Like us, Russia lost an empire. We are witnessing the aftershock

The roots of the Ukraine crisis lie in the trauma of imperial decline

February 14, 2022
Watching a military exercise in September. Russian Government / Alamy Stock Photo
Watching a military exercise in September. Russian Government / Alamy Stock Photo

In the summer of 1992, some journalist colleagues and I broke into the former Soviet naval base of Paldiski in Estonia, which was still occupied by the Russian navy but was to be evacuated. A story was going round that the Russians were reinforcing, not drawing down their forces in Paldiski, and we wanted to find out if this was true. (It wasn’t).

We were arrested by a Russian naval patrol—more like a bedraggled ceremonial guard of honour left behind once the vast majority had already been withdrawn or had simply gone home—and were politely escorted to the headquarters of the admiral command, which appeared to be pretty much the only intact building left in the base. After a perfunctory interrogation, the admiral offered us a drink and raised his glass in a melancholy toast: “To Britain and Russia, two former great naval powers.”

I was reminded of this toast a couple of years later on a visit to Kiev, when I heard a British diplomat ask in supercilious tones: “When is Russia going to get over its ridiculous obsession with holding on to pointless overseas naval bases?” That remark occupies a top place in my cabinet of western diplomatic gems—ones that went beyond hypocrisy and mendacity to a sort of almost transcendental lack of self-awareness.  

The British and French—unlike the Americans—are in a position to know that the end of empire is generally a very messy affair, whose consequences play out disruptively not over years, but decades and generations; not least in the great power syndromes of the former imperial countries. Like so many of my class and generation in Britain, I grew up in the shadow of the end of the British empire, and the profound sense of loss and diminished horizons that this left behind. So when I covered the end of the Soviet empire, it was hard not to feel a certain sense of empathy with what Russians were going through.

More importantly, serious comparative study of the end of empires reveals historical patterns that are vastly more complex than the usual picture of “good” and “bad” actors—and this is certainly true of the present crisis with Russia over Ukraine.

The Middle East is in many ways still working through the consequences of the collapse of three empires: the Ottoman Empire 104 years ago, and the French and British after the Second World War. These empires left behind a range of largely artificial, deeply internally divided successor states and bitter regional rivalries. American hegemony has sometimes suppressed and sometimes aggravated these conflicts. The Balkans too are still living with the results of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires and their collapse.

South Asia is still living with the consequences of the end of the British Indian Empire, including most notably the partition of India and Pakistan, and the resulting conflict over Kashmir. As South Asia also indicates, conflicts spawned or exacerbated by empires and their fall can simmer for decades before breaking out: as with the revolt of the East Bengalis against Pakistan in 1971 (leading to Indian intervention and the creation of Bangladesh), and the civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, which erupted in 1983, 36 years after Sri Lanka became independent. In Africa, innumerable local conflicts can be traced back at least in part to empire and how empire was dismantled, including most terribly the Rwandan genocide, which also occurred more than 30 years after the Belgian empire fell.

The parts played by empires in helping to generate these conflicts vary from case to case; and while sometimes the empires themselves were culpable, sometimes they found themselves responsible for local issues that they could contain but not solve. For in many cases, one insoluble element was the creation of modern exclusive nation states in areas where no such institutions had previously been known, and where the intermingling of populations made ethnically based states an automatic recipe for conflict.

As the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz remarked about the Polish-Lithuanian conflict over the city of Vilnius, which broke out after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, this dispute simply could not be resolved (except by superior force) within the framework of rival and mutually exclusive state sovereignty in which it was couched.

Sometimes empires suppressed old local conflicts, which broke out again after empires fell. Sometimes empires exacerbated those conflicts, by bringing together in one “state” ethnicities that had always lived separately. Sometimes empires worsened these tensions through divide-and-rule policies. Sometimes they favoured one local minority at the expense of others (as the French did with the Alawites of Syria and the Belgians did with the Tutsi or Rwanda and Burundi). Sometimes they created or worsened conflicts through encouraging migration for economic reasons.

And very often, of course, empires moved their own people to any territories where the climate was suitable for European settlement. Where the indigenous population was sparse and decimated by new European diseases (North America, Australia, Siberia), these settlers established a permanently dominant presence. Elsewhere (southern Africa, Algeria, Kazakhstan), the decline of empire saw descendants of the settlers fight to defend their dominance, flee, or accommodate themselves to rule by the indigenous majority.

