This is the second post in a multipart series analysing how the world is moving towards a multipolar era. Last time, the rise of China was discussed , and so in this post we will look at the resurgence of another former world power that is currently pushing back against worldwide Western influence: Russia.
Memories of Dresden
Not unlike China, Russia is another nation that had an incredibly traumatic history during the 20th century. In retrospect, it seems obvious the failings of the Soviet empire: an overtly brutal regime that systematically oppressed its population, a centralised management of a planned economy that eventually led to economic stagnation, and a misplaced focus on developing arms and technology in what eventually became a failed arms race with the United States. Along came Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, the Soviet leader that attempted to turn around the nation’s fortunes through the twin policies of glasnost and perestroika: openness and reconstruction. They backfired spectacularly and by the end of 1991 the Soviet Union had already dissolved.
Psychologically, the fall of the Soviet Union left its marks on the Russian people. This event truly marked the beginning of a new era of complete American superiority in global affairs, for there was no longer a Soviet Union to act as a counterweight; the ‘communist camp’ was gone and seemingly, the forces of the free world had won.
And this mark, it seems, was also left on a man named Vladimir Putin. In the midst of the chaos of East Germany in the final years of the Iron Curtain, this young Russian KGB officer, stationed in Dresden, witnessed the rapid unraveling of the Soviet empire. Chaos erupted in Dresden after the Berlin Wall opened, as huge crowds attempted to board trains heading for West Germany. The security forces and the crowds eventually clashed, and it was assumed that eventually, the tanks of the Red Army would roll over and crush this show of dissent. After all, it had did as much in the past- why not now? Only an order was needed from Moscow before the tanks in Dresden would come out on the streets.
It turned out, however, that Moscow was silent. Moscow under Gorbachev was a different creature from the past. Force would not be used; not this time. Putin and his colleagues began frantically burning confidential files, and less than 2 weeks later, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was already in the city, making a speech about German reunification. The spectacle of the crowds that demonstrated how power could shift to the people, and Moscow’s silent refusal to lend its force to crush the German uprising would certainly be events that remained in Vladimir Putin’s memory long after he left East Germany.
Of course, it remains speculation how much impact the fateful events in Dresden had on Putin. Putin himself has not discussed them to a great extent in public interviews. And how much psychological impact these events had on Putin would not matter profoundly, if not for the fact that less than 11 years later, Putin would already have made his way up the Russian political ladder and be appointed President of the Russian Federation by the outgoing President, Boris Yeltsin.
The Putinist State
Despite the title he holds, Putin acts more like a 21st century version of an authoritarian Tsar, ruling with absolute power. The undisputed top dog in Russia since his ascension in 2000, he keeps up his artificial democratic credentials by continuing to win elections- ignoring, of course, the allegations of rigging. And although historians in the present have begun to move away from the ‘great man’ theory of history- essentially telling a historical narrative based on the important leaders that defined the times- Russian politics has truly been such a one-man show that to study it today would essentially be studying politics that revolves around Putin. The Russian state under Stalin had its key features; so does the state under Putin.
As mentioned previously, Russia under Putin has seen the consolidation of power in the hands of Putin and his clique; electoral politics in Russia is largely a sham, and even the constitution does not matter much; although there are term limits, Putin simply has to swap roles with a deputy for a few years without having to truly give up significant amounts of power.
But even more importantly, Putin has made himself extremely popular with the Russian public. Part of the reason for this is due to an informal social contract, as theorised by some Russia observers. Essentially, Putin ensured continued growth for the Russian economy and allowed the population to experience growing affluence, and in return Putin could continue to rule essentially as autocrat. But this social contract alone is not enough. As will be discussed later, this is a social contract that is breaking down due to the fragility of the Russian economy.
Another major reason is the cult of personality surrounding Putin. The President has shown himself to be very savvy with the strongman photo-op, whether it be pictures of him flying a fighter pilot, swimming in Siberian lakes, engaging in judo fights, or shooting whales with tranquillisers. But the image of Putin as a strongman, in a country long lacking in a charismatic leader, resonates with the Russian public. It also helps that the media has become increasingly consolidated and press freedom increasingly limited; major Russian TV channels are now usually simply mouthpieces of Putin’s own government. Now Putin can construct whatever narrative he wants, and the majority of the Russian public will believe it. This increases Putin’s power immeasurably.
Why are we discussing Putin to such an extent? This is because his actions have directly impacted the behaviour of the Russian state in the past decade and a half. People pay attention to Putin for a reason; even the strangest photo stunts in Siberia alone would not have brought Putin such distinctiveness from fellow despots worldwide. Rather, it is because of his most controversial actions: namely, the expansionist wars he pursues against his neighbours. Russia had a brief war with Georgia in 2008, but the more interesting case which we shall look at is the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.
With the event being relatively recent, most know the story of this war. In 2014, the Euromaidan protests
resulted in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, who was closely associated with Russia. We can easily speculate that this did not go down well at all in the Kremlin; firstly, he did not like seeing his allies fall, and secondly, if the Ukrainians had just overthrown their own corrupted leader, then what if the Russians decide to do the same with Putin? Putin was not amused with the turn of events.
But how does this relate with Putin starting the Ukrainian war? We could view it as a punitive action, to teach all of Russia’s neighbours a lesson that big boss Putin does not like seeing things happen that goes against Russia’s interests. This led to the stealth takeover of Crimea by ‘little green men’ bearing no insignia, but we know now that they are Russian servicemen. The peninsula was taken over with ease and almost no bloodshed. Not very long after, Eastern Ukrainian separatists, backed by Russian soldiers, started wrecking havoc and have now carved out mini-states in Ukraine’s easternmost regions.
