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Is Russia reviving its empire?

Pundits are missing the point in their analyses of events in and around Ukraine. Things are simpler than they appear.

Last updated: 25 May 2014 05:27
Vartan Oskanian

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia's National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan's Civilitas Foundation.
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A pro-Russia activist wearing the Saint George ribbon along with a picture of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and a flag of the former Russian Empire takes part in a Victory Day rally in central Kiev [AFP]

A great many experts, observers and pundits are missing the point in their analyses of events in and around Ukraine by making two flawed assumptions. One, that the personal traits and characters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or US President Barack Obama, or both, are the main causes of the momentous developments in and around Ukraine; and two, that Putin is executing a master plan.

The reality is something else. International relations are intricate. Decisions made by heads of states are guided by a complex web of domestic and international factors and circumstances. Of course, the person at the top and his or her worldview, leadership qualities and style are key factors in the final determination, but explaining transformative events on the basis of one man's behaviour and actions is overly simplistic and inevitably will miss the point.

What the pundits perceive to be Putin's "ambitions, arrogance and petulance", and Obama's "weakness, indifference and disengagement" are not manifestations of capricious behaviour. Rather, they are ideologically driven labels for behaviour based on convictions, beliefs and values developed through their personal experiences, domestic sentiments and their nation's past and recent history.

Putin is shrewd, smart and calculating. He may or may not be anti-Western, but he certainly is not sentimental towards the West. He doesn't like to be told to play by the rules that the West itself selectively ignores, circumvents and violates.

Russia's 'rightful place'

He believes Russia was on the brink of disintegration when he came to power, and he has restored Russia to its rightful place in the world. He believes that the West reneged on its promise to be considerate of Russia's security interests, and that the West is still intent on weakening Russia.

Obama is also shrewd, smart and calculating. He believes he restored America's image and reputation, which were hugely damaged as a consequence of two unfinished wars. He constantly hears that the American people are tired of foreign engagements and policing the world. Thus he prefers cooperation to confrontation, he would rather lead from behind than put boots on the ground and he definitely favours engagement to coercion.

Those who believe in the existence of a Russian master plan - that is, the revival of the empire, albeit a truncated one - have history on their side. Indeed, no other empire has been able to revive itself, except the Russians, and they have done so four times in history.

Those who believe in the existence of a Russian master plan - that is, the revival of the empire, albeit a truncated one - have history on their side. Indeed, no other empire has been able to revive itself, except the Russians, and they have done so four times in history.

Writing in the US Interest, Walter Russell Mead draws a parallel to the years when the Russian state collapsed and the Soviet Union was created.

"Lenin and Stalin were able to rebuild the tsarist empire," Mead writes, "first because they succeeded in creating a strong state in Russia, second because many of the breakaway states were divided and weak, and finally because a permissive international environment posed few effective barriers to the reassertion of Moscow’s power."

Mead believes those very conditions are present today.

I disagree for several reasons. One is that Putin is a realist and he understands Russia's capabilities and limitations. Two is that even if those conditions exist, they do not necessarily lead to the repetition of history. Three is that those conditions qualitatively and in relative terms differ from those at the turn of the previous century.

Russia in comparison to the US and the EU, is militarily, economically and domestically much weaker today than it was at the turn of the last century.

The constituent republics of the collapsed empire today have already experienced two decades of independence compared to what was only a two-year lag from the collapse of the Russian Empire to the formation of the Soviet Union. During these 23 years, most of the former Soviet republics have challenged Russia at one time or another on some issue. Even Armenia's grudging agreement to join the Customs Union should not be construed as a sign of willingness to be part of a future empire.

Finally, the international environment is hugely less permissive now. The Baltic states, Poland and the former East European bloc are members of NATO. Ukraine and Georgia have endured pain to maintain their position on the path to NATO and the EU.

The root of this conflict

And herein lies the root of this conflict. Russia's stake in Ukraine is its security. It's not Russian minorities, it's not trade and it's not energy.

Russia's security concerns cannot be ignored. Russia defines its security in terms of buffer zones around its periphery, particularly in the western and northwestern directions.

Since the collapse of the Berlin wall, NATO's and EU's borders have moved east. Ukraine's and Georgia's expressed willingness, with the West's acquiescence, to become members of both NATO and the EU, has the potential of bringing those organisations to Russia's borders, this time from the west and south. Not coincidentally, Russia's two encroachments towards those in its immediate vicinity were Georgia in August 2008 and Ukraine more recently.

Many US foreign policy veterans, including the venerable doyens George Kennan, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, all warned about the cost of ignoring Russia's bottom line. And Ukraine and Georgia are Russia's ultimate bottom line.

Putin cannot totally ignore the international sanctions but at the same time cannot appear weak in the eyes of the Russian people by giving in to Western "threats" and "intrusion" into what is perceived to be a traditionally Russian sphere of influence. Obama, on his part, cannot ignore the American people's reluctance to engage, but at the same time cannot appear weak and disinterested in the eyes of his NATO and other allies. This disconnect and series of misperceptions from all sides can endanger the balance of power in different parts of the world.  

Though the sanctions are having some economic impact on Russia, tightening the screws further will not materially change Putin's decision-making. It is time that the major players look at things as they are, look beyond history and personalities and transcend the zero-sum-game-thinking of the past. Things are simpler, more transparent and evident than some would have us believe.

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia's National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan's Civilitas Foundation.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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