial status. Despite Russia’s superior military might, the Ukrainian people have made a stand for their sovereignty and their freedom, earning support and respect around the world.

Conquest and glory have thus far eluded Putin and his forces. Instead of finding renewed prestige through the global order, Putin finds himself isolated and condemned, and his 21st-century version of Russian imperialism vilified and reviled rather than championed.