In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the symbolic evidence of communism’s failure was inescapable. Along with the admission of ideological defeat – made all the more painful given the importance of ‘face’ and ‘pride’ to the Russian psyche – came financial meltdown and a sharp downgrading of Russia from global superpower to weak, also-ran failing state.
But there remained hope at the time that Russia in the Gorbachev-era was a nation firmly on the path to multi-party democracy, rule by law and press freedom. These hopes persisted even in 2000 with the election of Russia’s second President, Vladimir Putin.
Putin was keen visibly to demonstrate Russian willingness to become an important ally to the USA in areas of mutual interest. He accepted a second stage of NATO enlargement to the Baltic states, allowed the US to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and stood shoulder to shoulder with George W Bush in the “war on terror” (a useful alibi given his domestic problems in Chechnya).
With Russian troops on the streets of Sevastopol, the Russian Parliament backing Putin, and Russia’s President reportedly telling Obama that he “reserves the right” to defend Russian interests in east Ukraine, the cautious optimism of those years now seems hopelessly misplaced. As the past few weeks have shown, Russia is locked in an internal battle with itself, at once anxious to be taken seriously as a modern, open and successful nation, as exemplified by the success of the Sochi Winter Olympics, but equally determined to the point of paranoia at maintaining control over its historic sphere of influence.
The toppling of the inept Kremlin ally and former Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, has been an embarrassing and dangerous blow to Putin. Not only does it entail a loss of face in the world, but the speed with which peaceful protest morphed into overthrow has sent chills through Muscovite spines. Putin’s government needs swiftly to limit domestic populist fervour and shore up Russia’s interests on its southern borders while maintaining a veneer of international credibility. Round One may have been lost, but in Putin’s mind there is all still to play for. As he knows, there is vanishingly little Western appetite for military intervention.
We have waited with baited breath over the past few days to see whether Moscow would seek to defuse tensions in Kiev or up the ante. Russia now appears to be moving quickly to stoke tensions amongst Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, framing last weekend’s events as an illegitimate coup by foreign-backed extremists whose ultimate hope is to marginalise and oppress. Russia has now made clear that it will ‘strongly and uncompromisingly’ defend the rights of its compatriots.
What we in the West fail to understand is that many Russians see the Gorbachev and Yeltsin era as a time of chaos, uncertainty and utter humiliation. Putin has been able to maintain domestic popularity by retelling the Russian story, filling the vast ideological vacuum left by the disintegration of the communist ideal with the notion of a Russian civilisation based upon patriotism, selflessness and deference to a powerful state. In doing so, he has tapped into a pool of resentment that goes beyond Russian borders to encapsulate many of those who dislike the US dominance of the past two decades.
Russia may not have the economic clout it once did, representing only two per cent of the global economy. But whether unashamedly supporting Assad in Syria, baulking progress to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme or turning off the gas taps to Ukraine in the past, Putin has revelled in his nation’s ability still to wreak havoc amidst Western foreign policy objectives. His unashamed international awkwardness has also allowed him to test our resolve. Time and again, he has found it wanting.
Russia knows that when it comes to Ukraine, there is little chance of broader-ranging conflict. The EU is firmly concentrated on fixing its economic woes and is still smarting from the almost immediate collapse of its brokered compromise to end the bloodshed. Britain is a diminished voice in global diplomacy since, in clumsily navigating the Syrian conflict, it relinquished decisions on military action to the whims of Parliamentary approval. Meanwhile, President Obama’s lack of interest in trans-Atlantic or Middle Eastern foreign policy is palpable.
If Putin decides to increase the stakes in Ukraine, our Government will find itself with yet another colossal international headache. Putin’s Russia will ruthlessly expose any even-handed indecision by the West and mercifully exploit it as a weakness. For all the internal economic turmoil of modern day Russia, with its over-reliance on minerals and ugly future demographic profile, it shows every sign of diplomatically outgunning its Western rivals.