The New Russian Empire

Review: Agnia Grigas, ‘Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire’

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin / AP

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early March 2014 and subsequent confrontational policies in the Middle East and parts of Europe have spawned myriad debates assessing Vladimir Putin’s ambitions and their implications for global security. Many of these discussions conclude that Russia seeks little more than a revival of Soviet-era influence in the near abroad–that is, nations bordering Russia.

Agnia Grigas takes a different tack in her informative and well-researched work. Seeing Putin’s Russia as a "challenger rather than partner with the West," Grigas states that the "central argument of this book is that … there has been an increasing tendency in Russian foreign policy toward reimperialization of the post-Soviet space … to gradually rebuild its historic empire."

Russia began this process in the early part of the last decade at Putin’s direction, she concludes, accomplishing this through exploitation of "compatriots," composed of the tens of millions of ethnic Russians living outside Russia’s borders and non-ethnic Russians who speak Russian and identify with Russian culture.

For Grigas, the existence of these groups serves as a "pretext for and instrument of" Russia’s expansionist policies. Her argument is convincing. Russia’s compatriot policies have raised tensions in in what is now the post-Soviet space of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. In this "near abroad," Russia’s influence is considerable, though far from absolute. In support of its goals, the Russian government may employ various tactics from one target nation to another—but in the main, it almost always offers Russian passports to compatriots as a way to foster identity with Russia, and directs a constant stream of propaganda at compatriots touting Russian cultural superiority while asserting that other nations will do nothing to protect ethnic Russians.

To date, Crimea is the only case where these forms of soft power culminated in direct annexation. That should be little comfort to the West: Transnistria as well as Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia are planted firmly in a Russian orbit, as are Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. These regions represent frozen conflicts where overt military hostilities may not be present but political tensions remain, and those regions have been removed, de facto, from control by national governments.

The author also is convincing in her assessment that the West has failed to comprehend or develop policies to rebut Russia’s continuing overtures in its near abroad. As a result, there is little reason to believe Putin, in surveying the geostrategic landscape, will feel compelled to moderate his attempts at reimperialization.

Grigas sees as one of the biggest dangers possible confrontation in the Baltics, where Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, once part of the USSR, are now NATO members. Even with such substantial concerns–including the belief that Russia’s reimperialization has such deep roots that it will outlast Putin—Grigas concludes that the costs of "empire" could become prohibitive for Russia in the long-term. Moreover, she outlines a series of Western policy options, most notably "information alternatives" to Russian propaganda in order to counter the reach of news outlets such as Russia Today.

Grigas has produced a clear-eyed assessment of Russia’s regional goals that merits close reading by whoever takes responsibility for Russia policy in the next White House.