The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
The current crisis between Russia and Ukraine is a reckoning that has been 30 years in the making. It is about much more than Ukraine and its possible NATO membership. It is about the future of the European order crafted after the Soviet Union’s collapse. During the 1990s, the United States and its allies designed a Euro-Atlantic security architecture in which Russia had no clear commitment or stake, and since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been challenging that system. Putin has routinely complained that the global order ignores Russia’s security concerns, and he has demanded that the West recognize Moscow’s right to a sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. He has staged incursions into neighboring states, such as Georgia, that have moved out of Russia’s orbit in order to prevent them from fully reorienting.
Putin has now taken this approach one step further. He is threatening a far more comprehensive invasion of Ukraine than the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in the Donbas that Russia carried out in 2014, an invasion that would undermine the current order and potentially reassert Russia’s preeminence in what he insists is its “rightful” place on the European continent and in world affairs. He sees this as a good time to act. In his view, the United States is weak, divided, and less able to pursue a coherent foreign policy. His decades in office have made him more cynical about the United States’ staying power. Putin is now dealing with his fifth U.S. president, and he has come to see Washington as an unreliable interlocutor. The new German government is still finding its political feet, Europe on the whole is focused on its domestic challenges, and the tight energy market gives Russia more leverage over the continent. The Kremlin believes that it can bank on Beijing’s support, just as China supported Russia after the West tried to isolate it in 2014.
Putin may still decide not to invade. But whether he does or not, the Russian president’s behavior is being driven by an interlocking set of foreign policy principles that suggest Moscow will be disruptive in the years to come. Call it “the Putin doctrine.” The core element of this doctrine is getting the West to treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union, a power to be respected and feared, with special rights in its neighborhood and a voice in every serious international matter. The doctrine holds that only a few states should have this kind of authority, along with complete sovereignty, and that others must bow to their wishes. It entails defending incumbent authoritarian regimes and undermining democracies. And the doctrine is tied together by Putin’s overarching aim: reversing the consequences of the Soviet collapse, splitting the transatlantic alliance, and renegotiating the geographic settlement that ended the Cold War.
Russia, according to Putin, has an absolute right to a seat at the table on all major international decisions. The West should recognize that Russia belongs to the global board of directors. After what Putin portrays as the humiliation of the 1990s, when a greatly weakened Russia was forced to accede to an agenda set by the United States and its European allies, he has largely achieved this goal. Even though Moscow was ejected from the G-8 after its annexation of Crimea, its veto on the United Nations Security Council and role as an energy, nuclear, and geographic superpower ensure that the rest of the world must take its views into account. Russia successfully rebuilt its military after the 2008 war with Georgia, and it is now the preeminent regional military power, with the capability to project power globally. Moscow’s ability to threaten its neighbors enables it to force the West to the negotiating table, as has been so evident in the past few weeks.
As far as Putin is concerned, the use of force is perfectly appropriate if Russia believes that its security is threatened: Russia’s interests are as legitimate as those of the West, and Putin asserts that the United States and Europe have been disregarding them. For the most part, the United States and Europe have rejected the Kremlin’s narrative of grievance, which centers most notably on the breakup of the Soviet Union and especially the separation of Ukraine from Russia. When Putin described the Soviet collapse as a “great geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” he was lamenting the fact that 25 million Russians found themselves outside of Russia, and he particularly criticized the fact that 12 million Russians found themselves in the new Ukrainian state. As he wrote in a 5,000-word treatise published last summer and titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in 1991, “people found themselves abroad overnight, taken away, this time indeed, from their historical motherland.” His essay has recently been distributed to Russian troops.
In an essay last year, Putin wrote that Ukraine was being turned into “a springboard against Russia.”
This narrative of loss to the West is tied in to a particular obsession of Putin’s: the idea that NATO, not content to merely admit or aid post-Soviet states, might threaten Russia itself. The Kremlin insists that this preoccupation is based on real concerns. Russia, after all, has been repeatedly invaded from the West. In the twentieth century, it was invaded by anti-Bolshevik allied forces, including some from the United States, during its civil war from 1917 to 1922. Germany invaded twice, leading to the loss of 26 million Soviet citizens in World War II. Putin has explicitly linked this history to Russia’s current concerns about NATO infrastructure nearing Russia’s borders and Moscow’s resulting demands for security guarantees.
Today, however, Russia is a nuclear superpower brandishing new, hypersonic missiles. No country—least of all its smaller, weaker neighbors—has any intention of invading Russia. Indeed, the country’s neighbors to its west have a different narrative and stress their vulnerability over the centuries to invasion from Russia. The United States would also never attack, although Putin has accused it of seeking to “cut a juicy piece of our pie.” Nevertheless, the historical self-perception of Russia’s vulnerability resonates with the country’s population. Government-controlled media are filled with claims that Ukraine could be a launching pad for NATO aggression. Indeed, in his essay last year, Putin wrote that Ukraine was being turned into “a springboard against Russia.”
Putin also believes that Russia has an absolute right to a sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. This means its former Soviet neighbors should not join any alliances that are deemed hostile to Moscow, particularly NATO or the European Union. Putin has made this demand clear in the two treaties proposed by the Kremlin on December 17, which require that Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries—as well as Sweden and Finland—commit to permanent neutrality and eschew seeking NATO membership. NATO would also have to retreat to its 1997 military posture, before its first enlargement, by removing all troops and equipment in central and eastern Europe. (This would reduce NATO’s military presence to what it was when the Soviet Union disintegrated.) Russia would also have veto power over the foreign policy choices of its non-NATO neighbors. This would ensure that pro-Russian governments are in power in countries bordering Russia—including, foremost, Ukraine.
