Russia’s Last Imperial Bid Crumbling?

As the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius approaches, this site will be specially focused on those nations who are making significant steps in their turn toward Europe, and away from a Russian-dominated past. Although Ukraine is the big prize, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are all demonstrating their bona fides and are in various stages of closer relations with the European Union. Their stories are still being told, but November 28-29 marks the end of an important chapter — and for all, hopefully a new and better one.

But all of this leaves out a critical component of the narrative — the story of Russia in the post-Soviet age, a rump empire without the strength to force its old imperial and Soviet satellites into a new empire and with barely the strength to hold its own internal federation together. In the post-Boris Yeltsin world, Vladimir Putin looked about him and saw a tragedy as his country was but a ragged shadow of its past; he knew that if he was to re-forge the Russia that was, he had to make the Russia that is more formidable.

Putin is by any measure a horrible human being, a torturer, a despot, a murderer, a tyrant. His contempt for the rule of law is so blatant that no matter what his nominal position in Russia’s government, no one questions his role as the emperor. Yet he is undeniably one of the canniest leaders on the world stage, a remarkable talent in a generation of mediocrities. Through harnessing Russia’s only remaining strengths — petrochemical wealth and a military-industrial complex capable of arming the Third World — he has regained much of pre-Soviet Russia’s imperial heft. Through canny diplomacy, outright violations of sovereignty, and the odd invasion, he has reminded all of the old Soviet and Imperial satellites that it is a very dangerous game to cross Russia.

Putin knows that he is racing several forces largely beyond his control: the (halting) evolution of the European Union from a parochial gathering of Western European states to a pan-continental trading and diplomatic power; the rise (and stumbles) of China, which in turn faces its own demographic and wealth hurdles and is therefore a problematic ally; the slow retreat from the world of the United States, which may be reversed at any election; and most dangerous of all, the utter collapse of Russia’s birth rate, leaving Moscow without the manpower needed to force its will on the world.

He has spent the last decade painfully gaining enough power to pull all of his former satellites back into Moscow’s orbit — and has failed. The Baltics are gone and are in no danger of looking back. The border states such as Poland are a memory. And now the Eastern Partnership nations are slowly departing, and the four most important (Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) are taking people and wealth and trade and hope with them.

So far, he has only managed to pull Kazakhstan (resentfully) and Belarus (quixotically) into his Eurasian Customs Union, with poorest-of-the-poor Armenia and many of the -stans likely to follow. This is an Empire of Beggars, and Putin knows it.

Yet the stick is not working on Georgia, or Ukraine, or Moldova, even though each recognizes that it faces potentially mortal peril from Russia. Even the most skilled diplomat and politician of his time cannot beat back the tides, and today, it looks likely that Putin, and Russia, have lost.

But each day is a new day. If Europe fails to seize its chances at the end of this month, or if the hurdles before the Eastern Partnership nations are too great, Putin may yet have another chance — the only chance he needs.

This month will not decide the future of Eastern Europe, and of Russia. But it will go a long way toward predicting the next several decades for all.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons