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Paratroopers of Russia’s elite Spetsnaz brigade were sent into Kazakhstan to suppress violent nationwide protests against its Kremlin-friendly regime. [While these have begun being withdrawn], Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s border, just 15 months after a Russian rifle brigade intervened to end fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Is President Vladimir Putin really attempting to rebuild the Russian Empire?

It is impossible to know what the Kremlin sphinx has in mind. But, whatever Putin’s intentions, his actions are undermining the idea that underpinned the Russian Federation’s creation 30 years ago.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, is rarely a topic of conversation now. If Russians mention him, it’s probably to recall his excessive drinking or the inflation and poverty that pervaded Russia’s transition to a market economy, rather than to credit him with profound historical insights. It was Yeltsin who recognized the monumental costs of sustaining the Soviet empire. Only by shedding these costs, by dissolving the empire and establishing a free-market economy, could Russia deliver liberation and prosperity to its people. But, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin might have doomed his own vision. The man to whom he handed power that night now seems determined to discard his keenest insight. While Putin may not seek to rebuild the Russian Empire per se, he seems resolved to establish suzerainty over former Soviet states. That is a highly costly proposition.

The share of Soviet output that went into maintaining its empire is unclear. But, given the demands of industrial production and the Soviet military-industrial complex, which together claimed up to 80% of all government revenues, it is safe to say that Moscow could not afford, say, subsidies to unproductive factories in isolated areas of its constituent states. And this says nothing of the empire’s price in blood, highlighted by its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

These costs were not lost on ordinary Russians, who resented having to shoulder them. But the same cannot be said of those in charge. From Russian czars to Lenin and Stalin to Putin today, Russia’s leaders have almost universally believed that the cost of empire was justified. This may partly reflect ideology. As the Palestinian scholar Edward Said famously observed, every empire “tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate." Russians have said much the same about their empire, and about Ukraine as well.

If Russia’s leaders believed in a civilizational mission, they believed even more strongly that an empire was good for its national security. But history tells another story. In fact, imperial control quickly leads to overreach, makes a power less secure, and hastens the empire’s collapse.

For Russia, the costs are mounting. The country’s military expenditure rose from 3.8% of GDP in 2013—the year before Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and supported secessionist forces in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions—to 5.4% in 2016. While this share declined in 2017 and 2018, it is climbing again. With Russian troops spread around, this is not a surprise.

Harder to quantify are the strategic costs of empire, which Putin is loath to recognize. The Kremlin’s imperial agenda has called into question the post-Cold War settlement in Eurasia, from the Baltic to the Bering Sea. That settlement enabled governments to divert resources from military budgets to social programmes. The peace dividend not only enabled Russia’s economic transition; it also supported an long economic boom in the West.

But the biggest beneficiary was China. Recall that 40 years ago, vast armies were positioned along the Chinese-Soviet border, and thousands of Russian nuclear warheads were trained on Chinese cities. The Cold War’s end let China redirect resources toward economic development and poverty reduction. China’s success on these fronts over the last 30 years speaks for itself.

Against this backdrop, one wonders how Chinese President Xi Jinping views Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan, which shares a nearly 1,800km border with China, especially in light of Putin’s earlier comments diminishing the history of Kazakhstan’s independent statehood. He has shown similar contempt for the independence of Belarus, the Baltic states, and Ukraine.

The domestic costs—and polling by the Levada Center in Moscow suggests that few Russians are willing to trade their living standards for enhanced global status—ought to be sufficient to convince Putin to abandon his imperial ambitions. If not, the possibility of re-igniting a rivalry with China surely should. But it is far from guaranteed that Putin will give reason its due. He is already ignoring the lessons of Russia’s own history. ©2022/Project Syndicate

Nina L. Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at The New School, and co-author of ‘In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones’

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