The Cycles of Russian Expansion

Russian Expansion

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The Cycles of Russian Expansion

In March of 1918 Russia accepted humiliating terms to withdraw from World War I. It ceded any claims over Finland, the Baltic States, and most of Ukraine and Belarus. It lost additional territory in the Caucasus. All told Russia lost one third of its population. In this single treaty, Adam Ulam writes, “Three centuries of Russia’s expansion were undone.” But three decades later the world recognized the Soviet Union as one of two global superpowers.

Like many I have undergone a crash course on Russia and Ukraine over the past few months. Most of the books and articles I read focus on events from the past eight years. However, I find myself increasingly interested in broader historical arcs involving Russia. Adam Ulam’s Expansion and Coexistence offers an excellent account of the first fifty years of Soviet foreign policy.  He argues the Soviet Union simultaneously pursued goals of expansion and coexistence even though their aims were often in conflict.

Indeed, the long arc of Russian history involves long eras of expansion, but also periods of retrenchment with significant territorial loss. The most recent period of retrenchment happened in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated into fifteen independent countries. Putin’s machinations in Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries indicates a desire to expand once again. Some say his inspiration comes from Imperial Russia as much if not more than the Soviet Union. But we miss something important when we draw firm lines in history. Ulam reminds us, “November 1917 had not wiped the slate clean, that underneath the new language, for all the new cult and the new ruling class, there were some fundamental links with the imperial past.” Putin is not unique. Like the Soviet Union, he wants both expansion and coexistence. We must show Russia it can have only one.

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