One reads a lot of weird and fanciful things about Russia. The place is such an enigma to some that attempts to understand it leads one to make all sorts of absurd connections. Take for example, Anthony Julius’ commentary “Dreams of Empire Strike Back” in the Guardian. Julius, whose bio says that he’s a “highly-regarded litigation lawyer specializing in media law and defamation,” poses the rather calumniatory question: “What do Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Putin have in common?” Those who think that the obvious answer is a resounding “nothing” will be surprised to find that Julius believes that the vozhd and the terrorist “have identical perspectives on one specific issue” i.e. the desire to recreate a past empire. He writes:
What is that issue? Bin Laden’s and Putin’s imperialist ambitions are novel because they are driven not by a desire to create something new, but to recapture something that has past. It is now appropriate to consider an additional age of empire, namely the age of attempted restoration.
For Osama bin Laden, it is the Arab-Islamic empire of the mid-seventh century. Bin Laden has romanticised this period in Arab history and sees himself as heir apparent to the earthly caliphate established (briefly) by the warrior prophet Muhammad. When justifying his attacks on western targets, he frequently makes reference to the crusaders and Jews who have thwarted the return of the Arab-Islamic empire.
Putin is also driven by a desire to revive a lost empire, the Soviet Union. In Ukraine and Georgia, Putin has shown that he is not reconciled to its dissolution. He tolerates the independence of the former Soviet states only when such independence is superficial. True acts of independence (such as asserting territorial integrity or attempting to negotiate the terms of an ostensibly commercial contract) are met with forceful demonstrations of Russian strength.
Reading this one might even walk away thinking that Putin is worse than Bin Laden. For while the latter sits in some undisclosed cavernous location along the Afghan-Pakistani border dreaming up “delusional” imperial ambitions, the former’s dreams are “real” backed with a formidable state and its military might. Putin, unlike his Islamist counterpart, is a “master tactician” who deploys the right weapon at the right time. In Ukraine it was the soft power of the economics of gas; in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the silent weapon of doling out Russian passports or using Russian mobile companies to “expand Russian influence in the region.” The August war was merely the cherry on top of Putin’s imperial sundae.
Predictably, in August last year, Putin seized the opportunity to complete his program of expansion. The final stage: the expulsion and murder of elements in the subject population. The burning of ethnic Georgian villages and the forced ejection or murder of their Georgian inhabitants by paramilitary irregulars, armed by Russia, suggests a systematic project of altering the ethnic composition of the regions in Russia’s favour. It defines a moment in which Putin’s imperial dreams became a reality.
I don’t know. Last I checked Russia wasn’t occupying Kiev or Tblisi, unlike say Baghdad and Kabul. Or standing idle as its 51st state turns Gaza into corpse laden rubble for no other discernible reason than to manipulate its election. Or using drones to wage a silent but deadly war in Pakistan. Perhaps the question is not about resurrecting old empires as it is about maintaining the borderless jurisdiction of a current one. Julius’ own dreams of Russian imperial revival have clearly obfuscated the real imperial reality before him.