Twenty years ago, Russia was a mess – no longer an enemy, not even an adversary and certainly not a partner. What was feared most was a collapse that might turn Russia into something resembling the former Yugoslavia, all pire. “I don’t like it when the U.S. flaunts its superiority,” complained Russia’s then president Boris Yeltsin, who insisted, “Russia isn’t Haiti…Russia will rise again.”
Events now confirm that; Russia is back. And it’s back as a bully to former Soviet holdings in Europe, as a challenge to the United States, and as one of the self-proclaimed leaders of what is allegedly a post-Western world.
This isn’t just a burst of imperial nostalgia akin to that of some European states a few decades ago. Nor is it a moment of post-bipolarity funk – a rebellion against an all-powerful America that didn’t make time for Russia when it was the time to do so, and a revolt against a uniting Europe that didn’t make room for its larger neighbour when it had been hoping for an invitation. As always, ghosts linger on. Seven decades of Soviet governance failed to bury centuries of Russian imperial history. La grande Russie doesn’t stay passively silent for long: her vocation is to be heard and expand, not to withdraw and shrink. The “soul” attributed by former U.S. President George W. Bush to Vladimir Putin after their first meeting in June 2001 mourned two decades of disrespect. Shorn of nearly a quarter of the Soviet Union’s post-1945 territories, Russia was still too big, too near and too nuclear for such treatment – not yet a true European power, but still a leading power in Europe. Russia thus longs for its imperial past, and the vexing question is how to impress upon its government in Moscow that there are limits to self-image that the Russian state can no longer sustain and which the West need not tolerate any longer.
“When Russia was weak in the 1990s,” remembers former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a self-described hardliner on the Soviet Union, “we did a poor job…managing the relationship for the long-term.” The mistake, then, was to pay insufficient attention to Russia’s legitimate interests and concerns. Now that Russia looks stronger, the mistake would be to exaggerate the significance and relevance of those interests. America’s unfinished business with Russia is part of Europe’s own unfinished business, one half of which consists of an ever closer Union while the other half is being undone by national identities that challenge the EU member states’ sovereignty.
The end of the Cold War came abruptly. There was no cease-fire, no peace conference, no formal treaty and no settlement. As the Soviet Union held an unprecedented real estate sale, the West helped itself. What was in Europe was the Russian state of 1917. It might have seemed dead – “Mort à jamais?” as Marcel Proust had asked – but not forever or even for long. It was not wise to dismiss centuries of history that had seen Russia’s territories expand by one Belgium a year for 300 years, that had brutally imposed the Russification of ethnic minorities, and had relied on authoritarian and even totalitarian rule to subjugate its people.
Now it’s Vladimir Putin’s turn to dismiss his country’s most recent defeat and ride at the head of an anti-Western posse against what he calls the world’s “one centre of authority, one centre of force, and one centre of decision-making.” But that moment, too, will pass. As Russia’s economy runs out of gas, so to speak, it also finds itself short of energy – meaning; people and even security space. Over time, an under-developed, de-populated, and encircled Russia has no credible alternative to closer co-operation with the West. Too much history and too little geography separates Moscow from a dangerously ascending China, reportedly Moscow’s alternative of choice.
Boris Yeltsin had whimpered that if there was no clear winner, at least the Cold War had produced no loser. “We’re not talking about a relationship between superiors and inferiors, but between equals,” he wanted his “friend” Bill Clinton to know. There were echoes of Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 who insisted that defeated France should be treated as a co-equal. “If there are still allied powers,” Talleyrand told his victorious interlocutors, “then I do not belong here.” Of course, the legendary French diplomat was one of a kind, but in October 1991, on the eve of its collapse, the Soviet Union was also invited by the United States as the triumphant state to co-chair the Madrid Conference which then-Secretary of State James Baker viewed as “the end game for peace” in the Middle East. A decade later, Putin attacked his country’s implicit surrender and its dismemberment as a geopolitical catastrophe, “impossible to imagine” even while it was taking place.
In autumn 2008, the violence and intensity of the war in Georgia were, according to Robert Gates, “eye openers” that demanded “a different set of lenses.” “Russia’s behaviour,” he announced, “has called into question the entire premise of our [strategic] dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward – both bilaterally and with NATO.” On the whole, though, he ignored his own warnings, which were not heeded by either by the two presidents he served as Secretary of Defence. On the contrary, a newly-elected Barack Obama soon sought a reappraisal, or reset, of U.S.-Russian relations, as if to make amends. Now however, Putin’s will to re-adjudicate the verdict of History restores a sense of conflict that can no longer be ignored by those he charges with having “not simply robbed” but altogether “plundered” his country.
