Russia Didn’t Invade Ukraine Because Of What It Has Always Been But Because Of What It Became Over Last 30 Years – OpEd


Many are inclined to say that “Russia is attacking Russia because that is the nature of Russia,” Vasily Zharkov says; but such an essentialist explanation fails to explain why Moscow has behaved differently at different times. In fact, he says, Russia is attacking Ukraine because of what Russia has become over the last three decades.

The Vilnius-based Russian scholar argues that the neo-imperialist tradition the Russian Federation inherited from the late Soviet past has developed in three areas and that these have now come together to explain why Vladimir Putin is doing what he is doing in Ukraine (

First of all were changes in the ideology of the country where the new rulers placed a bet on a conservative revolution, “’a return to sources,” a shift that Moscow generally received the backing of the West. But this turn emphasized certain imperial dimensions which have now come home to roost.

Second, there were important structural changes, Zharkov says. “The economic reforms in Russia in the early 1990s presupposed a harsh centralized approach to the administration of the country,” and that transformed Moscow into an imperial metropolis which “exploited the rest of the country as territory it controlled.”

For Moscow, the rest of Russia has played the role of “an internal abroad.” The city is “an enclave of the First World living by stealing from the territory of the rest of the county which has remained in the Third World. A move by a resident of a Russian province is equivalent to emigration to developed countries of the West.”

Over the last three decades, Zharkov continues, Moscow has become much more like a metropolitan center than even what it was in Soviet times. “Russian regions serve as colonies for the golden ‘ten million’ Muscovites … and there is a colonial administration that controls and exploits the resources of the rest of today’s Russia.”

And third, Moscow itself has come to be dominated by the military and bureaucratic apparatuses which are no longer supervised by the CPSU but by second and third tier people from the past who were not excluded from rule by any lustration but began to act as they had always wanted to.

According to Zharkov, “big business and the institutions of civil society developed exclusively with the permission and the underlying support of the military-bureaucratic apparatus which became much more powerful than it had been in the Soviet past.” And this regime learned how to use new communications technology to keep the people in line.

These three changes have “created an amazing formation— ‘the Moscow empire’” – and it should have come as no surprise that it would behave as an empire toward Ukraine and its other neighbors and the West as well, Zharkov says. Hence, the current invasion of Ukraine and its imperialist challenges to the world.

In the longer term, of course, “this empire is doomed to collapse,” he argues. But precisely because that is the case, this has played “an evil joke” on Russians. Their “faith in the inevitability of the victory of the forces of democracy and progress over authoritarianism and the archaic has weakened out resolve to fight against a monster that won’t give up without a fight.” 

Russians and everyone else need “to stop see the Moscow Empire simply as a revenant from the past. Its current form is deeply integrated into the modern economy of capitalism and has a completely modern character” very much at odds with much of Russian history. That suggests it will last longer than many want and it will end only when the West changes as well. 

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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