Twenty-five years ago, on March 17th, 1991, the first and only nation-wide referendum took place in the Soviet Union. More than three-quarters of its participants voted in favour of “the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedoms of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed.” This was Mikhail Gorbachev’s final attempt to stop the disintegration of a major country. Nine months later, following a referendum on Ukraine’s independence on December 1st, the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist. The Ukrainians, of whom more than 70 percent had voted to preserve the Soviet Union in the March referendum, this time voted 90 percent in favour of independence.
A quarter century has passed since those turbulent events, but they have never truly become history. In fact, much of what is happening in present-day Russia and in world events is rooted in the events of 1991. That year marked not just the end of one more empire – indeed, the last remaining one – but also the destruction of one of the two pillars of the bipolar world order built in the second half of the 20th century. It was a tectonic shift that brought about fundamental global changes and engendered differences that have never been resolved and have – to be clear – become more acute since 2014.
For the West – the US and its allies – the collapse of the Soviet Union was a manifestly positive event that ushered in ‘a new world order’ – one in which Western countries had not only a political but also a moral right to organize the world as they saw fit. From Russia’s point of view – a view that became stronger over time – no new order had been built. Indeed, what little remained of the previous order gradually fell apart. The international system sank into chaos as its institutions – reasonably effective in the last century, but unable to adapt to new-century realities – eroded. Attempts to create a ‘centralized’ or unipolar global system of governance simply failed.
In 2005, Vladimir Putin described the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a major geopolitical catastrophe. The West viewed this statement as evidence of Putin’s nostalgia for the days of Soviet – and with it, Russian – superpower status and of his desire to revive or restore it. And yet there is nothing in that particular Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, where these words were first spoken (Putin repeated them, two years later, at the 2007 Munich Security Conference), to support such an interpretation. Instead, President Putin spoke about the painful efforts that Russia was undertaking to get out of the crisis caused by the collapse of the previous model, stating: “That was precisely the period when […] our society was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life.”
More than a decade after Putin’s speech, the most important question facing Russia has not changed a great deal. It is as follows: how do Russian society and Russia’s political class view their country – as a state with certain intrinsic, deeply rooted values or, alternatively, as a shard of a ‘real,’ far greater country that was ruined? The former interpretation suggests that Russia’s search for its place in the world will likely end successfully despite all of the bumps in the road. The latter interpretation, however, is more problematic – not least in practical terms – as it suggests a desired revival of superpower status, one way or another. Indeed, prima facie, the multiple crises of 2014-2015 and Russia’s interference in the conflicts in Ukraine and then Syria seem to be consistent with this second interpretation.
Upon closer inspection, though, this is not the only possible interpretation of events – that is, one could well argue that these two military-political moves by Moscow were, in important respects, dramatically dissimilar in nature. Indeed, one of the plausible reasons for Russia’s Syrian intervention was Moscow’s interest in making up for the negative effects of its Ukrainian campaign, which not only failed to raise the country’s international status, but actually harmed it and came at the expense of national economic development.
When the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine dissolved the Soviet Union in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in December 1991, they did not risk raising the issue of Crimea, as their main priority was to get rid of centralized Kremlin rule and to redistribute power into the hands of the 15 constituent republics. Instead, the Crimean question exploded in 2014, causing a chain reaction and becoming a turning point in the history of what we may call ‘Soviet decentralization.’ The Crimean annexation was, on this logic, a key step by Putin’s team to deconstruct what remained of the Soviet Union – to wit, by overcoming the loose taboo about revisiting administrative borders drawn by the Soviet authorities. The ghost of the Soviet Union was at last vanishing.
