Is This the Russian Empire’s Last War?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 82

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Source: Reuters)

One hundred days into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has effectively “zeroed out” all Russian domestic politics—if politics is to be understood in the classical sense of the term as a competition of public ideas and their struggle for victory in elections. Significantly, last month (May), the leader of the Just Russia party, Sergei Mironov, called for outright canceling the September 2022 “single voting day,” in which 15 governors and 6 regional legislatures are to be elected. Mironov argued that in the conditions of a “special military operation [as the war is euphemistically called inside Russia],” political competition “splits the country”; today, everyone needs to support the president, and the money that would have been spent on holding the elections should, instead, be redirected to the needs of the army (Interfax, May 17).

Yet the Kremlin did not heed the appeal of its faithful ally, and maintained the convenient façade of democracy over Russia’s increasingly authoritarian system. Today, elections pose no danger to the authorities—opposition candidates simply do not have the opportunity to run, because of the numerous electoral “filters” that are in place. All the governors appointed by the Kremlin unanimously supported the “special military operation,” and not a single State Duma deputy has voted against it. Only two exceptions exist: individual deputies of regional parliaments spoke out against the war in the Republic of Komi (Region.Expert, March 1) and in Primorsky Krai (Sibir.Realii, May 27). Interestingly, both protesters represent the Communist Party, although the Moscow leadership of this party unconditionally supports the war. These contrarian deputies probably consciously reflected the opinion of their local communities, which often disagree with the center but have limited opportunities to express their interests due to the ban in Russia on regional political parties.

The sharp increase in censorship restrictions, when even the slogan “We are for peace” can result in prosecution (BBC News—Russian service, March 30), marks the transformation of President Vladimir Putin’s regime from authoritarian closer toward totalitarian. If Kremlin authoritarianism was characterized by the suppression of political opponents, now the regime no longer recognizes any legal status for opponents at all. Effectively, no lawful opposition exists in Russia today, and free political discussion is possible only in exile. Almost four million Russians have left the country since the beginning of this year (RBC, May 7).

The situation is reminiscent of the Soviet era before Perestroika, when legal political discussions were also fundamentally impossible—any criticism of the state ideology entailed a criminal charge of “anti-Sovietism.” But unlike the late-Soviet period, Putin’s quasi-totalitarianism is more offensive and aggressive. In addition, the current Russian ideology, if one can be identified, mixes together all the imperial stages of the country’s history (both Soviet and tsarist); while criticism of the Kremlin’s expansionist policy is portrayed as “Russophobia.” The speaker of the Federation Council (Russian senate), Valentina Matviyenko, recently said that restoring relations with the West is possible only if the latter stops “holding back Russia” (RIA Novosti, June 2). And former president Dmitry Medvedev, who has turned from a “liberal” into one of the imperial “hawks,” bluntly claimed that denial of the possibility of nuclear war is “mistaken” (RBC, June 3).

Of Russia’s remaining political science institutions, one of the most influential is the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP), created 30 years ago, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its participants have gone through a similar ideological evolution to the rest of the political system—from justifying Russia’s integration into the developed modern world to radically opposing it. And today, this “elite of the Russian political class” is focused on developing motivations and justifications for the Kremlin’s present neo-imperial course. Quite indicative was the 30th Assembly of the SVOP, held on May 14–15, with the participation of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (, accessed June 3). The attendees discussed Russia’s situation following its invasion of Ukraine and the sharp confrontation with the outside world. Leading Russian political scientists, including Dmitry Trenin (who heads the Carnegie Moscow Center, an affiliate of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), called on the Kremlin to engage in “total war.” In his remarks, Trenin directly referred to the West as an “enemy” with whom “compromise is impossible” (, May 20).

The honorary chair of the SVOP, Sergei Karaganov, earlier expressed confidence that the West would “begin to crumble” in its confrontation with Russia. Such a jingoistic attitude has become characteristic of today’s officious experts in Russia, who now rarely present any objective evidence to buttress their assessments. Indeed, despite the fact that the initial “blitzkrieg” against Ukraine failed, Karaganov is still certain that Russia will be able to “demilitarize” this country and create a “friendly government” there (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 12).

Relatedly, Konstantin Zatulin, the director of the Institute of CIS Countries, explained the need for the Kremlin’s “special military operation” by asserting that Ukraine had “betrayed” Russia by deciding to pursue an independent foreign policy. Of course, the irony of history is that when the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was created in 1991, out of the disintegrating Soviet Union, this international organization specifically declared the right of all its members to follow an independent policy. In any case, Zatulin’s implicit admission that a defeat in the war against Ukraine would call into question the continued existence of Russia is indicative (, May 1).

Such fear is now readily apparent among many pro-Kremlin figures, despite their loud militant rhetoric to the contrary. They have a foreboding sense that if Ukraine, with the help of Western Lend-Lease, manages to fend off the Russian aggression, this will lead to the final collapse of the Kremlin empire itself—so that this war may be its last.

It is noteworthy that when supporters of the Kremlin’s expansionist policies look for historical justifications, they often forsake “Russia” as such and instead reach all the way back to the era of “Muscovy” (13th–16th centuries). Thus, in his speech at the SVOP Assembly, where he called for dismantling Ukraine as a state, the National Strategy Institute’s President Mikhail Remizov cited the example of Smolensk, which the medieval Muscovite army eventually captured in 1514, over the stubborn resistance of the local population (, May 25). For Kremlin ideologists, empire presently stands above all. However, in today’s Russia, many local communities oppose the war to subjugate Ukraine, and anti-imperial inter-regional associations are even springing up (, June 3). If allowed to grow in strength, such efforts could fracture Russia from within, perhaps ensuring that the attack on Ukraine, indeed, goes down in history as the Kremlin’s last war for empire.