The American-Polish scholar Zbigniew Brzezinski has proven to be one of the most insightful of the geostrategists, old-guard Kremlinologists, and futurologists of the 20th and 21st centuries. He contributed to “formulating a coherent strategy for the United States, that aimed at dismantling the Soviet bloc” and liberating Central and Eastern Europe from the Russian/Soviet sphere of influence (Bacevich 2018). He pressed for toughness with the Soviets throughout the Carter administration and was very skeptical about the possibility of long-lasting peace in Eastern Europe. Throughout more than seventy years of his professional career, Brzezinski mastered the art of observing, deducing, and uncovering several very important patterns in global politics. He was convinced that “the United States is destined to preserve its status as the first and the last truly global superpower”, but he warned that this outcome cannot be taken for granted (Brzezinski 1997 & Brzezinski 2013).
His critics accused him of being a hardliner who never stopped portraying global reality as a bipolar competition between two superpowers, but Brzezinski respectfully disagreed and was quite persistent in warning the US political establishment against the Fukuyama’s triumphalist claim that the end of history was fast approaching after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To the outrage of liberal IR theorists and many Washington insiders who were in a celebratory mood well after 1991, Brzezinski saw the weakness of the Yeltsin administration not as an indicator that Russia would be permanently satisfied with a new role as geopolitical outsider committed to the voluntary constraint of its military during the collapse of its economy and the complete and utter evaporation of its national pride. To him, Russia was not a giant on rusted legs but a force to be reckoned with as Moscow was just experiencing a temporary setback in the late 1990s that it would overcome within a few decades.
Surely, Brzezinski never trusted Putin and saw him as the post-Soviet man, a product of Soviet imperialist indoctrination, who felt deeply humiliated by how the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed, but he predicted the escalation of the situation in the East long before Putin took power and much earlier than most of us, possibly because his geopolitical insights were strongly influenced by the work of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford J. Mackinder, Nickolas J. Spykman, and Friedrich Ratzel. He was clearly aware that the Russian political establishment had not changed so much from the one responsible for Soviet crimes during and after the Second World War, so he anticipated that whoever may have been in power in Russia would follow a similar modus operandi not favorable to Russia’s neighbors.
For Brzezinski, the problem with Russia was not just one man but rather a systemic feature of the Russian soul inherently prone to expansionism, megalomania, and continual fear and insecurities because of the perpetual feeling of being encircled by enemies caused by post-Napoleonic and post-Second World War traumas and insecurities that are still very persistent in the nation’s literature and culture. Brzezinski recognized that as a threat and warned the West about Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions and his political operatives engaging in systemicatically challenging the new global order in 2008, 2014, and 2015, and he consistently criticized Putin for undermining Russian democracy since the early 2000s.
Ultimately, it was Putin on February 24, 2022, who proved Brzezinski right, for the moment the Russian tanks rolled towards Ukraine’s borders his predictions were fulfilled. As Brzezinski’s writings make clear, it is not only Putin who is to be blamed for the current state of affairs but Russia’s political establishment as a whole, for unlike the British, ordinary Russians could never overcome their delusions of grandeur; they are inherently too proud to accept the constraints imposed on them by a new hegemonic global order imposed by the winner of the Cold War. Their leaders just stick to this neo-Cold War narrative for domestic purposes, suggesting that Russia is encircled and threatened by NATO, which is well-received by a public who craves a credible fairy tale-type explanation for all the misfortunes that befell Russia after 1997, the first NATO eastward expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to this logic, Russia can be strong only if its political establishment is assertive and others unconditionally respect the Kremlin’s will. That is why any Kremlin leader has to be aggressive and divide and conquer foreign lands; otherwise, he does not look presidential enough and cannot win the rigged elections.
Whereas the post-Brexit United Kingdom tries to embrace the new post-colonial stage of its development and does its best to attract Commonwealth nations to follow its lead and is partly successful thanks to its soft power, Putin seems to see such a strategy as a luxury, for Russian language and popular culture are not appealing enough. Putin is clearly a careful student of Niccolo Machiavelli: he knows that it is safer for him to be feared than loved, for how can anyone love a leader who has overstayed his welcome for at least 15 years? That is perhaps why Putin is still prone to fooling himself that he can extend his time in office by resorting to the traditional Kremlin playbook that gives hard power priority over soft power in pursuing domestic and international goals.
Again, the Kremlin playbook has been such long before Putin, and Brzezinski warned the West about the potential dangers of the Primakov Doctrine and its emphasis on the hybrid method of attaining geopolitical goals and objectives long before 2000, for he realized that it was unlikely that Russia would transition into a country with a Western-type demo-liberal, pluralist system of governance with a clear separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Thus, Brzezinski supported Poland’s expedited joining of NATO and the European Union, for he knew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while the ancien regime was still collapsing. Brzezinski kept warning NATO leaders about the dangers related to Russia until his last days: during the annexation of Crimea, Brzezinski criticized the Ukrainians for not shooting a single bullet in its defense, but he praised them for defending Luhansk and Donetsk in 2015, when he called on Western countries to give defensive weapons such as mortars and anti-tank rockets to Ukraine for the defense of major cities, for he knew that Russia can be deterred only with a very long stick. We did not listen to him back then, and this only encouraged Putin to continue his deadly expansionist policies.
Although Brzezinski is dead, his work is very much alive; the Biden administration follows Brzezinski’s geostrategic blueprint, which supports Ukraine militarily, logistically, diplomatically, and politically. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s son Mark Brzezinski serves as the United States Ambassador to Poland and helps his superiors implement his father’s geostrategic vision on the ground thanks to which the Ukrainian army is still standing and is capable of not only repelling the Russian offensive but actually launching a successful counter-offensive. The question is what constitutes the Brzezinski Doctrine today? Would Brzezinski see Ukraine as a potential NATO member or a frozen buffer zone between the transatlantic community and an increasingly assertive, hawkish, and unpredictable Russian giant?
Coming up soon:
Piotr Pietrzak’s The Brzezinski Doctrine and NATO’s Response to Russia’s Assault on Ukraine (2022-) : Dulce Bellum Inexpertis
- Bacevich, Andrew J. 2018. “Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cold War.” The Nation, November 21, 2018. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/zbigniew-brzezinski-cold-war-biography/.
- Brzezinski Zbigniew. 2013. Strategic Vision : America and the Crisis of Global Power. New York: Basic Books a member of the Perseus Books Group.
- Brzezinski Zbigniew. 1997. The Grand Chessboard : American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperative.
- Pietrzak, Piotr. 2020. “Zbigniew Brzezinski’s last Tweet and Donald J. Trump’s policies on North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” In Statu Nascendi – Journal of Political Philosophy and International Relations Vol. 2, No. 2 2019, 55–76, ISBN: 9783838213392.