There is something symbolic in the fact that Putin’s rise to national fame in Russia was associated with the resolute stance he took against the Chechen secessionist bid in 1999 when, after Yeltsin named him prime minister, he ordered a ground offensive into the republic. His national security background reminiscent of glorious predecessors, the possible support from security forces themselves, plus his resolve to win the war against the secessionists at whatever cost and on top of the ruins of Grozny paved the way for a soaring popularity that brought him to the presidency within less than a year.
In the same year in which Putin began his attempt to stem the decline in Russia’s status, Poland, Czech and Hungary joined NATO, completing a process that had been set into motion in 1989-1994 with the detachment from the Soviet Union of the Baltic States, the establishment of the Central Asian Islamic republics and the independence of Byelorussia and Ukraine. The disintegration of Yugoslavia also began with the encouragement from Western Europe and then from the US. Germany had been particularly keen on this, having long entertained the dream of economically dominating Eastern Europe. But with the rebellion of Chechens, the dismantlement process now entered the very heart of Russia. This had to be stopped. And this is the task to which Putin applied himself with consummate patience, to the extent that it would be another nine years before Russia intervened militarily in Georgia.
The foregoing points of history bear two important implications. The first is that Putin’s political power does not reside in a universalist ideology that distinguishes itself as a global political camp. Rather it resides in a patriotic spirit that addresses the residual superpower awareness in Russia and rejects what it regards as Western exploitation of its period of weakness in order to strip it of more territories. The second is that considerations of national interest and security, as opposed to fixed ideological principles, guide foreign policy decisions emanating from this nationalist patriotic stance. For example, Moscow might find it in its interests to intervene militarily to suppress a separatist movement in one area and to use the same means to support such a movement in Georgia.
True, Georgian nationalists committed numerous crimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the 1990s. One of the most recent atrocities was President Saakashvili’s bombing of Tskhinvali. However, it must also be acknowledged that the Abkhazians expelled some 200,000 Georgians from their region. This is not a battle between good and evil or an ideological conflict over the perfect socio-economic order for these areas. This is about the resurgence of Russian self-assertion, not as the champion of an ideological camp, but as a sovereign nation state that resents America’s continued prodding at its borders, the stationing of missiles in Poland, the moves to annex Ukraine and Georgia to NATO, and the establishment of American military bases in the former soviet republics of Central Asia on the pretext of the war in Afghanistan.
So the weaponry used was not drawn from an ideological or evangelical arsenal. This was not a battle to win over people’s hearts and minds. It was a battle fought with bared teeth and daggers, such as threatening to turn off the gas taps to the Ukraine, direct military intervention in Georgia and relying on European political opportunism, which has been elevated virtually to an article of faith that one can bank on. Moscow could be quite certain that once the Europeans caught a whiff of Washington’s backing down they would not do a thing. They fear security tensions with Russia, not just because of the effect this might have on oil and gas imports, but also because of the effect it could have on Europe’s backdoor, which is Eastern Europe.
The Europeans are also acutely sensitive to anything that might precipitate an electoral loss for any of the European ruling parties. These peoples do not want war, or the risk of war, on European territory, or any reduction in their standards of living (unless they can be guaranteed a war that would not cause deaths or a decline in standards of living). This is why Germany and France are not thrilled, to say the least, over the prospect of the admission of the Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. This is also why Sarkozy sped off to Russia, dreaming of the personal glory he would attain as a peacemaker from within the American camp. As some Russian newspapers observed, what annoyed the French president was that Russia declared an end to hostilities the day before he arrived in Moscow. He had hoped the war would last a couple of more days so that he could take credit as the one to have brought the war to an end through his personal intercession.
What the world is witnessing right now is the end of a phase of monopolar US foreign policy that had reached its zenith of belligerency between 2001 and 2006 under President Bush. The actual rise of this belligerency started with the war in Kuwait and the beginning of the dismantlement of Yugoslavia under Bush Sr and continued with the Clinton administration’s intervention in Serbia, Somalia and Afghanistan. However, the current ebb is not yielding to an opposing camp championing an alternative theory. Rather it is ceding space for greater self-assertion on the part of other nation states and popular wills.
There is no multi-polar alliance against another pole. What we have are major capitalist powers and an advanced state capitalism outside the Western camp, but not one that claims to lead the rest of the world in a political and ideological struggle against the US. What we have are a multiplicity of sovereignties and with just as many perceptions of national interests and national security. They are not trying to impose these perceptions on the rest of the world, as the US is doing. They merely want to set certain boundaries to the unbridled and unsupervised power of the US. These are not democratic forces. However, a democratic power harmed by US hegemony might find it in its interests to join up with these forces, as might a non-democratic power. There is no new camp set upon igniting a new Cold War, just a revitalisation of certain national political concepts in some major powers that are demonstrating increasing confidence in their efforts to keep that superpower from dominating their national affairs and resources and from imposing its will on others through the exercise of an expanding military might that remains unchecked by any laws.
