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 the Russia since 1991 and the older iterations, the czardom and the Soviet Union. If you look at it from this perspective, Russia “lost” many territories in 1991 that used to be part of the czardom and the Soviet Union.
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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 South Ossetia, Abkhazia, 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.
Academic and author Martin Aust
Crimea has an emotional value for Russia that Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not have. 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 the 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 the book that Putin miscalculated in 2014. The Kremlin had not expected such a sharp and united reaction from the West 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 a great wish that Ukraine should become part of this union. 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.
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But the time of this 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 costs of Russia’s unacknowledged but recognizable involvement in the covert war in eastern Ukraine are.
Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014
At the end of your book you show 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.
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The opposite scenario would be that economic problems would 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, regionalisms would be much more strongly articulated in Russia again, which might call into question the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.
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.