If Vladimir Putin made one mistake as President of Russia – and you probably believe he made a great many more – it was to describe the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century".
I can offer all sorts of special pleading. He was tailoring his words to his audience: the conservative-minded Russian Parliament. He was mistranslated (which he was); the original Russian means not "the greatest" catastrophe , but "a very great" or "one of the greatest", which you may feel is splitting hairs, but actually makes a difference. And Putin is no longer Russia's President, he is prime minister, which isn't the same thing – though, again, you may beg to differ.
But the unfortunate truth is that none of this really matters. What is said is said. And because it was Putin who said it, with all the weight of presidential office and his KGB past, it was interpreted in a particular way. It was seen not just as an expression of natural post-Soviet imperial nostalgia – a nostalgia he shares with many Russians of his generation and will take years to work its way out of the national psyche – but a desire to reconstitute the Soviet empire. In other words, the sentiment was seen not as acceptance of loss, but as a wish that would be father to the deed.
One consequence is that it is taken for granted, even by many in the West who should know better, that Russia wants to re-establish dominion over the countries that formerly fell under its sway. And if the actual border cannot be resurrected right away, then – it is assumed – a sphere of influence is the next best thing.
Moscow is seen as an amputee who still feels pain in limbs that are no longer there – with the key difference that it believes it has the clout and the expertise to reattach them. It is this idea that underlay much Western analysis of the war that broke out this time last year between Russia and Georgia. A year on, the assessment remains largely the same. Now, as then, it is wrong.
A key element in Western reasoning is that the Russian, or pro-Russian, minorities stranded outside Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed serve as a fifth column for the Kremlin in pursuit of its neo-imperial ambitions. Georgia's two minority enclaves – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – were thus seen as potential bridgeheads for extending Russian power across Georgia, and thence to the rest of the region.
Regardless of who fired the first shot last 7 August – and the international investigation is taking so long that I rather suspect it may not be the Russia-bashing conclusion so many automatically rushed to a year ago – the resort to force is still seen as part of a long-term Russian project that could threaten even the well-established sovereignty of the Baltic States. It is taken for granted that the post-Soviet Russian state is expansionist.
But is it? Most of the evidence from the past decade points in the opposite direction. Putin's diplomatic effort was directed towards concluding treaties that formalised Russia's post-Soviet borders, including with Ukraine, the Central Asian countries and China. As seen from Russia, the Chechen war was not about expansion, but about security and preventing further contraction.
Where border treaties have not been concluded, it is in large part because of resistance from pro-Russian minorities. Which poses the question: how useful are these groups to Moscow really? Are they rather, perhaps, irritating obstacles to Russian diplomacy – but obstacles that cannot be summarily discarded, because of the image of Kremlin weakness it would project and, yes, for reasons of morality?
I have heard Putin speak more dismissively than you might think about the inflated expectations of compatriots outside Russia's borders. I would also note that this time last year Russian troops were within half an hour of Tbilisi, but Georgia remains an independent, pro-Western state.
One result of that war, however, is that Russia is now locked into defending the enclaves in a way that it was not before. Parallels here might be Britain's limitless commitment to the Falkland islanders after the Argentinian invasion, or the stubborn loyalty of Gibraltarians that still complicates our relations with Spain.
Empires are not easy to untangle; ultra-loyalists left behind can be as much liabilities as assets, and Russian loyalists are the same. For the West to recognise how difficult it is to disengage in these circumstances might be a more productive approach to a solution in Georgia than lambasting Russia for ambitions it does not have.Reuse content