The Russian bear for hundreds of years has been viewed as presenting an existential threat to the West. This threat has periodically been marked for history’s sake in some small little convenient heading such as the “Great Game” or the “Cold War”. For a brief time frame after the collapse of the Soviet Union the ideological menace embodied in the form of a powerful Russian state was replaced by the rise of a powerful and opaque mafia, whose tentacles stretched into and throughout the then fledgling Russian States corridors of power. It represented a new threat to global security at a time when world history had once and for all been replaced by a new liberal world order, a new world order that to many was clearly the teleological result of human toil and suffering since the dawn of time. This criminological new Russian menace proved convenient to the military alliance NATO, who desperately sought a new mandate in this united world, following the demise of the Soviet Union and its Marxist idealism. These criminal bodies justified the continued existence of NATO now defunct of a communist threat.
So given the general optimism following the USSRs collapse (optimism despite this new breed of murky mobsters) how exactly have we ended up once again at loggerheads with an aggressive Russian bear? One must only look at contemporary media headlines across the Western hemisphere to comprehend the demise of East-West relations “Russian Expansionism may pose existential threat, says NATO” (1) or “NATO’s Stoltenberg warns of Russian expansionism outside its borders” (2) headlines that not only depict the zeitgeist but also the nature of our regression to a more traditional and antagonistic interrelationship with the Kremlin.
According to the mainstream Western version of events the crisis seems to rest at the feet of one Machiavellian and authoritarian figure, namely president Putin, the indomitable evil puppet master, pulling at the strings that disrupt our sacred liberal equilibrium. The question is why in the purported absence of an ideological confrontation should Putin decide to burn his bridges?
The occidental narrative contends that Putin is “Evil” a term that by and large has become a default setting applied to anyone in the international arena deemed to be out of line with the unfettered progression of neoliberalism. Naturally this label is a complete distortion of reality as is the conception that Putin alone dictates Russian policy. This perception is one created explicitly for public consumption, hence it is unlikely that any serious policy maker buys into this anecdotal depiction of Putin with much gusto when interpreting current affairs. So how should we view the actions of the Russian state? Perhaps we could examine their position in order to clarify our very own. There are after all always two sides to any one story, hence it’s not beyond convention that there should be a Russian narrative.
The prominent German philosopher Nietzsche famously noted that “When we say something about the world we also inevitably say something about our conception of the world-something that is linked not to the facts and phenomena we try to comprehend, but to the assumptions and conventions of knowing what we have acquired over time and that have become codified in language”. When applying Nietzsche therefore to our current world, we should consider where and how our knowledge is formed: are we swayed by an historical depiction of the “Russian bear” that has little basis in reality, one passed on from generation to generation? In order to establish a more peaceful world we need greater understanding of those we oppose and the arguments by which they set their rationale, we need to effectively deconstruct our version of events and balance them against those of our perceived foe. Cooperation after all has its roots in mutual understanding, as does tolerance. Without these variables a more peaceful world cannot ensue.
So what do we discover when we examine “Putin’s” perception of reality? Well, some very interesting facts are revealed. For instance, the Russians have grave security concerns of their own. Russia is after all the largest nation in the world with an extremely sparse population. This means that historically Russia has struggled not only to secure its boarders, but has suffered the ignominy of repeated invasions. The West’s history with Russia alone is tellingly fraught with examples. The Napoleonic wars saw the French at the gates of Moscow, while Hitler marauded brutally across the Soviet Union in a campaign that accounted for the murder of over 20 million people. British expeditions for their part are captured in Lord Tennyson’s literary ode to the British defeat at Crimea above all in his revered “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. A final example of Western meddling was the despatch of Western troops who fought side by side with the Whites throughout the Russian civil war in a bid to deny the rise of Bolshevism. These events in Russia create a psychological demarcation of persistent Western aggression against Russian sovereignty. By contrast the Russians have never attacked the West in any pre-emptive manner.
At the end of the second world war the victorious triumvirate, the USA, Great Britain and the USSR drew the iron curtains across the heart of Europe, creating a balance of powers in the process that along with the threat of mutual nuclear destruction maintained a peace even if a somewhat uneasy one. It is perhaps ironic that this peace accord was signed in Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula the scene of our current modern woes. Of note in this agreement was an extended defensive arch around the Russian Republic, one that included a buffer zone that stretched from the neutral, non-aligned Finland in the North-West, blocking a western front to the Northern extremities of Scandinavia, down past the Baltic states, around Eastern Europe, across the Caucasus with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, then on across the ancient Khanates of Central Asia to the Mongolian state that was conveniently lifted from Chinese suzerainty by means of a Soviet initiated plebiscite in 1945.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the bipolarity that had reigned since 1945 met an abrupt end and with it a new dawn in global affairs was declared. In Moscow great optimism reverberated among the political elite. They envisaged a new world order in which a common security space would be created from East to West. With a firm belief that Russia would be treated as an equal partner in much the same way as the former Eastern bloc states of Eastern Europe are today. The USSR dissolved and the Soviet Republics with Russian approval were reborn to independence. By 1994 however Moscow was already beginning to doubt that the West, despite its liberal rhetoric had indeed joined them in this new world order.
