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The Empire Struggles Back
by James Dunnigan
August 25, 2008

Discussion Board on this DLS topic

The Russian empire is being rebuilt. The Russian people demand it. Russian politicians are using this popular attitude to placate the people, and distract them from the fact that Russia is turning into a dictatorship. And so Russia is pressuring its neighbors to do what they are told by Moscow. In support of this, the Russian government has re-established control over key industries, as well as all the major mass media.

While the 1917 revolution destroyed the ancient Russian monarchy and simultaneously rejected democracy and the market economy, the 1917 revolution didn't work. The overbearing and inept czarist aristocracy eventually returned in the form of overbearing and inept Communist Party officials and state-appointed industrial managers. The second revolution in 1991 was less bloody than that of 1917, but the huge Communist bureaucracy was not dismissed, only reduced.

Unlike the 1917 revolution, 1991 one saw the dismemberment of the czarist empire, something even the 1917 Reds were not willing to tolerate. Territories that had been Russia's for centuries, like Ukraine and Belarus, plus others that had only been conquered in the 19th century (Central Asia and the Caucasus), were suddenly independent once more.

But not completely free. The Russians called their new neighbors the "Near Abroad" and treated them more like prodigal children than sovereign nations. In the early 1990s, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed by Russia. The CIS was sort of a successor of the Soviet Union. But after he 1990s, the CIS began to fall apart. Some members, especially Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkmenistan, drifted away. Or at least tried to. Apparently you could join the CIS, but not leave it.

The New Russia of the 1990s faced serious economic and political problems internally, as well as unrest on its new borders with these new neighbors. Russia sought to solve all these problems to its advantage, Thus the Near Abroad nations are increasingly hostile to Russian interference. During all this, Russians grew increasingly nostalgic for the old empire. Russian politicians played on this by talking of rebuilding the empire.

There were other considerations. For over a thousand years, Russians have lived in fear of invasion. Thus it has always been popular to absorb or subdue neighbors, to provide a buffer zone between the core Russian (mainly Slavic) territories, and potential invaders. The Golden Age was the post World War II period, when Russia still had all the czarist conquests, while Eastern Europe, Mongolia and North Korea were run by communist governments that were basically satellites of Russia. Memory here has been selective. The empire was expensive, in terms of cash, diplomatic ill-will and poor public relations. But only the good things are now remembered, which is how nationalistic memories usually work.

Ironically, the Russian military industries were saved in the last decade by India and China. These two nations kept Russian weapons manufacturers alive with large orders. More importantly, the booming economies in China and India drove up the price of oil, of which Russia is a major exporter. The billions in oil wealth propped up the Russian economy and allowed the armed forces to be rebuilt. Now Russia talks openly of reclaiming its status as a superpower and dictating the fate of its neighbors. But Russia remains a second rate military power, with a second rate arms industry and a collection of very hostile, and fearful, neighbors.

The war in Georgia comes on the heels of threats (of violence) made to Ukraine. Before that, Russia cut off energy supplies to Ukraine to show who was really in charge. Russia makes more threats to the Baltic States and East European countries over membership in NATO and the construction of a U.S. anti-missile system. The bear is back in a fighting mood, and the world wonders how far this reassertion of empire will go.

Western Europe is paralyzed by fear of losing a quarter of its natural gas supplies. When Russia set up those gas pipelines during the Cold War, somber pledges were made that gas deliveries would never be used for political purposes. After seeing what happened to Ukraine, and other East European customers, no one can be sure anymore. After Georgia, no one can feel safe from Russian violence anymore either.

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