• In the wake of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West (in particular the United States), Russia is being accused of neo-imperialist resurgence. An objective assessment, however, suggests that Russia is merely resisting Western attempts to undermine its geopolitical clout, if not influence its internal affairs.
• This paper argues that President Putin’s refusal to accept “unconditional surrender” in the wake of the Cold War, as well as the intensifying global scramble for energy is the most persuasive explanation of his continued vilification.
• Contrary to received wisdom, it is the Euro-Atlantic alliance, and not post-imperial Russia, which has been the destabilising anomaly in the European geopolitical theatre.
• Unlike Europe, Russia enjoys genuine sovereignty and has been able to reap the benefits of the increasingly multi-polar global system.
Russia is reducing its power deficit, not increasing its surplus
Recent weeks have seen perceptible worsening of tensions between Russia and the West, driven by renewed concerns over Europe’s increasing dependence on Russian gas, Russia’s standoff with Georgia and the apparently worsening domestic climate, evidenced by a spate of high profile assassinations. The unremittingly hostile tenor of Western commentary has reached proportions last seen at the height of the Khodorkovsky affair in 2003-2004. Once again, the regime of Vladimir Putin stands accused of building authoritarianism at home, while pursuing neo-imperialist policies abroad, with come commentators going as far as to claim that Russia is headed towards fascism.
An objective approach based on readily available evidence reveals that, far from becoming a neo-imperialist expansionist, Russia is merely growing less weak, learning to play the geopolitical and commercial game with the same vigour, resourcefulness and cynicism considered as standard by any self-respecting Western power and/or corporation. A decade and half after the collapse of the USSR, when unwelcome “surplus” of Russian power metamorphosed into a “deficit”, we are witnessing a decrease in the deficit rather than a rebuilding of surplus. Thus, while there certainly has been a change in the correlation of power in Russia’s favour, Russia (still suffering from the devastation of communism) remains by a large margin the weaker side, staying on the defensive, rather than staging an offensive.
Clawing back Ukraine, punishing Georgia and keeping Belarus in check?
Perhaps the strongest case in support of the theory of a resurging Russia might be made by using Ukraine’s return to the Russian fold under the government of Viktor Yanukovich, the loser in the pro-Western Orange revolution in late 2004. Following the formation of the government of Yanukovich’s Party of Regions including members of President Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine, the country has clearly come under the sway of domestic pro-Russian forces. However, this partial restoration of status quo ante has probably been due less to Russian pressure than to sheer incompetence of the Orange revolutionaries, in addition to their inability to form a cohesive government able to deliver credible policies.
It seems that an anti-Russian Ukraine is an oxymoron. The moment Ukraine is pulled out of its natural Russia-friendly habitat, it began to fragment internally, with disastrous consequences in economic and international policy, such as the ill-conceived attempt in late 2005 to demand subsidised Gazprom gas while simultaneously pulling out all the stops in Kiev’s drive towards NATO’s membership.
The new regime has abandoned such posturing and is clearly reaping appropriate benefits. The increase of the price of Gazprom’s gas to Ukraine for 2007 from $95 to $130 per 1,000 cu m means that, despite the hefty increase, Ukraine will still pay significantly less for its gas than other European countries. It is likely that Ukraine has had to offer “concessions”, such as soft-pedalling of its plans to enter NATO. However, this hardly is an issue, given that the majority of Ukrainians do not wish their country to become a NATO’s member.
Russia’s relations with Georgia which have recently escalated to a point of crisis in many ways resemble that of Ukraine. The US-funded “democratic” regime of President Saakashvili had long itched for a showdown, calculating that such a development would buttress its drive towards an early NATO membership, with the alliance being morally impelled to protect it from the Russian bully. Moscow, however, evidently decided that enough is enough and imposed tough, “disproportionate” sanctions against Tbilisi as well as the Georgians living in Russia.
While overzealous Russian officials certainly have gone too far in persecuting ordinary Georgians, the sanctions very effectively signalled to Washington that Russia would take a very dim view of Georgia’s possible entry into NATO. At a minimum, Moscow is signalling that, while Tbilisi and the US are free to engineer Georgia’s membership in the democratic alliance, they cannot expect Russia in any way to support its economy. (Would any Western country subsidise a potential military adversary?) The message has been correctly deciphered in the US, with Washington (or, rather the more realist sections of the Washington establishment) taking the trouble to restrain the zeal of the Tbilisi revolutionaries.
While the imbroglio looks very anti-democratic and neo-imperialist, Russia actually has acted in a measured manner in the face of a major provocation. It has been tough, but not excessively so. After all, Gazprom is reportedly demanding $230 per 1,000 cu m for its gas to Georgia in 2007 still well below $280-300, the price charged to the likes of Poland or Romania.
