By Frank Thomas and John Lawrence
Some History (J. Lawrence)
Obama and Putin are locked in a dance reminiscent of the Cold War. But their maneuverings don’t represent a Cold War not even a cool one. In fact it’s more about placing themselves in the most noticeable positions on the world stage, something that each of their constituencies find familiar and even sentimental. Every world leader likes to lead the news, and Obama and Putin are no exceptions.
But first some history. Catherine the Great, one of the supposedly “enlightened despots” of Europe who hobnobbed with the French philosophes, nevertheless expanded the Russian Empire in a quest to attain a warm water port in the Crimea. Her armies fought a war with the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) for control of the Black Sea. Peter the Great had opened Russia up to the Baltic Sea, founding St. Petersburg on the Baltic Coast, but Catherine was determined to expand her southeastern frontier and develop a permanent Russian presence on the Black Sea.
Turkish wars and three successive partitions of Poland during Catherine’s reign brought much of modern Ukraine under Russian rule after the region had spent centuries under Polish-Lithuanian control. Catherine’s victories enabled Russia to establish a Black Sea fleet. Special access to the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits that connected the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea via the Sea of Marmara became a key foreign policy goal for Catherine’s descendants during the 19th century, contributing to the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853-1856).
The Crimean War reinforced in Russia a long-felt sense of resentment against Europe. There was a feeling of betrayal that the West had sided with the Turks against Russia. It was the first time in history that a European alliance had fought on the side of a Muslim power against another Christian state in a major war.
Russia formally annexed the Crimea in 1783. Then in 1954 Khrushchev decided to give Crimea back to Ukraine. His great-granddaughter said of Khrushchev’s motivation “it was somewhat symbolic, somewhat trying to reshuffle the centralized system and also, full disclosure, Nikita Khrushchev was very fond of Ukraine, so I think to some degree it was also a personal gesture toward his favorite republic. He was ethnically Russian, but he really felt great affinity with Ukraine.” In other words, there would be some administrative adjustments but it was fully intended that Ukraine would remain within Russia’s sphere of influence.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, Ukraine started lobbying to become a member of NATO. Russia did not take kindly to having nations on its borders become NATO members. And it’s not hard to understand why. Suppose that communist Cuba had influenced Mexico to go communist and to ally itself with Russia. Suppose further that Russians had proposed putting missiles in Mexico on the border with the US. Would the US have stood for it? One only needs to look to history for the answer. The Cuban Missile Crisis almost provoked a nuclear war until the Russians took their missiles out of Cuba. Putting ourselves in Putin’s shoes, he must see the introduction of American missiles into Ukraine, should Ukraine become part of NATO, to be a huge threat to the security and the dignity of the Russian Empire. The West would be essentially taking over land fought for by the Russian Czars for hundreds of years. And Putin is the logical descendant of the Czars and the Russian Empire. It would be a huge blow to his self-esteem.
Resurgence of Russian Conservative and Radical Forces in the Post-Soviet Era (F. Thomas)
Russia since Yeltsin’s time has been struggling to find a new grand strategy – one that defines who Russians are and where they are going. Yeltsin called this the search for the “Russian Idea” (Russkaya ideya).
Well that Russian Idea has acquired substance from one of the most popular Russian ideologists who is providing theoretical guidance for such a new grand stategy. Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn in a recent Foreign Affairs article say Aleksandr Dugin is the “brain” behind creating a Eurasian Empire, unifying Russian-speaking territories, and resurrecting the imperialist posture of former Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia (see: “Putin’s Brain,” Foreign Affairs, 3-31-2014).
Aleksandr Dugin’s ideology has influenced a whole generation of conservative and radical activists, and politicians. Seeing the rising popularity of his ideas, Putin has been exploiting some of them to explain his own policies and goals following the appropriate historical, geopolitical, cultural party line.
Dugin’s conservative Eurasian ideology rejects liberal, democratic, and capitalistic “Atlanticism” led by the US. The aim is creation of a Eurasian empire led by Russia to counteract aggression from North Atlantic interests. This conservative doctrine redefines Russian foreign and security policy and preconditions that must be met before Moscow will recognize the independence of post-Soviet states. As something new, it includes extralegal conditions to justify Russian policy and legitimate use of military force to defend Russian speaking communities abroad. Above all, it extols Russia as a unique civilization on its own that cannot be judged by Western standards.
Message? Russia is NOT Europe.
As this Eurasian conservatism has grown in popularity, it has reignited Russian nationalist thought and pride. It has strong support from members of the security apparatus and military sectors with whom Dugin has had close ties. It is driven by a dedicated core of Russian ultranationalists – disturbed by the Russian state’s weakness since 1991 – whose goal is the restoration of Russia’s rightful glory and national sense of destiny. As one analyst notes, “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a few hard-core patriotic elements remained that opposed de-Sovietization and believed – as Putin does today – that the collapse was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
US and European definitions of conservatism are light years apart from those of Russia. EU conservatives and particularly US conservatives are very wary of big government and put the individual first. Russian conservatives back state power and see individuals as serving the state. Russia’s Eurasian conservative strain reflects a long tradition of Russian imperial conservatism – a conservatism that is quintessentially authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-American and anti-European. It values submission of the public to the state and submission of individual needs to the needs of the many. It values tradition, religion and a state-organized economy (hence elements of communism). More significantly in these modern times, it is expansionist and part of the motivating ideology behind Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Putin has transitioned to just being another Czar in a long history of authoritarian czars who punished their own people for the good and glory of the nation and, of course, always for the good of the people themselves! Putin’s manic urge to regain Russian self-respect has descended into military, muscle-flexing manipulation tactics, e.g. to bring Crimea within its orbit – repeating Catherine the Great’s conquest and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 1783. At the same time, Putin’s support of pro-Russian separatists to destabilize Ukraine fits perfectly his design to undermine Ukraine’s bid to become a EU member. He wants Ukraine in the Eurasian Economic Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Next time: Part 2