1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'Russia is not an empire'

Efim Schuhmann
June 12, 2019

Historian Martin Aust sat down with DW to discuss Russia's imperial heritage and the annexation of Crimea. He also offered predictions about life in the country if and when President Vladimir Putin ultimately steps down.

Putin gives ORF an Interview
Image: picture-alliance/Russian Look/Kremlin Pool

Deutsche Welle: Professor Aust, in your new book "The Shadow of the Empire ― Russia since 1991," you emphasize that if one wants to understand Russia, one cannot demonize it as an evil empire. But Russia is an empire, isn't it?

Martin Aust: No, Russia is not an empire. That becomes clear looking at the difference between Russia since 1991 and older iterations —  czarism and the Soviet Union. If you look at it from this perspective, Russia "lost" a number of territories in 1991 that had been part of czarist Russia and the Soviet Union.

Read more: Why Putin wants to make 'new Russians' out of Ukrainians

That's why in my eyes, Russia is in a post-imperial situation. It has an imperial heritage, but it's not an empire anymore.

But the Russian leadership is trying to reclaim these "lost" territories, the Crimean peninsula, for example. And there are other disputed territories like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria.

These regions have very different statuses. Russia has incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation. In the West, we say: "Russia has annexed Crimea." But this is very different from the status of Transnistria or South Ossetia, for example. These regions are difficult to compare. Nor can we read this as a way of the government in Moscow trying to recapture the lost empire.

Martin Aust, Professor für die Geschichte und Kultur Osteuropas an der Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
Academic and author Martin AustImage: privat

Crimea has an emotional value for Russia that Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not. If it were discussed that Transnistria should become part of the Russian Federation, it would not spark such patriotic enthusiasm as the Crimea situation did in Russia in 2014.

I think Russian political leadership is acting very in-the-moment and improvising on a case-by-case basis. This does not rule out the possibility that situations may arise in the future in which other regions will be more closely tied to Russia again.

You write in your book that Putin miscalculated in 2014, that the Kremlin had not expected such a sharp and united Western reaction to the annexation of Crimea and expansion in eastern Ukraine.

If one takes Putin's project of the Eurasian Economic Union as a basis, then it was his great wish that Ukraine become part of it. This reflects Russia's strong desire since 1991 to keep the link between Ukraine and Russia as close as possible. Most Ukrainian presidents have respected this by having a policy that goes back and forth between Russia and the European Union.

Read more: Transnistria — Russia's satellite state an open wound in Eastern Europe

But that period of Ukrainian policy definitely ended in 2014. The demarcation line that Ukraine has now drawn between itself and Russia is more pronounced than ever before. Putin has thus actually created exactly the situation that Russian government circles have always feared. He has lost Ukraine for good.

But in return he has consolidated Russia's domestic policy.

I would not even say that. In 2014, there was a great national mobilization, perhaps on the first anniversary in March 2015. But since then I can't see any greater patriotic enthusiasm in Russia about the fact that Crimea is part of Russia again.

When it comes to Russia's national budget, critics are asking questions: How much the construction of the infrastructure necessary to tie Crimea to Russia costs, how much the social benefits for the people of Crimea cost, and how high the cost of Russia's unacknowledged but recognizable involvement in the covert war in eastern Ukraine are.

Soldiers at a military base in Crimea
Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014Image: Reuters

At the end of your book you lay out future scenarios. What could happen after Putin?

I have described three scenarios. One would be the continuation of the Crimean scenario. Thus, more regions of Russia will be added on a case-by-case basis. One country that is discussed again and again when it comes to this is Belarus, which is already linked to Russia in a union. Whenever joint maneuvers are held and the Russian military is very present in Belarus, the media raise the question of whether Belarus could be the next candidate to become part of the Russian Federation.

Read more: Russian propaganda 'a multitude of lies and absurd news'

The opposite scenario would be that economic problems increase, that resources for politics would be reduced and that new forms of disintegration might occur. At a time after Putin, power would be uncertain, and regionalisms would be much more strongly articulated in Russia again. This could call the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation into question.

Another scenario, which lies between these two, would be not to link the future of the Russian Federation to territorial issues, but to try to readjust the political system in Russia. I think that in the time after Putin, Russia expects, above all, a competition for power that is difficult to assess. It will be difficult to imagine a figure who grants Putin complete protection and immunity. How the group of about 100 families in Putin's circle of power is going to find a solution that sees another person replace Putin is a mystery to me.

Martin Aust is a German historian, university lecturer and author. He is a professor of Eastern European history at the University of Bonn.