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Vladimir Putin, On the Way To A New Russian Imperialism?

Vladimir Putin, On the Way To A New Russian Imperialism?
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

What are the underlying factors driving the Ukraine crisis? As Russian troops gather on Ukraine’s border, the international community has fixed its gaze on the highest point of European tension since the Cold War. To examine the causes and consequences of the Ukraine conflict, Institut Montaigne has brought together its Fellows for the series, ‘Ukraine and Russia: Destined for Conflict?’ In this opening article, Domonique Moïsi, Senior Advisor in International Relations, considers the return of Russian imperialism, its mutual reinforcement with Chinese authoritarianism, and the implications for the international system. 

1922-2022. Exactly one hundred years ago, two countries - pariahs in the international system at the time - signed a treaty in Rapallo, Italy, as a way to bestow legitimacy on each other. In retrospect, the two co-signatories of the Treaty of Rapallo - a defeated Germany and the nascent USSR, stigmatized for the nature of its regime - appear identical to Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia today. Then as now, the world’s two biggest authoritarian nations are growing closer with the aim of legitimizing their mutual desire to transform the world’s geopolitical balance.

Are we witnessing the emergence of what future historians may call the "Putin-Xi Jinping Doctrine"? It is too early to say. What is certain, however, is that on the eve of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China has openly joined Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement. The country was expected to be more reserved when it comes to Ukraine. After all, Beijing is known for its fierce defense of the territorial sovereignty of nation states. In 2014, the Chinese did not appreciate Crimea’s forced return to the Russian fold.

Now, however, the Chinese and the Russians are reinforcing each other’s interpretation of the driver behind rising global tensions: America’s excessive involvement in the balance of power within and between Europe and Asia. Their reasoning inevitably overlooks the fact that Ukraine is surrounded by Russian troops and that the South China Sea is hosting a growing number of Chinese fleets. According to Moscow and Beijing, the sense of geopolitical confusion and danger we might feel today is the result of America’s continued behavior in Europe and Asia. Russia and China are even suggesting that the US acts as if it were still a regional power in areas where it no longer has any business. They are convinced that the America of 2022 has neither the means nor the will to play the mediatory role that Great Britain assumed in the nineteenth century. For Xi Jinping and Putin, it is of little importance whether Europeans or China’s neighbors, worried about Moscow and Beijing’s behavior, want the American presence to be maintained now more than ever.

This is the paradox of the current situation: Moscow and Beijing are pushing Europeans and Asians into the arms of the United States. America is seen as an ultimate - if weakened - form of life insurance. In the age of Putin and Xi Jinping, can we really say that this is a backward and purely ideological point of view?

We might even wonder whether Russia has ever accepted the end of its traditional imperial status.

On the international stage, 2022 is expected to go down as the year of clarification. We can now identify Russian and China’s strategic ambition: to end the status quo that was established by the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War a little over thirty years ago. We might even wonder whether Russia has ever accepted the end of its traditional imperial status, and whether China has come to terms with its fluctuating political influence over Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In the West, we appear surprised that history is repeating itself. But we should not be. Critically, Putin and Xi Jinping have decided that the time has come to take off their masks. While claiming that their acts are defensive rather than offensive, the Russians and the Chinese undoubtedly consider that America is too weak and Europe too divided to oppose their desire to rewrite history. Two key events took place in 2021 that strengthened Moscow and Beijing’s conviction that time is on their side: the march on Washington’s Capitol on January 6 and the fall of Kabul on August 15. Weakened internally and humiliated externally, America is no longer the country that it once was - the world’s sole superpower after the collapse of the USSR and the relative isolation of China following the repression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Russia’s imperial ambition to regain the status it enjoyed at the time of the Soviet Union is not surprising, but rather the culmination of strategic intentions long harbored by the Russian Empire’s current tsar, Vladimir Putin. Moscow has taken initiative and has gained the military means to do so. Never mind if the limitations of Russia’s hospitals, and its public health system more generally, are exposed to the world (the country counts 700,000 Covid-19 deaths, six times more than France in a population that is only twice as big). What matters to Russia is that the modernization of its armies allows it to regain the place it should never have lost, in a newly restored triangle of power: Washington, Beijing, Moscow. Even though Russia remains the weakest element in this triangle, especially in economic and demographic terms, the progress it has made in just over twenty years is considerable; on the military front, it is spectacular. From Crimea to Syria with a detour in Kazakhstan: no one can doubt the efficiency of Russia’s troops and elite commands.

This success does not, however, come without a cost. By moving too far and too fast at a time when the West was moving in the opposite direction - almost always by doing too little, too late - Russia breathed new life into NATO and China induced the creation of AUKUS. 

The fall of the USSR and Russia’s subsequent behavior have left NATO stripped of its raison d’être. Having lost its political and military clout in Afghanistan, NATO has regained purpose by returning to its original mission: to protect Europe against Russia. Statues in honor of Putin should be erected in front of the NATO headquarters in Brussels, with the inscription: "The Treaty Organization is grateful to its resurrector".

NATO has regained purpose by returning to its original mission: to protect Europe against Russia. 

In fact, by using their past humiliations as the driver for their current ambitions, Russia and China have aroused fear in their immediate and even distant neighbors.

According to conventional wisdom, fear is a bad advisor. Nonetheless, it is becoming difficult to fool ourselves when it comes to Moscow and Beijing’s intentions. Despite its weakened role in the international system, America is still the world’s leading military power. When it has the will and the means, it can eliminate all those it considers its worst enemies. The successive leaders of ISIS have learned this the hard way, as in Syria just a few days ago. NATO is not as quick and dynamic as it once was, and its leader, Joe Biden, is not as charismatic as one might hope for. But when trouble looms on the horizon, the mere existence of the military alliance is reassuring, and that is what matters. Putin has transformed transatlantic relations for the better, to the point that there almost appears to be a division of labor between Paris and Washington. It is up to America to speak out and send troops; and it is up to France, and then Germany, to keep the door open for dialogue and diplomatic negotiations. Neither Paris, Washington, nor Berlin, hold the slightest illusions about Russia’s true objectives. At a time when Moscow is striving to replace France in Mali, perhaps in all of French-speaking Africa, how could France be blind to Russia’s deeper aims?

Russia is not afraid of western expansion in its neighboring countries. It is using this as a pretext to advance its pawns and to become, once again, what it has always been: an expanding empire. If that is not the most fundamental characteristic of the country’s identity, its deepest nature - what is?


Copyright: Alexei Druzhinin / SPUTNIK / AFP

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