Why Putin’s Russia cannot accept its  borders

To understand Russia’s current obsession with Ukraine, it is important to recognize that Russia was never a state in the common usage of the term. Unlike the modern Turkish state that emerged from the Ottoman Empire, or Great Britain, which acquired and lost an empire, Russia never had an identity separate from empire. As British historian Geoffrey Hosking observed, “Britain had an empire, but Russia was an empire.”

The Kremlin’s preferred narrative of Russia rising from present-day Ukraine (“Kyivan Rus”) is a Moscow-concocted fairy tale. The officially endorsed 1000-year history of Russia is a self-created and self-perpetuated myth that generations of Russian dictators have promoted to justify their external expansion and internal repression.

Instead, what we think of today as Russia started out as a loose collection of independent city states that included Novgorod, Pskov, Smolensk, Tver, and Moscow, the last of which attained particular significance toward the end of Mongol rule a little over 500 years ago. Kyiv was no more a part of Russia then than it is now. There was no common language, no common administration, and no joint identity. Indeed, it would be centuries before the rulers of Muscovy attempted to assert their dominance over Kyiv and the lands of today’s Ukraine.

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It was the era of Mongol rule and not the Kyivan Rus inheritance that paved the way for the rise of the Russian Empire. Under Ivan III (“The Great”), Muscovy established itself as the strongest of the city states to emerge from the Mongol period. Ivan called himself “Tsar of all Rus,” but he was actually more like the mayor of Greater Moscow. It was Ivan who started the expansion of Muscovy, initiating the so-called “gathering of Russian lands.” His expansionist vision has been embraced by virtually every subsequent ruler of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation.

Ivan III’s quest to acquire new territories, often under the guise of “reuniting the lands of the ancient Rus,” continues to this day and has had a profound impact on world history. As Historian Stephen Kotkin has noted, “Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of fifty square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the earth’s landmass.”

Few of the peoples inhabiting the lands Ivan III and his successors claimed saw themselves as Russian, at least not before they were “gathered.” At the time of Ivan III’s death, Muscovy covered less than a fifth of the area of today’s Russia; notably, it did not include the territory of modern Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus, or all of Siberia. Crimea, about which Vladimir Putin rhapsodizes, was not part of the Russian Empire until Catherine II took it from the Crimean Khans in 1783.

If Putin is concerned with righting historical wrongs, he should give Crimea back to the Crimean Tatars. He won’t do this, of course, because the dynamic of imperial conquest and Russification is a key component of legitimacy for Putin, as it has been for almost all of Russia’s rulers (Yeltsin and Gorbachev partially excepted). Russia expands because its rulers need an external threat to justify their autocracy. This was as true for the Soviet period as it had been for Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great.

Putin’s Russia laments the loss of imperial glory, and has never come to terms with its repressive past. The security-expansion paradox driving Russia’s foreign and domestic policies is a vicious cycle that all empires experience to one extent or another. Acquisition creates threats inside the newly acquired territories and on the expanding borders of the growing empire. Expansion demands inward Russification and repression, and further outward expansion. As Catherine the Great famously said, “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.”

This dynamic can end in two ways: Either through external containment or internal democratization. The latter has proved problematic for the Russian people, and is not something Russia’s neighbors should count on happening any time soon. The former has worked before, during the Cold War.

Modern Russia remains an empire and does not see itself as a Great Power unless it dominates its neighbors. Consequently, Russia will continue to threaten, attack, and absorb its neighbors until the West acts collectively to contain it.

Russia and its apologists will complain that containment ignores Russia’s legitimate security concerns. This is a canard because Russia’s security concerns constantly expand. In reality, Russian leaders have absolutely nothing to worry about if they return to their country’s internationally recognized 1991 borders. The West has always respected these borders; it is Russia that has not. Until modern Russia moves beyond its deeply ingrained imperial identity, this is unlikely to change.

Glenn Chafetz has more than 30 years of experience in government, academia, and the private sector. He is now director of 2430 Group, a non-profit that helps defend the US private sector from state sponsored threats. John Sipher worked for the CIA’s Clandestine Service for 28 years. He is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin decorates Daniyar Dzhartanov, a junior lieutenant involved in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. August 2, 2023. (Sputnik/Alexey Maishev/Pool via REUTERS)