A first blow for the Russians was when NATO failed to fulfil a gentleman’s agreement in which Gorbachev had removed Russian soldiers from East Germany in exchange for no expansion of the EU or NATO eastwards. The spirit of this unofficial agreement is given more substance by the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) agreement and by the natural assumption that an end to communism and the establishment of a new liberal order of which the Russian federation was now a part, exuded no requirement for a US led alliance to expand towards the boarders of a friend. A move clearly antithetical to the notion of a common security space.
A second bone of contention was the 1999 bombing of Serbia, a campaign against the Russians Slavic brothers that from Moscow’s perspective was carried out contrary to international law due to the lack of the NATO alliances ability to secure a UN Security Council resolution. Further the bombing went against Russia/s proposed plans at mediation. Even those in the Kremlin who had felt most positive about the new world order were now beginning to notice that Russia’s interests were of no consequence.
So what of this new world order that failed to either incorporate or integrate a new Russia? Liberal theorists often cite the importance of economic interdependence in pacifying threat and yet Western governments not only excluded Russia from their institutions but expanded the EU and their military alliance to her very boarders. A second wave of post-cold war NATO expansionism into the Baltic States in 2004 opened the prospect that Moscow could now be hit within four minutes from a NATO deployed rocket. While Romania and Poland were set to host an elaborate missile defence system, a system that again unbalances the equilibrium still further, creating in the process the conditions for a renewed arms race. At every stage of EU and NATO expansionism Russian protests and concerns were rebuffed.
In 2001 the US established military bases at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan and brought the Vaziani base in Georgia near Tbilisi under its control. In addition, US influence played a prominent role in lifting the pro-western Yushenko to power in the Ukraine in 2005. Now the West appeared to be swallowing up not only the former satellite states of East and Central Europe, but moving directly into Russia’s defensive rim, its traditional sphere of influence. Notwithstanding such pressures to Russian security, Putin continued a liberal foreign policy in order to realign Moscow with the West. The continued adoption of such a stance was replicated even in domestic affairs when Putin appointed largely liberal technocrats in a cabinet reshuffle in 2012, the core of which was based around Medvedev the current prime minister, his then deputy Shuvalov, his aide Dvorkovich and finance minister Siluanov. Russia’s continued cooperation with the US in its war on terror equally underscored a position that denoted collaboration irrespective of other declining elements in the relationship, such as US unilateralism in the Middle East which to many smacked of offensive structural realism and post-cold war triumphalism.
The single event however that appears to have restored old hostilities was undoubtedly the Euromaidan demonstrations which lead to the overthrow of the Ukraine’s pro Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February of 2014. The Western view posits that it was Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU which sparked the demonstrations; the RF took an opposing view of the unfolding events, citing foreign interference in the ousting of Yanukovich. The manner in which US and EU dignitaries arrived in the Ukraine to address with much fervour the crowds at Nelazhenosti square, in addition to the secret recording of Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, in conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to the Ukraine, in which they discussed who would be better suited to become Ukraine’s next Prime Minister, irrefutably confirms that the West at the very least preyed upon the turmoil. These realities confirmed Russian suspicions as did declarations by Tymoshenko advocating NATO membership for the Ukraine. That Moscow should be cynical about US interests in the Ukraine finds its basis in a host of well documented realist literature from the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski to George Friedman, authors who equate US geostrategic imperatives with maintaining a division not only between Russia and Europe, but also of separating the Ukraine from its historical links to Russia, thus obstructing the path of a resurgent bear. The ideas behind this division rest from obscuring Russia’s ability to profit from its abundant resources, its ability to tap into a large, educated and incredibly cheap labour force, its capacity to dominate the Eurasian plane and above all the prospect that all these conditions provide Russia with an opportunity to challenge US hegemony. That the Maidan reached a crisis point at that moment when Putin offered Ukraine entry to the Eurasian Union is not coincidental. The UK Foreign Secretary at the time declared the Ukraine crisis not to be a “zero-sum game”, but while Putin suggested the possibility of a neutral Ukraine that could be in cooperated into both the EU and its Eurasian counterpart, Brussels flatly rejected the proposal.
Since the millennium Moscow had feared economic isolation from the world stage in addition to their encirclement by NATO and other political unions. Their fears rest not only upon the lessons of history, but on what appears to be constant aggression on the part of the US. Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, sanctions against Iran, drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and the pivot East and the encirclement of China, the sponsorship of coloured revolutions and the removal of foreign regimes not only in the Ukraine, but in Honduras too, not to mention the consistent unilateralism. All events that comply with ideas set out by institutions such as the former neoconservative think tank a “Project for a New American Century” Is this the celebrated liberal world order the West envisaged? It seems more in tune with the implementation of some form of policy akin to Kissinger’s “Constructive ambiguity” in which the US purports to preach on one level to the world the liberal virtues of human rights, democracy and market fundamentalism for the global good, while unleashing war, pre-emptive justice and torture. Liberalism appears nothing more than a smoke screen for the projection of American power. It is in and against this context that Russia must operate. Given the evidence perhaps it is time we attuned our perceptions of Russian expansionism and applied them elsewhere.
(1) Guardian 20.2.2016
(2) Deutsche Welle 16.6.2016