Even when diminished, great powers have a hard time forgetting past glories.
Today, the world faces three major forces longing to recreate some elements of a glorious past. There are jihadi Sunni Muslims who are striving to re-establish the caliphate of old. There are the Chinese, who want to restore their previous eminence, in which nearby states had to show deference. And there are the Russians, who lost vast territories after the collapse of the Soviet Union but are trying to recover their influence in, or even control some, of those territories, including Ukraine.
Russians (to paraphrase Pierre Trudeau in another context) have never wanted democracy for themselves and are nervous about it in others.
Even in the times of the later czars, there was a Westernized elite, centred in St. Petersburg and Moscow, who learned other European languages, admired European institutions and wanted some form of democracy and liberty for their country. But while European liberals often thought or hoped that these forces might prevail, they never did, just as they do not today.
Instead, the dreams of liberalizers yielded to the atavistic Russian fear of disorder that in turn gave rise to political systems built around the strong man – czar, commissar, president – whose appeal lay with conservative, nationalist, pan-Slavic, Orthodox (“Mother Russia, Holy Russia”), even xenophobic Russians who did not trust the West and who felt belittled by Western countries.
President Vladimir Putin is not as all-powerful as the czars or Joseph Stalin, but he has effectively emasculated domestic opposition to his rule. The institutions of a liberal democracy exist in his Russia – political parties, elections, news media – but they are paper airplanes against his steel.
He will, by such means as he deems appropriate, restore Russia to its past greatness, as he defines it. He will rewrite Russian school texts, give large latitude to the Orthodox Church, execute grand projects (such as the Sochi Olympics), allow oligarchs to enrich themselves provided that they support him (just as oligarchs did in czarist times), deploy the agencies of the state to produce internal revenues and secure domestic order, and extend Russia’s influence, where possible, over contiguous geographic territories – be they in Central Asia, the Caucusus, Belarus and now Ukraine.
Ukraine is where the shoe pinches most, because it is splintered between its western Ukrainian-speaking portion, which looks to Europe, and its Russian-speaking eastern portion, which gazes at Moscow. Ukraine is large in geography but weak in almost everything else: energy dependent, badly governed, much indebted. No amount of nostalgia or Ukrainian diaspora support can mask these weaknesses, the reality of which Mr. Putin completely understands.
He wanted Ukraine, all of it, within Moscow’s orbit, and was using the considerable tools at his country’s command to secure it, until the people in western Ukraine rebelled, chucked out the presidential thug who had enriched himself at their expense while governing the entire country with a systematic ineptitude.
So now the Russian leader will take what he can get, by means ranging from military occupation and intimidation to threats and playing with energy supplies. The sad fact is that the West can do little to stop him, at least in the short term.
Western countries can try to make life uncomfortable for Mr. Putin and his country, as by kicking Russia out of the Group of Eight or at least refusing to attend the G8 summit scheduled for Sochi. They can issue stern warnings, withdraw ambassadors, impose certain economic sanctions, attempt to buttress the sad-sack Ukrainian economy, propose United Nations resolutions and send ministers to Kiev. But if none are prepared to use military force – and none are – then the fortunes of Ukraine will remain a diplomatic game, with Mr. Putin holding the high cards of geographic propinquity, ruthlessness of purpose, superiority of means and no worries of domestic debate, let alone dissent.
Great Russian chauvinism, of a kind familiar in the 18th and 19th century, has reappeared. Or maybe it would be better to say that it never fully disappeared, for it has been part of that country’s emotional makeup for centuries, whatever the nature of the regime.
Stalin once asked, derisively, how many divisions the Pope had. Without putting matters so bluntly, Mr. Putin is implicitly asking the same question around Ukraine. He knows the answer.