The End of Russia’s Empire?

Moscow has a stake in the Ukraine war that is greater than Putin’s career.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a videoconference outside Moscow, April 18.

Photo: SPUTNIK/via REUTERS

As Russia and Ukraine prepare for what could be the biggest tank battle in Europe since World War II, the future of Vladimir Putin’s war remains impossible to predict. Large-scale tank and artillery engagements in the flat open terrain of eastern Ukraine may favor Moscow, and the sheer weight of Russia’s military machine could force territorial gains, but other outcomes are possible. Ukrainian courage, tactical brilliance and access to Western arms and equipment could produce another string of humiliating setbacks for Russia.

The worst-case scenario for Mr. Putin would be for Russia’s war in Ukraine to end in a comprehensive military defeat, with the collapse of pro-Russian enclaves in the Donbas and Moldova and Ukraine’s integration into the West. Such a defeat would be more than a personal humiliation; it could be a career-ending setback for him. It would also deliver a psychological and strategic shock to Russia’s standing and self-image. The course of Russian history would change.

Russia would not be the first former empire to face a moment of historical reckoning. Spain’s 1898 defeat at the hands of the upstart Americans was a watershed moment in Spanish history. The global empire that had defined Spain since the voyages of Columbus had suddenly disappeared, and Spaniards began to question everything from the monarchy to the role of the church.

For Britain and France, their ignominious failure in the 1956 Suez campaign forced both countries to realize that they were no longer independent global powers. The glories of empire were over, and the two former superpowers began, painfully and reluctantly, to adjust to their new circumstances.

香蕉视频苹果下载A decisive Russian failure in Ukraine could be Moscow’s Suez moment. If Russia fails to conquer the heart of Ukraine (western Ukraine is less of a concern in Russian historical mythology), Russians will be unable to avoid the conclusion that the empire of the czars, painfully assembled over many centuries and restored by Lenin and Stalin after the disasters of World War I, has irrevocably fallen. This will force the kind of deep introspection in Russia that other former empires have had to face. The consequences will be far-reaching.

Under the Romanovs, the communists and Mr. Putin, Russian political thought has been shaped by three beliefs: that Russia is different, that the difference is transcendentally important, and that it gives Russia a unique role in world history. Defeat in Ukraine would radically undermine confidence in these ideas, plunging Russia into an identity crisis with unpredictable political consequences.

The czars, commissars and Putinists all saw Russia as both unique and committed to a struggle against the West. For the czars, Moscow was the “third Rome” that would carry the torch of Christianity and civilization after the first Rome fell to barbarian invaders and the second Rome (Constantinople) fell to the Turks. For the communists, Moscow was the citadel of the global proletarian revolution, fated to annihilate the decadent bourgeois culture of the West. Mr. Putin and his acolytes see the world in similar terms, with Russia committed to a war of survival against Western decadence, soullessness and unbridled greed.

香蕉视频苹果下载To hold its own in the unequal competition with the more developed West and to provide governance suited to its unique psyche, Russia, its rulers argued, needed to concentrate power at the top. Only someone as strong as Catherine the Great, Stalin or, his admirers maintain, Mr. Putin can enable Russia to prevail in its confrontation with the West.

Ukraine is the heart of the matter. With Ukraine under its thumb, Moscow sees itself as the greatest power in Europe. Without Ukraine, the dream that Russia can recapture the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower will die a bitter death.

Worse, perhaps, from the viewpoint of the “Eurasian” theorists and radical Russian nationalists who provide a veneer of legitimacy for Mr. Putin’s regime, a victory for Orthodox, Slavic and democratic Ukraine over despotic Russia wouldn’t only challenge the personal legitimacy of Mr. Putin. It would challenge the idea of Russian exceptionalism and fatally undermine the view that despotism is the form of governance best suited to the Russian soul.

香蕉视频苹果下载As the war exposes the darkness inherent in Mr. Putin’s regime, and as atrocities abroad and repression at home impress the mark of Cain ever more deeply on its brow, it is impossible not to hope for a Russian defeat. Nevertheless, caution is in order. Mr. Putin and those around him know that in Ukraine they aren’t fighting only for an adjustment of frontiers. They are fighting for their world, and it may be psychologically impossible for them to accept defeat until every measure, however ruthless, and every weapon, however heinous, has been brought into play.

For Vladimir Putin and the people around him, the stakes in Ukraine are almost infinitely great.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews financier and top Kremlin critic Bill Browder. Images: Shutterstock/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the April 19, 2022, print edition.