Others, on the other hand, take a much broader, geopolitical view. Many say that Russia often feels that it is a nation besieged, continually surrounded by its enemies. This may be more true than ever. For decades, the Soviet Union’s tentacles gripped the Baltics and had vassals as far away as East Germany and Kyrgyzstan. As some historians say, all great powers have a sphere of influence. Even the US once declared the Monroe Doctrine which prevented any other state from interfering with states in North and South America. And today, it can be argued that the US after the fall of the Soviet Union has unparalleled influence in the entire world. Russia’s own sphere of influence, on the other hand, shrunk considerably.
NATO, the US backed alliance that covers most of Western Europe, began expanding into Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union; eventually, it reached countries as close to Russia as Estonia and Latvia. This would not be so problematic if not for the fact that Article 5 of the NATO charter states that all other countries must come to the aid of a NATO member once it is attacked. It automatically means that if someone were to declare war on Latvia, they had also declared war on the United States. In essence, by admitting Russia border-states to NATO, the West had said a decisive “hands-off” to Russia. And in the eyes of Putin, this was encroaching on his sphere of influence.
Then came the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests, which overthrew the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, and installed a pro-West regime. This was the last straw for Putin. It was not something that he could stomach, and on came the takeover of Crimea and the war in East Ukraine.
It is here that it is important to understand Putin’s character. Here was the former KGB officer, who had seen the fall of East Germany, now seeing the fall of his allies in Ukraine which threatened Russia’s influence and his own personal power. He chose to fight back against what he saw as a global conspiracy case to subvert Russia. He does not care that the eastern Europeans genuinely want to be a part of the West, or that Ukraine had no desire to form part of a new Russian sphere of influence. For him, a deeply nationalist and conservative man, Russian power (and his own power) was all that mattered.
No less important is to understand the public mood. In a country where the media has been considerably thoroughly consolidated, and the public is exposed to ongoing propaganda from state media that creates an atmosphere of a besieged nation, under attack by a Western-led global conspiracy that aims to destabilise the nation, and where lingering nostalgia for what was once the greatness of the Soviet empire remains, the majority of the public is more or less willing to throw their weight behind Putin.
The West and China
There was no way that Putin’s actions could not have provoked Western retaliation. His acts of aggression in Eastern Europe overthrew the peace in Europe that had been maintained for decades, and clearly violated international law with such a blatant disrespect for national borders. The West quickly condemned the takeover of Crimea and the crisis in East Ukraine, and soon enough both the United States and the European Union placed economic sanctions on Russia.
These sanctions hurt. For all of Russia’s ability to bully its less powerful neighbours, it is a fragile state; its economy depends on gas exports, and the government had not taken serious steps to diversify the economy, so it was easy to attack the Russia where it was painful. Russia is now projected to slip back into recession and the rouble began its free-fall. This poses a threat to Putin for a big reason: his informal social contract, where he provided Russia with economic growth and stability in return for obedience to his absolute power, was shattered. By now, however, Putin no longer needs to depend on such a contract. Instead, through the skilful use of propaganda, he has crafted an alternative narrative: one in which the Russians need to support their nationalist, conservative leader against the moral corruption and decay of the West. Putin’s support in Russia has not eroded, despite the best efforts of Washington and Brussels at economic warfare.
Instead, the whole world now see the hollowness of threats from Western leaders. For all the “deep concern” that is expressed by Obama and Merkel, they cannot issue clear ultimatums nor act on threats. They can condemn Russia all they want, but in the end neither the US nor the EU are truly willing to go in and back Ukraine, especially since it is still a non-NATO state. For all their gesturing, they have allowed Putin to achieve his main goals: to punish and destabilise Ukraine, and to increase his own prestige back home.
China, on the other hand, has opportunistically lent in a helping hand to Putin. Refusing to condemn the Ukrainian crisis, China has instead concluded huge economic deals with Putin- ones that we can assume are much more beneficial to the Chinese than to the Russians, for Russia is the one in need of economic aid, not China. Now, we can see clearly the re-emergence of a China-Russia alliance, one that has not existed since the Sino-Soviet split under Mao and Khruschev.
Of course, we do not know how true this friendship is. It has emerged only due to mutual self-interest: the Chinese may very well only be interested in Russia because it needs more energy supplies, while Russia needs a new market after the European economic sanctions. This does not diminish the significance of the re-emergence of Russian aggression that while is not clearly supported by China, has its tacit approval. It is a resurgence of Russian power under a leader willing to raise the stakes for the sake of increasing Russia’s prestige, and by extension his own, even at the cost of having to bow to China, while the US and Europe can only watch impotently on. This rise is much shakier than China’s, due to the fundamental failings of the Russian state: an over-reliance on a single, corrupted leader quite prone to cronyism, who has failed to diversify Russia’s economy to an extent where it can more sustainably weather economic warfare. But, there is no turning back. Putin has already ripped apart the European rulebook in a way no one imagined he would do. And by throwing his weight around in a way that Russia has not done since the fall of the Soviet Union, he is already irreversibly changing the landscape of foreign policy. Russia, through his actions, is once again a power that cannot be ignored.
The world, it seems, is truly moving towards a multipolar order.