Polish journalist Karolina Wigura shed some interesting light on the Polish perspective on Russia and its geopolitical ambitions on the German news programme To The Point on Deutsche Welle, saying that Poles were not overly concerned with the prospect of nuclear war. ‘If the Russians cross the Ukrainian border and go further west for example or further south, the destruction will be there anyway,’ she said, ‘so what is the difference?’ The difference is actually quite significant. There is a whole world of difference between the devastation wrought by a conventional war and that brought about by nuclear weapons, but in the midst of all the western corporate media war-mongering this important distinction is being lost. Yet her concern that Russia has designs on further western expansion is a concern echoed across the western media and political landscape. From the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine (24 February 2022), European and American news media consumers have been told over and again that Russia’s actions are indicative of an aggressive Russian foreign policy directed towards military conquest in eastern Europe.
In essence, this is a restatement of the ‘Russian imperialism’ model of understanding the current situation and it takes on two distinct and contradictory forms in western analysis; that of the Russian premier Vladimir Putin working to re-establish the Czarist Russian Empire and that of his hopes to rebuild the Soviet Union. Indeed, these are two historical examples of Russian imperialism, but they are very different from one another and mutually exclusive. Professor Paul D’Anieri, an expert on the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations at the University of California (Riverside), a proponent of the Czarist Russian Empire theory, said in a recent interview:
Putin’s Feb. 21 speech referred quite explicitly to restoring not the Soviet Union, which he criticized in various ways, but the Russian empire as it existed prior to 1917. That not only calls into question all of the former Soviet states, but also a large part of Poland, including Warsaw, which was part of the Russian empire. How far he intends to go is unknown, and may depend on how things go in Ukraine.
Arguably, this theory of Mr Putin’s ambitions is more unsettling for eastern Europeans and so functions to frighten more countries in the region into the arms of NATO and the United States. In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, the empire of Czar Nicholas II, the last Czar, included Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, much of Poland, and Ukraine in the west, and reached south through the Caucasus to the north-eastern border of modern Turkey. In the same breath, however, this is also the most unrealistic theory. One of the key facts which even the Putin administration has had to recognise is that the invasion of Ukraine cannot result in an annexation of the state. Russia quite simply does not have the economic or military strength to conquer and hold a country the size of Ukraine with a largely hostile population. In fact, most western military analysts are in agreement that the best means of defeating Russia in Ukraine is to push Moscow towards an annexation.
If Russia cannot overrun Ukraine and hold it as part of a resurrected Czarist Empire, then the thought of it expanding to envelope Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states is sheer fantasy. Whether or not this is something President Putin dreams of doing, it is unrealistic — and so this theory cannot be seriously considered as a near-future contingency and a prospective threat to European security. Paul D’Anieri is not a military or geopolitical expert. He, like so many others peddling this theory, is a historian trapped in a historicist fantasy of reliving the past in the present. This is a fantasy which completely ignores the constraints of political reality. The Czarist Russian Empire, like the Czars who ruled over it, is dead and gone. No doubt it still exists in the minds of many Russian nationalists, but it has no more potential to spring back into existence than the British Empire does for English nationalists.
Likewise, the theory that Mr Putin wants to re-establish the Soviet Union is another fantasy, but a different kind of fantasy. This is less about geography and more about the projection of Russian power. Essentially, this is a Cold War fantasy and as a theory it tends to be held by older war hawks whose ideas of the real world were formed under the shadow of the ‘Red Empire.’ Since the voluntary dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (St Stephen’s Day, 1991), the world became a less certain place for western white men like Henry Kissinger but without his mental agility; people formed by the certainties of the Cold War. They and their institutions — like NATO and the European Union — underwent an identity crisis; lurching from one imagined global crisis to another in an effort to keep their stock prices high and their military-industrial complex alive. Now, in what is a classic outbreak of nostalgia, they are projecting onto Putin what they need him to be.
