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Russia-Crimea: Putin's revanchism

Russia-Crimea: Putin's revanchism
Published 19 Mar 2014   Follow @matthew_sussex

Yesterday Vladimir Putin delivered a searing address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow. In part, it marked a happy occasion for him: to welcome the re-incorporation of Crimea after 96% of participants (if the results are to be believed) agreed to join the Russian Federation in last weekend's referendum. But mostly it was to deliver an anti-Western diatribe that whipped policymakers and the public into patriotic fervour. Putin was interrupted by applause no less than thirty times during his speech, which referred to Western countries as cynical hypocrites and brutally irresponsible bullies.

Such outbursts are common in Russian politics and are little more than bombast. Even the most liberal Russian politicians have referred to the US as a bully or to NATO expansion as a trigger for World War III. And while the Kremlin recently noted its appreciation for Chinese efforts to help resolve the crisis, inwardly Putin would be seething at Beijing's decision to abstain from a draft UN Security Council resolution declaring Crimea's referendum invalid.

Putin's fiery speech was intended for three specific audiences: ethnic Russians at home and abroad; those nations who have no love for Washington or Brussels; and elites in what Russia considers the 'near abroad' of former communist states. Both Russians and anti-Westerners will join the chorus, even if they feel a twinge of guilt about the phony democratic process that led to Crimea's secession. But policymakers in the Caucasus and Central Asia – in Tbilisi, Tashkent, Astana and Bishkek – will be worried that Moscow is now more prepared to back words with deeds.

So who is right (and who is wrong) on the issue of Crimea? The most rational answer will disappoint many: everybody and nobody at the same time. It tends to be only the partially informed – or those with vested ideological interests – who are prepared to take up cudgels over the inherent 'rightness', or even legality, of the US, EU, Russian, or Ukrainian position.

A much better question might go something like this: why does the West seem so surprised when Russia uses raw power politics and, annoyingly, combines it with the language of international law? To an extent, we have become unused to such uncivilised behaviour. Nor have we paid close enough attention to Russian interests. But perhaps a more important explanation is that Russia is a specific kind of actor: a revanchist state. [fold]

By 'revanchist' I mean a state that experiences a rapid rise in power after a period of hefty decline. This is relatively rare in international politics, where we are much more used to longer cycles of boom and bust. The debate over the relative decline of the US and the rise of China are excellent examples. The US might be retrenching but it is likely to remain dominant for some time yet. China may well have designs on territory and on breaking out of de facto US containment by constructing a 'String of Pearls' and a 'Silk Road' to ensure the uninterrupted flow of trade and resources. But for the present it is content to work within existing frameworks, altering them subtly towards its preferences over time.

A revanchist state is different: it is disinclined to integrate on others' terms (with the exception of broad organisations of global prestige) and instead prefers to construct its own regional economic and security architecture to establish local primacy. It does so in order to ward off potential spoiling behaviour by external powers. At the same time, its quick rise in power tends to reinforce an elite-driven consensus on foreign policy objectives, so there is little internal dissent.

Although a rapid rise in power tends to engender muscular and an overtly territorial policy focus, the revanchist state has not experienced a lengthy period of sustained and diversified economic growth. This makes it potentially flimsy over the long term, but also potentially dangerous as it seeks to redraw the map around itself while a window of opportunity exists.

Hence Putin is not a modern-day reincarnation of his idol Peter the Great. Nor is he an ardent nationalist driven by a radicalised identity, even though he is happy to exploit that image for popular consumption. An arch-pragmatist, Putin knows that Russia faces a long slide in the future. It is caught in a pincer between a rising China and the transatlantic West, and will be a junior partner if it chooses either side.

To be assured of a friendly region, and to avoid becoming a raw materials appendage, Putin knows that Russia must try to solidify a bloc in the former Soviet space to give it insurance against future encroachment. He is afraid of dominos falling around him, and sees Ukraine as a litmus test of Russian capacity. The leverage generated by Russian energy dominance, coupled with the distraction of the US in Asia, gave him a temporary opening. He took the first opportunity, and has been careful to preference ballots over bullets in order to maintain some credibility in the PR war.

That may sound like old-fashioned Cold War thinking, but for those living outside the West, such thinking never really went away. In fact, Putin is making a series of quite safe bets on Crimea. Will the West risk war over it? No. Will the EU stump up the cash to reorient its energy infrastructure and bypass Russia? No. Will the EU want to risk the US$400 billion in two-way trade with Russia via a long-term sanctions regime? No. Will the West immediately admit Ukraine to the EU, or NATO? Highly doubtful. Will NATO become more visible in Eastern Europe? Yes, but it was going to do so anyway. Will the West issue travel bans for Russian political figures and suspend the NATO-Russia dialogue? Yes, but that is almost laughable in its tokenism.

So what does the West do with a revanchist Russia?

A quick scan through only a fraction of the literature on security offers a bewildering array of alternatives. In response to changing power dynamics states can bandwagon, balance, hide, hedge, pursue 'multi-vector' foreign policies, pass the buck, or catch the buck. Smaller states can seek to 'omni-enmesh' through institutional architecture, wrapping aspirant great powers into a web of interconnections that make the costs of cheating greater than cooperating. Bigger nations can pursue engagement or containment or even combine them via 'constrainment', but in doing so they should be careful not to underbalance or overbalance.

Perhaps the West should pick one. Or two. Or even a combination. But it should do so soon, and be unambiguous in communicating this to Moscow. Because if Putin is indeed at the helm of a revanchist state, then half-measures may only embolden him.

Photo  by Flickr user World Economic Forum.

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