The confrontation between the West and Russia in the spring of 2014 is no more about Ukraine than the 2008 war in Georgia was just about Georgia. Neither of these countries is a core American interest, and the EU states have shown little interest in bringing either into their Union any time soon. Ukraine and Georgia before have been crises for Russia more than for the West, and what has made of “their” crisis “our” problem is Russian behaviour that in each case has threatened the European institutional and territorial order built up over the past 60 years. From the start, though, Putin was not discreet about his intentions – how he viewed Russia and what he thought of the West. “A proud man who loves his country,” nevertheless felt George W. Bush, deceptively moved by a “sense of Putin’s soul.” In his first major speech after Putin returned to the presidency which he had for a while loaned to Dmitri Medvedev, Putin urged the Russians “not to lose themselves as a nation” and to reject the “standards imposed on us from outside” at the expense of “our traditions.” In a dubious replica of Ronald Reagan 20 years earlier, the Russian president unveiled an “evil empire” – a U.S.-led, post-Christian Western world said to be exporting godlessness, permissiveness, and moral depravity. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, Putin does not want a common home with Europe, but hopes instead to build one of his own: No longer Russia in Europe or even Europe with Russia, but Europe to Russia and even, at least for the post-Soviet space, Europe in Russia.
Why Nikita Khrushchev chose in 1954 to return Crimea to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine is more puzzling than Putin’s decision to return it to Russia. A proletarian intellectual who goes to the geopolitical barricades to fight for what he believes more than for what he knows, Putin echoes Nikolai Danilovsky, whose brand of Russian nationalism nurtured Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s belief in a “Great Russian hegemony” dedicated to “a great renewal … for the whole world” which, wrote Dostoyevsky, was endangered by a Western civilisation whose invasion “begins with luxury, fashions, scholarship, and art – and inevitably ends in sodomy and universal corruption.” That same conviction makes of Putin a gambler prepared to bet heavily on a doctrine of imposed self-determination for what he claims is, “the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”
Nor is the renewed confrontation between Russia and the West about more recent but no less spurious analogies. Comparing Putin to Hitler, and interpreting his discourse as a translated rendition of Mein Kampf, is no more constructive than comparing Nazi Germany to post-Soviet Russia. Tantamount to assimilating spring 2014 with autumn 1938, the analogy is hardly relevant when the Western democracies today show so little interest in waging the war against Russia that they should arguably have favoured in the 1930s over appeasement. History does not grant time outs for the replay of bad calls. Similarly, evoking a new Cold War with Russia is to return to March 1948, and call for the rollback that the United Sates might have favoured over the containment that the influential commentator Walter Lippmann at first dismissed as a “strategic monstrosity.” Get real: conditions with Ukraine are not comparable to those that prevailed in Munich, or on the eve of the coup in Czechoslovakia; Putin is no more a menacing reminder of Hitler or Stalin than Obama is a reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain or Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“There will be costs for any military intervention,” warned President Obama in February 2014, on the eve of the Russian annexation of Crimea. But pray tell: what was there for Putin to fear after he had witnessed a year earlier Obama’s reluctance to enforce his own “red lines” in Syria with John Kerry himself calling their threatened strike “unbelievably small”? There has been little Obama could do relative to how much Putin can take, in Ukraine and even some of the non-NATO territorial space in Europe. After the military option has been taken off the table, what’s left is pontification – about being on the wrong side of history, as Obama put it – to deter an adversary whose sense of history goes the opposite way.
“Not to rush to judgment,” advised veteran American diplomat George Kennan after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and “not to write off the Russians and their leaders. Patience, patience – that’s what we need.” That may well be sound advice, but for how long and how far? There is a long game to be played: don’t provoke Russia and its leaders with empty threats, to be sure, but don’t indulge Russia and its people with too much “understanding” either. Let it be stated once and for all: History does not owe Russia the apologies it owes Ukraine and other territorial pieces of Europe’s tragic geography of pain. That is the area where can still be heard the silenced sounds of war, and where can best be smelled the worst odours of death. As historian Timothy Snyder has noted, more Ukrainians were killed fighting Nazi Germany than American, British, and French soldiers combined – not to mention the millions who had been starved to death by Stalin before the war. The history of Russia has been written by what it did to its people and in the lands of its neighbours rather than the other way around.
