The following is an edited and updated excerpt from the book Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire by Agnia Grigas.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, its military campaign in Syria, and its meddling in the European elections and even the U.S. presidential elections in 2016 have alarmed European powers and Washington and raised the specter of further aggression.
Just a year before the takeover of Crimea, while many Russia experts anticipated an active Russian foreign economic policy vis-à-vis its neighboring states and a tug-of-war over Ukraine, none expected a downturn of relations reminiscent of the Cold War era. In fact, before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a consistent threat to the post-Soviet space seemed implausible.
Revanchist and resurgent, Russia appears ready to challenge the current post-Cold War order. Today, most scholars, analysts, and Western leaders concur that the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin has emerged as a challenger rather than a partner to Europe and the United States. Regardless of how the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war unfolds in the coming years, the tensions between Russia and the West are unlikely to subside because the fundamental sources of conflict will persist.
Over the next decade the questions on the mind of every Russia scholar, policymaker, and military strategist will remain: Will Russia seek additional territorial expansion in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet states? Will it continue its cyber and information warfare assaults in Western Europe and the United States?
There is an undeniable historical continuity between present Russian imperial projects and past projects of the Romanovs and the Soviets.
While neo-imperialism has been a prominent trend in Putin’s era, it is in fact rooted in the history of the Russian Empire. There is an undeniable historical continuity between present Russian imperial projects and past projects of the Romanovs and the Soviets. The Russian Federation has in many respects followed in the footsteps of its historical predecessors and will continue to do so, because of the similar ideological, cultural, security, and geopolitical drivers that have been rooted in the centuries-long imperial experience of the three empires—the Russian Federation, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Empire—that have occupied the same Russian political space and territories.
The Grand Duchy of Moscow (Muscovy) started out as a landlocked principality in the late 13th century and expanded aggressively to acquire new lands and peoples, as well as access to waterways. The subsequent expansion of the Romanov empire in the 17th and 18th centuries under Peter the Great and Catherine the Great was driven by a desire for new lands, the taming of bordering nations, and the quest for warm-water ports on the Baltic Sea, in Crimea, and in the Caucasus.
The analysis of Russian foreign policy has been greatly influenced by the times and their geopolitical context. The end of the Cold War and the perceived triumph of democracy and capitalism marked a decline of interest in Russia and the former Soviet space. In 1989, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that "what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
The concept of "the end of history" gained popularity among international relations scholars and policymakers and influenced the study of Russia and the post-Soviet space. The fledgling Russian democracy under President Boris Yeltsin and the enlargement of NATO and the EU to include Central and Eastern European states in the late 1990s and 2000s bolstered this hopeful concept of the "end of history." The Cold War seemed an element of the past safely confined to history books. Yeltsin pulled Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe, dramatically cut Russia’s military spending, and agreed to let Ukraine keep part of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet—all while not stoking separatism in Crimea.
Following the global economic downturn of 2008 and the domestic protests of 2011-13 against Putin’s regime, some saw Russia as isolated, embattled, and defensive. Few took the rising signs of Russia’s vaulting imperial ambitions seriously.
Under Yeltsin and Putin, Russia also accepted two rounds of NATO enlargement by the adhesion of former Warsaw Pact states and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1999 and 2004. In the 2000s, Putin closed Russia’s military bases in Cuba and Vietnam, while the United States opened military bases in Central Asia. Since 1991, Russia and the United States continued to collaborate on the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, and post-9/11 on the fight against global terrorism. Russia looked like a potential partner for the West.
Indeed, Russia’s imperial revival appeared like a marginal idea in the broader context of Russian foreign policy for most of the 1990s and 2000s. Neo-imperialism was embraced mostly rhetorically and superficially by a handful of radical Russian politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky or alluded to by Putin and his entourage for rhetorical flourish and to drum up nationalism among the domestic audience. Some attributed this nascent imperialism to Russia’s growing wealth and confidence driven by high oil prices of the mid-2000s. Some pointed again to the natural need to correct the alleged "humiliation" of Russia after the collapse of the USSR.
Following the global economic downturn of 2008 and the domestic protests of 2011-13 against Putin’s regime, some saw Russia as isolated, embattled, and defensive and hence pushing back against these constraining international conditions. Some suggested that the rising nationalism and aggression was Putin’s response to his weakening popularity and growing opposition at home and an attempt to rally the country behind the Russian flag. But few took the rising signs of Russia’s vaulting imperial ambitions seriously. Indeed, over the past five years, most scholars have justified this indifference by alleging that Russia was a shadow of its former self and its military presented no challenge to the European continent or international order.
Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has divided the American nation and certainly impacted President Donald Trump’s ability to formulate foreign policy towards Russia.
Following the annexation of Crimea, there has been much debate on how to respond to Russia’s revanchism, but the debate is not new. Since the 2000s, there has been disagreement about whether Russia can be a true partner to the West or whether it will remain a potential threat. The United States under the leadership of George W. Bush at first sought to work with Putin but nonetheless supported NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia and the installation of a missile defense system for Central and Eastern Europe. President Barack Obama sought to "reset" relations with Moscow and some progress was made before the initiative fizzled.
By 2016, the calculus changed because Moscow’s influence was evident not only in its neighboring states but rather in Western Europe and the United States. In fact, as we know now, the EU has been substantially weakened by the result of the United Kingdom’s June 2016 Brexit vote, an outcome which was aided and encouraged by covert and overt Russian influence and propaganda.
The Kremlin additionally dedicated significant resources and resorted to cyber and information warfare to sway last year’s referendum in Italy, the elections in the Netherlands and France, and the upcoming September elections in Germany. Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has divided the American nation and certainly impacted President Donald Trump’s ability to formulate foreign policy towards Russia.
Russia will continue their influence campaigns in future elections in the United States and Europe. Tensions between Russia and the West are therefore unlikely to subside—a major concern in an already tense political environment.
Agnia Grigas is the author of Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire (Yale, 2016) and The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas (Harvard University Press, 2017). She is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Truman National Security Fellow.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.