Russian Expansionism: Enduring Goals and Recurring Methods

In this essay, Françoise Thom analyzes the imperialist and expansionist drive of the Russian Empire, which persists in the Soviet and post-Soviet era. This messianic, expansionist, and militaristic propensity, reaching its peak under Putin, is inseparably linked to the autocratic matrix of Russian power. It is this matrix that Russia must rid itself of if it is to become a normal country, preoccupied with its own prosperity rather than the enslavement of others. European security depends on the eradication of Russian despotism. 

Two things have been obvious since February 24, 2022: the Kremlin’s extraordinary determination to achieve its objectives, and its indifference to the human cost of this policy. Ukrainian intercepts reveal that, before the attack near Bakhmut, the Russian command urged its troops: “Your task is to advance at any cost. It does not matter whether you perish or not. Others will replace you. The main thing is to advance.” Russia’s perseverance in achieving its expansionist goals is nothing new. From the 15th Century onward, the country grew annually by an area equivalent to that of Holland. During the 300 years of the Romanov dynasty, the Russian Empire expanded at the rate of 140 square km per day1. In 1772, the French consul in the Crimea wrote of the Tsars’ diplomacy: “This Court, whose slow Policy is marching relentlessly toward its goal…”2.  In 1853, a French traveler, Germain de Lagny, was astounded by the continued expansion of the Russian Empire: “Despite the infertility of its soil, despite the rigors of its climate, despite its despotic government, Russia has grown inordinately […]. Suddenly she reveals herself to an astonished Europe; and from the day of her appearance she aspires, with insolent haughtiness, to world domination; displaying pretensions to European dictatorship.”3

Lagny perceptively notes a permanent feature in Russian methods of expansion: involving one or more European countries in the sharing of spoils. According to him, the Russian Empire expanded thanks to “moral or material complicity on the part of Europe. […] Russia was found to be in collusion with some other state, aiding and abetting its projects to satisfy ambitious designs…”4. Prussia came up with the idea of partitioning Poland, while Austria entered the game in the (vain) hope of diverting Russia from the Crimea and the Danube provinces. To appease the Tsar, Napoleon “fed him Finland”. In 1939, Stalin won Hitler over to the idea of a new division of Poland, and took advantage of the situation to get his hands on the Baltic states. Today, the Kremlin invites Poland and Hungary to take their spoils after Ukraine’s disintegration.

Another constant in Russian imperial practice is the use of conquered peoples to subjugate new countries. The Zaporozhian Cossacks were moved by Catherine II to the Kuban region, where they were used to subdue the mountain peoples of the Caucasus. Chechens defeated by Putin were sent to Ukraine to spread terror. Today, the Russian leadership’s determination to subjugate Ukraine stems from its belief that its plans for hegemony over Europe cannot be realized until Ukraine is returned to the service of the Russian Empire. Propagandist Daniil Bezsonov recently said that “Ukrainians are needed by Russia as a ‘mobilization resource’ in Russia’s future war against NATO”. Nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin opines that the whole of Ukraine should be annexed: “Reunite not the ‘part of Ukraine’ to which we are ‘entitled’, but all – or most – of it, including Kyiv, Chernigov, Sumy… All this is Russian, and we must say so loud and clear. So that the world gets used to the idea. Then we’ll get the 16 million we’ve lost [to demographic decline]! But that’s not all. We need to reunite not only Transnistria, but also the whole of Moldavia and Ossetia. Let’s add Armenia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the list, where it’s still possible to revive inter-ethnic complementarity with the Russian people… The Baltic states must voluntarily and joyfully return part of the historically Russian territories and organize our reunification with Kaliningrad. […] Three years ago, it seemed to us that with nuclear weapons, we could quietly make do with a small army. But it turns out that this was not the case. We need a huge army, millions strong, tens of millions of workers, millions of women and millions of men, ready to give birth to new children in the Russian world. We have enough space for everyone. Otherwise, these spaces will have to be populated by foreigners.”

