The Russian Imperialist Project

The Russian Imperialist Project
Ramzan Kadyrov (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2008

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The Russian Imperialist Project

After more than twenty years nobody has provided a clear explanation for what some call Putinism. Its dependence upon public opinion and mass mobilization resemble fascism. At the same time, Russia’s economic dependence on state owned firms resembles socialism or even a shift back toward communism. Yet Putin has no misgivings over wealth inequality. Rather he encourages wealth disparities through outright corruption that many argue crosses the line into kleptocracy. Still, his international ambitions convey something else entirely. Putin has shown imperialist ambitions. He does not simply want to strengthen the Russian state, but to construct an empire.

Putin has disguised his interest in Ukraine as part of Russian nationalism. Before the invasion, Putin made many references to the common links between Ukraine and Russia throughout its history. He has tried to portray Ukraine as a part of Russia historically. It’s easy to mistake his language for nationalism. But it’s really something else entirely. A closer look at Putin’s language focuses less on the Ukrainian people and more on its political integrity. Back in 2008 Putin said Ukraine was “not even a state.” More recently, he said, “Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia.” His argument focuses on the integrity of the state without reference to the people. As Igor Torbakov puts it, “Putin’s deepest instinct is a statist one.

Russian nationalism is a dangerous subject, because Russia was never a nation-state. Russia has always been a multiethnic empire. It stretches over 11 times zones and includes a complex set of administrative divisions to govern its ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. So, its efforts to Russify parts of Southeast Ukraine before annexation is all a ruse. It does not care whether its people identify as Russian. It simply wants obedience from them.

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