18th century Russian foreign policy repeating itself in Ukraine

By Eliot Decker

(Sergi L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
(Sergi L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Between the swift acquisition of the Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Russia’s recent burst of aggression in Eastern Europe has left many in the West confused as to why the country’s leadership would act so impetuously. Though the cause of Russia’s direct intervention may seem simple, that being the protection of Russian economic and political interests, the execution of the annexation was not. Interestingly, Putin’s strategy is actually very reminiscent of a time when Russia was just emerging on the global stage as an empire.

In 1762, Russia’s influence in Eastern European politics was reaching its zenith under the very capable rule of Catherine the Great. Due to the recently finished Great Northern War, most of the other states around Russia were significantly weakened. Of these, the most apparently disorganized was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Since its inception in 1569, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania was one of Europe’s most politically complex, largest and commercially vital nations. Its power derived primarily from its economic base — wheat production. The massive nation encompassed what is known as Europe’s “Bread Basket.” In modern times, this area is almost completely controlled by Ukraine. Interestingly, the eastern Ukrainian provinces (the ones in conflict) were among the most prosperous in the nation.

Elections for the new king of Poland-Lithuania were held in 1764. Russia seized this opportunity to install its own ruler by paying off impoverished electors within the Polish nobility. The new king, Stanislaw II August, was a former lover of Catherine and openly supported Russian intervention in Commonwealth politics. As a result of his policies, Russian ambassadors began to exert more influence in the Sejm (Parliament) than any of the nobility or even the king himself.

This situation is much like that of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though technically separate from the Russian Federation, the new country of Ukraine was still economically dependent on its former controller. Because of this, Russia only supported Ukrainian leaders who would cooperate with them rather than Western Europe.

The recent 2013 uprising in Kiev (sometimes even referred to as a revolution) was a reaction to the Russian-bound leadership of Ukraine. Protestors and the parliament agreed that the state should join the European Union, therefore limiting its economic ties with Russia in favor of those in the West. However, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych vetoed all of the proposals and chose to fight the opposition. This eventually led to his removal from power and the establishment of an interim government that Russia viewed as illegitimate.

Although the disputed legislation was different, the situation and the outcome in the 18th century were the same as the events of this past year. Despite a budget surplus in the 1760s, the Russian faction within the government vetoed almost all military investments proposed in the Sjem. By 1768, this tension boiled over and the Polish nobility that remained loyal to the state created its own private army known as the Bar Confederation. The rebellion caused by the devoted elite gave Russia and the countries surrounding the Commonwealth an excuse to invade and subsequently seize most territory captured. The same strategy of provoking the constituency and then grabbing territory was applied in the Crimea in March.

After the ousting of Yanukovych, Ukraine was together, but ethnic tensions were boiling. This became the excuse for unmarked “rebels,” who were later confirmed by multiple news sources to actually be Russian troops, to quickly capture the key institutions in the primarily ethnically Russian Crimea. Shortly afterwards, Crimea declared its independence from Ukraine and was annexed into Russia.

Though the times and political institutions may be very different, the general strategies employed by Russia in the 18th century can be compared to those observed this past year. Situations such as this are a stark reminder that if history is not closely observed, then it just might repeat itself.

Eliot Decker is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]