Russian dilemmas in a multipolar world.
When Vladimir Putin described the breakup of the Soviet Union several years ago as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, his words triggered a strong reaction in the West and among Russia's neighbors. They sensed that the Russian president's words held not only nostalgia for the now-vanished great power but also hidden imperial ambitions. Indeed, Russia's political class of the late 20th and early 21st century is overcoming its post-imperial syndrome with difficulty. This phenomenon is not unique--many European empires faced the same problem in the 20th century. In Russia's case, the situation is compounded by the fact that the country's disintegration meant the loss of territories that had never been viewed as colonies but had been seen as a natural part of the country's historical and cultural core. For the first time in history, the Russian people have become a divided nation. After the Soviet Union ceased to exist, 25 million ethnic Russians found themselves living outside the Russian Federation, which could not but have an impact on the policies of Moscow and the other newly independent states. (1) At the same time, Putin's words also carried a deeper meaning that few people noticed.For centuries, the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, served as a supporting frame that structured the expansive Eurasian space from eastern Europe to the Far East and from the Arctic Circle to the central Asian deserts. Yet it was the development of Russian imperial statehood, to which many peoples of the West and the East contributed, that largely shaped the situation on the vast territory. Throughout history, this territory sometimes found itself on the periphery and sometimes at the center of world politics. Its collapse was a momentous event in terms of its impact on the structural stability of the international system, especially in the second half of the 20th century when the Soviet Union was not just a...