Finally, were it valid, the theory of Russian neo-imperialism would decree that Moscow should support come what may its reliable anti-NATO partners, such as Belarus. However, it transpires that, at $200 per 1,000 cu m, Belarus will be charged a significantly stiffer price for its gas than Ukraine (nearly the same as the hostile Georgia!), with Putin recently threatening to cut oil supplies to his authoritarian brother, if President Lukashenka continues to export oil products to the West, collecting massive profits at Russia’s expense. (Is Putin driving Lukashenka into NATO’s embrace?) Any objective analyst would surely recognise this as hard-nosed economics and commercial sense, rather than old-fashioned imperialism.
A tougher stance in energy?
The same applies to the “surprising” decision by Gazprom to go it along in the development of the Shtokman gas field and shelve its plans for LNG capacity. This is hardly neo-imperialist arrogance, given that the company does not need Western partners to provide financial support (while being able to purchase Western technology and services on a piecemeal basis) and given that piping the gas to Germany makes eminent commercial sense.
Certainly, sending the Shtokman gas to Germany, as opposed to the US, may look like Russia playing geopolitics is Germany being “bought off” by the Kremlin, aiming to decouple it from its protectors in Washington? (more on this issue below). But given Washington’s apparent decision to escalate its cold war with Moscow, along with its unreliability as a negotiating partner (as evidenced, for example, by its backtracking on previously agreed issues in WTO negotiations in July), this strategic decision is hardly surprising.
Similar considerations apply in respect to Moscow’s apparent pressure on the participants in the Sakhalin-2 hydrocarbons project. As agreements for these projects were negotiated at a time when the Russian state was de facto defunct, and since the massive costs overruns mean that the Russian Federation will have to wait much longer to see any revenue from them than initially anticipated, it is not surprising that Moscow is attempting to limit its losses. Commentators such as the Financial Times and The Economist have echoed the common theme that, regardless how bad they may have been, a deal is a deal, and Moscow must stick to them. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine any Western country remaining completely unconcerned in the face of steeply rising project costs.
The surfeit of Euro-Atlantic power
The objective assessment might show, that far from a rebounding Russian bully, the main anomaly in today’s Europe actually is the excessively powerful Euro-Atlantic axis.
Created for the purpose of Europe’s protection from the Soviet Union in a long-gone geopolitical era, the alliance has arguably metamorphosed into a dysfunctional structure, undermining the pan-European (EU-Russian) integration, poisoning relations within the expanded European Union and serving as a tool in the long-standing drive to encircle post-communist Russia. Lacking a clear purpose at the end of the Cold War, the Euro-Atlantic axis has focused on artificially creating a tense environment a new cold war enabling it to thrive indefinitely, as Moscow cannot be expected to idly observe the relentless hostile encirclement of its resource-rich territory. Insofar as this threat places the Putin regime under siege, it may also be hindering the development of Russian democracy.
The conflict over Eurasia is the most powerful explanation
Current situation on the European and Eurasian “chessboard” is exceedingly complex, militating against simplistic interpretations. For example, there is a clear linkage of the resolution of the status of Kosovo and the future of the pro-Russian autonomous enclaves in Georgia. Analyses of Russian and Western stance on these problems immediately spill over into much larger geopolitical dimensions, as both Moscow and the West could credibly be accused of using these problems as a pretext for imperial expansion. Furthermore, issues of trade, energy security and defence intermingle, making the picture even more maddeningly confusing. Add to this the looming Chinese superpower and the situation becomes indecipherable.
Nevertheless, one enduring model the long-standing great power conflict over the control of the Eurasian continent provides a reliable key to the understanding of this situation. The notion of geopolitics first elucidated a century ago stating, that “who controls Eurasia controls the world”, has in the post-Cold War era acquired an additional dimension: who controls Eurasia controls the continent’s vast existing and yet to be tapped sources of hydrocarbons. While the Middle East, with two thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest price is still the ultimate prize, its possession (even were it possible in the chronically unstable region) would fail to assuage the US/European energy security concerns. And as regards the increasingly important natural gas used for electricity generation Eurasia has a clear edge over the Middle East.
Given Russia’s post-Soviet weakness, along with the projected increase in energy consumption and the rising competition from the likes of China, it would be surprising if the Euro-Atlantic axis were not tempted to deploy its “excess strength” in pursuit of the weakening (if not completely neutralising) Moscow’s hold on the former Soviet resources. Encircling Russia with hostile regimes under the guise of democracy promotion or the war on terror if not attempting to “deconstruct” the Federation itself, would appear as a rational, in fact unavoidable, strategy.
Although some may dismiss this interpretation as unduly conspiratorial, and perhaps even inapplicable to supposedly peaceful Western democracies, it unfortunately remains the most persuasive model, capable of neat explanations of countless mystifying phenomena. Far fetched or not, it is the only credible game in town.
To start with, it explains the unremitting, irrational, frequently hysterical, hostility to President Putin. He personifies Russia’s refusal to “capitulate” to the West, with his regime insisting that Russia has not lost the Cold War, but opted to ditch communism by its own volition. Instead of “unconditional surrender”, Putin merely calls for a “peace treaty”, rejecting an “occupation regime”, such as that of his predecessor, President Yeltsin.