The history of the Soviet Union, then, did not end in December 1991, and any jubilation over the ‘civilized divorce’ of its component parts and within its general sphere was premature, as evidenced during the Balkan nightmare. The Yugoslav syndrome caught up with Russia more than two decades later in Ukraine. Gorbachev’s perestroika, for its part, was laid to rest first and foremost by the separatism of Russia’s nomenklatura. In other words, the Soviet Union became doomed when Russian political elites, more than those in any other Soviet republic, stopped associating themselves with the central government in Moscow – albeit for different reasons: progressives and democrats had one set of motives; retrogrades and communists had a contrary set of motives. Neither the Baltic nor the South Caucusus republics, nor even Ukraine could have caused as big a country as the USSR to disappear so quickly. Only the will of the Russian establishment – the old one that was trying to hold onto the reins of power by distancing itself from Gorbachev, the experimenting General Secretary, and the new one that wanted to assume control of the state – could bring about the demise of the Soviet empire. Some 25 years later, the ideological descendants in the Russian leadership of those who put an end to the Soviet state are, perhaps not that surprisingly, moving along the same vector.
In explaining the need for the incorporation of Crimea into today’s Russia, Vladimir Putin put forth the ‘Russian world’ concept – meaning that Russians carried a conspicuous responsibility toward their compatriots who ended up outside of Russia’s borders after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. To be sure, Russians became one of the most divided peoples in the world in 1991, with some 25 million of them suddenly transformed into foreigners without having, in reality, moved anywhere. In his interview with Germany’s Bild in January of this year, Putin stressed: “For me, it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people’s fortunes.” Some commentators again took this as proof, or further proof, of his imperial ambitions, even though his reference to Russians more properly betrays the drawing of an ethnic or mental border – not an imperial or administrative one – that evidently serves to exclude ‘the other’ or ‘non-Russians.’
Properly viewed, this is not a move toward Russian isolationism, but rather toward inward or domestic consolidation of the Russian state system at the expense of all other policy initiatives. Of course, events have clearly changed this logic: the Kremlin finally concluded that its chances on the minor Eurasian stage (the Ukraine conflict) would diminish over time without active participation in the major Middle Eastern arena (Syria).
Bref, the main problem in today’s Russia is a crisis of ideas – that is, the absence of a vision for the future. The search for ideas ended with perestroika. Intellectual life in the late Soviet Union was rich – partially underground at first, but then increasingly public. The Soviet project, for all its troubles, was always an impressive undertaking, and attempts to transform it were similarly grand. In fact, they reverberated around the world. The renewal of older ideas therefore sparked heated debates inside the country and internationally. These debates in many cases reproduced perennial Russian disputes related to the means of national development, but never sounded parochial because the Soviet Union was a global power and thought globally. In other words, the Kremlin intended to change the world by changing the Soviet state. This – to be sure – was Gorbachev’s grand plan.
Of course, the global aspirations faded with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia began to focus on its own problems, even though its impact on the rest of the world was still significant by virtue of its size and importance. But deep reflection was evidently not a priority after the Soviet Union’s breakup – economic and political survival was. This survival imperative gradually gave way to extemporized pragmatism – commensurate with the need to repair and invigorate the state system. This succeeded partially, reviving the urge for new quests – even if Russia’s ability to think globally had by that time been lost.
Perestroika was the last period in Russia’s national history when the country not only earned international attention, but also offered up a big idea in a bid to attract the world to its side. After the Soviet collapse, Russia deliberately followed other countries – initially in the hope of fitting into the realm of Western concepts. Over time, however, it became more and more withdrawn, nurturing grudges about its own failure to succeed. These grudges laid the foundations for a protective and defensive ideology that did not inspire the country to look beyond its borders, but instead to fortify the wall and deepen the moat in the context of the chaotically changing and dangerous world around it.
Perestroika and today’s Russia are, as such, antipodes. The optimism and idealism of the late 1980s stand in stark contrast to the gloomy realism of the mid-2010s. And yet there is one thing that they have in common: in both cases, politics trumped economics, even if the gap between the weakening economic base and the ambitious political superstructure is a clear source of national vulnerability.
In 2015, not only did political logic outweigh economic calculations, but external policy was more important than internal policy. Witness the instantaneous rupturing of ties with Ankara after Turkey downed the Russian military aircraft. This move by the Kremlin showed that it considered national prestige to be more important than mercantile considerations. In effect, national prestige has replaced the national idea and national identity.
