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Podcast: "A Potemkin empire"
New book interview with Alex J. Bellamy
"War has finally caught up with the warmonger," writes Alex J. Bellamy in the final sentence of his new Warmonger: Vladimir Putin's Imperial Wars - out today. "Should Russia's imperial dreaming survive its battering in Ukraine, and it is by no means certain that it will, it will be as a Potemkin empire existing only in the minds of those who parrot its tropes".
Do you stick by that? I asked him. "I do,” he replied, “and I think it becomes clearer with every passing week”, citing Azerbaijan's one-day war to conquer the Armenian-majority breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
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“That is taking a region by force that it is nominally protected or policed by Russian peacekeepers. And that tells us a whole amount about the credibility of Russian peacekeeping; because Armenia is a loyal Russian ally; Armenia has long recognised that its own security and that of Nagorno-Karabakh depends on the goodwill of Moscow. It has remained within the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization] and CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States]. It has muted its criticism of Russia over Ukraine and yet we see a situation whereby Azerbaijan feels sufficiently confident that Russia is unable to do anything to stop Azerbaijan taking Nagorno-Karabakh …
“… This tells us something: that the Russian imperium is starting to fray, that Russia no longer has the military might or political influence it thought it did, and that its imperial pretensions are being … shown up. And of course, it's so weak in Nagorno-Karabakh precisely because it's had to redeploy attention and resources in Ukraine. There's a similar story in Syria. Russia's had to significantly withdraw forces from Syria in order to prop itself up in Ukraine. So I think very much we're seeing the collapse of that imperial dream.
“But that’s not to say that I think Putin is going to be removed from power or assassinated or that, even if he is, the next leader isn't going to continue playing up these tropes. It's just that this empire is going to become hollower and hollower until, at some point, there will have to be inevitably some form of reckoning, some sort of collapse, because it is a Potemkin empire that rests not on the willing consent of the people within it but on an increasingly fragile military might”.
Alex J. Bellamy is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland. Since Kosovo and International Society in 2002, he has written 15 books as sole author including World Peace (And How We Can Achieve It) in 2019 and Syria Betrayed: Atrocities, War, and the Failure of International Diplomacy in 2022. In Warmonger, he explores the centrality of war-making to Putin’s project - starting with the brutal second Chechen war that made him, taking in the NATO-probing invasions of Georgia and eastern Ukraine that emboldened him, and the Western-style war from the air in Syria that was meant to mark Russia’s return to Great Power status.
For my Writers’ Writers tip sheet, he chose The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plokhy (Oneworld Publications, 2015) and Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland (Little Brown, 2019).