Imperial Russia redux and the crisis of Ukraine.

Author:Stevenson, Garth

When the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 and the "republics" that had been ruled by that regime for most of the 20th century became sovereign states, the response in much of the Western world was a mixture of incredulity, relief and euphoria. Although the growing weakness of the regime had been known to Western intelligence agencies for several years, it had not been known to the general public. Suddenly the regime was gone, and the "Cold War" between it and the Western democracies, a conflict that had dominated the agenda of international relations for four and a half decades, seemed to have vanished also.

Even if Francis Fukuyama's announcement of "the end of history" was an exaggeration, there was a general perception that everyone could relax, forget about international relations for a while and concentrate on problems closer to home. After a presidential election campaign that, for the first time since 1936, largely ignored international issues, Americans responded to the good news in 1992 by choosing as their president a pleasant young man who had been governor of one of the most insignificant states in the Union but had no experience in Washington. George H.W. Bush, who had presided over the Western victory and deserved at least some of the credit for it, was dismissed by the voters of his country much as Winston Churchill had been in 1945.

But unfortunately, the end of Communism did not mean the end of Russian expansionism, which long predates the revolution of 1917. Alexis de Tocqueville did not foresee the revolution, but he predicted in 1835 that Russia and America would eventually dominate the world. De Tocqueville also observed that while American conquests are "gained by the plowshare," those of Russia are gained "by the sword." (1) Given the successful American attacks on Mexico and Spain subsequent to this comment, he was not entirely right, but neither was he entirely wrong.

The Russians had occupied all of Siberia before the end of the 17th century, and added what are now Belarus, most of Ukraine, the Baltic states, part of Poland and Alaska to their empire in the 18th. The Caucasian lands between the Black and Caspian seas had been absorbed into the Russian Empire by 1830. The Monroe Doctrine in the United States (1823) was largely inspired by Russian activities on the west coast of North America. The British and the Russians engaged in a cold war for most of the 19th century, which led to actual fighting in the Crimean War of 1854-56 but did not prevent Russia from taking most of Central Asia. The sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, perhaps the only occasion on which Russia voluntarily withdrew from one of its possessions, was an anti-British and anti-Canadian move, intended to ensure that British Columbia would be hemmed in by American territory on both sides. Czar Nicholas II, now widely regarded in the Western world as an innocent victim of the Communists, told one of his ministers in 1903 that he had designs on Manchuria, Korea, Tibet, Iran and Turkey. (2) Nicholas II has been described as "wise and great" by none other than Vladimir Putin. (3)

A recent work by a young British historian provides strong evidence that the outbreak of war in 1914...

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