The speed and extent of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region — a stunning display of mobile warfare — has allayed fears that Russia’s second war against the country will end, like the Donbas war of 2014, in a frozen yet lethal conflict. Given continued support from much of the democratic world, Ukraine looks much more likely to win this second war with Russia.
The battle for Ukraine is part of a larger conflict over empire and decolonisation that reaches back to the period 1914–22, broke open again in 1989–91, and has simmered since the Soviet Union split into fifteen successor states in 1991. What we are witnessing, in effect, is one battle in one theatre of a potentially much more regional conflict made up of the (civil) wars of the Soviet succession. They have combined domestic and international struggles over independence and empire with contests between dictatorship and democracy.
Ukraine is only one theatre of these conflicts. In Belarus, mass protests against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in 2020–21 were subdued with utter brutality. Russian support for the Belarusian dictator kept his regime going despite crippling sanctions, effectively turning him into a client of Moscow.
While the violence in Belarus was administered by domestic forces, similar anti-regime protests in Kazakhstan in January prompted the intervention of Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Tajik and Kyrgyz troops to help prop up the government. Most recently, the conflict over landlocked Nagorno-Karabakh, in the South Caucasus, has turned from a frozen conflict between Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-supported Azerbaijan into a shooting war after Azerbaijan, exploiting Russia’s distraction elsewhere, attacked Armenian positions on 12 September. Two days later, fighting broke out further east as well, at the volatile central Asian border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
What all of these conflicts have in common is that they are rooted in unresolved problems stemming from the breakdown of the Soviet empire in 1991.
Wars and civil wars are not unusual when empires break apart: boundaries between possible successors are unclear, loyalties fragile, legitimacies tenuous. When the Romanov empire imploded in 1917–18, the horrible fighting lasted until early 1920 in some regions, into early 1921 in others, and until 1923 in central Asia. The result, however, was a re-establishment of a new empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Only Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland remained independent, at least until the second world war. Then the three Baltic states were annexed, Poland made a satellite and Finland forced into neutrality.
What is unique about the current conflicts of the Soviet succession is that they took so long to gestate. The breakdown of the Soviet empire in 1989–91 was largely peaceful. This point can be overstressed: there was violence in Georgia in 1989 and in Lithuania in 1991, wars for and against independence in South Ossetia in 1991–92, Transnistria in 1992 and Abkhazia in 1992–93, a civil war in Tajikistan and a war-turned-frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh from 1992, and two wars to prevent Chechnya’s breaking away from Russia in 1994–96 and 1999–2000. Nevertheless, the Soviet lands were largely spared the horrors of the wars of the Yugoslav succession nearby.
One reason for this relative lack of violence was that the Soviet Union broke apart not through acrimony but from exhaustion. Anti-imperial feelings were rife not only in the non-Russian periphery of the empire, but also in the Russian heartland. Many thought their economic woes were caused by the drain the empire imposed on the state’s coffers. Better to let the non-Russians go and build a Russian national homeland.
Borders, too, were relatively well defined, with the Soviet Union’s republics providing ready-made territories for successor regimes. Again, there were exceptions (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria) but the boundaries of Soviet times generally held firm, at least until recently.
The imperial centre, Russia, experienced not only decolonisation at the periphery but also state breakdown domestically. The years after 1991 saw economic collapse accompanied by a disintegration of the state’s monopoly over the use of violence on its territory.
This was not a state capable of maintaining empire, and that only began to change with Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power from 1999. At the heart of the current president’s longstanding popularity has been his ability to rebuild the state, coupled with his good luck when rising oil prices allowed economic growth to resume.
What is easily forgotten, however, is that this was an imperial presidency from the get-go. Putin’s first major political success was the brutal victory in the second Chechen war of 1999–2000, which prevented a further decolonisation of Russia and kept a prominent non-Russian region within Moscow’s control.
The victory in Chechnya was popular across the political spectrum. I remember discussions with otherwise thoroughly liberal Russian intellectuals who insisted that this was a necessary war: if Chechnya went, who would be next? Soon, nothing might be left of Russia beyond the heartland around Moscow, from where the old empire had grown since the fourteenth century.
The Chechen war provided a model for how to leverage imperial feelings for political gain. When the petro-dollar-driven economic recovery began to stutter, when internal opposition continued to challenge his regime, however ineffectually, and when neighbouring Ukraine showed that an East Slav nation could mount repeated revolutions against kleptocrats and Russian-aligned would-be dictators, Putin mobilised the imperial undercurrent of his regime.
The proxy war in Donbas and the 2014 annexation of Crimea seemed to provide a model for how this would work: no effective resistance would be encountered; Europe and the United States would wring their hands and impose minor sanctions but do nothing of substance. An alliance of pacifists, Russophiles and “realists” could be counted on to pressure Ukraine to submit to the invader; Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas would mute its response. The government in Kyiv would run away and Russia would annex more of Ukraine and make the rest a vassal state similar to neighbouring Belarus. Putin would enter the history books as saviour of Russia’s greatness.
This strategy failed miserably. The Russian invasion got quickly bogged down by incompetence, lack of training and poorly maintained equipment. Ukraine’s government stood firm and its army fought intelligently and effectively, supported by a surprisingly united NATO and European Union.
After Ukraine had won the battle of Kyiv, Russia focused on Donbas as well as the south of Ukraine, where it could leverage shorter supply lines. Progress was slow and grinding, however, relying largely on massive artillery bombardments of Ukrainian positions. While the battle for Donbas rumbled on, Russia was unable to complete the conquest of Ukraine’s coastline, where success had initially been swiftest.
Now the tide of war has turned. If Europe, the United States, Australia and other democracies continue to support Ukraine, chances are that it will eventually liberate the rest of its territory, quite possibly including Crimea. This outcome is far from guaranteed, but it looks much more realistic now than in the dark days of February and March.
Where does this military setback leave Russia? The wager on empire has clearly failed. With Russia weakened, the other theatres in the wars of the Soviet succession might well flare up again, further threatening Russia’s claim of hegemony over the region. We are already seeing this in the recent fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia as well as the Tajik–Kyrgyz border war. In Belarus, the opposition is subdued but not eliminated. It might rear its head again, threatening one of Russia’s client regimes in the west.
As far as Ukraine is concerned, Putin could finally declare his “special military operation” an actual war, and thus invoke conscription to replenish his by now anaemic forces. This is a course of action that many on the hard right as well as the Communists support. There is a reason, however, why Putin has thus far avoided such a move: it would be deeply unpopular with men of draft age and their families.
Even if it were mobilised, it isn’t clear that an army of poorly trained conscripts could make a difference now that the effects of sanctions are starting to limit Russia’s ability to resupply its army. Short of a desperate move like a nuclear strike, Putin has few good options at present. He has missed his opportunity to pull out of Ukraine in a face-saving manner. The military setbacks have weakened him both domestically and internationally.
What is far from clear is whether this weakening will translate into regime change. A popular revolution following the Ukrainian examples of 2004–05 and 2013–14 seems unlikely, although not altogether impossible. Belarus in 2020–21 has shown that even mass protests can be repressed if army and police remain loyal. And Putin’s dictatorship has toughened up dramatically since the invasion of Ukraine in February.
If the agents of organised violence remain behind him, Putin can politically survive the military catastrophe. But whether he will pull his troops out now he has clearly lost is another matter. He is more likely to try to stay the course and defend the territory he still controls. Thus Ukraine will continue to need outside support — including supplies of heavy weapons — to win this crucial part of the delayed wars of the Soviet succession. •