Imperialism is an out fashioned and even utterly resented term in Romania, as it is perceived to be in close connection to the nowadays hated, but formerly dominant communist ideology. The communist propaganda used it extensively to describe the international behaviour of Western capitalist countries and the consequence is that after 1989, the use of the term „imperialism” abruptly dropped, with some meagre revival after 2008, the year of the Russian-Georgian war. The drop in use of the term was paralleled by a drop in academic investigation of the concept.

Citește versiunea în limba română aici.

On the other hand, in Western countries and particularly in the United Kingdom, the past possessor for a long time of the greatest empire in the history and in the United States, whose hegemony in the international system is sometimes described by scholars as „empire”, the term „imperialism” is neutrally used for describing both past and present situations. The academic investigation of this concept flourished during the Cold War, perceived as a clash of two great empires, boomed in the first two decades after 1989, heavily dominated by the United States, and got a new and significant twist after 2008 with the rise of Russian and Chinese expansionism.

Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the state of research in the former Soviet academic space, but I presume that at least in Russia, the term should have been copiously used to describe American hegemony.

Either because of lack of investigation, as in the Romanian case, or of too much and detailed research and usage, as in the Western case, it seems to me that somehow the study of imperialism is deprived of some basic understanding of the fundaments of such a behaviour. Of course, it is more or less clear that an empire is a political entity exercising direct and indirect domination over a heterogeneous and often very large array of populations, enabling a core to extract benefits from several peripheries and that imperialism is the behaviour of a political entity which enables it to acquire and to rule an empire. But what drive states and statesmen to follow the path of imperialism?

As a historian of antiquity I often prefer to go back to ancient thinkers and, when it comes to sources of inspiration for understanding imperialism, there is no better suited writer than the Greek historian Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta is deemed also to be a political treatise which deals much, among other issues, with imperialism.

Despite complex modern theories on imperialism, I think that Thucydides’ understanding of the most fundamental driving factors of this international behaviour remains the most compelling. They are, as admitted by some Athenian envoys delivering a speech at Sparta about their own empire and its development, fear (deos, phobos), honor (timē) and profit (ōphelia, kerdos) (Thuc. 1.76). Moreover, Thucydides emphasises that the Peloponnesian War, the great and devastating war between Athens and its empire and allies and Sparta, its league and its allies, was triggered also by the Spartan fear that Athenian power will constantly grow until it will overwhelm its own (Thuc. 1.23). The consequence is that the international system is a place where “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thuc. 5.89). Last, but not least, Thucydides believes in the existence of a not changeable human nature (physis anthrōpōn), which renders these laws as actual as ever even after 2500 years.

Now, if we go back to the region between the Baltic and the Black Sea and speak about imperialism or neo-imperialism, the first image that might be drawn in our minds would be that of an array of weak former Soviet states – the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states – threatened by the revisionist Russian Federation, weakened after 1989, but still stronger than all the other former Soviet republics, which would like to revive the Soviet Empire whose core it was.

Nevertheless, the picture is much more complicated. In fact, after 1989, the whole former communist Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, not only the ex-Soviet republics, represented a vacuum of both internal and external power, which threatened the peace and the stability in the region. Therefore, this vacuum of power had to be filled and the only viable solution was its partial integration in the Western integrationist structures: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, copiously dominated by the United States, and the European Union, which progressively has slipped under stronger German influence, at least in East European matters, in the last 30 years. Could these integrationist processes be considered imperial? They might be, as they foremost serve the interest of their leaders and as the voluntary submission of weak polities to imperial forms of control is nothing new. Were they typical imperial moves, aiming at controlling territories? No, they were not, as nowadays sovereignty over territory is useless without other types of sovereignty, such as economic sovereignty, for example.

The expansion of the West towards Eastern Europe was triggered by fear – fear of instability and fear of a Soviet revival – but also by profit, especially in the case of the German-led EU. Just imagine the German car industry without its factories in Hungary, Czech Republic or Slovakia! The coronavirus crisis has also shown how important have become in just a decade the East European workers for the West European agriculture: indeed, they are called in European documents “essential workers”.

