Unfortunately, such a scenario seems farfetched. From China’s activities in the South China Sea to the Islamic State’s continued advance in the Middle East, competition and conflict are threatening long-standing regional orders. But perhaps the most critical conflict – the one whose resolution has implications for all the rest – is in Ukraine, a country that has become central to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist ambitions.
Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine have ruptured its relations with the West, and Putin has intentionally recreated a Cold War atmosphere by touting Russia’s “conservative values” as an ideological counterweight to the American-led liberal world order. Nonetheless, key issues – the carnage in Syria, the fight against the Islamic State, nuclear non-proliferation, and conflicting interests and competing claims in the Arctic – cannot be resolved without Russia’s involvement.
That is why, as hard as it may be for Western powers, some efforts to appease Russia are unavoidable. The United States should be less dismissive of Russia’s sensibilities as an important power and a major civilization, and Russia’s legitimate security interests concerning its borders with NATO countries must be addressed, not least to keep Ukraine out of a rival military alliance. The Ukrainian parliament’s endorsement, despite strong international opposition, of autonomy for the pro-Russia separatist regions – a solution initially proposed by Putin – is exactly the kind of concession that is needed to restore peace.
Ultimately, however, it is up to Russia to change its ways. Propaganda-driven nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s Cold War-era “great power” status is obscuring the lessons of that time. The Soviet Union was an unsustainable empire; if it could not survive at a time when isolation and bipolarity were the order of the day, it certainly could not be recreated within today’s interconnected multipolar global system.
Russia already is in no position to confront the West: Its economy is withering, and it lacks solid alliances capable of countering US power. Putin is hoping that Russia and its BRICS partners (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) will become “the future leaders of the world and the global economy,” as he put it in July, at the conclusion of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization summits
But the plain truth is that neither the BRICS nor the SCO is remotely close to being a cohesive bloc capable of insulating Russia from the consequences of its behavior in Ukraine. The differences in values and strategic interests within the groupings are no less acute than the disagreements that their various members have with the West.
Russia’s bilateral relationship with China is no different. It is a relationship founded largely on Chinese dependence on Russian energy supplies, mutual support for “spheres of influence” as the conceptual foundation of an alternative world order, and joint naval exercises in the Black Sea. But the two countries have conflicting interests in Central Asia, where China is pursuing major investments to expand its influence in countries that Russia views as its “near abroad.” When Putin questioned Kazakhstan’s independence last year, China was quick to support the country’s sovereignty. China’s potential encroachment on Russia’s unpopulated Far East borders – which, in China’s view, were stolen, much like Hong Kong and Taiwan, during its “century of humiliation” – is another source of anxiety in the Kremlin.
More important, China’s economy depends on continued access to Western – and especially US – markets. At a time when a slowing economy is creating greater uncertainty for China, it cannot afford to provoke tensions with the US over anything that is not in its direct interests, such as its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Despite Russia’s weak alliances, Putin seems undeterred. Beyond his boastful talk about Russia’s nuclear arsenal, his government has recently announced a new naval doctrine – one that amounts to an alarming echo of Germany’s naval challenge to Britain prior to World War I. If no diplomatic détente is brokered, Putin may well continue on this path, bringing his country ever closer to a full-blown conflict with NATO.
Even if no such conflict erupts, Putin’s attempts to restore Russian influence across Eurasia (by whatever means necessary, if his actions in Ukraine are any indication) will be highly damaging. It should be no surprise that Kazakhstan and Belarus are as wary of Russian expansionism as Ukraine.
Putin has discarded former President Dmitri Medvedev’s concept of a “partnership for modernization” with the West. But a Eurasian customs union among post-Soviet and other countries is not the road to modernization for Russia; nor is an effort to make the defense industry the engine of industrialization. That, in a nutshell, was the Soviet model, which failed once and would fail again.
If Putin is serious about diversifying and strengthening Russia’s commodities-based economy, thereby improving the lives of his country’s people, he must attract advanced technologies and foreign investment, especially from the West. For that, he must pursue democratic reforms, institutional regeneration, and renewed diplomatic ties with the West.
Russia is in no position to create an alternative international system; but, if Putin continues to pursue an outdated and antagonistic foreign policy, it can undermine the existing one. At a time when the world is facing so many destabilizing challenges, this would not be good for anyone.
The West should seek to mollify Russia on core strategic questions like NATO expansion. But that will not help Putin to overcome the source of Russia’s weakness, which lies in his inability or unwillingness to see the Soviet Union for the failure that it was.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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