Putin’s Post-Imperial Adventure

Most observers get Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine War wrong. The Ukraine War is Putin’s Imperial Adventure, not the beginning of a Hitler-style wave of conquests.

A Post-Imperial Adventure is a war a declining empire embarks upon to demonstrate its power. Most post-imperial adventures are attempts to reconquer or keep historic colonies. The Ukraine War is a post-imperial adventure because it is an effort to reconquer a historic Russian colony: Ukraine.

Governments embark upon post-imperial adventures to show the world and their peoples their nation is still a “Great Power,” or an empire. For example, Putin is trying to show that Russia is still an empire by attacking Ukraine.

What is a Post-Imperial Adventure?

Regimes usually embark upon post-imperial adventures after a humiliation or defeat, or decades of decline. The purpose is to show the people at home and the empire’s subjects that the country still has military power and fighting spirit.

For example, the French government embarked upon several post-imperial adventures after World War II. During the 1940s and 1950s, the French military fought bloody colonial wars in Madagascar, Vietnam, and Algeria. The real purpose of those wars was to erase the humiliating defeat of 1940 from history, not reconquer France’s empire.

The French government and military could never get over the humiliation of seeing American, Canadian, and British forces liberate their nation from the Nazis. The hope was that colonial victories could redeem France’s honor and the reputation of the French military.

Conversely, the British, who took part in the Great Victory of 1945, simply walked away from most of their empire. British troops left India, most of Africa, Burma, and other places without firing a shot. Indeed, one criticism is that the British left India so fast their exit led to chaos and bloodshed.

Britain, which had won an enormous victory in 1945, did not need a post-imperial adventure. In contrast, France and the Netherlands, which suffered humiliating defeats in 1940 and 1942, engaged in post-imperial adventures.

I consider the Ukraine War a classic post-imperial adventure because Russia is a declining power humiliated by decades of defeat, economic collapse, and weakness. Putin’s hope is to make Russia Great Again by winning a victory in Ukraine.

Thus, we can learn the probable outcome of the Ukraine War by studying past post-imperial adventures. Other nations’ post-imperial debacles can show us what could happen next in Ukraine and Russia.

Post-Imperial Adventures that Resemble the Ukraine War include:

The Malagasy Uprising

Madagascar is an enormous island off the East Coast of Africa. French forces conquered Madagascar in the Franco-Hova War of 1883, and a second conflict in the 1890s.

During World War II, British forces invaded Madagascar and defeated pro-Nazi Vichy French troops. The British seized Madagascar to keep it from falling to the Japanese.

In 1947, Malagasy nationalists began attacking French Forces on Madagascar to drive the colonialists out. French weakness and news reports about a failed effort by French leftists to grant Madagascar independence sparked the attacks.

In retaliation, the French government sent 12,000 additional troops to Madagascar and launched a brutal offensive against nationalists. Like the Russians in Ukraine, French colonial troops engaged in barbarism in Madagascar.

Historians make accusations of torture, rape, and mass killings against the French and African troops. There are even claims French soldiers threw Malagasy rebels out of airplanes. Historians estimate, between 11,000 and 100,000 people died in the Malagasy Uprising, or Madagascar’s War of Independence.

The Malagasy Uprising ended in 1949. Ironically, the French government declared Madagascar independent and left the island in 1960, just 11 years later. Hence, the French war in Madagascar was about national honor and imperial reputation and little else. The French government admitted Madagascar was of no value to France by leaving in 1960.

The Indonesian War of Independence

During World War II, the Dutch Army surrendered Holland to the Nazis after four days of fighting. Similarly, it took the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy less than two months to conquer the entire Dutch Empire in the Far East.

Yet the Dutch military fought a brutal three-year war against Indonesian freedom fighters in their Asian colony, the Dutch East India. The Dutch soldiers who put their hands up at the sight of German and Japanese forces fought the Indonesians for three years. The hope was to restore national honor and take out Dutch frustrations on the Indonesian people

During the Indonesian War of Independence, Dutch forces were just as brutal as Russian forces in Ukraine or French forces in Madagascar. The Dutch crimes “included mass detentions, torture, burning of kampongs (villages), executions and killing of civilians,” Frank van Vree told Al Jazeera. Van Vree is a history professor at the University of Amsterdam.

By 1949, Dutch brutality had become so bad it was an embarrassment to the Netherlands’ ally, the United States. In particular, Americans were angry that the Dutch were using Marshall Plan aid and American military equipment to oppress the Indonesian people.

President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) threatened to cut off Marshall Plan aid. Truman’s threat forced the Dutch government to end the war because World War II and Nazi occupation had devastated the Netherlands’ economy. Without Marshall Plan aid, the Dutch people could starve.

Indonesia became independent, and predictably a staunch US ally, and the Dutch Empire faded into history. Historians estimate around 100,000 people died in the Netherlands’ Post-Imperial Adventure. Yet in the end all the Dutch got was national humiliation.

France in Vietnam

After “victory” in Madagascar, the French began another post-imperial adventure in Vietnam (then called Indochina). Unlike Madagascar, Indochina became a disaster for the French Army.

In Madagascar, heavily armed French and African soldiers slaughtered freedom fighters who attacked them with spears. In Vietnam, the French faced organized Communist forces with access to enormous amounts of American, Japanese, and Russian military equipment.

To explain, the Vietnamese Communists were allies of the Chinese Communists. The Chinese Communists had captured enormous amounts of American and Japanese military equipment in their victory over the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army gave part of that weaponry and some Russian supplies to the Vietnamese.

The French Army in Vietnam, like the Russian Army in Ukraine, was incapable of defeating a well-equipped enemy that employed sophisticated tactics. By 1953, French forces were stuck in a war of attrition.