In short, the Russian government does what it does because Russia is what it is: a country unable to imagine life without empire, and unprepared to populate its new democracy with truly democratic leaders. The annexation of Crimea was not just Putin’s way of showing Obama his manhood, rather it is a renewed bid to fulfill the idea the Russians have of themselves and of Europe. Russians may not like all that their president does, but over 80% of them approve his action. Meanwhile, Obama satisfies the broad preference of Americans who wish to do less in the world, but his foreign policy approval rating shows support from fewer than one person in three. It is as if there was public embarrassment and even some shame relative to the way in which Americans as a nation like to think of themselves.
You know where to begin, noted Kennan on more than one occasion, but often ignore where you’re going to end. So it was after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and with the division of Germany in 1949, and since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. First Georgia, and since then with Crimea and Ukraine, Putin started “something” – but what? Does he know where he is going? In the same vein, Obama has shown he knows how to stand up to the so-called swaggerers – but will he also know where to stand up, and for what? This is Kennan turned inside out: knowing how it will end because of the limits of Russian power may actually be easier than knowing where to begin. War is no longer the way of history, but how do you bring along those whose own history takes them another way?
Over 40 years ago, President Richard M. Nixon hoped to put in place a strategy that would calibrate interests and capabilities. Knowing “when it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest” was not easy then, with a surge of Soviet power and the rise of “new influentials” which Nixon viewed as the introduction of a new multipolar order. America, he pledged, “cannot – and will not – conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defence of the free nations of the world.” Now as then, Obama’s foreign policy reticence is shared by a majority of Americans who want “to come home.” But also like them, it is a source of concern for a large number of America’s closest allies in need of strategic reassurance. The irony is plain for all to see. Ten years after the fiasco in Iraq, the global demand for American power has never been higher, but its credibility rarely lower and its reliability more in doubt.
To convince its friends, a preponderant power must be right; to tame its enemies it must be strong; to do both, it must inspire trust. All too often Obama has appeared to do the reverse – at best, right for what he said but weak for what he did and ineffective in the way he did it. By his own account, comfortable with complexity – “the big things” as Bill Clinton noted – Obama can easily win an argument, but a lack of attention to what follows often leaves his exchanges with adversaries unheard, his reassurances not implemented, and his likeable personality not trusted. In any case, this, too, is not just about Obama but, more broadly, about a post-American world. Long past the Cold War, and possibly past America’s prime too, this is not a world an emerging post-Western America understands well: every power a potential ally but every partner a possible adversary, depending on needs and urgency; every judge a penitent and every penitent a judge, depending on the case and the moment – Kosovo and Crimea, Iraq and Syria, Moscow’s Afghanistan and Washington’s Afghanistan, and so forth.
Obama did not originate this world – one in which the dwindling U.S. supply of security for growing world demand since the Cold War, comes together with a reduced world supply of security for rising American demand since 9/11. Nor did Obama “lose” Putin or “betray” Crimea any more than Roosevelt betrayed Eastern Europe at Yalta and Truman lost to Stalin at Potsdam. Still, there has been too much loose talk in the United States about rebalancing, to Asia or elsewhere; too much ill-timed talk of a reset, with Russia or others; too much vacuous talk, about leadership from behind and too much dismissive talk about the EU and its leaders or about Putin and his leadership. Words can impress momentarily for their elegance, but they matter more durably for their substance. Admittedly, Putin is not in Obama’s intellectual league, but more plainly, he can nonetheless hammer home his points the old fashioned way – with the domineering Slavic idea of a strong and united Russia.
After World War II, the strategy of containment was embraced as a third way between appeasement and war, the two options that had been pursued by the Western democracies during the interwar years – the former to avoid the latter until the latter grew irresistibly out of the former. Fears that containment was too passive and could not rollback Soviet advances were proved wrong, and whether a different strategy would have achieved rollback faster seems unlikely. What is now known is that after some initial geopolitical confusion, the Soviets were stopped until they ran out of time, and the United States was careful to look elsewhere whenever the Soviets used force to control their half of Europe, in Hungary and elsewhere. With war on behalf of any non-NATO or non-EU country now largely ruled out in the West, Russia’s renewed passion for empire must be denied with a firm yet prudent narrative similar to that of President Truman in March 1947.
How best to assist Ukraine begins with the plaintive recognition that little can now be done to keep the country entirely whole, or even free. Twenty years of Western neglect stand in the way of the former goal, and centuries of territorial and cultural intimacy with Russia constrain the latter. The echoes of past calls for the early “liberation” of Eastern Europe during the Cold War still resonate. “What are you proposing to do,” John Foster Dulles was asked when Secretary of State. And President Eisenhower answered at the start of the 1956 crisis in Hungary when he announced that “the day of liberation may be postponed where armed forces for a time make protest suicidal.”