The search for elements that can bind Russian society and the state were on display in 2012 when Vladimir Putin reassumed the presidency amid public demonstrations. Protests in Moscow, beginning in late 2011, brought together members of the bourgeoisie and certain groups – including nationalists and leftists – who insisted on increased civil and political liberties and, more generally, deep reform of the national system of government.
Superficial modernization started during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. It left a strange aftertaste by ending so abruptly. It did, however, bring an end to the period of relatively care-free consumption of the 2000s, which followed the depression of the 1990s and the struggle for Russian survival. The tragic 1990s also cut off perestroika, leaving disputes on the future of the country unfinished.
Viewed today, the late 1980s now seem an ephemeral intermezzo in Russian history. And yet, as mentioned, the declining Soviet empire was still bustling with great debate amid the kaleidoscopic mess, as it tried to explore fundamental issues of state, society, and international community from different angles, and to set tasks for the future.
The collapse of the Soviet Union interrupted this process, replacing it with the struggle for power and property. A quarter century later, it is clear that the interrupted Soviet-era dispute will have to be resumed. The first indication of such a resumption was in 2012-2013 when Vladimir Putin, who is very sensitive to the public mood, began to speak regularly about ideological and moral issues. His appeals to conservative authors and controversial attempts to revive and refashion traditional values were a response to a latent but obvious demand in the body politic.
The Ukraine crisis torpedoed this process. Since its outbreak, the Russian state has been functioning in emergency mode, responding and improvising to the ever-changing situation. Debates about perennial Russian topics have been sidelined decisively in favour of urgent national mobilization. Such national mobilization, of course, is best accomplished by appeals to ‘blood and soil.’ And while the ‘Russian world’ concept has not mended the divide that came to light in late 2011 – when many middle-class Russians protested in Moscow against the lack of democratic development – it has changed the balance of the national mood dramatically: some of Putin’s initial opponents have ‘gone to war’ and dropped their complaints, while the minority, more opposed than ever to the Kremlin, has been further sidelined. Consolidation has been achieved.
It took extraordinary external factors to strengthen the internal base. In a paradoxical way, then, foreign policy has performed its main role in creating conditions for domestic development (loosely conceived). Success in countering external challenges and proof of the state’s ability to be a major player on the international stage have become a necessary condition for internal stability and legitimacy. This has become all the more true – even if partly in a self-fulfilling way – now that widespread instability is no longer a Kremlin fantasy but indeed objective reality.
To be sure, the Ukraine crisis and the ‘Russian world’ discourse have together been part of a larger identity debate. The separation of Russians and Ukrainians, who have always been very close, betrays a painful Russian (and indeed Ukrainian) search for national identity. But nationalist passions, galvanized by the Ukrainian tragedy, are explosive, and the Kremlin realized this very quickly. It has taken its foot off the pedal, as it were.
The operation in Syria is a different case altogether, consistent with a national objective of regaining superpower status. Russia intruded on what has been the main prerogative of the US since the end of the Cold War – to wit, the use of force to restore order wherever necessary. The show of force demonstrates Moscow’s capacity to carry out such missions on a regular basis. The offer of cooperation with the West in this field demonstrates co-equal status. And Moscow’s readiness to abruptly alter relations with those that do not recognize this status is a sign of self-confidence.
This is not, however, a return to the Soviet model. The Soviet Union had an activist foreign policy, frequently using different versions of the ‘besieged fortress’ excuse. However, the internal system of the Soviet state was not based on foreign policy, and instead on a rigid socio-economic structure. Outward expansion was driven largely by ideology, which over time developed into a more general strategic instinct for competition with America.
