Putin’s Russia wants to be a superpower

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Russia now is far weaker and much less threatening than the once daunting and frightening USSR. Besides, the present friction and clashes with the West over Ukraine and on other fronts are just a pale shadow of the once formidable Cold War.

putinism

Similarly, Russia’s present exposure in Syria and the draining of its resources in the confusing battle lines against Islamic State (IS) are but a vague reminder of the gory and massive conflict the Soviets fought in Afghanistan against IS’ forefathers, the mujahideen, that eventually bled the USSR to death. Then Moscow was caught in the trap of falling oil prices (cutting its main revenue) and growing military expenditures because of costs in Afghanistan and the new arms race with the U.S.

Now, the ongoing fall in oil prices (again cutting Russian income at a time of dire need), Russia’s growing perception as a neo-dictatorship, its military commitment in Ukraine (which destabilizes Kiev and does not help Moscow, either), and its re-entry into the Middle East after some 30 years all bring back old memories.

In this situation, Walter Laqueur’s Putinism: Russia and Its Future in the West makes a compelling read. It is inspiring possibly more than anything about Moscow’s actual predicament.

Writing of the optimistic perception of Russia after the fall of the Soviet empire, Laqueur notes, “Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to explain this unwarranted optimism; given Russia’s past and present conditions, it was rooted in wishful thinking. Very few considered the likelihood that the loss of empire might not have been the end of the story and that, as quite often happens in history, an attempt would be made to regain what had been lost.

“The German precedent should have been remembered: Completely defeated and powerless in 1918, Germany was able to return as a great power within a mere 15 years. It should have been realized that when new tensions arose, they were not provoked by Putin and the KGB. Like the German people in the early 1930s, a majority of Russians wanted not only a good life, but to be part of a great power, if possible a superpower.” (p. 186)

In this quandary, at the fall of the Soviet empire “people in Moscow expected help from the West, but it was not clear in what way the West could have helped except by the World Bank support. But there was also the suspicion, small at the beginning but steadily growing, that the West would take advantage of Russia’s weakness. Some went further and expressed the conviction that the fall of the Soviet Union had been engineered by Western imperialism. Zapadophobia (fear of the West) grew in Russia by leaps and bounds. There was a deep-seated conviction that any initiative that was good for the West was bound to be harmful for Russia and should therefore be rejected. The radical Right, which had emerged as a force to reckon with in Moscow, was praying for a revival of the Cold War.” (p. 187)

Here Laqueur provides the largest canvas to try to interpret Russia’s present involvement in Syria and its growing rivalry with Turkey, an enemy for centuries. As World War II was the legitimate child of the bad end to World War I, so the present tensions with Russia are the legitimate child of a bad end to the Cold War. Many Russians, argues the author of more than 25 books on history, terrorism, and the Cold War, did not feel they had been defeated. Just like the post–World War I Germans, they felt they had been betrayed and stabbed in the back, and failed to admit and recognize the total bankruptcy of their state.

At the same time, there was a lack of appreciation in the West for what was really going on in Russia after the Cold War. “Many wondered: if the United Kingdom and France had accepted the loss of empire, why couldn’t Russia? Perhaps because of Russia’s conviction that it could not survive except as a great power,” (p. 202) underscores Laqueur.

This spins into another Russian fear with old German roots. As at the turn of the 19thcentury, Prussians drove themselves to conflict and tensions with other European nations, fearing too many people in too little space, similarly now some Russians fear they are left with too much space and not enough people, especially in semi-deserted and inhospitable Siberia. This feeling bodes ill for the future, especially if considered with the background of some recent Russian macroeconomic policies, writes the author.

Russia’s military expenditures (4.5% of GDP) are about twice that of NATO countries. Then taxes will have to increase, from the current maximum rate of 13% that favors the ultra rich—otherwise Moscow will not have enough money for schools or health care, and thus will have lower life expectancy and lower literacy. Both of these phenomena will further stress the perception of too much land and too few people.

Here there is also an important China angle, as especially in its territorial vision Russia remains largely an Asian country neighboring China. Moscow fears that an increasingly depopulated Siberia, representing some two-thirds of its remaining empire, will be gobbled up by commercially and politically aggressive, overpopulated China, which is perceived as having a lot of people but no space.

At the same time, China is afraid of moving or even being perceived as moving into Siberia, which could trigger global fears of expansionism. Moreover, Beijing sees clearly Russia’s long-term weaknesses and fears its possible collapse in Siberia. This would create a huge power vacuum that would be ominous for China, however it were to be solved.

If Beijing were to step in, this could taint its own international image as expansionist while making China a neighbor of Europe, possibly irking sensibilities on both ends of the Eurasian continent. If Beijing were to stay aloof in case of Russia’s collapse in Siberia, this could bring to the fore a new, possibly aggressive neighbor, which might look for sponsors and support among the wide array of countries wary of China in the world. In sum, Russia’s further weakening would be lose-lose proposition for China, and these are deep reasons for China’s recent support of Russia. Strong China thus wants to help flagging Russia, which is perhaps not totally aware of its difficulties.

