The die is cast. Russia has mounted a major assault on a neighbour in pursuit of Vladimir Putin’s claims on the territories of the former Russian empire.
But if Russia were to fail badly at this, and suffer an unambiguous setback, that would be exactly the shock the country needed to start the long, hard process of transitioning from a frustrated former imperial power to a normal country that can coexist with Europe.
In contrast to other European imperial powers, for Russia the end of empire was postponed. It came not at the end of the first world war, or of the second, but at the end of the cold war.
Russia is not the only former colonial power to have complex relations with its former dominions in the wake of imperial retreat. However, even given its late start, it has not travelled as far along the path of post-imperial normalisation as countries such as the United Kingdom, France or Portugal had a quarter-century after the end of empire.
Today, Russia sees its relations with its former dominions in the way that France or Britain did in the first few years after their power was curtailed – before they suffered the defeats and setbacks that drove home the new limits of their ability to shape the world beyond their own borders. At the same point in this post-imperial trajectory, Britain had waged a successful campaign against communism in Malaya, but had not yet suffered the humiliating setback of Suez.
Russia has achieved success in small wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and projected power more recently in Syria, Kazakhstan and across Africa. Successful military adventurism both close to home and farther afield prolongs Russia’s belief in its power and its right to dominate others.
But the first military defeat would have far-reaching consequences. With its control of the information space at home, Russia can spin or explain away political reverses abroad, but not an unarguable military setback that calls into doubt either Russian military power itself or the…