Basically, one gets the impression that Russia has remained in the 15th Century, when the great European states were in the process of coalescing by absorbing neighboring territories, when the policy of expansion was driven by the lure of plundering and ransoming defeated populations, when the distribution of lands taken from the enemy enabled the prince to ensure the loyalty of those who served him. But Russian unity, unlike in Europe, came at the price of the total destruction of local autonomies, of the privileges of towns and the rights of subjects, at the price of deliberate isolation and the confinement of the state within itself. In Muscovite Russia, merchants could not travel abroad freely: they had to ask the tsar’s permission to leave Russia.

The monarch’s absolute power is justified by the continuous expansion of the territory, which in turn requires despotic rule to be preserved. Territorial expansion legitimizes autocracy: “The vast dimensions of the state impose that absolute power be embodied in the person who assures its government”; “A great power implies by itself a despotic political regime, wrote Catherine II5. To Voltaire, she confided: “We have found no other means of guaranteeing our borders than to extend them.”6 Catherine II’s secretary wrote: “The slightest weakening of autocracy would lead to the defection of many provinces, the weakening of the state and countless misfortunes for the people…”7 Russians are still convinced of this today. So it is hardly surprising that Putin should embark on a war of conquest at a time when he is proclaiming himself de facto dictator for life.

Advertising billboard on the border between Russia and Estonia, 2023: “Glory to the Heroes of Russia” // RFE/RL

Should the Kremlin get its way in Ukraine, the formidable power machine we see at work there would turn against Europe. We need to be aware of the extent to which the Kremlin’s relentless efforts against Ukraine are part of a long-term Russian strategy. Moscow’s objective is to realize a project that dates back to 1939: the establishment of Russian hegemony over Europe. On the night of July 2-3, 1940, Molotov confided to Lithuanian Prime Minister Krėvė-Mickevičius, who had come to Moscow to beg the Kremlin bosses not to annex the Baltic states: “You must face reality and understand that in the future, small states will have to disappear. Your Lithuania, the other Baltic states, Finland, will become part of the big family, part of the Soviet Union. […] Today, we are more convinced than ever that the great Lenin was right when he said that the Second World War would enable us to take power in Europe, just as the First World War enabled us to do so in Russia. Today, we support Germany, but only just enough for her to refuse peace proposals until the starving masses of the warring nations rise up against their rulers. Then the German bourgeoisie will collude with its adversary, the Allied bourgeoisie, to jointly crush the insurgent proletariat. But then we’ll step in to help, with fresh, well-trained forces, and on the territory of Western Europe, somewhere on the Rhine, the decisive battle for the fate of Europe will be fought between the proletariat and the rotting bourgeoisie. We are sure to defeat the bourgeoisie...8

The capture of Berlin in April 1945 cost the USSR 80,000 dead and 270,000 wounded: Stalin wanted to be sole master of the city for a few months before the Allies entered (they did so in July), in order to set up his networks and have time to create German parties whose leadership was controlled by Soviet agents.  In the spring of 1945, after the capture of Berlin, he “considered advancing as far as Paris”, as he confided to Maurice Thorez in 1947. In February 1954, Molotov proposed the creation of a European security system that would exclude the United States. With endless patience, the Soviets kept coming back to this plan (President Medvedev made the same proposal in 2008!). 

A document found in the East German archives, dated April 26, 1968, at the start of détente, outlines the USSR’s long-term European strategy:

  • eliminate anti-Sovietism and anti-Communism through the gradual extension of political, technological-scientific, and cultural relations;
  • reduce American and West German influence. To achieve this, the USSR had to insist on the right of self-determination of the West European states (especially with regard to NATO and EEC decisions); in addition, the USSR had to win over influential European economic elites through cooperation;
  • aggravate the contradictions within NATO, support the political forces calling for an exit from NATO.

In April 1985, Gorbachev told Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to Washington, that the USSR’s top priority was to eliminate US presence in Europe. To achieve this, it had to stop frightening Europeans and withdraw Soviet and American troops from Europe in stages: “Soviet troops will only be a few hundred kilometers from the borders, and their invisible presence will continue to be felt in the European states.”9 The foreign policy objective of the Gorbachevian USSR was, according to G. Arbatov, one of Gorbachev’s advisors, to make the United States “a pariah in the international community” by eliminating the image of the USSR as an enemy10.

