Students of history usually learn the wrong lessons. European leaders, who usually style themselves masters of the past and builders of the future, were caught flat-footed when Vladimir Putin almost singlehandedly pulled Ukraine from years of concerted effort to join Europe. Because America shielded them from the iron laws of nations, they had forgotten that the rest of the world still lived by those laws. When Putin reminded them, they were aghast.
Yet Russia benefits from the same sort of error. Russia now is not the superpower the Soviet Union or even Russian Empire were. It has an aging nuclear supply, and makes some of the finest (and worst) military hardware the world over. But it has a declining population of young men to send into war, and for all of its ability to bully fourth-rate militaries like Georgia’s, its power projection is a thing of the past.
Russia’s power is broadly economic. Men and women grow rich in Moscow and Moscow pours their power into its near environment. Gazprom is the leading edge of this spear, an economic weapon that forces the European Union and by extent the United States into silence when Russia engages in sporadic adventurism and bullying.
And Gazprom is dying. The American natural gas boom — and concurrent and subsequent booms in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere — along with better and better shipping techniques are destroying Gazprom’s ability to control the market. The pipelines bringing Azerbaijani gas to Western European markets, the discovery of shale fields in Ukraine, the overall energy boom in which the world suddenly finds itself is destroying Gazprom’s ability to dictate terms to the West.
Anyone involved in Russian finance knows that Moscow is seeking to open new markets into its Central Asian clients and China, where the desperate search for more energy and the desperate bid for world respect are colliding to prevent Beijing from bringing its own energy reserves online. Yet mere money is not the same as the ability to hold a necessary resource hostage, and Moscow knows it. Putin’s efforts to take back the Eastern Partnership — including placing Moscow-friendly leaders in Georgia — have an air of desperation to them.
We are witnessing the beginning of the final sunset of Russian power. If Europe understood this, so much would change. But not only are they not the masters of the past, or the builders of the future; they are captives to the present, and are lost in it.
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