Russia is the largest state on Earth. This colossus spread across eleven time zones, until Putin a few years ago reduced it to nine, by putting more zones under Moscow time.
Russia is 70% larger than the other very large countries: Canada, China, and the USA. With a bit more than twice the French population, Russia controls more than 30 times the land area, with a total wealth that is not even half that of France.
Russia, as a state, is superior mostly in weapons and military power. Aside from its supergiant empire, and its oil and gas, sheer physical force, threatened or applied, is what makes Russia powerful. That, and the conquests of imperial Russia.
[The cathedral was destroyed by Stalin in 1935, and rebuilt identically in the 1990s. Although against religious fanaticism, or precisely because of that, I am for the safeguard of beautiful religious buildings, and that includes a lot of magnificent mosques.]
On the face of it, one should say that Russia is a classical example of military imperial overstretch: bloated land control, vast military, little else.
On April 17, 2015, Putin just gave a public conference that lasted 4 hours. Then he talks some more informally with the press outside. He denied his aim was to reconstitute the Russian empire. The bear denied he would ever eat again.
Old nations such as Russia have long traditions. Ukraine is more than a millennium old, and was launched as a Christian state in Crimea, by Vladimir of Kiev around 990 CE.
Ivan III, a bit more than 5 centuries ago, beat the Mongols, and united Moscow with Novgorod and Tver. This makes the Muscovite state half the age of Ukraine (although it is possible to argue Russian history descended from Alexander Nevsky, and the republic of Novgorod; Nevsky’s son founded Moscow).
Ivan III’s grandson, Ivan The Terrible launched many of the Russian state’s worst traditions. The growth of the Muscovite state was spectacular. Many died horribly, and unsavory ways got enshrined as normal, or destiny (in particular torturing to death and otherwise killing individuals next of kin to the ruler). That was all more terrible, because Ivan was successful in creating an enormous empire. Ever since then, Russian rulers come to rule, persuaded that Ivan’s ways are intrinsically Russian, intrinsically good, and on objective grounds, how to have a successful nation. Indeed, which nation is bigger? Ivan is now being rehabilitated under Putin.
Russian propagandists now say that official history about Ivan the Terrible, was only terrible “Western” propaganda against Russia.
Why such bad faith? Another Russian tradition is the West’s bad faith. The fall of Ukraine and elements of Russia, to the Mongols, in the Thirteenth Century, without any West European attempt to save it, is still resented.
(According to the Mongol generals themselves, they could not beat the Franks in Western Europe, in part because of the unfavorable ecology, which did not allow the Mongols to use their bows, or to maneuver around the heavily armored knights. Once the Franks/French got their hands on gunpowder, they quickly evolved field guns… That is how the “English” were thrown back to the sea… All the more as the knights had previously surprised and annihilated the Welsh archers.
The fact remains that the Franks were (mostly) allied to the Mongols (!) and an expedition to free Ukraine from the Mongols was not suggested.
Moreover, the conquest of Constantinople by the Franks in 1204 weakened Kievan Rus. The Mongols attacked in 1236.)
In some ways, Putin is more xenophobic than the worst leaders of the USSR.
Stalin treated Crimea very badly: he threw out most of its Natives, the Tartars, and exiled them far away. Yet, Putin dared do what even Stalin had not dared to do: invade and annex Crimea.
Putin has created trouble in many zones peripheral to his supergiant empire. Not just south of the Caucasus (where he occupies parts of Georgia, a nation much older than Russia), but all the way to the Carpathians (West of Ukraine).
The obvious reason is that Putin’s regime is unstable if not united by the fascist instinct of rising against a common enemy. So Putin’s regime is stable, if, and only if, it has enemies.
Thus, the more one tries to accommodate Putin, the more one reduces the enmity he faces, and thus the more anti-Putin one is. That therefore requires Putin to attack, threaten, and invade more, to re-establish the enmity he needs to reign.
So it has been with many tyrannical regimes in the past. However, Russia has profited from this, so far. This is why it is Earth largest empire, by far.
Just like Hitler was the more popular, the more Nazism he engaged in, because the Germans thought they did not have a choice, but to abandon themselves to hatred, expect the same with the nationalist regime in the Kremlin.
Putin said in his call-in that the USA “doesn’t need allies, they only need vassals” and that Russia would never accept that role.
Well, the Republican Congress just gave full powers to is president Obama full powers to negotiate fast (“fast track”) the TPP, the Trans-Pacific-Partnership. From what I hear, that treaty, which excludes China, in its present version, would allow corporations to sue the government of the USA (something corporations cannot do now).
So who is the boss, Putin? The “USA”, or the plutocrats and their corporations? And tell me how your crony plutocracy differ from that?
Some would argue that Russia became Russia, that giant empire, well, precisely because it had all the traditions of an empire, and that means the ability to get down to the hard and dirty. American traditions say the same. This is why both Russia and the USA ended with forts in California. Since then the American power has grown, propelled by the will to empire, and helped by more democracy than in Russia.
Democracy is not a luxury. It’s a weapon. Just go ask the Spartans (the Lacedaemonians and their civilization mostly disappeared). Or just ask the giant, multi-ethnic plutocracy of plutocracies, Persia. At Marathon, the giant Persian army was charged by the Athenian phalanx. Athens was a direct democracy, with around a tenth of one percent of the Persian empire directly charging, the elite units of the undefeated largest empire in the world. And Athens won. Not just that day, but that way. The way that became the way of the world.
It would be smarter for Russia to get over its Mongol complex, and join the way that wins, instead of embracing the desperate way of losers.