After a period of disarray following the collapse of the Communist bloc and the USSR, Yeltsin, coached by Primakov, Foreign Minister from 1996 onward, and then Putin and his KGB clan, returned to these objectives. The restoration of Russian power in the former Soviet empire is seen as a prelude to the fulfillment of the old plan for European hegemony, which crops up early on in an exchange between Yeltsin and President Clinton at the Istanbul summit on November 19, 199911. Yeltsin: “I ask you one thing. Just give Europe to Russia. The United States is not in Europe. Europe should the business of Europeans. Russia is half European and half Asian.” Clinton: “So you want Asia too?” Yeltsin: “Sure, sure, Bill. Eventually, we’ll have to agree on all that. Clinton: “I don’t think the Europeans would like that very much.” Yeltsin: “Not all. […] You can take all the other states and ensure their security. I’ll take Europe and ensure their security. Well, not I. Russia will. […] Bill, I’m serious. Leave Europe to Europe itself. Europe has never felt closer to Russia as it does now. […] We have the power to protect all of Europe […] Russia has the power and intellect to know what to do with Europe.”

The analysis of the KGB men surrounding Putin is that Gorbachev failed to implement the “European common home” project because of the collapse of the home front and the USSR’s economic dependence on the West. They decided to take steps to avoid this in the future by securing total control over the elites, over all financial flows and over all organized structures in Russia; by paying off debts, and then building up a well-stocked nest-egg guaranteeing Russia’s economic independence.

Young United Russia activists in Yekaterinburg with the banner “Russia’s borders do not stop anywhere”, September 2023 // sverdlovsk.er.ru

Putin began by transforming the presidential administration into a war cabinet. An official document dated 2000, preserved in the archives of the newspaper Kommersant12, defines the functions of this organization, where real power is now concentrated. It outlines a vast endeavor of political engineering : “The new President of the Russian Federation […] does not need a self-regulating political system, he needs a political structure […], which will be able not only to predict and create the ‘necessary’ political situation in Russia, but also to actually direct the political and social processes in the Russian Federation, as well as in the countries of the near abroad.” The action of the presidential administration will be “along a double line, an open (official) line and a secret (the main) line.” The aim is to “ensure real control over the political processes taking place in the Russian Federation and to extend the latter’s influence over political processes in the near abroad”. This is followed by a step-by-step description of the secret measures used to achieve these objectives: blackmail based on files compiled by the FSB, corruption, manipulation, provocation and intimidation. All these methods were extended not only to the “near abroad”, but also to the West.

The Putin regime is preparing for a confrontation with the West, on both domestic and foreign policy levels. First of all, it has secured control of vital sectors of the economy, because while it has been working at home to achieve economic independence, it has been striving to create a situation of energy dependence in Europe. In Moscow, Nord Stream was conceived as a means of recruiting German politicians and business people, a means of downgrading Ukraine’s geopolitical standing and ruining it, and, in the longer term, a way of making Europe subject to the Kremlin’s will. RIA Novosti put it clearly: “Filling the coffers of the Russian state is only one of the tasks assigned to Gazprom. The second – and no less important – task is to make it clear to our Western partners that their energy security depends on a close partnership with Russia.” We see crystallizing before our eyes the Kremlin’s ambitious plan, an empire brought together by an authoritarian power supported by the military caste and the secret services: the Eurasian Union from Brest to Vladivostok, cemented by the gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, in which the European states, too small to be “sovereign,” would accept the political order imposed by the Kremlin and  the function of quartermasters.

