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For Russian autocracy, no amount of failure seems to be too much failure
While British politics rages, nobody dies, and, if nothing else, internecine Tory (political) bloodbaths are highly entertaining.
Meanwhile, war in Ukraine grinds on, with commentators often unaware of the extent to which Russia’s behaviour (and the shape of its excuse-making) really does have form.
New piece by Lorenzo, who is on Twitter @LorenzoFrom
Attitudes to Russia among Ukrainians. Blue is good, Orange dismissive
When discussing Russian attitudes to security, it is a much repeated truism that Russia sits on very flat terrain, with few natural barriers and that it has been invaded a lot. Starting with Swedes in the C9th, the Mongols (the infamous Tartar Yoke) in the C13th, German crusaders also in the C13th, Poles in the C17th, Swedes from the C15th to the C18th, Napoleon in 1812, Germans and their allies in both World Wars, the Entente Powers during the Russian Civil War.
That Russia has a history of being invaded is clearly true. Just as that the enormous tracts of flat terrain the Russian homeland sits on facilitates Russia being invaded is also true.
What is less remarked upon is the complicity of Russian autocracy (whether Czarist or Soviet) in many of those invasions, especially the modern ones.
Let us start with Catherine the Great (r.1762-1796) presiding over — grabbing by far the biggest share — of the partitioned Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
At that stage, Poland and Russia had been at peace for decades, apart from Russia intervening in the War of the Polish Succession. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the near perfect buffer state. It was too disorganised to wage aggressive war. It was also very easy to block any anti-Russian policies, as you simply had to get a single member of the Sejm onside, due to the liberum veto.
What did dividing up this near-perfect buffer state do? It meant that Russia now had two Great Powers (Prussia and Austria) on its borders, with borders now closer to Moscow and St Petersburg than before. All Russia’s future threats would come from those Great Powers, or their successor states, uniting against Russia, starting with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.
If you were a country in continental Europe, outside the Balkans, you were invaded by Napoleon at some stage, so a weak claim to some special national trauma. Especially as the Russians defeated Napoleon and the end-point of Napoleon’s invasion was Russian troops in Paris.
As a result of the Congress of Vienna, “Congress” Poland was created, a Kingdom of Poland in dynastic union with the Empire of Russia. So a pretty good buffer territory for the Russian homeland. Except that the Tsars not only did not acknowledge Polish autonomy, leading to repeated Polish revolts, they also persistently attempted to push Orthodoxy and to Russify Poland, which increased Polish antagonism.
Then came the Great War, where Russian mobilisation triggered the famous chain reaction of Great Power mobilisations. The stress of the War brought down the Tsarist regime. The Bolshevik coup triggered the Russian Civil War. The Bolsheviks taking Russia out of the Great War, and declaring their intent to spread Communist Revolution everywhere, led to the various Entente invasions of coastal bits of Russia, usually with fairly small forces.
Like Finland and the Baltic States, Poland bolted from the Russian Empire as soon as it could. Unlike Ukraine, Poland was able to fight off the Bolshevik attempt to re-incorporate it in their new Soviet empire.
However anti-Soviet (and anti-Russian) independent Poland was, it did constitute a buffer against Germany. Which Stalin eliminated by dividing Poland with Nazi Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
And what happened after eliminating the Polish buffer state? The same thing that happened the previous time. A (German-led this time) alliance of the states on the border (their border now again being closer to Moscow and St Petersburg than it had been) invaded Russia.
The Nazi-led invasion was, of course, horrific. As horrific as the Mongol invasions, but on an industrial scale.
Unlike the Mongol invasions, there was no Nazi Yoke. Why not? Because unlike the case of the Mongol invasions, Russia had allies that provided weapons, trucks, rolling stock, food and other war material and diverted German resources. This included forcing the Luftwaffe to defend German skies, with masses of 88mm guns pointing up at British and American bombers rather than at Soviet tanks.
Victory over Nazi Germany allowed the Soviet Union to keep its territorial gains from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Winter War and to incorporate the countries of Eastern Europe into its security system, the Warsaw Pact.
Just as the Tsars had done with Russification and Orthodoxy, the Soviets Bolshevised their vassal states. Leading to repeated revolts (East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland 1980).
And, as with Finland, the Baltic States and Poland in 1918, the Warsaw Pact states bolted from the Soviet system as soon as they good. Followed by the Baltic States and (this time successfully) Ukraine in 1991 as the Soviet Union dissolved into its constituent Republics.
So, where had over two centuries of “defence through territorial expansion” got Russia? Back to borders in some cases smaller than they had been at the end of Peter the Great’s reign (r.1682-1725). Territory lost to states that had deep reasons to fear Russia and, much worse, a rival alliance they could now join: NATO.
The Russian model of occupy-and-impose has been a disastrous failure. And yet, here we are. Putin invading Ukraine in the name of “denazification”. The same failed model, all over again.
Russia’s habit of invading neighbours not in NATO has led to formerly neutral states on Russia’s borders (Sweden and Finland) applying to join NATO. So, the borders of a rival alliance system will, once again, be closer to Moscow and St Petersburg than it had been.
Repeating the same actions and expecting a different outcome: as the saying goes, a definition of insanity. It does seem to be quite a stupid thing to keep doing.
But, when dealing with states, one is not necessarily dealing with stupidity in the “lack cognitive capacity” sense. One could be dealing with institutional stupidity: that the state you are dealing with is only capable of the one trick and the one strategy.
For the constant feature of this policy is that it has been pursued by autocratic regimes: Tsarist, Soviet or Putinist, but always autocratic. Perhaps Russian autocracy is a one-trick, one-strategy form of regime.
The consistent pattern for Russian autocracies, in dealing with European states, is that they have being trying to dominate societies whose civil culture is more developed than theirs.
When Peter the Great conquered Livonia (the Baltic States) from Sweden, he noticed that the conquered lands were much better ordered and prosperous than his own territories. He appointed some officials to look into it. They found that the Kingdom of Sweden had spent as much on the administration of the single province as Peter did for his entire Empire. So, he reduced the administration of his new province to the level of the rest of the Empire. Being conquered by Russia was a regression for the folk of the province, not progress.
This has been the persistent pattern for Russian autocracies in their conquest of European territories. Russian (including Soviet) rule makes things worse for the conquered inhabitants. This is not a path to happy subjects.
The trouble for Russian (and Soviet) autocracies is that domination is their only trick. They are driven to forcing compliance to the ideology that justifies their dominion. So, Orthodoxy and Russification under the Tsars, Bolshevism under the Soviet, security-state-kleptocracy under Putin. They cannot entice, they can only dominate. Thus, territorial expansion of their dominion is their sole strategy. Even though, across the centuries, that strategy has been a disastrous failure.
Hence, here we are again.
The past experience is that the net result for the Russian state, in the long run, is ending up worse off than when it started. What could be worse than where they started this time? The break-up of the Russian Federation.
Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime, Penguin,  1979.
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