Putin maps the boundaries of greater Russia

Financial Times
Philip Stephens
August 28, 2008

We need to get this straight. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has invaded a neighbour, annexed territory and put in place a partial military occupation. It seeks to overthrow the president of Georgia and to overturn the global geopolitical order. It has repudiated its signature on a ceasefire negotiated by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and disowned its frequent affirmations of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Most importantly: all of this is our fault.

The “our” in this context, of course, refers to the US and the more headstrong of its European allies such as Britain. If only Washington had been nicer to the Russians after the fall of the Berlin Wall. If only the west had not humiliated Moscow after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Surely we can see now what a provocation it was to allow the former vassal states of the Soviet empire to exercise their democratic choice to join the community of nations? And what of permitting them to shelter under Nato’s security umbrella and to seek prosperity for their peoples in the European Union? Nothing, surely, could have been more calculated to squander the post-cold-war peace.

Such is the cracked record played over and over again by the Russian prime minister and recited now by Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s notional president. Sadly, it also finds echoes among those in Europe who prefer appeasing
Mr Putin to upholding the freedoms of their neighbours.

This Russian claim to victimhood is as vacuous as it is dishonest.

Mr Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the great geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Now he wants to subjugate his country’s neighbours in the cause of a greater Russia. The aim is to turn back the clock: to extend his country’s borders to create the greater Russia sought by the leaders of the abortive coup against Boris Yeltsin in 1991. The west must not collude with Mr Putin’s falsified version of history.

There is no doubt that Russians feel they suffered great hurt and indignity during the 1990s. They did. But it is a misreading of events to blame the US, the west, the EU or Nato.

The blindingly obvious point is that humiliation was inevitable and unavoidable. Until the collapse of communism the world belonged to Washington and Moscow. Suddenly almost everything was lost to Russia. The political and economic system that had once aspired to global domination was reduced to dust.

Open a history book. Humiliation is what happens when nations lose their empires. Ask the British. Half a century after Suez, part of the British psyche still laments this retreat from the world. You could say the same about the French.

The implosion of the Soviet Union could not stir anything but a sense of shame among Russians. But ah, you hear Mr Putin’s apologists say, the west fed Russian paranoia. For half a century central and eastern Europe had been signed over to Moscow. Now the west’s institutions rolled like tanks up to Russia’s borders.

The problem is that this account does not fit the facts. George H.W. Bush was anything but triumphalist in his response to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, the then US president faced sharp criticism from many Americans for refusing to dance on communism’s grave.

It is true Bill Clinton’s presidency began with some rhetorical flourishes about spreading democracy. And the US administration did press hard for the expansion of Nato, in part because the EU dragged its feet about opening its doors. Some doubted the wisdom of the Nato policy. George Kennan, the author of the cold war doctrine of containment, was among those arguing against Mr Clinton. But then, the revered Mr Kennan was not infallible. He had, after all, opposed the creation of the alliance.

Doubtless there were moments when the US, and Europe for that matter, could have been more tactful. The disciples of free markets dispatched to Moscow by the International Monetary Fund probably bear some blame for the catastrophic melt-down of Russia’s economy. But no, the historical record does not show a deliberate or concerted effort by the US or anyone else to mock or multiply Russia’s misfortunes.

When Mr Putin talks about humiliation, he means something else. Washington’s crime was to assume that the Yalta agreement had fallen along with the Berlin Wall, and that the peoples and nations of the erstwhile Soviet empire should thus be free to make their own choices.

In the Kremlin’s mindset, showing due respect for Russia would have meant allowing it to continue to hold sway over its near-abroad. The most that the citizens of Ukraine and the Baltic states should have expected was the ersatz independence now bestowed on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and the rest should have been locked out of western institutions.

Mr Putin has reopened the issue that seemed to have been settled in 1991 when Yeltsin saw off the tanks at the doors of the Russian White House. Yeltsin decided that the borders of the Russian Federation should follow those of the Soviet republics. That left the Crimea as part of Ukraine, Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of Georgia. Mr Putin’s doctrine is calculated to reclaim Moscow’s sovereignty over ethnic Russians in neighbouring states. This is a greater Russia by another means.

The doctrine overturns one of the central geopolitical assumptions of the past two decades: that, for all its hurt pride, Russia saw its role as a powerful player within a post-cold-war geopolitical order. Mr Medvedev, speaking with his master’s voice, now repudiates the laws and institutions of that order.

For all the occasional bluster about a new authoritarian axis between Moscow and Beijing, the contrast that has most struck me in recent weeks has been between China and Russia. Beijing saw the Olympics as a celebration of China’s return as a great power. China has by no means signed up to the norms and assumptions of liberal democracy; it has still to decide whether it wants to be a free rider or a stakeholder in the international system. But it has concluded that its future lies with integration into a stable world order.

Moscow’s invasion of Georgia and its public scorn at the likely international response speaks to an entirely different mindset: a retreat from integration and a preference for force over rules. Russia’s neighbours are told they can be vassals or enemies. Mr Medvedev boasts Russia is ready for another cold war.

I struggle to see what Russia will gain. It is friendless. Governments and foreign investors alike now know that Moscow’s word is worthless. The price of aggression will be pariah status. Mr Putin, of course, will blame the west.