Vladimir Putin wants to re-establish the old borders of the USSR. We know that.
In 2014 he annexed Crimea. Next, he invaded Ukraine. He already has a puppet-pal running Belarus, one of the four founding members of the USSR. Belarus looks ready for re-absorption into Mother Russia.
All of which is making Russia’s former territories in Europe nervous.
The nervousness is understandable. But here’s the thing. Putin is not just dreaming of re-establishing the borders of the USSR.
He is dreaming of re-establishing the borders of Imperial Russia.
And that is a whole lot more than just the Baltic States and Eastern Europe.
The latest evidence about empire dreaming came last week when Bloomberg reported that Putin has ordered a hunt for the assets abroad of the Russian Empire.
“Assets” were not defined, but the empire had plenty of them, territories and all the rest. The empire was the third largest in the history of the world, established in 1721 under Peter the Great and lasting until 1917 under Nicholas II.
At its most vast, it stretched across Finland to the Arctic Ocean, down to the Black Sea, over almost all Central Asia and Northeast Asia.
And, yes, you may know that, but I am not finished.
The empire continued across the Bering Strait to Alaska, then in 1812 down the California coast to Fort Ross, 70 miles north of a Spanish settlement that became San Francisco.
Fort Ross was not named for a Scots family. Ross is derived from the Russian word rus or ros, the same root as for the word “Russia”.
A Russian Orthodox church survives at the site.
Ambitions went even further. Fate only just prevented the Russian Autonomous Republic of Hawaii being added to the list of Moscow’s territory.
Alaska had furs, fish and minerals, but had little food production. That was what the expansion down the fertile coast of California was for, to feed what Tsar Alexander I hoped would be a growing population in Russian-America.
Alas, by 1842 Fort Ross was no longer needed by the Russians and was sold to a Swiss-Mexican called John Sutter, who later gained fame as the man who discovered gold in California in 1849.
Alaska was sold in 1867 to the United States for $7.2m. Russia lost interest in the Pacific after its defeat in the Crimean War.
Russia should have kept up its interest. Twenty-seven years after the sale, gold was discovered in the Yukon, leading to yet another gold rush.
The loss of gold and all the rest must leave the imperialistic heart of Putin with an ache.
Of course, he could try and claim that the Americans have false title to Alaska. Some Russian writers maintain that Sutter never paid the full purchase price to the Russians, so Russia can claim it back. It is like the argument the Greeks are using to claim back the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum.
Good luck with that argument in a U.S. District Court.
Still, Putin, like the Tsars, dreams big.
You can be sure he knows every part of every territory once controlled by the Russian Empire. You can suspect he itches to get most of it back under Moscow’s rule.
Alaska, come home to Mother Russia.
But not California.
It is unlikely Putin wants back any part of California. Check the state of the place. Putin is a tyrant, but he is not an idiot.
In his empire dreaming, Putin has not been neglecting the most eastern parts of Russia that bump up against the Bering Strait, despite the West only paying attention to his war in Ukraine and his threats to former USSR countries.
Once Putin is at the Bering Strait, he is just 55 miles from Alaska.
Earlier this month, Putin travelled to Russia’s far east to promote tourism. We know that is not going to work. The great empty east of Russia gives new depth to the word “desolation”. But there it is, the slender 55 miles between desolation and the USA, …. and Putin says he is there supporting tourism.
What is Putin up to? Most likely he is using tourism as a cover for doing deals with the Chinese.
Natasha Kuhrt, a Senior Lecturer in International Peace and Security at King’s College London, has examined the reasons behind Putin’s latest visit to the east.
Last week she wrote, “In 2001, a year after Putin became president, a ‘flexible strategic partnership’ was declared with China and relations have gathered pace since. In 2023, trade between the two countries hit a record high of US$240 billion.”
Much of what Russia exports to China are energy and raw material, largely from Russia’s far east. Yet China does little investment there. Xi Jinping, like Putin, is not an idiot.
As Dr Kuhrt says, “Russia’s far eastern territories are plagued by poor infrastructure, high labour costs and labyrinthine bureaucracy.”
No place for idiot investment.
Yet Putin must keep things friendly in his far east with China. Playing at tourism in desolation-land is one way.
It is going to keep up the friendly relationship between Xi and Putin. Putin has started a war in Europe, and military analysts are saying Xi is ready make his move against Taiwan.
Which will mean war in the Pacific. Russia will be able to offer its largest Pacific port at Vladivostok to the Chinese, and as much oil as Chinese forces need. The American military newspaper Stars & Stripes has been watching the port and the “deepening ties between the two nations amid the Russia-Ukraine war.”
The paper quotes one military analyst: “Should Chinese forces have access to Vladivostok that expands PLA (China’s People’s Liberation Army) operational options a bit – and also gives Japanese and US [and South Korean] forces one more thing to worry about…”
If, when, war comes, how Pacific territories change hands – and after wars, territories always change hands – Russia wants to be on the side that might just let it reclaim its old imperial lands.
Putin must think that the winning side will be China. Back Xi, and he could end up with chunks of Alaska as he now has chunks of Ukraine.
Or, if he is very lucky, with chunks of the Russian Autonomous Republic of Hawaii.