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Russia’s Imperial Instinct

WASHINGTON, DC – Russia is once again at the center of policy debates in many Western capitals. And for the third time in a row, a new US president will start his administration with ambitions to improve bilateral relations. To understand why achieving this goal has been so difficult, it helps to take a longer historical view of the Russian state.

It is now a quarter-century since the Soviet Union disintegrated; and 2017 will mark the centennial of the Russian Revolution, which toppled the teetering, centuries-old czarist empire. As it happens, there are telling similarities between the periods that followed each of these imperial denouements.

Russia’s history has been characterized by continuous expansion over the Eurasian continent. The czars’ eastward push into Siberia mirrored America’s westward push during the nineteenth century, and Russia’s expansion into Central Asia coincided with the European powers’ colonization of Africa.

But as Imperial Russia expanded westward and southward, it always encountered opposition, and had to use force to keep newly acquired territories within its domain. After the 1917 revolution, many of these areas – from Tashkent to Tbilisi, and Kyiv to Helsinki – sought independence from Muscovy’s yoke.