The breakneck pace of events in Ukraine are part of a much larger geopolitical story of Russia and its post Soviet place in the world.
When Vladimir Putin came to power (the first time) he came with an offer to the Russian people; put your democratic dreams on hold and empower me to bring stability at home and restore greatness abroad. For a population used to national pride and weary of the seemingly perpetual economic slump, it was far from the worst deal on the table. Putin set to work with savagely efficient zeal, starting with the putting to bed of the Chechnya conflict. Since 1996 this weeping wound had served as a constant reminder of Russia’s new diminished status in the eyes of the world. Chechnya served as the template for what would become Putin’s new petro-empire; local strongmen would be propped up by Russian diplomatic cover on the one hand, and a mixture of soft loans and trade agreements on the other.
Putin and his advocates correctly calculated that the Western powers would do little to impede Russian resurgence. The post Cold War world had become less peaceful and less predictable, and a strong Russia with a stake in order and stability would be welcome boon, especially on the northern fringes of the Islamic world. Also, a richer Russia would finally open up to western markets already flogging cars and gadgets to the Gulf States and China.
Chavez of Venezuela proved a very willing proxy, styling himself as he did a thorn in the side of the ‘Yankee Empire’. Flush with his own petro dollars, and with Moscow’s backing, Chavez succumb to clientism and embarked on a spending spree that warped the economy whilst giving the illusion of growth. The effects of fiscal immaturity are manifesting themselves as we speak as inflation spirals and the currency tanks.
The thorn in Russia’s own side, Georgia, was humbled in a brief but violent war in 2008. Moscow awarded thousands of South Ossetian and Abkharzian citizens Russian passports, giving it the pretext to intervene when Georgia’s government tried to restore authority to the rebellious provinces. The effective annexation of two chunks of Georgia, a Nato candidate country, stunned the West who simply didn’t know how to deal with a Russia that played by the rule book of a 19th Century Great Power, rather than the 21st Century postmodern power that EU intends to be. As one commentator put it, soft power is what countries without hard power convince themselves they have.
Syria represented Russia’s last foothold in the Middle East. A generation ago Moscow could call on Iraq, Libya and Syria as regional bastions, but with Saddam and Gadaffi now gone, Assad assumed an importance far beyond that of the usual tinpot dictator. This time arms were added to Russia’s diplomatic M.O, and when combined with Western fatigue and the skill of foreign minister Sergi Lavrov, Moscow looks to have succeeded on maintaining its pet thug.
Like Algeria was to France, and India was to Britain, Ukraine is Russia’s empire. Even the geography of the border sees Russia wrapping a protective arm around its little brother. Russia’s relationship with the West and the Middle East symbolically and physically passes through Ukraine. But these links to the outside world are they themselves undermining Putin’s imperial grip. Western Ukraine has watched on while Poland and its fellow Eastern Bloc nations have thrived inside the EU, while Ukraine’s economy and living standards have stagnated. In embracing the West, the ascension countries have had their latent democracies strengthened, while Ukraine is still at the mercy of oligarchy and Moscow’s whims. And unlike Syria or Chechnya, the local strongman can’t roll the tanks in with impunity, indeed it is coming to light that the head of the army was dismissed for failing to order troops to put down the revolt.
With Ukraine drifting irresistibly towards the EU, Venezuela tottering on the edge of economic collapse, and with no end in sight for Syria, the embryonic informal empire is on life support. To make matters worse, at home Russia is having to contend with sputtering growth, a dependence on oil and gas exports that would make Saudi Arabia look diverse, an industrial sector seemingly impervious to reform, disintegrating infrastructure, and a rampant public health crisis of HIV and alcoholism. And in Russia’s far east, whole Chinese villages have been established inside Russian territory in a creeping colonization that, although not directed by Beijing, they’re in no rush to halt.
But the West would do well to resist gloating or complacency, for the most dangerous animal in the woods is a wounded bear. Giving Russia a face saving climbdown should now be the goal of Western diplomats.