Putin the Emperor:

From Annexing Crimea to Restoring the Empire

June 15, 2022
  • Andrey Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Andrey Kolesnikov identifies the elements of the government’s rhetoric accompanying the “special military operation” in Ukraine, explains the shift to undisguised imperialism in Putin’s discourse, and discusses the costs of the pursuit of imperial power
Russian soldiers in Chernobaevka, Ukraine, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
More than three decades ago, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who is respected by Putin, wrote in “How We Can Build Russia”: “We don’t have the power to build an empire!—And we don’t need it, and it will roll off our shoulders: it is crushing us, sucking us dry, and hastening our demise.” In principle, Putin was in agreement with this—until February 24, 2022, that is. On February 22, he said, “Russia decided to recognize the sovereignty of the two people’s republics of Donbass. We foresaw speculation on this topic, on the idea that Russia was going to restore the empire within its imperial borders. This is absolutely untrue.”

It is likely that Putin either lied, or that the plan has changed. The idea of an empire has become material accepted as ready for implementation.

A Latter-Day Peter the Great

“Return and strengthen!” is now the slogan of the Putin era. These were the words of the current Russian autocrat on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Tsar Peter the Great’s birth, in the sense that the first Emperor of All the Russias did not seize anything, but only returned it to Russia and strengthened it. So Putin is a new Peter the Great for a new age — and also an emperor, because he is restoring the empire.

This is a relatively new motif being used in order to justify a “special military operation” in Ukraine, although the imperial component in Putin’s personal ideology is dominant. He is primarily a Russian imperialist and only secondarily a Russian nationalist and ultra-conservative.

The real Emperor had cut open a window looking onto Europe, while the fake one has boarded it up with some rotten planks left over from the time of Ivan the Terrible, with whom it only makes sense to compare the present Russian autocrat. Peter was a modernizer, while the Russian president is a counter-modernizer.
"But Putin has shown that he can bring not only Russia, but the whole world, back to the past."
Henceforth, not becoming equal to the Western leaders by peaceful means, he dictates his rules to them by violent means. He is the great colonizer of imperial territories, where peoples with non-existent statehood graze. Putin, wearing a pith helmet, carries that statehood to them on the bayonets of the Russian Army.

This imperialist discourse naturally accompanies the “liberation” mission of Putin’s “operation” in Ukraine. The very exhibition that Putin visited on the anniversary of Peter the Great’s birth (when he announced his new motto “Bringing back and Strengthening!”) was titled “Peter the Great: Birth of an Empire.”—that is, it is not the modernization component that is important in Peter, but the imperial one.
"The idea of empire is reinforced by the ideology of the 'Russian world', which partly coincides with the canonical territory of the Orthodox Church."
And of course, the implementation of the idea of empire invariably implies the presence of internal and external enemies who must be suppressed: on the internal front are those who would be, by Putin’s definition, “national traitors” and “fifth columnists”; on the external are those who would be foes intending to attack us, against whom we have no choice but to attack first to “liberate” our brothers from the oppression of their illegitimate government.

Since in the Russian mindset justice is forever associated with the victory over Nazism, and the enemy at the gate is necessarily NATO and the United States, it turns out that the West, “with the hands of the Slavs” (that is, Ukrainians), constitues the Anti-Russia and is trying to destroy the Russian Federation. At the same time, the “Slavs” are all neo-Nazis, so it is considered correct to assess the “special operation” as a kind of continuation of the Great Patriotic War.
“'Liberation' since Stalin’s campaigns in Finland in 1939 and in Western Ukraine and Belarus in 1940 is not an attack, but a defense."
The annexation of land is not a seizure of someone else’s, but a return of territories to their homeland.

The Russian Orthodox Church sanctifies the borders of an imaginary empire, it is a defense agency. As Metropolitan Hilarion said when receiving a state award from Putin and defining the role of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, “in recent years we have felt more and more like a kind of defense department, because we have to defend the sacred boundaries of our Church.”
The Imperial Standard of the Tsar between from 1858 to 1917. Source: Wiki Commons
The permanent threat

The concept of “threat” is very important in this context. The Russian state is constantly struggling with threats to its security, traditional values, and especially “sovereignty” from the West.

Threats are sold to the public at large in exchange for loyalty and the granting of the right to a militarized police state to do whatever arbitrary things it wants in the name of “security.” Inside the system, various agencies sell their ability to eliminate threats to the supreme power, receiving budgetary funding for this purpose. That is why the security and defense sector is so rich in Russia.
“In addition, religious, cultural, and historical subjects can be assigned to the category of defense. Culture, information, and history are also areas of hybrid warfare with the West."
And in this sense, the Ministry of Culture, Roskomnadzor (which, for example, qualifies VPNs as a threat), views the Russian Historical Society and the Russian Military Historical Society as agencies of power.

Humanitarian issues in this sense are problems for the empire’s security. This is why so much attention is paid by the Putin regime to the strangulation of small but “threatening” educational projects such as Shaninka, the European University, and the School of Liberal Arts at Saint Petersburg University (the brainchild of former Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin, which was destroyed despite his “friendship” with Putin).

Hence the attention of the “emperor” himself and his team members to the interpretation of history. The latest news from this front is the Federation Council’s request to the Russian Historical Society, headed by Sergey Naryshkin, chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service, to censor history textbooks and other humanities subjects in schools, since this is “one of the components of national security.” The cherry on top of this cake is a statement by presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky, head of the Russian Military Historical Society, that “the territory of present-day Russia will not always be smaller than that of the Russian Empire”—which, generally speaking, implies the “liberation” not only of Ukraine, but also of Moldova, the Baltic States, Finland, Poland, and the states of Central Asia.

A costly affair

And for starters, as part of the practical implementation of the concept of “bring back and strengthen” Russia is supposed to create an enclave within eastern and southern Ukraine as part of a renewed Russia on an imperial basis. Several high-ranking officials and collaborators in the territories of southern Ukraine have recently been talking about possible referendums on joining Russia. The de facto governor of these territories is First Deputy Head of the Kremlin Administration Sergei Kiriyenko.
“The expression used by officials, 'Russia is here forever', has become almost a meme."
An empire, especially one that is expanding and in territories where there are victims, destruction, and socio-economic problems, is a costly affair. An empire is difficult to manage, including financially, and in the near future Russia will not have it easy at all with its budgetary resources: the projected budget deficit, the excessive defense and security spending, the need to emphasize social spending to buy the loyalty of the population — all this will be complicated by the oil embargo. Meanwhile, resources for the development of the proposed new imperial territories will be sucked out of relatively wealthy Russian regions like greater Moscow. The cadre of civil servants will be drawn from the reserve of managers who may have to work in the “retaken” territories on a rotational basis.

And so the imperial ideology that for years seemed only speculative has led to the disaster of the “special operation.”
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