Speaking at the UN General Assembly, President of France Emmanuel Macron vowed to continue efforts to find peace in Ukraine while at the same time he accused Russia of ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’. The accusations provoke an urge to figure out how Russia found itself in a fundamental opposition to the West and are Moscow’s ‘imperial ambitions’ really to blame.
Noteworthy, it’s not the first time Macron slams Russia as ‘one of the last colonial empires’. Not so long ago he did it while visiting… Benin – a former colony of France that is economically and politically dependent on Paris. Just like many other countries in the Sahel region which is still in the French sphere of interests enforced through the presence of France’s military (aka. neocolonialism). Besides, we can recall what were the consequences of the true and not some imaginary neocolonial ambitions of France and some other European countries for the long-suffering people of Libya. There are plenty of similar examples out there.
But back to Russia. How has its foreign policy been developing and what role has the West played in the process? We will have to start from afar.
In the late 1980s the majority of Russians were citizens of the USSR. They were enthusiastic and hopeful about the new course for foreign policy change announced by Mikhail Gorbachev who at the time was at the height of his political career and popularity among world leaders. The course assumed ‘new political thinking’, i.e. it rejected ideological opposition and bipolar world order, it proposed new approach to resolving international conflicts by taking into account the interests of all parties concerned, it recognized the precedence of traditional universal human values over national, ideological, religious and other clichés. People of Russia were encouraged by the positive reaction of Western leaders to the decisions of the Soviet President who aimed at improving international relations, reducing tension and disarmament – primarily the reduction of weapons of mass destruction. It seemed that in a short while people from Russia, Europe, Asia, both Americas and citizens of the entire world would live in a new reality that would have no place for war, ideological dogmas and unfair rivalry. In a world where all conflicts would be resolved through diplomacy, and combined efforts of the civilized world community would be aimed at overcoming social, economic and ecological problems – because there would be no other problems.
It was assumed that the main precondition for building that world order was the admittance of Russia to the family of civilized nations a priori made up of its ‘cold-war’ rivals. The Russians understood well enough what price they would have to pay for the promising future (their future as well as the future of mankind). It was all about their consent to the breakup of USSR – the greatest empire in the history of Russia and possibly the world, the empire that occupied a considerable part of Eurasia and exerted its influence over half of the world.
People’s willingness to pay such a high price resulted in a movement for democratic changes. A small, but dominant part of politically active Soviet society was engulfed by the movement. It was indeed a fierce struggle with a huge mass of compatriots either indifferent to the ideas of democracy or those who totally rejected them! So-called dissidents were subject to persecution from the Communist Party and law-enforcement agencies which still retained repressive powers. But eventually it all ended with a universal victory when the ideas of freedom were accepted by the many and millions of people flooded the streets of the Soviet cities marching in support of the forthcoming changes.
It is safe to say that those large-scale demonstrations of the people’s commitment to the democratic reformation of the state in Russia and in every other republic of the USSR as well as in the countries of the socialist camp inspired Soviet leaders to take certain actions which resulted in the break-up of the USSR and the Soviet Empire. The driving force behind the process was not the personal will of Mikhail Gorbachev and his pro-Western attitude but the efforts of the Soviet people – mostly Russians – to stop the ‘cold war’ and the rivalry of the two systems, to end the arms race which almost led to a nuclear war. Among the actions of the Soviet leadership were the July 1985 unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests; proposed by the USSR summit meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan held in Reykjavik in October 1986 which was a starting point in the process of ending the ‘cold war’; Moscow’s decision to voluntarily dissolve the Warsaw Pact in July 1991; providing assistance in reuniting Germany; support to democratic reforms in Soviet republics as well as recognition of their independence; withdrawal of Soviet military from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America… All those promising changes that happened in the world in the early 1990s would have been impossible without the steps taken by the Soviets who believed they were moving towards the world order based on the principles of mutual understanding and respect.
The Russian people were rightfully proud that they made the most significant contribution to the victory over the Communist regime which hindered the evolution of mankind. Many Russians had no doubt that the break-up of the Soviet Empire will mark the beginning of the World Without Empires where even the idea of ‘imperialism’ would be a disgrace. The world where all the peoples could live and prosper, exercising equal rights and freedoms. The desire to be a part of such a world and to prevent the return to the old days of Communism forced the Russian people to the Moscow streets in August 1991 when three of them died to stop the tank columns led by the ‘putschists’ who tried to bring back the past.
It is hard to imagine the surprise of the former Soviet people when they returned home only to find out that it was not them who achieved the victory over the Communist chimera, disrupted the mighty Soviet Empire and opened the door for inspiring changes in the world. All of a sudden, they were told that all of it happened because the West won the victory over the USSR in the ‘cold war’!
