Russia’s Borders In Thirty Years: A Vision, Not A Certainty

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We cannot project with any assurance where Russia’s boundaries will lie in thirty years. There are far too many variables, from the Islamist contagion to China’s appetite and others yet unknown. But we do know roughly what Russia’s current czar would like those borders to be, should an enervated world continue to bow to Moscow’s will.

To begin, we must erase the Soviet Union and its empire from our minds and turn to a map of Imperial Russia circa 1900. Not only does that better match Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but it better suits the strategic math of our times. We must recognize how Russian imperialism has changed (and how it has not): Putin’s vision recognizes that occupation can be not only costly—a constant drain on the center—but counterproductive. A Great-Russian nationalist, rather than a Communist internationalist (however trumped up and false the Soviet impulse may have been), Putin believes that Russia must reunite the Slavic heartlands, above all, central and eastern Ukraine, Belarus (yesteryear’s White Russia) and those stretches of Kazakhstan with a heavy Russian population and ties to Russia’s core history (Kazakhstan was a Soviet creation, not a historical inevitability). Although their native peoples are not Slavs (except the Lithuanians), the Baltic states also belong to Russia’s nationalist claim-stake. The Russian Federation, should it still exist in thirty years and achieve Putin’s goals, would stretch from Vilnius to Vladivostok and from Odessa to Murmansk.

Europe’s eastern marches pose a conundrum for Putin, given their much-revised borders. “Ukraine,” to Putin and like-minded Russians stops short of Lviv (Lvov, Lemberg), which was only occupied by Russians, in Soviet guise, after the Great Patriotic War. Historically Polish (and Jewish and Ruthenian and Galician and Slav, and generally a vibrant pot that refused to melt) and long ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Lviv was where Europe ended, not where “the Ukraine” (to use the old definite article) began. Despite the Soviet interlude, one would never mistake Lviv for a Russian city and Putin may well regard Western Ukraine as too much of a bother and be willing to let it exist as a rump state.

Moldova, though, echoes for Putin, tied to the campaigns of Peter the Great and Catherine II. For that matter, the entire Black Sea coast as far as Rumania’s border is “Russian” in Putin’s eyes.

Eastern Poland, on the other hand, was occupied by Russia after the eighteenth-century partitions, but was always regarded as occupied territory, obstreperous, ungrateful, and impossible to integrate, preferring to feel the knout than to embrace Pan-Slavic brotherhood. With Poland a bitter historical enemy since the rise of Muscovy, eastern Poland is one former czarist possession that Putin will regard as too hard to digest: The Poles are just too much trouble, better to outflank, confine and neuter them.

Beyond the Slavic realms, Putin envisions two strategic tiers, the first composed of satrapies—an intensification of the current conditions in Central Asia and his goal for the Trans-Caucasus—a sphere of indirect control, but with strategic garrisons and explicit obligations to the czar. The second tier would be a sphere of influence that reached beyond Russia’s old imperial borders.

First, the sphere of indirect, but uncompromising control. The “Stans” of Central Asia belonged to the Russian empire, but not to the Russian core. Conquered in the course of the nineteenth century, Russia’s “wild east” became a drain on the Soviet economy. Putin and any chosen heir would not make the mistake of assuming liability for their inadequacies. Implicit, rather than explicit, mastery will suffice (except in a crisis). These states must exclude other actors, serve as strategic buffers, provide resources (including labor, as Russia’s population declines), and generally behave. Current boundaries serve Russia’s purposes reasonably well, allowing a game of divide and rule. Essentially, the “Stans” would have a relationship to Moscow similar to that of the old Warsaw Pact states, one of strategic obedience and policy deference.

In the Trans-Caucasus, Armenia needs Russia; Georgia fears Russia; and Azerbaijan is increasingly careful not to cross Russia. Until Moscow sees a better opportunity for reclaiming these states, it artfully keeps them divided among themselves by manipulating the Karabakh conflict and taking an occasional bite out of Georgia. Putin would like to repossess the Trans-Caucasus, but, for now, it’s enough to keep other players out. The czar’s European realm is the priority.

And any future Russian empire will make extravagant claims upon the Arctic.

The second, outer tier, a sphere of influence, still craves warm water ports and a pan-Slavic federation led by Russia. Follow the old wars, and you find Putin’s new ambitions. He would like the future Russia to exercise exclusive influence over the territories that Russia wrested, or helped wrest, from the Ottomans: Romania, Bulgaria, and outlying Serbia (and, possibly, Montenegro: ports again).

If you want to see the core Russia of the future, look at a map of Russia late in the reign of Czar Nicholas I. If you want to fix the satrapies meant to be vassal states of Moscow, follow Russia’s nineteenth-century armies southward into the Caucasus and eastward into Central Asia’s old Khanates. To trace the outer boundaries of Russia’s desired zone of exclusive or closely shared influence, follow the czarist armies of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into those stretches of Eastern Europe once conquered by the Ottomans: Romania, Bulgaria, and the lesser Balkans. Then add Putin’s innovation: a Russian zone of influence in the upper Middle East that excludes the Western powers (the czars always longed for Jerusalem, not just Constantinople).

In the intellectually fertile Russia of the nineteenth century, “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles” argued over Russia’s identity: Was it part of Europe? Or did it have a separate entity as a messianic Third Rome, heir to the Byzantines and an eastern empire? (Piquantly, Putin is currently active on the eastern marches of the Byzantine Empire, with some of his deployed forces quite close to the site of Byzantium’s disastrous defeat on the Yarmuk.)

The answer, to this longtime student of Russia, is that Russia is a mongrel civilization, neither of the east nor of the west, but cross-bred to some of the best and many of the worst qualities of both. It is haunted by its history and its eccentric sense of destiny to a degree that I have never encountered elsewhere. Most cultures make peace with their history over time, at least to a degree that allows functionality. Russia embraces grudges that reach back a millennium and longer.

How will Russia look in thirty years? Much like the Russia of the nineteenth century, with various accretions and broadly expanded influence.

That’s if Putin gets his way. He won’t. But that’s another story.