As hostilities between the Soviet Union and the West sharply increased in the early 1980s, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan hardened his anti-Soviet rhetoric, denouncing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.”
The Soviet government lashed out in response, blasting Reagan for “pathological hatred” and for thinking “only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-Communism.” Reagan’s hard line, if not necessarily the truth of his statement, was also widely criticized in the U.S. itself, not only from the left, but even by Richard Nixon.
But make no mistake about it: Reagan was absolutely right to refer to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and his tough anti-Soviet stance helped end the Cold War.
Throughout Soviet history, the Kremlin's actions repeatedly supported the veracity of Reagan's “evil empire” characterization. That history was stained with genocide; the horrific system of labor camps and prisons known as the Gulag that imprisoned millions of people; repeated insensitivity to famines (including one in Ukraine) that killed millions; widespread political repression and attempts to eliminate religion; the subjugation of more than a dozen countries as “Soviet republics;” and the Iron Curtain of communism and repression that descended in Eastern Europe over Soviet satellite countries.
Even the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, acknowledged the USSR’s moral turpitude. During his reelection campaign in 1996, he told supporters that they had to beat his old-school communist challenger "so that Russia can never be called an evil empire again."
Now, Vladimir Putin, a child of the KGB, the intelligence service that used terror as an instrument of Soviet repression, is repeating history, invading Ukraine, shattering peace in Europe, and threatening world stability.
Nostalgic for that evil empire, Putin has long argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
By moving to militarily dominate a neighbor, Putin has violated treaties, international law, and started the kind of war the world has not seen since World War II.
Appealing to Russia for peace, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said this war could have “consequences not only devastating for Ukraine, not only tragic for the Russian federation, but with an impact we cannot even foresee in relation to their consequence for the global economy in the moment when we are emerging from COVID-19.”
The New Russian Empire
Little by little, Putin has expanded the territory controlled by Russia. While far from the expansive domination of the USSR over the Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, an ever-growing number of regions have been falling under the umbrella of “Russian-occupied territories.”
Going back to 2008, Putin has seen he could get away with military action against former Soviet republics. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, coming within striking distance of its capital, Tbilisi. With Putin’s blessing, the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared their independence and remain occupied by Russia.
Meanwhile, Belarus effectively became a Russian puppet state. What's happened there could be a model for Putin in Ukraine, where he will almost certainly try to replace President Volodomyr Zelensky’s regime with a pro-Kremlin government. Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, beholden to Moscow, has even allowed Russia to mount part of its Ukrainian invasion from his country’s territory.
Some of the old Soviet empire also remains in place. Russian troops are still in Transnistria, a breakaway Moldovan region, since 1992, pre-Putin. Russia retains control of the Kuril Islands, which were annexed from Japan during World War II, and which the Japanese consider their Northern Territories. And what was Konigsberg, Germany’s easternmost large city, has been the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad since soon after the Soviet Union captured it during World War II. (Kaliningrad is a small enclave isolated from Russia and surrounded by Poland and Lithuania. It is Russia’s only warm water port on the Baltic Sea, and serves as the main base for Russia’s Baltic Fleet.)
Russian influence also extends into the Americas, where Putin counts on dictators in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as close allies. The authoritarian governments of all three countries are among the few to express support for Putin’s invasion.
Finally, in the Middle East, some analysts have referred to Syria as “a Russian state in all but name.” The Syrian government has called the attacks on Ukraine a “military operation by the Russian allies to preserve their national security and stability.”
Bottom line: Russia cannot be dismissed as just a weak “regional power," as former President Barack Obama sustained. Putin has gone a long way toward restoring his longed-for Soviet empire.
Why Should Americans Care?
As I more extensively argued earlier this month in another column, Americans should care about Putin invading Europe’s second-largest country for a long list of reasons:
1. Staggering Loss of Life. As of this writing, Ukraine reports that 137 civilians and soldiers have been killed. If Russia’s invasion does not cease and its troops pull out, a long-term occupation and ensuing insurgency will lead to a horrific death toll.
2. National Security. Most important from the U.S. perspective is that the conflict threatens American national security and increases U.S. vulnerability. A war, to use President Biden’s words, “would change the world.”
3. The Economy. The Nasdaq fell into a bear market after the invasion before rebounding. The tensions had already helped push the S&P 500 into correction territory and the Dow Jones is on the brink. Oil prices and inflation are likely to keep soaring around the world. All of this could severely damage the already fragile world economy and the U.S.’s.
4. European Stability. Aside from the terrible cost in human lives, an all-out war would immediately undermine European security and could lead to a wider conflict.
5. A New Iron Curtain. As described above, a new Iron Curtain is descending across parts of Europe, endangering global stability.
6. Chinese Expansionism. A Russian invasion could embolden China to take even more aggressive action against Taiwan, possibly drawing the U.S. into another serious conflict. It might also encourage the Chinese to take greater control over Hong Kong and accelerate its military takeover of disputed areas in the South China Sea.
7. Sovereignty. International law and world order can’t survive without respect for the sovereignty of nations.
8. Kremlin Malign Influence. Cyberwarfare is just one example of what the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank describes as the Kremlin’s “pattern of malign influence.” The CSIS Kremlin Playbook 2 describes how Russia focuses “on weakening the internal cohesion of societies and strengthening the perception of the dysfunction of the western democratic and economic systems.”
As Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker about the “crushing loss of hope in Ukraine,” watching the tragedy unfold there “will make it impossible to live and breathe.”
I will close by echoing the emotional appeal from the UN’s Guterres: “President Putin, in the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia.”
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Cover photo: Demonstrators protest in support of Ukraine, in Times Square New York, on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, unleashing air strikes and ordering ground troops across the border. (Kena Betancour/AFP/Getty Images)