It was the time of dreadful disappointment. The economic reforms supervised by the Western experts failed leading to the elimination of entire industries, bankruptcy of many businesses, mounting unemployment and impoverishment of the people. The West gave Russia not a single chance for honest competition. Those Russian enterprises which could enter the global market were sold for a mere song to foreigners exercising the right of the winners in the ‘cold war’. Some of the companies were later demolished. Those workers of the companies who didn’t drank themselves to death and didn’t lay hands on themselves either became sellers of consumer goods in spontaneous markets that infested Russian cities or joined the criminal gangs which took control over the entire business in the country. Instead of equal cooperation with the West Russia received scornful attitude towards its interests and derogatory gifts in the form of ‘humanitarian assistance’. It faced the prospects of being an eternal supplier of cheap energy at the price set not by the market but by the foreign patrons of the Kremlin. But the West was not content with the subordinate position of Russia – some prominent voices frequently spoke of Russia’s ‘unfair’ possession of natural resources and the necessity to reduce the country’s population to the extent which would ensure the extraction of resources and their export.
There was another disappointment for Russia on its way to joining the family of civilized nations which were expected to demolish their imperial and quasi-imperial establishments after the Soviet threat disappeared. Instead, in violation of every agreement the US and their European allies began achieving their imperial ambition by expanding NATO to the East at the same time scornfully ignoring Russia’s requests to join the alliance even though its existence in the previous form was at odds with the new reality. According to the witnesses, prominent Russian liberals like Yegor Gaidar begged influential western politicians to stop the NATO expansion because they understood that this flagrant defiance of the expectations of the Russian people would catastrophically undermine positions of the reformers in the country.
Even after some of the ex-Soviet countries were accepted to NATO Russia was willing to establish trust-based partnership. It led to signing of the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security in May 1997. However right after the act was signed NATO expanded to include former USSR republics, i.e. countries that separated from Russia due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. After that the alliance conducted an unprecedented for the post-war Europe large-scale military operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The operation was absolutely illegal in terms of the international law and the reasons for it were totally contrived.
By the way, the West ostracized Yugoslavia and after its break-up – Serbia because they refused to adopt an anti-Russian foreign policy which became mainstream among post-Soviet states. New national elites were pragmatic in their decision to make profit out of their negative attitude towards their former parent state. They continue to ostentatiously distance themselves from it to justify their staying in power. In exchange for financial, economic, political and military support from the West post-Soviet regimes in the Baltic States, Ukraine and to the lesser extent in Moldova and Kazakhstan introduced strict regulations discriminating against the Russian-speaking population. Whereas newly established Central Asian states never objected to domestic Russophobia, anti-Russian riots, oppression and ethnic cleansings which forced many Russians to leave those states. To recap, the West intentionally encouraged Russophobia, various violations of rights of the Russian-speaking people – e.g. ban on learning and using the Russian language – in former Soviet republics whose independence was first recognized by Russia.
The circumstances forces those who took so much pains to build the World Without Empires – i.e. to destroy the USSR – to review their understanding of the future world order and to focus their efforts on saving at least something that was left of the Soviet Empire which once was their Motherland that they demolished with their own hands. Just like in the late 1990s politically active minority of the Russian society shouldered the responsibility for saving Russia from collapse and for protecting it from any claims made by ‘political partners’. This was not the result of the Kremlin propaganda, but an informed decision to choose a side in the disengaged world. And if it seems to you that the Russian Federation is again turning into an Empire, just look closely. Is this really so?
Let’s leave aside the situation in Ukraine – history will make the judgement of it and determine Russia’s role in it. It can be said however that this nightmare could have been avoided if the Russians hadn’t been forced to stand up to the rabid Russophobia and defend the rights of the Russian-speaking people who have been living in the war-struck lands since the olden days.
Any attempts of Russia to show independence are treated as ‘imperialism’ that needs to be resisted at all costs. Willingness of Russian companies to expand energy supplies to Europe, ensuring its stability and prosperity, was also seen as ‘imperialism’. Although it is clearly becoming less relevant day by day. Moscow’s efforts to normalize the situation in Syria and some African countries is also perceived as ‘imperialism’. Russia, as well as many other nations with centuries-old cultural tradition, is unwilling to accept aggressively enforced by the West ‘cancel culture’ and norms of tolerance accompanied by the LGBTQIA+ agenda. This is also labelled as ‘imperialism’. In fact, we should accept the new meaning of the word and use it accordingly. If we say that revival of the empire means protecting diversity of the world and its peoples from dissipating in the post-western society of mindless consumption, society that has cut its roots and imposes its vision of life as the only possible way for the people to coexist… well, then long live the Russian Empire!