Strange as it may seem, the current situation has certain parallels with the Gorbachev period. Gorbachev’s failure resulted largely from the fact that his foreign policy appeared to be not just much more successful than his domestic initiatives, but that it had actually taken centre stage. His main treatise was called Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the Whole World. To this end, the “whole world” quickly overshadowed “our country.” The idea to “change the world by changing oneself” was turned inside out – internal development of the Soviet Union became a function of global transformation initiated by the Soviet leader. Everyone knows how this turned out. And yet today’s world is much less stable than it was 30 years ago, and dependence on global transformations in order to drive domestic change would be even more risky.
Of course, a fundamental difference between today and the era of Gorbachev is the total absence of illusions among Russian leaders and, with this, of good examples to follow. Let us recall that the intelligentsia in the late Soviet Union looked to the West with hope as a model for emulation, while the Soviet leadership believed in a convergence of the two systems. Gorbachev thought that a new world order would emerge through the integration of East and West on a completely equal basis. His approach echoed the views of such respected intellectuals as Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin and Nobel Peace Prize winner and dissident Andrei Sakharov. Of course, the disintegration of the Soviet Union put an end to the idea of equality and of joint construction of a European and global order. The new Russia, which at birth was thrust into the throes of existential crisis, was no longer viewed by the West (and indeed by the East) as a potential co-creator of a new world order.
The ‘end of history’ construct triumphed. The Western model carried the day. Russia was essentially told to find its place in the US-centric system. Although initially, in the early 1990s, the Soviet leadership was almost ready to agree to this, the national psyche did not abide such a scenario. For all practical intents and purposes, a large country with the mentality and history of an independent great power simply could not overnight turn itself into a ‘big Poland’ and follow in the footsteps of states seeking admission to the EU and NATO – institutions that, in any event, never offered membership to Russia.
To be sure, another important factor in Russia’s strategic mentality today is the lack of faith in the rationality of the West. The overall feeling is that good judgement in the US and Europe has given way to ideologized arrogance and unlimited dominance of left-liberal political correctness. The results of this are seen everywhere from the Middle East – laid to waste by senseless interventions – to Europe, where the authorities are hesitating to take action against criminal activities by recent waves of migrants for fear of angering human rights activists. The West is therefore no longer viewed as a source of inspiration – even if there is nothing else to take its place just yet.
Alongside the painful transformations in Russia, which over the past 25 years has still not come to understand what it wants to be and do, the international system has also been going through turbulent twists and turns. No proper unipolar world has been built, and existing institutions will be unable to function effectively in a polycentric system. This is most vividly borne out by the deep crisis of the EU, which not only profited the most from the end of the Cold War confrontation, but became a candidate-prototype for the future world order. Now, alas, the EU is shrinking into itself, trying to save a vast integration project that has failed to adapt to dramatic changes.
NATO, for its part, is undergoing an even more interesting transformation. Having won the Cold War and obtained full freedom of action, it has been unable to identify its core raison d’être. It simply cannot consistently divine missions that will succeed in uniting allies in the absence of bipolar confrontation. The experience of using force outside of the core NATO zone of responsibility has to date ranged from unsuccessful to disastrous. Of course, the alliance has managed to achieve some semblance of unity by opposing Russia during the crisis in Ukraine, but this too will not last long. For Russia is not the Soviet Union, and it cannot pose the same species of threat to the West no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, major strategic challenges like radical Islam and the return of China cannot be addressed by a NATO that operates along Cold War lines.
Bref, today’s Russia is a country that has not yet made up its mind about its image and future place in an utterly unpredictable world. There is no one for it to use as a beacon (as all countries are living through crises), there is nothing to fit into (old communities and regimes are falling apart, and new ones are still embryonic), and it has no real resources – financial or intellectual – to launch its own big project. The current course is therefore not tactical, but rather fatalistic, underlain by a belief that nothing can be foreseen. The only way to go about the business of state, on this logic, is to be ready to respond to any change quickly and decisively. And this means enhancing all national capabilities in order to meet any emergency.
By all appearances, the era that began with the end of the Cold War has ended. For the West, that era was marked by the euphoria of victory. For Russia, it was felt via the sting of inferiority that came from strategic defeat. Both sensations led to a dead end, and there is no way out in sight – even if such an exit will have to be found urgently.