Unlike the Czarist fantasy, this theory is at least realistic. It is just not based on facts or Realpolitik. Modern Russia is, like the United States, the European Union, and Britain, an imperfect democracy. It may be less democratic, sure. But, then, its leaders might simply be more honest about their will to power than the western leaders who use the media and social media to persuade millions to vote against their best interests. As we have said, it is an imperfect democracy. It is not a Communist state, it is not Stalinist, and it most certainly is not the ideological enemy so many in the west want it to be. Russians are genuinely confused by the West’s neurotic preoccupation with keeping them in a past they themselves fought so hard to overcome.
Reality in the modern world is a fractured concept. Post-truth is a real phenomenon precisely because our reality is fractured. Perhaps the best way to understand what is meant by this is to imagine — like Plato’s cave — a world in which millions of people are the recipients of reality, mediated to them through different television sets. We are all watching coverage of the same events, but we are watching different programmes. Some, perhaps the majority in the West, are watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine as it is being explained by the woman on the screen as the beginning of a Russian invasion of Europe. Others are watching the same invasion as it is explained through the lens of history. Then others still are watching the invasion with a voiceover rigidly sticking to the facts. Each of these audiences have seen the same events, but the reality — the meaning of what they have seen — they take away from it is very different to the realities taken away by the other audiences.
So, let’s take a look at the facts. They still matter, after all. Russia did not declare war on Ukraine — and this is an important element in understanding what Russia is doing, rather it launched a ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine with three specific objectives; denazification, demilitarisation, and to restore Ukrainian non-alignment (neutrality). Some have argued that this is merely war by another name, and this suggestion does have merit. This is a war. But the distinction is crucial; by not declaring war, Moscow has not completely mobilised its armed forces against Ukraine. Russian forces crossed into Ukraine on 24 February with a 1:1 ratio of troops, a force well short of the 3:1 ratio required for an invasion and military occupation. In actual fact, then, Russia went to fight Ukraine with one arm behind its back — and sure, it does not feel like this to those experiencing the invasion. What this tells us right off the bat is that this was never a war of conquest and occupation. It was an invasion, perhaps with a view to annexing some territory, directed towards a set of limited objectives — and Vladimir Putin has already stated what those are.
His invasion of Ukraine follows decades of warnings to the United States and NATO that Russia would not tolerate the NATO-isation of Ukraine or its joining the Cold War anti-Russian nuclear military alliance. NATO in Ukraine poses a significant threat to the security and regional interests of Russia, and the Kremlin has made it perfectly clear on a number of occasions since 1990 that it would use military force to ensure the non-alignment of Ukraine. Russia protested when — in violation of an international agreement — NATO expanded into Czechia, Poland, and Hungary, and again — in a further violation of the 1990 NATO-Soviet agreement — when it expanded into Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, but, and crucially, it did not threaten these states. Moscow put its foot down in 2008 over Georgia and Ukraine, and US diplomats and politicians warned the US government that Ukraine was ‘the reddest of red lines for Russia.’ Absolutely, as a sovereign state, Ukraine is free to join any alliance it wants, but NATO was never obliged to let it — and this was the nature of the agreement made by the US and Russian governments at the end of the Cold War.
The notion that Putin has designs on invading Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, or anywhere else in eastern Europe is unsupported by the facts. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has largely stayed within its own borders. There has been no realistic indication or intelligence that Russia has been planning an assault on Europe. It is plain to see that, like the war in Georgia in 2008, Russia has no plans on annexing Ukraine. Yet, nothing of this has deterred the political establishments in the West and the western corporate media from manufacturing a narrative of Russian expansion.
What the facts point to, unsavoury as they are, is that Vladimir Putin is coming good on the warnings he and his government made. He does not want a hostile western military alliance in his backyard, and this is no different from the stance on regional politics the United States has taken in the past and still takes. So, these are our two parallel realities of what Russia is doing in Ukraine; expanding to rebuild a past empire or defending what it sees as its neighbourhood. Only one of these realities is based on facts, the other is ill-informed, mis-guided, and pure projection. What we must do in the West is decide just how far we want to push this projection of a fiction on Russia, because what is clearer today than it was before the invasion is that Russia has resolved that NATO will not be moving another inch eastward. Pushing that one will absolutely have terrible consequences.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
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