For the same reasons, Putin insists on sovereign control of Russia’s strategic resources, especially its energy resources. This explains the unceremonious treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky not without justification perceived by the Kremlin as a de facto Western agent and his defence in the West, as well as the recent hardening of Moscow’s stance on the Sakhalin deals and the decision regarding the Shtokman development. More recently, as noted above, Putin’s regime has started to actively defend Russia’s geopolitical interests, in some cases (for example in Ukraine) apparently rolling back earlier Western advances.
In the face of these issues, there can be no compromise. The longer Putin and his regime lasts, the more demonised he must be.
This interpretation also explains the persistence of double standards in judging Russia and Putin’s regime. Russian democracy is not, and never can be, “real democracy”, but authoritarian restoration, no matter what the regime does. Corruption in Russia is a “special” kind of corruption. Chechen terrorists tend to be seen not as real terrorists, but freedom fighters, while pro-Moscow Chechens are Russian puppets (unlike, of course, the democratic Iraqis, increasingly governing their country on Washington’s behalf). To prove his democratic credentials, President Putin was expected practically to apologise for the murder of his staunch critic, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, as he was implicitly held responsible for it.
Too much of a good thing?
As evidenced in most areas, too much of a good thing can do more harm than good. An overdose of beneficial medicine can destroy one’s health, just like excessively tight monetary policy can needlessly extinguish economic growth. Likewise, too much external “democratic supervision” can actually stunt a democracy’s development, and too much superpower protection can prevent a lesser power from standing on its own legs. Too much might can destabilise and needlessly inflame a geopolitical theatre. It is very likely that the triumph of the Euro-Atlantic alliance has been just such an example of damaging imbalance.
The excess of Euro-Atlantic power and its eastward drive tends to fuel confrontation where in actual fact there have been clear conditions for harmony and deeper integration, driven by structural complementarity and geographical proximity. With Europe projected to increase its already substantial dependence on Russian gas, alarm bells have been ringing amidst the fears of potential Russian energy bullying. These fears have been unfounded, having been based on misrepresentation of Russia’s intentions and structural constraints, driven by the cold war launched by Washington’s global democracy promoters.
Certainly, if Europe wants to insist that Russia is as a neo-authoritarian bully and if it wants to partake in the US-led effort to deconstruct the Russian Federation, then it had better look for its gas elsewhere (or build a couple of wind turbines next to every household). It certainly would be inadvisable for it to tweak the nose of the power on whose resources Europe intends to depend.
Objectively speaking, however, the fear of dependence on Russian gas actually is not the fear of Russian bullying, but the reluctance to give up Europe’s freedom to partake in the bullying of Russia. It is not the fear of Russia’s neo-imperial resurgence, but concern that Europe would have to abandon its anachronistic alliance with Washington, now pursuing its drive to encircle Russia. Ultimately, it is the fear of having to stand on one’s own legs rather than relying on outdated protection of Europe’s trans-Atlantic democratic uncle.
This unhealthy condition has evidently been dividing Europe, as well as the pivotal EU country, Germany, thus further undermining the cohesion of the European Union. The relations between Poland and Germany, in particular, already poor owing to mutual prejudice and failure to overcome the echoes of the Second World war, have been additionally poisoned by Berlin’s embrace of Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline project under the Baltic Sea, with Poland’s defence minister likening it to the Hitler-Stalin pact to carve up Poland. Such nonsensical interpretations would probably not be possible were Europe free from its obligation promoted by Washington and its anti-Russian revanchist currents in the former Soviet bloc to perceive Russia as a hostile expansionist. (Indeed, the fact that such preposterous claims have at all been made by top European politicians/officials is a telling indication of the current disorder in the Euro-Atlantic machine).
The strains have been especially visible in Germany, with Russia recently offering it the receipt of all Shtokman gas, turning it into the hub for transfer to the rest of Europe. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, evidently fearing Washington’s censure, has responded coolly to the proposal, suggesting that Moscow should first sign the 1994 Energy Charter, which Russia considers unacceptable in its present form. Nevertheless, the issue will not go away, as the Russian offer simply is too tempting, and as Russia will increasingly be motivated to look towards China as a new, rapidly expanding energy market, thus helping to concentrate the European minds. If Washington desires to worry about Germany/Europe’s “energy betrayal”, it will have every reason to do so in the years to come.
The issue of sovereignty
Ultimately, we are witnessing the spectacle of a supposedly free and sovereign Germany and European Union being supervised and lectured by Washington in the vital matters of its energy security and economic development. This surely is an unfortunate state of affairs, given that the Second World War ended 60 years ago, with the Cold War now too becoming a distant memory.
On the other hand, under the banner of “sovereign democracy”, Putin’s Russia has been free to advance its vital interests unhindered by the Euro-Atlantic orthodoxy, fully utilising the advantages accorded to it by the post-Cold War multi-polar global system. When it comes to sovereignty, the European powers actually lag behind their Russian counterpart.