Russian President Vladimir Putin greets people after his speech at the concert marking the eighth anniversary of the referendum on the state status of Crimea and Sevastopol and its reunification with Russia, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 18, 2022. Credit: Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik Pool Photo via AP

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The Empire returns.

It’s not another Star Wars sequel. It’s the dream of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And it’s much more likely than Hollywood’s film fiction.

Once upon a time, there were empires. Over the past few centuries, the British, French, Dutch, Germans, Austrians, Ottomans, Russians, Chinese and Japanese had them.

Empires are large territories including many nationalities ruled by a single person who heads a country that either conquered or colonized other nations. The government is authoritarian if not downright dictatorial.

The alternative turned out to be democracies in which the people rule and there are no kings or emperors. The first big crack in an empire came when an aspiring place called America tossed off British rule.

Two world wars led to the end of any surviving empires, dividing them into smaller pieces and, in many places, installing democracy in place of authoritarian rule. After 1918, the map of the world began to change and the process continued for decades.

The   Soviet Union was a special case. When the Communists replaced the empire in 1918, they created 15 “republics” that together formed the new country. All were dominated by the largest and most populous – Russia.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the republics became separate countries. The Russian government then faced a choice. It could try to keep the countries connected in an alliance under its control or it could move toward joining the countries of Europe and North America in a new economic community.

Russia decided to attempt both. It created an   organization to link the countries that emerged out of the Soviet ruins. Most republics went along with Russia, but not Ukraine. The group failed to restore Soviet-style ties.

At about the same time, Russia joined the club of major industrial powers.The Group of Seven became the   Group of Eight. Historically fearful of invasion from Western Europe, Russia could link its economy so closely to others that war between them would become impossible. France and Germany had done just that.

Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 1999. He deeply regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of his country’s power in the world. He set out to restore it.

He could not bring back the Soviet Union, because most Russians rejected Communism. Instead, he would bring back the Russian Empire, a conservative regime. In 2000, he replaced the hammer and sickle with the   imperial eagle as the new symbol for his country.

Putin would attempt to draw most of the republics back into a Russian sphere of influence. His prime target remains Ukraine, which he sees as sharing Russian culture. He disdained its desire for independence.

In his pursuit of the Russian Empire, he chose to forego a closer relationship with the West and to reject democracy. In the new century, Russia became a flag-bearer for the right-wing authoritarian rule that challenges democratic government. It appealed to leaders from America’s Donald Trump to China’s Xi Jinping.

Putin’s decision came at a price. In the West, the   EU economy grew between 1991 and 2021 by more than nine times. At the same time, despite having gained improved access to world markets,   Russia’s economy grew less than three times.

Russia was revealed as a   medium-size economy with a   medium-sized population that is only a great power thanks to its huge land mass and nuclear arsenal.

As Ukraine came under increasing pressure to align closely with Russia, it compared the performance of the EU on its western border and Russia on the eastern side. Responding to   popular demonstrations, it adopted home-grown democracy. Russia suddenly lost influence there.

Putin reacted. In 2014, he seized   Crimea, a part of Ukraine heavily populated by Russians. He also moved on eastern Ukraine. This push for empire cost Russia a closer relationship with the West. The G-8 again became the G-7.  

Ukraine’s economy developed and it openly considered seeking EU membership. Its example was a threat to the new Russian Empire. Now, the empire strikes back. This time the price is sanctions that may devastate Russia’s economy.

After adopting broad social policies to spread prosperity and defeating Nazi aggression, the victors of World War II thought they had closed the book on land wars that would exploit discontent, overrun nations, extinguish democracies and subject countries to authoritarian rule.

But Vladimir Putin stuck his finger in the pages of history and flipped the book open again to the bad old days. That’s obviously not good news for Ukraine.

If he succeeds, it would be a win in the war between right-wing authoritarian rule and democracy. He could open the way for a return to aggression and armed conflict. This time, it would take place in a nuclear-armed world.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.