The Economist, a staunch defender of liberal economics that has made no secret of its long held hatred of Putin because of his attempt to turn back the wheel of the market economy, blamed him for what happened in Georgia. It accused Putin of harbouring a deep animosity towards any neighbouring country that hopes to become democratic, market-oriented and friendly with the West, like Ukraine and Georgia. Saakashvili, by contrast, was “an impetuous nationalist who has lately tarnished his democratic credentials. His venture into South Ossetia was foolish and possibly criminal. But, unlike Mr Putin, he has led his country in a broadly democratic direction, curbed corruption and presided over rapid economic growth that has not relied, as Russia’s mostly does, on high oil and gas prices.” Let us not forget, here, that Georgian forces are taking part in the occupation of Iraq, which is to say in an internationally unjustified war against a country that is larger than Georgia and considerably further away than Russia.
Many former Warsaw Pact countries have joined NATO. However, of Russia’s immediate neighbours only the Baltic nations did so, and this occurred in the 1990s when Russia was very weak. Russia’s recent action offers tangible proof that the situation has changed. It is angered by the stationing of the US’s missile shield components next door in Poland and by the admission of former soviet countries into NATO and attempts to admit more. So it is doing something about it, such as tightening its grip on the Caucasus.
The West’s favourite oil pipeline passes through Georgia: Baki to Tbilisi where it forks to Subsa on the Black Sea and to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Georgia was meant to be a safe and reliable passageway for oil from the Caspian Sea since it did not have to pass through Iran or Russia. With a solution to the pending problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the former, at least, could serve as an alternative route through Turkey. Realising the importance of this possibility, Ankara has recently made historic overtures to improve its relations with Armenia. This is how sovereign states, like Turkey, behave. During the conflict in Georgia, the only oil pipeline that was working was the one that led from the Caspian Sea through Russia to Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.
But in addition to the Azerbaijan- Novorossiysk pipeline, Russia has also invested in a joint pipeline with Iran leading through Pakistan and India to China. This is in addition to the huge Russian and Chinese investments in developing Iran’s oil and gas production and transport. This is the type of behaviour that characterises the new phase. China, which has invested $18 billion in that project, is opening up its investment horizons without abiding by the understandings Western countries have among themselves and in clear conflict with designs to isolate Iran and attack it.
Again, this is not a new global pole at work, but rather emerging capitalist or state capitalist forces with considerable military might and a huge legacy of superpower policies. And all this is taking place outside the influence of the US. Certainly, this creates room for building on mutual interest with other countries outside the scope of American influence, as China is doing in Africa, too. China needs to guarantee its raw material resources so it is channelling its massive surpluses into parts of the world where there is no Western competition. This opportunity is particularly available in those countries that the West is ostracising as “renegade” states. But China has not confined its sights to those. A new economic giant such as that will also naturally look at opportunities where it can compete. As for Russia, most of its investments abroad are concentrated in the oil industry and expanding the market for its weapons.
In September 2008, US Vice-President Cheney paid a visit to the Caucasus where he called, on behalf of Bush’s lame duck administration, for the admission of Georgia and the Ukraine to NATO. His response to the crisis there does not bode well for the mono-polar world. His attempt to reassure those Central Asian and Caucasian countries that they can depend on American might does not stand the test of reality. The reality is that when he leaves the White House, the peoples of those countries will find themselves face-to-face with powers the size of China and Russia, which refuse to ignore their own vital interests now that their self-confidence has been restored. They have begun to act like superpowers, in their immediate vicinities at least, though without having formulated global superpower visions. In China’s case we saw this behaviour unfold in Burma and North Korea. With Russia it played out in Georgia and Ukraine, and perhaps soon it will extend to Iran at a second level of proximity to Russia.
Another area that has seen a resurgence of sovereign national will is Latin America where the left has begun to benefit from a greater margin of democracy and from the US’s inability to sustain its Cold War tactics against democratically elected governments, such as those in Venezuela and Bolivia. The governments opposed to American heavy-handedness in their region have begun to search for ways to coordinate with countries in the East rebelling against the dictates of the monopolar king. But, once more, this is a sign of countries exercising their will against the backdrop of the greater manoeuvrability available to them in this new post-Bush era world. It is not indicative of an emerging global camp or a new Cold War.
Unfortunately, it appears that there are no Arab regional powers capable of taking advantage of the new global circumstances. Arab governments are unable to even coordinate among themselves in order to fill the vacuum that is gradually growing in this region due to the erosion of American influence. Iran and Turkey might be exploring ways of working together towards this end, but not the Arabs, who are still dredging up facts and legends about the historic animosity between the Ottomans and the Safavids in the hope of stirring up sectarian trouble between them. Meanwhile, the descendants of the Ottomans and Safavids are sitting around the negotiating table working out possible arrangements to fill the security and political vacuum, such as in Iraq, following the departure of US forces.
At a time when, if the necessary resolve can be summoned, it is easier than it has been for a long time to make international alliances based on a mutual interest to reject American dictates, the Palestinians have been left stranded to face the US- Israeli alliance. The attitude seems to be that this is “fate”. But it is not.