The annexation of Crimea is the first step toward the continental empire that the Russian president strives to build. The weakness of Western reactions to this coup de force convinced Putin that he could have his cake and eat it: pursue his policy of reconquering the former Soviet space while enjoying the amenities of Western civilization. The big space that Russian elites are dreaming of now includes Europe, which guarantees that Russian expansion will not result in a fall in living standards and, much more importantly, in the shutting of access to Western military technologies. But the aim is even more ambitious. In a televised interview in April 2014, Aleksandr Dugin bluntly advocated the conquest of Europe: “Annexing Europe is a grand design worthy of Russia. […] We’ll take their technologies in one fell swoop: we won’t need gas and oil to obtain them piecemeal. This is the modernization and Europeanization of Russia. Soft power will suffice: find a fifth column, propel people we control into power, buy advertising specialists with Gazprom’s money…”13 From there, it’s a crescendo. In September 2015, Dmitry Medvedev reaffirmed Russia’s European vocation and called for the creation of a “united economic space” on the European continent. On October 3, 2016, the Kremlin issued a stunning ultimatum to Washington, demanding, as a condition for resuming relations with the United States, the abandonment of the Magnitsky Act[14 and the Ukraine Support Act, a reduction in the size and infrastructure of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and the abandonment of sanctions15. In 2018, the very official Pyotr Akopov formulated the grand design to which Putin intended to devote his new term: “We have made a breakthrough in the development and introduction of new weapons, we have become the undisputed leaders in terms of military power. […] This means an important turning point in the overall alignment of forces on the world stage. […] As a result, it can be said that Russia can now dictate its terms. And above all, we want the transition to a new, post-American world order.” Frow now on, Russian optimism knows no bounds. Returning to the project evoked by Yeltsin before Bill Clinton in 1999, Putin proposed to President Macron to entrust European security to the Russian army at the St Petersburg meeting in May 2018. For RIA Novosti, this initiative has every chance of succeeding: “Europe’s allergy to gunpowder can enable us to develop a profitable business. Vladimir Putin has every reason to offer Russia’s services to ensure European security. The eloquent demonstration of Russian capabilities in Syria can serve as an excellent advertisement in this field. To paraphrase Lord Ismay, we can say that the common security space discussed by Macron and Putin at the St Petersburg forum can be built according to the formula: ‘The United States must be booted out of Europe, Russia’s interests in Europe must be taken into account, Europe’s independence must be supported.’ “

In 2021, Putin felt that the balance of power had shifted sufficiently in Russia’s favor to push forward. He believed he had all the winning cards: Russia would control Germany through gas and oil, and Germany would control Europe on Russia’s behalf, and could even help to “Finlandize” the United States, which saw Berlin as its main interlocutor on the Old Continent. Putin prided himself on controlling a good part of the Western elite: did he not boast to a European foreign minister that Russia could buy anyone in the United States and Europe? The American debacle in Afghanistan and the completion of Nord Stream 2 gave him reason to believe that the United States was weak and ready to retreat all around the world. He imagined Gazprom closing its taps and gas shortages bringing Europeans to their knees, while America was paralyzed by confrontation with China. For him, the Western world was ripe for a radical redistribution of power in Europe that would give Russia a hegemonic position on the continent. These premises were behind the ultimatum of December 17, 2021, which demanded that NATO backtrack on its 1997 positions. RIA Novosti explained bluntly: “These are not proposals for discussion, but an ultimatum – a demand for unconditional surrender. The West has no choice but to lose face – unless it proudly stands firm and goes to war with Russia. […] No, this time the West will have to put itself on the line.”

Emboldened by precedent, the Russian president was certain that the West would give in to his blackmail. He was certainly surprised when his ultimatum was turned down. On February 24, 2022, he launched his “special operation” in Ukraine. Its aim was not only to subdue Ukraine, but also to demonstrate to Europeans that the United States is not a reliable ally: once again he attempted to destroy the transatlantic link, because he is convinced that, cut off from the United States, European countries can be plucked one by one, like ripe fruit, integrated into the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union, retaining a Potemkin independence, with real power entrusted to the pro-Russian parties cultivated by Moscow over the last three decades. Had the United States continued to prevaricate in its aid to Ukraine, it could be argued that the Kremlin would have achieved its major objective: decoupling Europe from the United States. Like the Soviet leaders, Putin was convinced that, in the event of American withdrawal, the countries of Western Europe would fall into the Russian orbit, give themselves Quisling governments that would authorize a Russian military presence on their soil and become irremovable, thanks to the Kremlin’s winning triad: corruption, intimidation, and brainwashing. Europe’s attitude over the past few months has come as a very unpleasant surprise to Moscow, a shock comparable to that provoked by Ukraine’s unexpected resistance. European countries, daily portrayed by Russian propaganda as degenerate, cowardly, poodles of the United States, paralyzed by Brussels bureaucracy, have shown themselves resolute, supportive, and resourceful in coming to Ukraine’s aid. The outburst of Russian propaganda against European countries, France in particular, shows the extent of the Kremlin’s disappointment.