Many of the conflicts and tensions that accompanied and followed the end of the Soviet Union have fallen into these wider imperial and post-imperial patterns. In the Caucasus, the Soviet Union established republics which, after independence, found themselves bitterly divided by ethnicity. Armenians revolted against Azerbaijan; Abkhaz and Ossetes against Georgia; Chechens against Russia.

The Soviet Union moved Russians to work in the factories of Latvia and Estonia just as the British moved Chinese to Malaya and Indians to Fiji. After independence, Latvia and Estonia established an informal settlement with the Russian minorities rather similar to that of Malaysia, where the indigenous population gets to monopolise government and the security services while the “immigrant” minority dominates the commercial economy.

Despite these common patterns, a very significant difference exists between the maritime empires of western Europe and the land empires of Turkey, Russia and Germany. However nasty some of the conflicts involved in the fall of empire, the imperial power could in the end escape them (and responsibility for them) by returning home over the sea. For the land empires, no such clear-cut escape was possible. They had to live with post-imperial conflicts on their own borders, with disputes sometimes overlapping them. On the one hand, some of their own ethnic minority populations saw no reason why, when the rest of the empire had collapsed, they too should not have the right to independence enjoyed by others a few metres across the new national frontier. On the other, ethnic minorities left stranded in neighbouring states inevitably looked to their mother country for support and protection.

In this clear-cut distinction between land and sea empires, there is, however, one huge exception: Ireland and Northern Ireland, where descendants of British settlers have fought with implacable determination against rule by the indigenous majority of Ireland as a whole. Speaking as someone of Irish descent on my mother’s side (though to make things even more complicated, from an Irish Catholic family long in the British service), it has always been a matter of amazement to me that the British have managed to treat the history of their Empire and its aftermath in Ireland as a matter completely sui generis, with no relation to the experiences of other countries.

Yet there are lessons from Ireland of general significance. The first is that acknowledgement of even the greatest historical crimes (among which the British treatment of Ireland between the 16th and the 19th centuries must surely number) is no great help when it comes to sorting out in the present the issues that they left behind.

The west’s attempt to expel Russia from Europe has failed—it is far too powerful and deeply embedded for this to work

Nor are legality or democracy. Irish nationalists have always held with impeccable democratic and legalistic logic that an overwhelming majority in the Kingdom of Ireland gave them the right to rule over the whole island. Ulster Protestants have argued with equal logic that a majority in the six counties of the north and a vote of the British parliament gave them the right to stay with Britain. If—as an essay by Andrew Adonis in the last issue of Prospect suggests is possible—Sinn Féin wins a majority in the north and a referendum calls for union with the Republic, that will be a democratic and legal outcome. Whether democracy and legality will prevent a new war, and whether they should determine the policy of the British government, is another matter.

In continental Europe and its immediate periphery, the end of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia (a country that was itself the unhappy offspring of the end of the Ottoman and Austrian empires) has left behind eight unsolved conflicts and territorial disputes: Bosnia, Kosovo, Transdniestria, Crimea, the Donbas, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The conflicts in the Caucasus have been resolved, at least temporarily, by the intervention of Russian power; but peace in the Balkans depends on the presence of wholly inadequate numbers of Nato troops, the threat of American intervention and the absence of Russian intervention. The conflicts in Ukraine continue to fester, and to increase the risks of conflict not just between Ukraine and Russia, but Russia and the west.

This crisis should have made one thing at least plain: that the west’s attempt to expel Russia from Europe has failed. Russia is far too large, too powerful, and too deeply embedded in the affairs of its neighbours for this to be possible. Most importantly of all, Russia is in the last resort prepared to fight to defend what the Russian establishment regards as vital national interests in Ukraine and the Caucasus; and the west is not, because under all the self-promoting bloviation, western elites and populations do not think that their interests there are truly important, and have declared openly and repeatedly that they are not prepared to fight for them. Russia has also made clear that though Moscow has serious reservations about entering into a full partnership with China (given the enormous disparity between them in population and economy), it will do so if the west fails significantly to accommodate key Russian concerns.

In these perilous circumstances, it is of the utmost importance that France (hopefully assisted by Germany) should give real content to President Macron’s vague suggestions of a new European security architecture including Russia; and that if such a new framework can be created, it should assume as its first task the peaceful resolution of the continent’s most menacing conflicts. For this to be possible, all European participants will need to work on the basis of a principled but also pragmatic commitment to peace; and to eschew both rigid legalism and self-righteousness—a self-righteousness for which their own imperial and post-imperial records provide no justification whatsoever.