However, Moscow is uncomfortable being Beijing’s junior partner, after having been the senior partner during the long stretch of Cold War. Despite official statements, Russia remains very suspicious of China, as Miles Yu pointed out recently (see http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/dec/10/inside-china-russia-china-still-fierce-competitors/ ).

Here perhaps, once more, the legacy of the Cold War and present geopolitical concerns run amok and spin out of control, and this is the scenario that de facto Laqueur introduces.

Cold War went hot in Korea in 1950s and dovetailed in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Then, to make up for the political and moral loss the U.S. was suffering in the proxy war in Vietnam with Soviets, Nixon and Kissinger decided to open to China and deployed it politically more than militarily against the USSR. This deployment became more effective after Mao’s death with Carter and Brzezinski, who propped China to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam, which had invaded fellow communist Cambodia, and to marshal weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Thanks to its contributions against the USSR, China survived the end of the Cold War, and so did Vietnam, which in the late 1980s collaborated on a peace initiative started by U.S.-allied Thailand to bring peace to Cambodia. The initiative kindled the fast economic growth of all of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.

Yet China not only remained officially “communist” (thus in theory “to be Cold Warred” and with some internal “Cold Warring” factions) but also moved to be a great power, able, possibly, to challenge U.S. supremacy in the future. The growing tensions in recent years between China and the U.S., coated at times in old Cold War rhetoric, objectively provided an argument to the Russians that Putin was the hero who could successfully take on the West where the USSR had failed. If the Chinese were doing it, so could the Russians.

On the other end of the spectrum, in China, Putin’s apparently successful rebirth of imperial Russia was providing an argument against Beijing’s pulls to transition to more democratic and liberal institutions. This seemed particularly true after the 2008 American financial crisis, in which practical Chinese saw a failure of the U.S. economic and also political model.

Russia’s recent initiatives in Ukraine and Syria have somewhat cooled Beijing’s affections for Putin.

From the Chinese historical viewpoint (which is not grounded in Thucydides’ history of the war between Athens and Sparta), the world looks more and more like that of the Warring States period, as a 2004 book by Wang Jian, Li Xiaoning, Qiao Liang, and Wang Xiangsui argued (Xin zhan guo shidai). At the time, between 5th and 3rdcenturies BC, a few powers were competing with each other and all unable to prevail, unlike during the preceding spring and autumn period, when scores of states were destroyed and gobbled up by mightier neighbors.

The end of that Warring State era occurred thanks to the very special situation of the time, impossible to be repeated on a global scale: the relatively short and very successful campaign by Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, concluding with the establishment of the first empire in China in 211 BC. That total unification (political and cultural) created an ideal precedent to which China tried to go back but never really exceeded the physical borders traced by Qin. The rest of the world, until very recently, was not part of “under heaven” (tianxia), the Chinese political universe.

As the Chinese now try to cope with the modern world, they are also trying to philosophically translate it into terms closer to their cultural sensitivities. This was Zhao Tingyang’s effort with his Tianxia zhi (2005), clearly inspired by an ancient, pre-Qin unification vision of the world where many states coexist while recognizing the moral authority of a son of heaven, something like half the Catholic Pope, half the United Nations.

This is a very different cultural setting from that of the U.S. or Russia or Europe, grounded on Thucydides’ bipolar vision with incumbent and aspiring powers competing for the annihilation of the other.

This brings us back to Laqueur. If cultural and social perceptions are so important to political decisions, as proved by the experience of Germany in the 1930s and Russia now, this might be real ground to break for those seeking a solution to today’s problems. Here everybody’s “soft power” is failing, including that of America. No one seems interested or able to reach everyone with an overarching message, as both the capitalist West and communist USSR tried to do during the Cold War.

This might be good as it avoids religious and ideological wars, but it is plunging us in a world of mutually unconnected and non-communicating cultural universes, where all try to maximize their specific profit while ignoring the rest. It is a world of cultural relativism, to steal a sentence from the Catholic Church, where conflict over ideals is traded for neglect of others. This neglect (from the West and from Russia) has apparently also contributed to breeding Putin’s Russia and IS. Perhaps there is a way that is neither ideological war nor neglect for others. Short of that, we might well expect far more troubles of this kind.

Then the present situation appears like a dangerous mix of the geopolitical tensions before World War I, where land, ambitions, misperceptions were daily issues, and unfinished businesses of the Cold War. In all of this, IS is just a detail, or perhaps can be the fuse to set off everything.

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Francesco Sisci
Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He is the contributor for Il Sole 24ore, and a frequent commentator on international affairs for CCTV and Phoenix TV.
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