However, the Western “Drang nach Osten” became a major factor in triggering the revival of the more traditional Russian imperialism. As in its whole history – as masterfully shown by Kennan’s Long Telegram – the acute sense of insecurity due to its exposed geographical position led the Muscovite centred state to try to expand its control until reaching more secure borders. Therefore, as always, fear is clearly the major factor of nowadays Russian imperialism, whose current main and characteristic weapon in its immediate vicinity is represented by the so-called “frozen conflicts”: fear of a union of Romania and Moldova led to the breakaway of Transnistria, fear of Georgia joining NATO, led to the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and finally and the most important, fear of Ukraine – the pivotal state of the region between the Baltic and the Black Sea, as rightly highlighted by Brzezinski – getting itself associated to EU, led to the annexation of Crimea and the creation of the so-called republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. For understanding Russian neo-imperialism, honor (Russia’s obsession to be reckoned as a great power, as well as its vindictive feeling that it was duped by Western powers and it was convinced to renounce to its Soviet empire) and profit come only at a very long distance on the second and third place.

If it comes to compare Russian neo-imperialism with Western integrationist/imperialist processes, especially in the region between the Baltic and the Black Sea, we get a sense of a clear difference. Because of its security dilemma, Russia is obliged to thrust more in order to gain direct territorial control in the region, which renders its neo-imperialism closer to the more habitual forms of 19th century imperialism. As well, Russia’s neo-imperial efforts, aimed at territorial control and based mostly on frequently brutal compulsion, reveal the weakness of the Russian state, at least compared to the Western integrationist projects, which are voluntarily joined by the states in the region. There is of course the geographical weakness of Russia, which was already mentioned, but also a general weakness of the Russian state and society model that is not able to convince the smaller players of the region: they have to be coerced in order not to join Western integrationist structures or they join the Russian integrationist counter-structures, like the Eurasiatic Union, only as a lesser threat to their political regime, like in the case of Belarus, or as a consequence of a totally unfavourable geopolitical situation, like in the case of Armenia.

It would be interesting to see which will be the long-term impact of this kind of Russian neo-imperialism on the Western integrationist/imperial processes in the region. For the United States, as an insular power outside of Eurasia, geopolitical fear of a renewed Russian empire, hegemonic over Eastern Europe and possibly allied with Germany, will act as the main factor for enhancing its presence in the region and even building new integrationist structures in the region, aimed at fencing Russian expansionism and preventing a potential Germany-Russia rapprochement, like the Three Seas Initiative, for example. For Germany, whose 20th century nightmare was generated by the war on two fronts with France (joined by its Anglo-Saxon allies) and Russia, nowadays situation seems to be assured due to the long-time cooperation with France inside the EU. As long as the German-French connection will be strong and the EU will work properly, Germany is not in the position to feel threatened and might choose either confrontational or cooperative approaches towards Russia in Eastern Europe. Outside the clutches of fear, but consistently pursuing non-confrontational profit, it seems that Berlin seeks to bring balance between the great powers in the region between the Baltic and the Black Sea, trying to reap economic benefits and to alleviate Russian (and in a lesser degree US) security concerns.

A new and unpredictable factor will be Chinese neo-imperialism, which in this region is currently triggered by honour (the increasing appetite for world-wide recognition as a superpower) and economic profit. Chinese attempts to enter the region as a major player, both with regard to the Eastern European members of the EU and to the former Soviet states in Europe, are not conclusive at the moment. While China is surely seen by some smaller states in the region as a good economic partner, given the fact that it cannot represent a conventional threat to their security, it is still an outsider because it cannot provide other types of needed support for these smaller states and because its moves in this region are regarded with great suspicion by the traditional imperial powers acting here.

From inside the region there is no state at the moment that could engender imperialist hopes and behaviours, both because they cannot match Russia, Germany and the United States and because any independent integrationist process led by a state from the region would be seen as threatening by the other small countries of the region, as it already happened with Poland’s attempts to create a confederation after the First World War. However, local integrationist processes might be better received in the region as long as they follow in the footsteps of larger processes led by the EU and the United States and this is exactly what Poland – the most powerful state between the Baltic and the Black Sea – is trying to do at the moment. Once again, the most important reason is fear: a declared fear of Russian neo-imperialism – see the national security and defence strategies of Poland – complemented by an undeclared fear of a potential revival of the mid-20th century Russian-German alliance.

I hope that even such a short review of the neo-imperialist trends developing in the region between the Baltic and the Black Sea, written from a Thucydidean perspective, is able to show the great advantages of using the analytic tools proposed by this great Greek historian and political thinker and to bring more clarity on the political processes underway at the moment in Eastern Europe. Peace, stability and cooperation might gain a lot in the region, if statesmen from East European states, Russia, Germany and USA are wise enough to alleviate fear, avoid harming honor and share satisfying profits for everyone.

Presentation held at the Round Table „Neoimperialism between the Baltics and the Black Sea”, which took place in Kyiv on the 19th of June 2020 as a video conference.


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