Thus, the mythological constructs of Russian power collapse one after the other: farewell to the brotherly Ukrainian people waiting with flowers for their “liberation” by Kremlin troops; farewell to the prospect of a Europe rid of the Anglo-Saxon presence throwing itself into Moscow’s embrace; farewell to the illusions of “import substitution”. But the Kremlin’s propaganda brainwashing is so effective that the majority of the Russian population do not realize that their leader, far from being a brilliant strategist, has a talent for shooting himself in the foot. Only a major military defeat can open the eyes of the Russian masses. Let us not forget that while history attests to the permanence of the Russian Empire’s expansionist dynamic, it also teaches us that suddenly, without warning, the Kremlin’s impressive mechanics of power can crack under the strain and fall to pieces, as happened in the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), in 1917, and in 1991.

Until now, the West has been prevented from acting consistently, and in particular from giving Ukraine what it needs to defeat Russia on the battlefield, by fear of chaos in Russia, should central power collapse. Western policy has always been to bet on a “strong man” rather than run the risk of dealing with an anarchic Russia. This is why we turned a blind eye to Yeltsin’s excesses and Putin’s increasingly aggressive stance. Yet, as we have seen, Russia’s messianic, expansionist, and militaristic propensities are inseparable from the autocratic matrix of Russian power. It is this matrix that Russia must rid itself of if it is to become a normal country, preoccupied with its own prosperity rather than the enslavement of others. European security depends on the eradication of Russian despotism. The tragedy we are experiencing must cure both Westerners and Russians of the pernicious mirage of a “strong power” in the Kremlin.

She has a degree in classical literature and spent 4 years in the USSR from 1973 to 1978. She is an agrégée in Russian and teaches Soviet history and international relations at Paris Sorbonne.

Footnotes

  1. Michel Heller, Histoire de la Russie et de son empire, Plon, 1997, p. 573.
  2. Claude-Charles de Peyssounnel. Archives of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. Mémoire et documents. Turkey, dossier 14 (Various provinces 1767-1820). Fol. 142.
  3. Germain de Lagny, Le Knout et les Russes, Paris, D. Giraud ed., 1853, p. 25.
  4. Germain de Lagny,op. cit., p. 5-5.
  5. Quoted in: Michel Heller,Histoire de la Russie et de son empire, Plon, 1997, p. 617.
  6. Quoted in: Jacques Bainville,La Russie et la barrière de l’Est, Plon 1937, p. 179.
  7. Quoted in: Michel Heller,Histoire de la Russie et de son empire, Plon, 1997, p. 55.
  8. Bernd Wegner (ed.),From Peace to War, Berghahn Books, Oxford 1997, p. 91.
  9. A. Dobrynin,Sougoubo doveritelno, Moskva 1997, p. 607.
  10. New York Times, Dec. 8, 1987.
  11. Declassified Documents Concerning Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Clinton Digital Library, p. 562.
  12. V. Françoise Thom, Poutine ou l’obsession de la puissance, Litos, 2022, p. 58-59.
  13. Quoted in: Françoise Thom, “La guerre cachée de la Russie contre l’Europe”,Politique Internationale, No. 147, Spring 2015.
  14. Originally, the 2012 Magnitsky Law provided for financial sanctions and visa bans against Russian officials suspected of involvement in the 2009 death in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a symbol of Russia’s fight against corruption The law was later extended to cover other cases of gross human rights violations.
  15. V. Thom, Françoise, “The globalization of Putinism”. In: Commentaire, No. 157, Spring 2017, pp. 151-160.

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