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The History Behind Russia's Expansionary Foreign Policy


Published December 8, 2022

Is Russia inherently imperialist and expansionist? Russia wasn’t forced to invade Ukraine, but its leaders chose to do so because they want Russia to become a great power. If Russian elites could somehow relinquish their unwinnable competition with the West, they could set their country on a less costly and more promising course.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who is at fault for the war in Ukraine, the Russian citizens or Putin? Why?
  2. How should the West have responded to the invasion of Ukraine? 

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics: Putin Returns to the Historical Pattern,” by Stephen Kotkin via Foreign Affairs. Available here.
  • Read “Weakness and Grandeur,” by Stephen Kotkin. Available here.
  • Watch or listen to “Pesci-ent Knowledge: Stephen Kotkin On Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia,” on GoodFellows. Available here.
View Transcript

Is Russia inherently imperialist and expansionist? Must Russia, by some innate cultural or civilizational trait, seek to conquer its neighbors? No. Russian aggression is not innate, it is a choice. And Russia’s rulers could make different choices. 

Russian aggression stems from what I call Russia’s geopolitical conundrum.

Russians, especially elites in Russia, have long harbored an abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission in the world. But for half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities. 

Russia strives to be a great power of the first rank but finds again and again that Western countries are more powerful. This spurs resentment toward the West for supposedly underappreciating Russia’s uniqueness and importance. It also spurs attempts to manage or even overcome the gap with the more powerful West.

Russia’s rulers invariably look to the state as the instrument to manage or close the gap with the West. They impose coercive state-led modernization to try to beat Russia into being more competitive, while also trying to undermine Western power, unity, and resolve.

This quest for a strong state invariably devolves into the personal rule of a single person – one thinks of the tsarist autocrats, from Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great to the Alexanders and the Nicholases, and the Communist general secretaries such as Lenin and Stalin, down to today’s imitators of the tsars, Vladimir Putin. Instead of getting a strong state, Russia gets a would-be despot who conflates his personal interests with Russian national interests—the survival of his person regime with the survival of Russia. 

Despite all the differences over time between tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia, this pattern has held, in a paradox. The efforts to build a strong state have invariably led to subverted institutions and capricious, personalistic rule, which only worsened the very geopolitical conundrum (falling behind the West), it was supposed to fix.

The danger for Russia’s neighbors has been evident. Russia has no natural borders, except the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean and, to an extent, the enormous mountain range in Russia’s south, stretching from the Caucasus to the Himalayas. Russian security has thus traditionally been partly predicated on moving outward, in the name of preempting external attack – to seize its neighbors before Western countries could use them as supposed springboards for invasion of Russia

Today, too, smaller countries on Russia’s borders are viewed less as potential friends than as potential beachheads for enemies. In fact, this sentiment was strengthened by the Soviet collapse. As has been made abundantly clear, President Putin and many others among Russia’s elites do not recognize the existence of a Ukrainian nation separate from a Russian one. He views all nominally independent borderland states, now including Ukraine, as weapons in the hands of Western powers intent on wielding them against Russia.

Russia’s foreign policy orientation, in other words, is almost a condition, a syndrome, but to repeat, it is ultimately a choice. If Russian elites could somehow relinquish their unwinnable competition with the West, and acknowledge that Russia not only cannot, but need not be a great power of the first rank, they could set their country on a less costly, more promising course. 

In this connection we can think of Britain and France in the first instance, and the Netherlands and Portugal to a lesser extent, although all those cases involved overseas empires. We can also think of Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Japan, which were crushed in war.

Until Russia brings its aspirations into line with its actual capabilities, it will not become a “normal” country, even if it can somehow recover the rise in its per capita GDP experienced in the early years of Putin’s rule.

Whether even a transformed Russia would be accepted into and merge well with Europe is an open question. But the start of the process would need to be a Russian leadership able to get its public to accept permanent retrenchment and agree to embark on an arduous domestic restructuring.

You wouldn’t be alone in noting that a Russia run by Vladimir Putin seems unlikely to ever want to make that case.

Someday, Russia’s leaders may come to terms with the glaring limits of standing up to the West and seeking to dominate Eurasia. Until then, Russia will remain not another necessary crusade to be won, but a problem to be managed.