Moscow’s Battle against Time

Guest Contributor:

By Mykola Kapitonenko

Among many other things Russia is trying to achieve in Ukraine, it is desperately struggling to turn back time. Preferably to the good old days when supplies of natural gas to its neighbors energy inefficient economies were successfully converted into political control, or – even better – when military dominance secured regional hegemony.

Kremlin’s ultimate goal is restoring a part of its former greatness. Two years ago Russia was firmly seated among the regional powers. It ranked in the top ten of world economies, enjoyed rocketing prices for natural gas and oil – country’s main commodities, and had become the economic center of gravity for large part of its immediate neighborhood. Powerful Russian lobbies operated in former Soviet republics and took advantage of systemic corruption there. Extra revenues from exporting energy resources enabled Russian leadership to buy influence in those countries, to carry out large-scale military modernization and pump up its military budget, and even to launch projects of regional integration, such as Eurasian Economic Union, tailored to further cement Kremlin’s control over post-Soviet space.

Roughly the same, however broader, geopolitical strategy of the Soviet Union half a century ago had been accompanied by the ideological promotion of communism. In today’s Russia communism has been replaced by a weird mix of the “Russian World” ideology and Orthodox doctrine. The former is the reincarnation of irredentism, so popular all over Europe from the unification of Italy in 1860-ies and up until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. It implies gathering territories and spreading control over neighboring countries with corresponding ethnic minorities. Projects of “Great Germany”, “Great Poland”, “Great Romania” and alike were widespread in Europe between the two World Wars and resulted in a number of territorial disputes, including the notorious Sudeten crisis. The doctrine of the Orthodox Church, presenting Moscow as “the third Rome”, has even more ancient connotations, going back to the 16th century. According to this doctrine, after the fall of Constantinople, Moscow inherited the status of the Christian world’s spiritual center.

These outdated concepts are not only in the history books – sadly they are at the heart of Russia’s foreign policy today. Russian minorities and the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan and beyond have been target audiences for renewed versions of the Russian state ideology, with greatness being at the heart of it.

The combination of “power assets” as well as a favorable conjuncture of world politics in the early 21st century enabled the expansion of Russian influence up to the point where restoration of a mini-version of the Soviet Union didn’t seem impossible any more.

But that has not been enough for the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin decided to bet his regional status in a very risky gamble to gain global recognition of Russia as a great power. That decision made Russia essentially a revisionist state. And if its bid to change the world order fails it faces the danger of losing even its regional power status.

Revisionists challenge world order. Be it Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm or Hitler, they all are about radically changing the way the international system operates. Unlike Napoleon, Putin today is not offering any progressive agenda for world politics. Instead he is resisting the inevitable and attempting to stop the unstoppable.

In Ukraine, as well as in Syria, Russia is backing a simple, outmoded principle of legitimacy: revolutions and uprisings are not “real” until recognized in some way by a respected international authority, to which Russia in his view is certainly a member and should have a veto right. This brings back memories of the 19th century with its extremely conservative and reactive world order, personified in one of the Putin’s favorite rulers, Nicholas the First of Russia.

Over a long-term perspective, power has becomes less concentrated. Absolutism has increasingly been replaced with modern ideologies and power sharing; the world-wide spread of democracy followed. States no longer enjoy absolute freedom to use violence either internally or externally and have to develop competences in numerous other fields. Russia would also like to reverse that. Highly concentrated power within authoritarian states with weak or absent opposition is offered as a key to a “stable” world order – it is old wine in the new bottle of “managed democracy.”

The current world order is based on norms, values, and balance of power. Russia would like to keep only balance of power, and prefers understanding power in hard, military terms. Once a second superpower and still the only state on a level with the Unites States in nuclear weapons, it hopes that bringing the military component of power back to the heights will help secure it great power status. Though it should not be, Russia’s determination to apply military means for political ends has nonetheless been a shock to the world order. The annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine, hybrid war in Donbas, and the bold projection of military force into Syria – the most distant Russian military foray since the breakup of the Soviet Union – clearly give an idea of what future is offered by the Kremlin: a future from the past.

There are times in history when revisionist claims are worth considering or even accepting. Usually it is when the revisionist country is too strong and/or can significantly contribute to common security and common welfare. China comes to mind today. However, neither holds true about Russia. Its power is designed to meet the challenges of the past, with a heavy emphasis on military confrontation and nuclear deterrence. For dealing with today’s and tomorrow’s security challenges: the global economy, ecology, technology, information protection – Russia, accounting for 1.5% of the world’s GPD, possesses insufficient resources.

For this reason bringing the whole world back to the time of realpolitik is Moscow’s only chance to regain greatness.

published 8 December 2015: Democracy, Economics, Energy, Europe, Reform, Russia