By 1954, the Vietnamese trapped many French units at Dien Bien Phu, a fortress near the Laotian border. With their army surrounded and cut off, and the American and British governments unwilling to send troops to help, the French choice but to negotiate.

Talks in Geneva led to a complete humiliation for France. The French abandoned all their colonies in Indochina. North Vietnam became a Communist dictatorship and South Vietnam an American puppet state. Meanwhile, Cambodia and Laos became independent kingdoms.

France in Algeria

Astonishingly, the French followed their post-imperial catastrophe in Vietnam with a greater disaster in Algeria.

I think the 1954-1962 French War in Algeria is the historical conflict that most resembles the Ukraine War. To explain, many French people viewed Algeria as part of France, just as Russian nationalists, such as Putin, regard Ukraine as part of Russia.

The last King of France, Charles X or Charles the Simple, invaded Algeria in 1830 to distract his people and army from problems in France. However, Colonial Algeria became a popular destination for French colonists.

By 1954, many French people regarded Algeria as part of France. Moreover, Islamic Algeria had hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic French residents by the 1950s. French law even classified Algeria as part of France rather than a colony.

Predictably, the Algerians disagreed. Tensions were rising because the Algerians became second-class citizens in their own country.

French rule of Algeria was brutal. Historians estimate French troops killed 500,000 to three million Algerians during the first 80 years of colonial rule. In Algeria, the French Army had followed a scorched Earth policy in which troops drove all Muslims out. The French government deported entire Algerian tribes from their ancestral lands.

The French government was under pressure to stay in Algeria because French colonists, or pieds-noirs, elected members to France’s National Assembly. By 1915, the colons, or pieds-noirs, had 27 representatives in Paris. French governments supported the colons because they needed their votes.

Political power enabled the pieds-noirs to control both the government and the economy in Algeria. By 1953, colons owned 66% of Algeria’s farmland, while 60% of rural Algerians were destitute.

On 1 November 1954, the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched the Algerian War of Independence. The Algerian War was both a guerrilla war between the French Army and the FLN and a civil war between colons and Algerians. In particular, the Main Rouge, or Red Hand, colon terrorist group killed many Algerians. In retaliation, the FLN killed pieds-noirs and French sympathizers.  

The Algerian War was one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century. The war dragged on for years and by 1956, most of the French Army, over 400,000 troops, was in Algeria. French forces used new technologies, including helicopters and napalm in Algeria.

By 1958, the French people had turned against the war. Fearing abandonment, the French Army in Algeria staged a coup and seized control of the colony. The coup leaders demanded that French President René Coty resign in favor of World War II hero General Charles De Gaulle. The coup leaders wrongly believed De Gaulle wanted to stay in Algeria.

To achieve their goal, the rebels seized Corsica and made preparations to invade France and seize Paris if De Gaulle was not made president. The result was the end of the French Fourth Republic. On 29 May 1958, the National Assembly appointed De Gaulle President.

After organizing the French Fifth Republic. De Gaulle began looking for a way out of Algeria. He found it through a referendum on the self-determination of Algeria on 8 January 1961. In the Referendum, 75% of French and Algerian voters approved “self-determination” (independence) for Algeria.

Talks between the French government and the FLN began. The talks succeeded despite a coup attempt designed to scuttle the peace deal. The resulting Évian Accords peace deal allowed the French to pull out by giving Muslim Algerians and the pieds-noirs (European Christian Algerians) equal rights.

Consequently, Algeria became an independent nation in 1962. Most of the pieds-noirs fled to France as Algeria became a dictatorship. However, a pieds-noirs terror group, the OAS, launched a spectacular series of attacks against the French government that continued through the 1960s.

The Algerian War was the deadliest post-imperial adventure of the 20th century. The FLN estimates 1.5 million people died in the conflict. Other sources put the death toll at 350,000 to 960,000. The French military admits that 25,600 of its members died in Algeria. Another 65,000 French military personnel sustained injuries.

How Will Putin’s Post-Imperial Adventure End?

My suspicion is that the Russian adventure in Ukraine will follow the Algeria pattern. That is a prolonged war leading to a slaughter that will bring down the Russian government. My guess is that the Ukraine violence will spill over to Russia at some point, with Russians fighting each other over Ukraine.

One strange front in the Algerian War was the “Café Wars” in France itself. During the Café Wars, the French government estimates terrorists killed 3,975 people in France.

I think Russia could experience a similar slaughter with Putinists killing opponents of the Ukraine War on Russian soil. Remember, Putin has already killed his opponents in Russia and elsewhere.

The body count could rise if Ukrainians, or Putin opponents, begin attacking the Russian government and its supporters in Russia. One nightmare for Putin is the Ukrainian government arming his opponents, such as Chechen separatists.

A problem Russia faces is that there is no figure like Charles De Gaulle in modern Russia. That is somebody with the moral authority to pull the plug on the military disaster and bring the troops home. Instead, the most popular Russian politician Vladimir Putin is staking his career on Ukraine. If the Russians lose in Ukraine, I think Putin will fall and the Russian Federation will collapse.

I think the Algerian War shows us the probable outcome of the Ukraine War. The war will drag on for years, killing thousands until the Russian government collapses under the strain. Only time will tell if a new, more peaceful and democratic Russia will emerge from the Ukraine chaos.

On the positive side, Algeria led to a more peaceful and democratic France. On the negative side, the Algerian War killed 1.5 million people.

History shows post-imperial adventures end in disaster and humiliation. The drive for national renewal and redemption of honor through war leads to defeat. I think the Ukraine War will be no different. Hopefully, the Ukraine War will be the world’s last post-imperial adventure.