As I travel back and forth from West to East, I’m struck by the difference in perspective.
In the West, China is the great adversary awakening from a centuries long slumber, and Russia is a dying, bit player. In the former Soviet Union, Russia is a clever and fiendish power that has masterfully played over a decade of foreign policy, and is once again finding its stride.
Perception is not reality, but sometimes perception is reality. The reality on the ground is that especially in Russia and its western satellites, Vladimir Putin is looking like the man with the hot hand, and the several states of the former Soviet Union have taken notice.
Putin is hardly without flaws, and his moves in Ukraine have varied between the canny (backing Yulia Tymoshenko probably seemed like a good idea at the time) to the clumsy (the most recent trade fight comes to mind). But in the space of a decade, he has brought Belarus back to heel, taken somewhat independent-minded Kazakhstan and placed it on a leash, and carved out burgeoning spheres of influence in Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, and the Central Asian republics to the point at which it is now entirely reasonable to refer to a Russian Empire again.
But perhaps his best efforts have been reserved for his stymie of the West, relying purely on his UN Security Council vote, Russia’s petrochemical wealth, and its relative (but hardly absolute) military power and projection ability. Western efforts to lay final claim to the former Soviet Union have bogged down for over a decade; Western adventurism in areas uncomfortably close to Russia’s back yard have been halted; and in the last six months, Putin has shown again and again that he is the better poker player than American President Obama and Europe’s leadership, in everything from Iranian nuclear expansion to rogue American spies to Syrian use of chemical weapons.
After a decade of hard work, Putin is finally poised to reclaim the Russian Empire he believes should exist of right.
He is not without challenges. As often noted here, his is a dying population with rampant social dysfunction. Russia’s society could be described as medieval were it more charming. A miniscule birth rate, high levels of abortion, pervasive discrimination against women and minorities, a civil society decimated by the Soviet Union and nearly eradicated by Putin, a Russian Orthodox Church in service to and never against the Kremlin — the list is extensive. Putin is therefore in a race against time, demographic destiny, and the wreckage of Russian government policy reaching back nearly a century to take the empire before the center crumbles beneath him.
Yet he is by all accounts undeterred, and outside of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and, less and less, Georgia, he has few opponents left in the region. The bizarre apparent indifference of Brussels and America’s erratic and irrational foreign policy have left policy and leadership gaps in his near and far neighborhood that Putin has exploited well and clearly.
And the former Soviet Union, to a one, even those in the European Union, have noticed.
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