So far, no Western government has been prepared to accept these extraordinary demands. The United States and Europe widely embrace the premise that nations are free to determine both their domestic systems and their foreign policy affiliations. From 1945 to 1989, the Soviet Union denied self-determination to central and eastern Europe and exercised control over both the domestic and foreign policies of Warsaw Pact members through local communist parties, the secret police, and the Red Army. When a country strayed too far from the Soviet model—Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968—its leaders were ousted by force. The Warsaw Pact was an alliance that had a unique track record: it invaded only its own members.
The modern Kremlin’s interpretation of sovereignty has notable parallels to that of the Soviet Union. It holds, to paraphrase George Orwell, that some states are more sovereign than others. Putin has said that only a few great powers—Russia, China, India, and the United States—enjoy absolute sovereignty, free to choose which alliances they join or reject. Smaller countries such as Ukraine or Georgia are not fully sovereign and must respect Russia’s strictures, just as Central America and South America, according to Putin, must heed their large northern neighbor. Russia also does not seek allies in the Western sense of the word but instead looks for mutually beneficial instrumental and transactional partnerships with countries, such as China, that do not restrict Russia’s freedom to act or pass judgment on its internal politics.
Such authoritarian partnerships are an element of the Putin doctrine. The president presents Russia as a supporter of the status quo, an advocate of conservative values, and an international player that respects established leaders, especially autocrats. As recent events in Belarus and Kazakhstan have shown, Russia is the go-to power to support embattled authoritarian rulers. It has defended autocrats both in its neighborhood and far beyond—including in Cuba, Libya, Syria, and Venezuela. The West, according to the Kremlin, instead supports chaos and regime change, as happened during the 2003 Iraq war and the Arab Spring in 2011.
The Warsaw Pact was an alliance that had a unique track record: it invaded only its own members.
But in its own “sphere of privileged interests,” Russia can act as a revisionist power when it considers its interests threatened or when it wants to advance its interests, as the annexation of Crimea and the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine demonstrated. Russia’s drive to be acknowledged as a leader and backer of strongmen regimes has been increasingly successful in recent years as Kremlin-backed mercenary groups have acted on behalf of Russia in many parts of the world, as is the case in Ukraine.
Moscow’s revisionist interference also isn’t limited to what it considers its privileged domain. Putin believes Russia’s interests are best served by a fractured transatlantic alliance. Accordingly, he has supported anti-American and Euroskeptic groups in Europe; backed populist movements of the left and right on both sides of the Atlantic; engaged in election interference; and generally worked to exacerbate discord within Western societies. One of his major goals is to get the United States to withdraw from Europe. U.S. President Donald Trump was contemptuous of the NATO alliance and dismissive of some of the United States’ key European allies—notably then German Chancellor Angela Merkel—and spoke openly of pulling the United States out of the organization. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has assiduously sought to repair the alliance, and indeed Putin’s manufactured crisis over Ukraine has reinforced alliance unity. But there is enough doubt within Europe about the durability of U.S. commitment after 2024 that Russia has found some success reinforcing skepticism, particularly through social media.
Weakening the transatlantic alliance could pave the way for Putin to realize his ultimate aim: jettisoning the post–Cold War, liberal, rules-based international order promoted by Europe, Japan, and the United States in favor of one more amenable to Russia. For Moscow, this new system might resemble the nineteenth-century concert of powers. It could also turn into a new incarnation of the Yalta system, where Russia, the United States, and now China divide the world into tripolar spheres of influence. Moscow’s growing rapprochement with Beijing has indeed reinforced Russia’s call for a post-West order. Both Russia and China demand a new system in which they exercise more influence in a multipolar world.
The nineteenth- and twentieth-century systems both recognized certain rules of the game. After all, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union mostly respected each other’s spheres of influence. The two most dangerous crises of that era—Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1958 Berlin ultimatum and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—were defused before military conflict broke out. But if the present is any indication, it looks as if Putin’s post-West “order” would be a disordered Hobbesian world with few rules of the game. In pursuit of his new system, Putin’s modus operandi is to keep the West off balance, guessing about his true intentions, and then surprising it when he acts.
Given Putin’s ultimate goal, and given his belief that now is the time to force the West to respond to his ultimatums, can Russia be deterred from launching another military incursion into Ukraine? No one knows what Putin will ultimately decide. But his conviction that the West has ignored what he deems Russia’s legitimate interests for three decades continues to drive his actions. He is determined to reassert Russia’s right to limit the sovereign choices of its neighbors and its former Warsaw Pact allies and to force the West to accept these limits—be that by diplomacy or military force.
That doesn’t mean the West is powerless. The United States should continue to pursue diplomacy with Russia and seek to craft a modus vivendi that is acceptable to both sides without compromising the sovereignty of its allies and partners. At the same time, it should keep coordinating with the Europeans to respond and impose costs on Russia. But it is clear that even if Europe avoids war, there is no going back to the situation as it was before Russia began massing its troops in March 2021. The ultimate result of this crisis could be the third reorganization of Euro-Atlantic security since the late 1940s. The first came with the consolidation of the Yalta system into two rival blocs in Europe after World War II. The second emerged from 1989 to 1991, with the collapse of the communist bloc and then the Soviet Union itself, followed by the West’s subsequent drive to create a Europe “whole and free.” Putin now directly challenges that order with his moves against Ukraine.
As the United States and its allies await Russia’s next move and try to deter an invasion with diplomacy and the threat of heavy sanctions, they need to understand Putin’s motives and what they portend. The current crisis is ultimately about Russia redrawing the post–Cold War map and seeking to reassert its influence over half of Europe, based on the claim that it is guaranteeing its own security. It may be possible to avert a military conflict this time. But as long as Putin remains in power, so will his doctrine.
Triumphalism Replaces Reckoning as Russia Remembers the Soviet Past