Russia, Turkey, China and Iran: The Return of Empire

Once thought to be a problem solved by the collapse of empires in 1918, and of colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of Empire has been resurfacing recently, propelling the world toward a model of domination.

In 1981, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, the French expert on the history of international relations, entitled his work “All Empires Will Perish”. Informed observers had agreed with him. They were even more convinced that the era of conquest and territorial power was in decline during the Cold War. Forty-one years later, in 2022, history seems to have played a dirty trick on them: the idea of Empire has not perished, it’s making a comeback. 

From China to Turkey, Russia to Iran, this model of hegemony makes serious progress in the name of the emergence of a multipolar world, which these powers would dream of seeing as “post-Western” as well, as if the West were no longer the scribe of world history.

Certainly, the West has retreated here and there over the last several decades to the benefit of emerging powers. Certainly, the responsibilities of the U.S. and Europe towards global conflagration remain overwhelming, contributing to the reduction, if not of their prestige, certainly their attractiveness in the world. Yet, never have Americans or Europeans looked to invade a direct neighbor, tempted as they might have been by any logic of annexation of territories, convinced that wars for territory were over. This was without taking into account the neo-imperial ambition of the Russians, the Chinese, the Turks and the Iranians, who, moved by a common anti-Western rhetoric, see in this American and European reflux (Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Libya) an opportune moment to proclaim the advent of a new world order, a world where borders guaranteed by the UN system can be contested.

Russia has never truly recognized the sovereignty of the former Soviet republics. If in 1991, Moscow had to backtrack and admit that from Moldova to Central Asia and from the Baltic countries to the Caucasus, it was now necessary to reckon with new-found independence, the Russia of the “silovikis” (FSB, army, police personnel) cultivated a secret objective: that of reconstituting the Soviet Union, whose fall Vladimir Putin considered “the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Putin pursues only one objective: to do everything to weaken the sovereignties in the East in the name of the superior interests of the New Russia, or “Novorossia”, a mental and then physical map based on a single territory established from the Russian presence on the entire ex-Soviet territory. In other words, the New Russia is the historical Russia, the one that considers that Ukraine, Armenia and the other Republics do not have their own history and do not have the right to independence.

It is in this same vein of ambitions for neo-imperial power that Russia frames the 2020 Artsakh War as well as the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by cooperating with Turkey, in the name of a Eurasian ideal against the West and by letting Ankara delegate to Azerbaijan the realization of the plan of territorial reconquest against the Armenians of Artsakh as well as of the Republic of Armenia. Machiavellian, cynical, chilling, the Russian-Turkish collusion stems from a legendary betrayal to the detriment of the Armenians. We remember the same collusion that prevailed between Abdul Hamid II and Nicolas II during the massacres of the Armenians in 1894-1896 during which the Russians had been the accomplices of these horrors by allowing them to happen, or even the alliance between Lenin/Stalin and Kemal Ataturk during the carving up of the Republic of Armenia in 1920 for the benefit of the Bolshevik Revolution and the national liberation struggle of the New Turkey. The names of the actors in 2020-2022 have changed but the logic remains the same: to finish with the Armenians and impose the Pax Turca on its margins to lay the foundations of a new Empire, which passes through domination in the eastern Mediterranean, the nibbling away of Greece, Syria, Iraq and Armenia, with views on Georgia and, why not, Crimea.

The return of the Russian Empire in Ukraine but also in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, the return of the Ottoman Empire on its periphery but also the return of the Persian Empire from Tehran to the Syrian coasts now that the regime of the Mullahs can for the first time since the time of the Persians, enjoy territorial continuity as far as the Mediterranean. Tehran somehow maintains a form of influence over predominantly Shiite Iraq (despite the Iraqi Shiite uprisings against the Iranian theocracy), padlocks Lebanon with its hold on Hezbollah, a veritable state within a state in Beirut. Finally, Iran is particularly comfortable in Syria since it assured the Baathist regime that Bashar Al Assad would remain in power in Damascus. The Mullahs’ regime is now going further since the youth revolted on Iranian national territory with the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022. This young Iranian woman of Kurdish origin was killed after being arrested for “inappropriate wearing” of the veil, which sent shock waves through Iranian society. Originally from Iranian Kurdistan, Amini has become the symbol of this minority in revolt against the central power, which has resorted to the bombardments of the Kurdish provinces as a diversion. Uprising or revolution? Too early to say, but what is certain is that the ultra-authoritarian Iranian regime is behaving like a neo-imperial power seeking to dominate its Middle Eastern space and above all to crush any protest, in the name of an old imperialist principle: peace in the center of the country, war on the periphery.

It is in this same logic that China, which held the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in mid-October, is proceeding in the China Sea and towards Taiwan, two issues at the heart of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. Jinping who leads the Chinese giant more and more alone, in the name of a new order where the idea of empire resurfaces.

But this gradually forming post-Western world is not an alliance of emerging powers. Rather, it is a reflection of a world open exclusively to partnerships, a much more flexible approach than the alliance, much more sacred than the technique of cooperation where the actors can unravel what they sewed the day before.

This return of the Empire marks above all the emergence of the State in the East. Understanding the wars in Ukraine and the Caucasus involves the need to integrate the state into its system of representation and projection. It is therefore up to the Armenians to now think along the format of “State” and to ensure that they are no longer the instruments of Russia in the Caucasus. Because when Russia is weak, it makes the Armenians do the dirty work in fire and blood for its own post-imperial interest, making the Armenians believe that they have won a military victory, as they did in 1994. And when Russia feels strong, it unites with Turkey and Azerbaijan to atrophy once again the blood and tears of Armenia in the name of a neo-imperial ideal, as has been the case for some years. In both cases, Armenians are instrumentalized and serve—at best—as useful idiots for Moscow.

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