Russia’s Crimes of Colonialism

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov published an op-ed in four African newspapers last month explaining why he was on a multicountry tour of the continent — and why African nations should support Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Lavrov blamed Western sanctions for the food crisis in Africa and asserted that in contrast to the U.K., France, Belgium and other European powers, Russia “has not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism.”

The idea that Russia avoided colonial expansion has surprising resonance in the West and elsewhere. Russia never had formal colonies in Africa, Latin America or South Asia. But the idea that the Kremlin avoided colonization projects altogether — that it dodged the “bloody crimes” for which Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese empires were responsible — is as risible as it is ahistorical.

It’s not as though Russia simply appeared as a transcontinental juggernaut, stretching to the Pacific. It spent centuries conquering and colonizing Eurasia, extracting local wealth and subjugating colonized peoples to dictatorship from Moscow and St. Petersburg. The difference is that other European empires colonized overseas, while Russia colonized overland, capturing adjacent territory.

Too many either don’t know or ignore that Russia was, and remains, a major colonial power. From the Caucasus to Crimea, from the Arctic to the Amur, from the Volga to the Pacific, Russia’s colonial campaigns conquered innumerable nations — decimating local cultures, bulldozing local sovereignty, and engaging in genocidal practices.

Nor was the Soviet Union — in Lenin’s description, born from anti-imperialism — much different. From mass ethnic-cleansing campaigns decimating colonized nations, to targeted famines aimed at Ukrainians and Kazakhs, to drawing maps of supposedly autonomous republics that excluded disempowered local ethnic groups, the Soviet experiment was, in many ways, simply a carryover of czarist Russia’s colonial policies. And that’s without mentioning Soviet support during the Cold War for despotic regimes in African and Latin American nations such as Angola and Cuba.

While former Soviet republics, such as Kazakhstan and Moldova, gained independence during the Soviet collapse, colonized nations within Russia’s borders, such as Chechnya and Tatarstan, have been subsumed again under the Kremlin’s dictatorship, forced to provide cannon fodder for Moscow’s imperialism once more.

As the war in Ukraine makes clear, Russia remains a colonial power bent on recolonizing regions that slipped its grip. Most European powers watched their empires collapse, but one European colonial empire remains. And only one European empire now threatens genocide, and potential nuclear war, if it isn’t allowed to reclaim a colony it lost.

Saturated in propaganda and the idea that Russia remains a benevolent force, many Russians would be shocked by the idea that Moscow is no better than the Portuguese in Angola or the Spanish in Mexico. It’s a symptom of Russia’s “imperial innocence,” as scholars Erica Marat and Botakoz Kassymbekova have described it — the belief that “Russia did not attack and colonize, but liberated and saved the colonized.”

It’s also a handy defense when photos and footage emerge of war crimes, mutilation and attempted genocide in Ukraine, all linked directly to Russian forces. After all, if the Kremlin fights only to save populations from Western imperialism, then the Russians must be fighting Ukrainian imperialists to save an oppressed population.

But it’s long past time for Russians to familiarize themselves with the colonial crimes of their past and their present. Without the realization that Russia was and is as guilty as the colonizing empires of the past, there will be no end to the madness in Ukraine. Until Russia has fully decolonized, Russia will threaten global stability and security.

There are signs that an awareness of the need for Russian decolonization is starting to dawn in Washington and other Western capitals. But the rest of the world — including Russia itself — must recognize Russia for what it was and still is. Colonization may seem a throwback to previous centuries. But when a colonial empire and a colonial war are staring us in the face — and when men like Mr. Lavrov tell us to look away because there’s nothing to see — the least we can do is stare back, recognizing it for what it is.

Mr. Michel is an adjunct fellow with Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative and author of “American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History.”

Source – WSJ

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