Okay, so they’re not 100% back to their “Let’s take over the world and put a statue of Lenin on the moon” ways. But Russia is acting quite the bad boy recently; backing Bashar Assad in his murderous civil war, giving covering fire to Iran’s nuclear program, and now, seemingly grabbing up the Crimea and setting Ukraine down the path of secession and division.
Let’s begin where makes most sense – August 1991.
Mr. Gorbachev takes a holiday and ends up destroying the USSR
In August 1991, first and last president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev was in the final stages of what might well have saved at least some of his country. By that time in history, the USSR and communism were both discredited as terrible ideas; the former because it was too costly to maintain and the later because it was just a bad idea that didn’t take into account human greed. So the upper echelons of Soviet leadership were trying to find a way to keep at least some of the bits of the USSR that helped them while ditching the parts that were a drag.
The result was the New Union Treaty of 1991, which would have kept most of the USSR together as a loose federation of republics with a single defense and foreign policy but with otherwise autonomous states set free to sort the many problems of 70 years of communism. This would have salvaged what remained of Russia’s empire that had been built to defend Moscow from invasion and conquest. Under the circumstances, it was a pretty decent job.
But when Gorbachev went south for a holiday, Soviet hardliners launched a coup and fucked the Soviet Union. The coup failed because nobody but the Soviet Union’s most hardcore security men supported it; troops refused to open fire on crowds and eventually everyone had a good laugh at the expense of the KGB. As they laughed, the death knell of the Soviet Union was heard; by December that year, all republics had gone their own ways and the hammer and sickle was no more.
But the dream did not die
Well, less of a dream than a necessity. Russia needs wide buffers on various sides to secure itself. It needs its Central Asian republics to absorb instability and chaos from the Middle East and Chinese adventurism; it needs its European buddies in Ukraine and Belarus to act as a barrier against invasion or encroachment from Europe.
The 1990s were a rough and horrible time for Russian power as civil wars erupted, presidents got super drunk, and kleptocracy took hold. The low point was when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, historically seen by Russia as a fellow Slav and Orthodox power under their protection. That year, President Putin was elected for his first term.
Getting the band back together was not as simple as a few “I’m sorrys” and “I promise not to starve half your population again in pursuit of rapid industrialization”
For Russia, a ring of buffer states is essential to secure themselves against the encroachments of other world powers. They have zero reason to assume the United States, European Union, or China won’t support the collapse of their state if push comes to shove amongst Russia’s many ethnic groups and competing political classes. Moreover, having been invaded by Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler has made Russian generals justifiably concerned the world doesn’t have their interests at heart.
And so getting these buffer states back has been a delicate game of manipulation, opportunity seizing, and outright bullying. In the 19th century, Russia was free to invade and conquer its way to security. But by 2000, with the United States the undisputed champion of the world and with the international system no longer tolerating annexing or invading other countries, Russia under Putin had to find a slow but steady way to win back the frontiers without arousing a coalition under American command that would thwart it.
So Putin first put his own house in order, then got to making sure everyone worldwide understood how well ordered his house was
One of Putin’s first acts as president was to invade Chechnya, which Russia had lost control of in the chaotic 90s. The first order of business was simple: get Russia itself to calm the fuck down. All ethnic republics and civil disturbances had to be put to bed to reorganize Russia back into the type of state it historically has always been – a country dominated by a tough government that would kick ass, take names, and build massive railways across nightmarish tundra.
Once that was more or less accomplished, Russia could and did focus on rebuilding its foreign image. The laughing stock of the 90s, Russia under Putin began a reversal of perception that culminated in Russia beating up Georgia in 2008 to remind the world it could. Ignored in 2003 when Bush marched to Baghdad, by 2013 Moscow was nearly dictating the terms of a paltry chemical arms disarmament treaty in Syria.
That’s a pretty stunning achievement. High score for foreign policy goes to Putin.
Thus the Eurasian Union of…Happy Republics?
Putin’s Eurasian Union is a pretty overt step towards getting that dead Union Treaty back to life. Russia cannot and does not want to have a traditional empire; with population densities as high as they are worldwide, Russia cannot afford to police and control the teeming masses of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. That’s part of what eventually killed the Soviet Union. It’s therefore much better to have local strongmen in charge who work with Moscow to ensure no American pig-dog military base is set up within Russia’s sphere of influence.
The model to follow is Belarus, a state so backwards its forgiveable to mistake you’re still in the Soviet Union when wandering Minsk. Under a powerful autocrat who’s happy to crack skulls, Belarus signs economic deals that favor Kremlin cronies and keeps American forces the fuck out. But all the messy business of crushing rival political parties or managing what passes for a local economy is Minsk’s responsibility – and is a whole lot cheaper and less risky for Russia.
In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus, dictators keep the lid on local tensions just as local communist parties once did while taking their real orders from the Kremlin. Ukraine was supposed to be in that category. No more.
Building neo-empires is not going to make anyone popular
Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008 was hardly a flattering moment for Russia. Neither is this push to start informally breaking up Ukraine. Nor is the fact that, to remain credible, Russia will have to stand up for all sorts of nasty but reliable governments that still count Moscow as Friend and Ally.
Moreover, it goes directly against America’s global geopolitical rule: thou shoult not make another Soviet Union.
The situation, therefore, is both dangerous and fluid. Russia must push outwards to grab what it can when it can. America must push back to keep it from grabbing too much. In between will be places like Ukraine. The situation cannot be settled Once and For All because such a moment would involve nukes going both ways and humanity coming to an end. Instead, the struggle must be by proxy, just like the Cold War, only this time with a weaker Russia against a stronger United States.
Putin better have fun while the fun still lasts
Because Russia is no rising power. But it will act like one until it can’t pretend anymore.