Visegrad/Insight interviewed Ostap Kushnir is an assistant professor at Lazarski University, author of more than twenty academic articles on the topics of Ukrainian journalism and Eastern European geopolitics.
In the title of your recent book Ukraine and Russian Neo-Imperialism: The Divergent Break, you included the term “neo-imperialism”. How does it differ from traditional imperialism?
Let me define traditional imperialism first. I see it as the unilateral desire of a state to project its model of governance, values, and achievements onto new territories under a justification which appears convincing for this state and its people.
Historically speaking, the implementation of imperialist objectives was not something uncommon. For instance, Western European states expanded into the Latin America and Africa. When doing so, they portrayed themselves as benefactors or as the ones who brought “civilisation” to the indigenous people. This idea could be manifested through various means such as the spreading of the Christian faith, the use of new technologies or the dissemination of post-Enlightenment values of humanism.
Like Prometheus, these states developed a self-perception of being heroes who brought fire to where it was needed. Later on, Western Europe understood that this had been the wrong approach as the ingenuity of other states and regions had been forcefully undermined, and with this realisation, imperialist thinking hit its major crisis. Moreover, it was recognised as a faulty policy by the people and governments of the former imperial states, and the period of decolonisation began.
In my book, I assess contemporary Russian imperialism, or neo-imperialism, which has always been different from the Western models and has not been considered a faulty policy, even up to now.
If you look at the Mediaeval times, the speed and scope of Russian expansion into Asia was staggering. There were a lot of “insufficiently governed” and “isolated” lands east of Moscow, and the simple solution to the issue was filling out the existing “power vacuum” with the centralised Russian systems of governance and law enforcement.
According to Colin Gray, the vast area of lands Russia acquired every year during the 16th and 17th centuries is comparable today to the size of the Netherlands. At a certain point, Russia reached the geographic and political limits of its expansion, but it neither condemned, nor apologised for its intervention into the indigenous cultures.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the contemporary Russian political elites, as well as those who elect these politicians, maintain an outwards-looking world perception. They are not prioritizing the improvements and optimisations of the local systems of governance but seem to be more interested in the outside processes and acquiring leverage of influence over these processes.
However, unlike traditional imperialism, which attempted to justify its harsh methods of expansion, the contemporary version is much “softer” and “cautious”. As Edward Lukas said a couple of years ago, Putin is building a “soft empire” on the territory of post-communist states. In other words, Moscow is not interested in “grabbing” territories which it finds attractive, but in influencing the system of governance over these territories so that they become more Russia-like or Russia-controlled.
New tools are being utilised to achieve these objectives, what envisages a variety of “asymmetric” activities: media trolling, cyber-breaches, elections meddling, religious propaganda, UN veto power, peacekeeping missions, “green men” interventions, and many others.
What countries are potential targets for these “asymmetric” activities?
All countries all over the world. It is simply the matter of time and opportunity. As George F. Kennan – the US Ambassador to the USSR – noticed in the late 1940s, Russia will constantly seek projection for its power by looking outwards. It “worked” as a stream which flew and expanded wherever it encountered space to do so.
Very different justifications might have been used for this, from claiming to secure peace to spreading the only true ideology, which was communism. I argue that the outwards-looking political culture of Russians has evolved and been refined throughout centuries. It has generated hundreds of imperialist justifications which, amongst others, allowed it to encourage ordinary people to join the war, whether necessary. It should be noted that this practice did bring Russia to its historical might and glory.
Therefore, being focused today on regaining influence over the post-communist space, Russia is likely to move further if the current objectives are satisfied. This may take decades or even centuries, this may embrace “soft” or “hard” actions, but this also constitutes a “natural” way of policy-making for such a multi-layered and territorially vast state as Russia.
No one was expecting in the aftermath of WW1 that Soviet Russia would “consume” Eastern Germany in the mid-1940s, but it happened. As for today, the readiness of Russia to conduct unilateral and ambiguous activities can be seen in its very probable meddling into the latest US presidential elections, the Brexit campaign, the Catalonia pro-independence polls, and other “fragile” processes of the globalised world. This is how Russia “works.” Take it, prevent it, or leave it.
In the light of the methodology from your book, how do you see the development of Russia’s policies regarding the V4 states or, more broadly, regarding states of Central and Eastern Europe?
As I see it, at this particular moment, Russia does not intend to “re-design” the Central European balance of powers fundamentally; at least not those supported by the European Union and NATO. Russia is focused on Ukraine and Syria.
However, it is utilising its “asymmetric” strategies to reinforce certain values or narratives in the region, which are not always pro-Russian values or narratives. If you look at the V4 states, Russia is investing a lot into nurturing the so-called “illiberal” sympathies. In the long run, this will lead to the weakening of integrity of this regional core, as well as the other European regions; eventually, the European Union itself will be weakened.
This will, in turn, make the European states “speak” to Russia independently thus providing the latter with a much bigger bargaining power and ability to “expand.” In metaphorical terms, it has always been hard to communicate with the T-rex of sovereignty on your own.
Therefore, apart from nurturing “illiberalism,” the Russian objective in the region also resides in the spreading of divergent messages between different groups of people and nations which cause geopolitical collisions. As it often has happened in history, for instance in the post-Napoleonic or post-WW2 era, Russia would greatly benefit from a political havoc in Europe. The latter would limit the possibilities for the constructive cooperation between continental nations.
In this light, Poland’s policies regarding the historical memory or the judicial reform, even though they have little to do with Russia, lead to Poland’s collision with other regional actors and indirectly reinforced the Russian stance on the ground.
The same can be said about Hungarian economic transformations or political deliberation to protect “their” minorities in Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Similar still, the internal V4 discord about how to cooperate with the new Franco-German “engine,” what to do with the Nord Stream 2, or how to benefit from the UK’s leaving the European Union.
In a word, Russia does not export its values or model of governance to the V4 states today, but it is creating “cautious” opportunities, which should allow it to be more successful in its export of values and governance when a proper time comes.
Interviewed by Sofiia Shevchuk