By Richard Cashman
Moscow last week played host to a number of distinguished Russian and German diplomats and academics, together with representatives from both NATO and the OSCE. The venue was a security conference organised by the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. The purpose of the conference was a broad discussion of European security structures, with the discrete issues of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), NATO expansion, ballistic missile defence and Transnistria raising their familiar heads. Yet reading between the lines it was possible to perceive a more specific exercise of probing by the Russian representatives to identify possible concessions the West might be willing to make vis-a-vis President Medvedev’s proposed new Treaty on European Security (TES). The timing of the conference was important, coming as it did with just a few months to spare before the likely outline of Russia’s 2012 presidential election comes into sharper focus.
If Medvedev cannot garner support amongst Russian elites for his gentler approach to dealing with the West, it becomes more likely that Prime Minister Putin will reap the domestic rewards of perceived Western intransigence. In these circumstances, it pays to look more closely at Russia’s strategic negotiating position today and what it derives from. Is Russian policy best conceived of as that guiding an autocracy into the sunlit uplands of democracy? Is it simply a developing country trying earnestly to modernise and adapt to a globalised world? Or rather, is the much discussed quest for great power status closer to the fundamental mark in terms of the overarching imperative pervading the Kremlin? A revanchist quest for the great power status lost in the 1990s is certainly a feature of Russian foreign policy, but it does not in itself explain the trend against which Russia now constantly struggles. That is rather the process of decolonisation begun in the 1980s and continuing today.
Russian history has been one of constant searching for virgin soil to support an agrarian society and achieve defence in depth. Initially the whole of Russian society would literally move to pastures new, and it was this nomadic existence that precluded the early development of a sophisticated political system. Later, as cities were established, individual Russian princes fought one another for prime land amongst the northern wastes and tutelage of the Mongol Hordes. After unification and liberation the Russian state continued to seek land to build a country which, because of the general poorness of the soil and lack of natural defensive parameters, had to be defined more in terms of quantity than quality. The result was a vast empire; one of the greatest in terms of territory alone. Come the Congress of Vienna and establishment of the Concert of Europe, Russia was an undisputed great power even though thought backward by the Western European empires.
Great power status was melded to the self-assumed image of Russia as the saviour of Christendom after finding itself the sole repository of Orthodox belief after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After the 1917 revolution most of the lands of the empire that had been lost in the Great War were quickly recovered; the fanaticism of an embattled religion now replaced with that of an equally embattled Marxist ideology. The historical argument that there was little, if any, structural change between the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, is a common one and not without currency in Russia today. Yet the main criticism of it there is that it ignores the influence of ideology which fundamentally set the USSR apart from the Russian and other European empires before it. In reality, there existed a clear continuum between the ideological role of Orthodoxy and nationhood in Tsarist Russia – the word for peasant is krestianin, a corruption of Christian – and Marxism in its Soviet variant. The same idea was present that Russia had a gift to give to an ignorant world; Pravda, the maiden of folklore with the star of truth burning on her forehead.
In this way it is partially possible to understand Russian political character through the lens of an historical and extant inferiority complex developed vis-a-vis Europe in the 18th century and continued with America in the 20th. This has become so entrenched through the repetition of conversion to Western practice starting with Peter the Great, and reversion to the supposedly quintessential Russian ideals of autocracy (samoderzhavie), orthodoxy (pravoslavie) and nationhood (narodnost), that there remains an ideological divide less visible than in the Cold War but in some ways just as fundamental. Indeed, it has been a commonplace of foreign policy analysis since the dissolution of the Soviet Union to speak of a world without ideological difference. Yet this is clearly not the case when we look to the increasingly common pronouncements of some states advocating not just a more multipolar, but an entirely new world order, with autocracy as its default political setting. A situation of competing systems therefore remains the starting point for understanding Russian policy today.
