The passing of former US President George HW Bush reminded many that we are approaching the 30th anniversaries of some of the most critical geopolitical events of the second half of the 20th Century. Among these seismic shifts were the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, the apparent liberation of Eastern Europe from Moscow’s dominion and the concomitant opportunity for the region’s nations to pursue membership in NATO and the EU, and the creation from the wreckage of the USSR of 14 new independent states at least nominally distinct from Russia.
Thirty years ago was indeed a heady time for proponents of democracy and the triumph of western democratic ideals. Bush, a pragmatic Republican internationalist who believed in free markets and personal diplomacy, oversaw it all with considerable skill and wisdom. There was even talk of an economic assistance package for post-Communist Russia based upon the brilliant post-World War II Marshall Plan that enabled a rebuilding Germany to assume a responsible place in the world.
What must Bush have thought toward the end of his life as he contemplated what has happened in the interim?
American and European indifference, shortsightedness and self-indulgence quickly dashed any hopes of another Marshall Plan for Russia. Instead, the world’s largest nation floundered for a number of years before gradually and then decisively falling under the control of Vladimir Putin, a stalwart nationalist who openly pines for the good old days of the superpower duopoly with the United States. In that pre-1990 world, the USSR’s military rivalry with the US put the two nations on an equal footing in some respects and the world was compelled to respect Moscow.
As recently as five years ago, respected American observers were dismissing Russia as “a gas station with a few natural resources in the back yard,” referring to the economic reality that Russian foreign exchange was largely earned by selling oil, natural gas and other mineral wealth it drew from its own soil. Russia was consigned to a secondary status in many Western minds. With the obvious rise of China as a world force in the politico-military as well as economic and commercial spheres, it is still seductively easy to look past sprawling but flawed Russia.
This would be a mistake for the West. Under the wily, determined Putin, Moscow has begun to reassert a place at the big table of international relations. The effectiveness of their skullduggery in the 2016 American elections is now widely assumed and the proof seems to be inexorably dribbling out as the Robert Mueller investigation unfolds in Washington and other courthouses. Long masters of disinformation, the Russians have applied effective Cold War propaganda techniques to social media, using Western democracies’ open societies and civil liberties to undermine the American and European way of life.
Putin’s resolve to turn back the clock on the 30-year independence of the 14 former Soviet republics has been evident for a while. Enjoying favourable relations with most of them already due to historical political, military and/or economic dependencies, Russia has more recently turned westward to focus on Ukraine. Putin’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 triggered economically painful Western sanctions, but this has not inhibited him from initiating new border skirmishes with Ukraine, both on land and in the narrow sea off Kerch at the entrance to the Sea of Azov. Historically profoundly paranoid, especially during the 20th Century toward the West, Russia is determined that Ukraine will not drift further toward NATO.
Working under the partial cover of the many sinister and worsening US–China trade disputes, Russia has also diplomatically solidified its status in the Middle East, perhaps most significantly with its long-time Black Sea rival Turkey. The Washington Post counts 20 phone calls in the past year between Putin and Turkish President Erdogan, compared with seven between the Turkish leader and the US president. The Saudis and even Israel have given indications they are receptive to warmer relations with Moscow.
For many reasons, these Middle East powers are not likely to abandon the West in favour of Russia. But their closer connections point to a further revival of Russia’s nefarious rise in world politics.