Russia: Between Empire and Modernity

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Russia: Between Empire and Modernity

As it bullies its neighbors, Russia seems to have chosen a short-sighted approach to power.

Russia: Between Empire and Modernity
Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and the shadow war in Ukraine is the most important geopolitical event in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Putin is widely seen in the West now as a gangster-like figure, obsessed with Cold War-era grudges, and unwilling to allow the ex-Soviet Union’s “near abroad” to find their own post-Cold War path. Putin would seem to prefer the countries around him be failed states, whose weakness opens them to Russian manipulation, rather than modernizers, moving, however haltingly, to democracy, non-corrupt capitalism, and association with Western governments and values. Were Russia’s immediate neighbors to move toward the European norm, as much of Eastern Europe has since 1990, it would be harder for Russia to bully them, and that bullying would attract global attention.

This is not to suggest that Russia is a great enemy or threat to the West. Supporters of Mitt Romney have recently claimed justification for Romney’s 2012 statement that Russia is America’s “greatest geopolitical foe.” This is not true. (If one must apply that needlessly belligerent moniker, it is probably either Islamic jihadism or North Korea, both of which are openly and aggressively anti-American.) Russia’s assets of national power are dramatically diminished since the Cold War. Its GDP today is just $2 trillion, where the combined GDP of the U.S. and EU exceeds $35 trillion. Russia’s military suffers from corruption, morale issues due to harsh conscription treatment, and a general lack of funds to compete with high-tech U.S., European, and Chinese militaries. For this reason, Russia has emphasized nuclear weapons and deterrence in its doctrine. Like North Korea, Russian WMD (weapons of mass destruction) are a pillar of its claim to relevance. Russia under Putin may seek to be a spoiler along its western and southern tier (and in resolving North Korean issues), but the likelihood of a genuine western-Russian clash is low. That is not a conflict Russia can win in the medium-term, and in the long-term, a complete breach with the West would destabilize the Russian economy so much that it would endanger Putin’s position.

The more important question is “grand strategic”: will Russia choose “neo-imperial” meddling along its frontier, an age-old Russian practice that, in turn, fosters czarist authoritarianism and corruption at home, and bad blood and resentment among its neighbors? Or will it embrace some form of modernity, as it partially tried in the 1990s, with reasonable governance at home, and some kind of modus vivendi, including respect for sovereignty, abroad? If it chooses the former, as Putin has done, what is the end-game? Where does Putinism lead in ten or twenty years? Semi-permanent isolation from the West? Boundless corruption? Dependence on China?


To be sure, Russia today is not an empire in its classic sense. Instead, the post-Cold War Russian practice of keeping near abroad conflicts indefinitely frozen destabilizes former Soviet satellites, prevents them from moving toward the West, and allows Russia to variously bribe or bully corrupt local elites. Putin is clearing channeling deep impulses from Russian history in his constant references to the “state” (gosudarstvo) over society, his famous claim that the collapse of Soviet Union was the “greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century,” and most recently his Crimea annexation speech, a full-on Russian nationalist-messianic mix of ethno-nationalism, Orthodoxy, and geopolitical resentment.

This language is deeply appealing to sentiments of resentment and prestige, especially Putin-style nostalgia for Russian influence. For several centuries Russia has been a great power, and with that has the come an “arrogance of power,” in which “spheres of influence” are expected as matter of right or respect, where small states should “keep quiet.” And certainly, the U.S., Japan, and EU states have all acted this way in the past as well.

But as President Barack Obama has noted repeatedly, these are twentieth century notions that much of the world now rejects. Even the Chinese, for all their rough behavior in the East and South China Seas, have never dared to annex a thickly populated land-space like the Crimea grab. Scrapping over rocks in the ocean is a far cry from an anchluss of a portion of a state Russia itself recognized (however resentfully) as sovereign. This traditionalist-statist-autocratic matrix of Russian governance – foreign adventurism and domination, tied to anti-Western, messianic ideologies at home to prop-up cronyist dictatorship – is woefully out of place today. Its ideological satisfactions will soon collide with painful reality as this reactionary, Dostoyevskian Russia is cut out of globalization and its wealth-creation.


The alternative to Putin’s back to the future approach is some willingness to remake Russia into a modern, post-power politics state where the hard work of domestic good governance reform replaces quasi-imperial impulses to contest American hegemony by steam-rolling neighbors. Such a state characterizes much of the world now. Well over half the world’s states today are democracies. Even China has peaceful transitions of power to contain corruption, encourage new blood, and provide (minimal) accountability. Previously backward places like Indonesia, Brazil, and India are increasingly better governed, roughly democratic, and integrated into the global economy. China, while still an oligarchy, is obviously better managed than Russia, and is broadly willing to follow international rules in order to enjoy the returns of globalization, most obviously the foreign direct investment (FDI) that has powered its economic growth since the 1980s.

And herein lies the great challenge for Russia: to join the global economy fully, to benefit from the FDI and trade that has helped so many states become emerging markets, will require a Russian willingness to sign up for global rules broadly set by the West, specifically the Americans. Here China and Russia are a fascinating comparison. Deng Xiaoping realized decades ago that for China to modernize it would need to swallow its pride, at least for awhile, and function as a reasonably reliable partner in a liberal world order over which it had little control. Deng famously counseled China to “keep a low profile and bide our time.” While this was not full-blown subservience to the Americans, it did require a somewhat humiliating willingness to accept that the West did a lot things better than China, and that China had more to learn than vice-versa. Hence the huge wave of Chinese students in American universities. This is a wisdom of modesty that Putin, with his relentless machoism, shirtless photo-ops, and constant bluster, never learned. He would rather Russia be proud and impoverished, than follow the lead of the West – for at least a little while – in order to ignite growth.


As far back as Thucydides, international relations theory has noted that states often act from foolish pride, out of an exaggerated sense of honor, even if it damages the national interest. Russia today fits this description. Badly governed, hugely corrupt, run by an egomaniac who would rather stunt his own economy and impoverish his neighbors than join American-led globalization, Putin is slowly demolishing Russia’s ability to be the very great power he so desperately wants us all to think it is.

The short-term, anti-Western ideological satisfactions of Putinism spell-out no middle- or long-term future for Russia after Putin is gone (so maybe he does not care?). If Russia is going to “matter” in international relations, bullying neighbors while the economy slides into oil rentierism and hemorrhages its best and brightest is a dead-end. Short-term, angry reflexes may keep Putin in power, and prop-up his “system,” but will this spark Russian growth? Will it encourage the foreign direct investment that has propelled China to rival the U.S.? Will it reduce Russia’s isolation, and the fear and discomfort it inspires in so many? And, perhaps most pressingly, what will happen when Putin finally retires? This is not a system built to last.