Indeed, it is often emphasised by even the most conciliatory of Russian commentators that Russia does not want to be entirely incorporated into Western structures – EU regulation, for example, or the political consensus on human rights and democratic standards – but that it rather wants to develop its own version of modern society pari passu with them. This idea, however, sometimes seems like a vague abstraction, defying anything but a visceral understanding of Russian actions. A more practical way to understand Russia’s foreign and, indeed, much of its domestic politics, is to look at them from the perspective of a decolonising colonial power. Prolific use of the appellation ‘the post-Soviet space’ encourages a certain historical myopia when addressing the development of the states therein, which are not simply struggling to transition from communist to capitalist societies, but more fundamentally from colonies into free countries. Russia’s travails similarly have much more to do with shedding an empire than replacing a defunct economic system. Put simply: Russia was the last of the European states to consolidate its empire and is the last to lose it as well.
Russia’s decolonisation began in the mid-1980s as the Russian army was pushed back from the apex of the empire’s expansion into Afghanistan. That was followed in 1989 by the loss of its East European territories and then in 1991 by that of the Soviet republics. In the tumultuous years of the 1990s the spectre of the Russian Federation itself disintegrating loomed vividly on the eastern horizon. For any Russian patriot it is his success in arresting this ominous process, not the economic recovery, which stands as Vladimir Putin’s greatest achievement. And the inner circle of Kremlin wise men is now stocked with Russian patriots much more than idealess businessmen. But for just how long has this process been arrested? It took 30-50 years for most of the Western European empires to decolonise, with numerous resting points along the way, at each of which the more rosy-eyed thought they might have finally stopped the snowball and even contemplated the Sisyphean task of building again.
Of course the trenchant difference between Russia and the European empires is the fact most of the latter’s colonies were thousands of miles away over the seas and could only indirectly affect the security of the homeland. This was not the case for all the European empires and, tellingly, the ones with proximate land empires – the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs – went through processes of massive violence when they lost theirs. It is this fear, hinted at in the 1990s, that means a fresh spin of the decolonising centrifuge in the Russian Federation remains the elephant in the room which all policy is implicitly directed at avoiding. This is the true reason for Russia’s domestic political situation, which is currently running the HTML version of democracy with little prospect of upgrading while this fear persists. Although there is an emerging consensus in some quarters of the omnipotent United Russia party that elections alone do not a democracy make, the introduction of more pluralistic structures, if done at all, will certainly be a closely managed top-down affair to ensure the system is gently loaded in order to reach some pre-determined plimsoll line.
When looked at in these terms the basis of Russia’s revanchism becomes more understandable. Russia cannot separate itself from its erstwhile colonies and it appears to have little interest in building them up into independent neighbours. Its current relations with them evidence the classic features of the post-colonial European empires. The CIS is a labour pool providing Caucasians, Tatars and Central Asians to do menial jobs as far afield as Kaliningrad. Without these people Moscow would be consumed by its three seasons of mud, dust and snow. The problem here is that the nationalism which remains strong in the regions, especially, is ethnically Russian based and not inclusive of non-Russians within the Federation – Russkiy not Rossiyskiy. After witnessing the supreme irony in Manezh Square last December of thousands of angry youths stood giving the Nazi salute beneath the statue of Marshal Zhukov, it was not for nothing that Putin decried nationalism as a central threat to the Federation; in other words, to Russia’s attempt at liberal empire.
The search for virgin soil has now become a search for more hydrocarbons, most of the extractable ones of which are located in the none-Russian parts of the Federation and ex-colonies. Apart from boosting prosperity the revanchist agenda is fundamentally designed to boost adhesion between the disparate units of the Federation with an idea – that of a glorious great power. Medvedev’s proposed European security package would be a coup for Russia’s great power aspirations that would allow him breathing space to implement his more liberal domestic agenda. Its stillborn status, however, is indicative of the fact Russia no longer negotiates from the position of a great power. The arms race promised by Medvedev in ten years, should agreement on a new treaty not be forthcoming, is acknowledged by many Russian experts as impossible. The inescapable reality is that there is no need for NATO to meet Russia’s hopes and depart from existing European security structures. Yet in the absence of feeling itself able to accept middle power status, the failure of the TES is most likely to result in Russia redoubling its effort to be accepted as a great one; and for most Russians there is only one man for that job.
Richard Cashman is Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.