What followed – a “holocaust,” wrote Eisenhower – should not be forgotten. But we must face the fact that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will not be reversed any time soon, if ever, and preventing further amputation is the best that can be expected. History still shapes Ukraine’s destiny – two peoples in a single country that urgently needs a new constitutional formula to if it is to maintain its unity. But geography, with borders shared by seven neighbours, also gives Ukraine pivotal significance for Russia and the West. Attempts by either to build Ukraine up as an outpost against the other will not go unanswered and would deepen a dangerous geopolitical fracture in the heart of Europe.
The 1955 neutralisation of Austria, concluded at a time when Moscow could have imposed partition, is an adaptable precedent. For 40 years after that, Austria was left out of the Western institutions, but the West was not kept far away from Austria. That time-out was well used, for Austria gradually became a non-member member of the European Community, thereby easing its transition to full EU membership shortly the end of the Cold War. By comparison, a quarter of a century of bad governments has made of Ukraine a failed state which the EU is unwilling to adopt and which Russia looks unable to rehabilitate. We should also consider Russia’s own condition – the state of its economy, the health of its society, and the efficacy of its own governance. Russia is back, admittedly, but not as Yeltsin had hoped: however influential it wants to be, this is a demandeur state whose staying power suffers from a lack of capabilities, including people; dwindling market power, including oil; and shrinking security space, with an expanding NATO in the West, while China grows ever stronger and more intrusive in the East and Islam more unsettled and even threatening in the South. These are the facts of geographic and economic vulnerability which Gorbachev understood when trade, mostly with Eastern Europe, amounted to less than 4% of the total Soviet economy. Now, Russia’s foreign trade represents 30% of GDP, with more than half of its exports going to the West, mostly to Europe and mainly consisting of oil and gas sales that contribute the major share of Moscow’s revenues. Add to this Russia’s need for Western capital for technology purchases and the question of who needs whom is clear. Even as the West lacks the military will to deter Putin in the short term, it has the economic power to alter Russia’s behavior before long.
When asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi reportedly answered that “it would be a good idea.” At 65 years of age, the transatlantic alliance, too, still looks as if it would be a good idea. The obstacle to putting the idea into practice is not a matter of capabilities or even commitment. Rather, what is lacking is the confidence that the capabilities will be used effectively and the commitment assumed evenly; absent such confidence, the will to act is lacking. For the European allies who have become used to relying on the United States for waging, winning, and ending their wars, the recent display of inefficacy in Iraq and Afghanistan is squarely un-American. But if not the United States, who? For Americans who have repeatedly urged Europe to do more, the institutional standstill since the 2008 financial crisis is increasingly exasperating. If Europe cannot be rendered capable as a Union, how can it be responsible for its own security?
These questions, and the expectations they raise, have surfaced many times before. Now, however, their resonance is being heightened not only by Russia’s resurgence in the East but also by Germany’s influence in the EU and America’s drift to Asia and other influential newcomers. In other words, the Western alliance is once again troubled by a Russian problem which the United States can no longer ignore, a German problem which the EU can no longer hide, and an American problem which NATO can no longer dilute. The balance of military forces appears to favour Russia more than ever before; rarely, too, has the balance of economic influence been as favourable to Germany as it is now and never has America sounded less European.
In all these cases, the dilemma is daunting. This is a surprising end to a century of total wars that were fought mostly around these two European superpowers and where there was decisive American leadership. Yet as the United States “pivots” to Asia, which it knows to be inevitable, it hopes for a Russia that is strong enough to not be tempted by China, but weak enough to not concern the EU. And it expects a Europe that is united enough to bury the past century with a fully completed union, but divided enough to depend on an American leadership that is still learning how to consult with, rather than merely inform its allies. Meanwhile, as Europe struggles with institutional questions that it knows to be indispensable, it awaits a Germany assertive enough to lead, but compliant enough to be overruled.
Back to Kennan, then: patience, patience – don’t provoke but indulge. What else? This is how the Cold War was won and half of Europe redone; this is how the other half of Europe will make the continent whole after it has been kept free. The strategic recipe hasn’t really changed much: To borrow from the quip of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, America is still very much “in”, and while Germany should no longer be kept “down” (now that the EU is up), Russia must be kept “out” until such time as it’s prepared to come in.
First published by the Europe’s World, article re-posted per author’s permission
Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”
As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.
Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.
Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.
Bad, but Still a Strategy
If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.
In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.
The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.
Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today
Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans
The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.
“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.
The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.
It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.
“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.
Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.
According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.
Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.
“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.
According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.
Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”
FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.
China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears
The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.
What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.
As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.
In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.
What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.
Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.
Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.
Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.
Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.
In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.
However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.
Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.
Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.
The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.
Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today
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