Vlad’s at it again. Floating plans for a new ‘Eurasian Union’, Putin has given the West a telling new glimpse at the kind of foreign policy it ought to expect when, as expected, Dmitri Medvedev returns the presidency in March.
It’s a signal we’d best not ignore. The geopolitical landscape Putin now faces has changed vastly since his handoff to Medvedev in 2008. Europe is a stumble away from disaster. The arc of unrest reaching from Libya to Pakistan threatens to upset Central Asia’s brittle order. Relations with China are worsening. Another major hit to the world economy could bring Russia to its knees.
Putin faces a harrowing time for his increasingly isolated country. With the age of Holy Alliances gone, and Asia’s major powers uninterested in deep partnerships, something called ‘Eurasia’ is the best Russia has going. With his fresh gambit for a post-Soviet union, Putin is playing a most serious game: to overcome Russia’s persistent difficulty being its own center of gravity by betting that Moscow can once again function as an anchor for regional order.
Without regional influence to exercise, it’s hard to see how Russia can keep the pressure off its internal troubles. Any Eurasian Union to be produced and directed in Moscow is sure to feel expansionistic. But Russia’s aims are also limited by its grim domestic realities. The Kremlin must deal with a vast, poorly linked, inhospitable territory; a dangerously porous and fractious southern flank; a toxic combination of weakening trade and growing demand for imports; and a political economy captive to institutionalized corruption and crime.
Putin, who called the fall of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” is wrestling with a more daunting variation on the fall of the British Empire – the West’s own candidate for biggest grand-strategic headache of the past hundred years. Britain, a tiny, commercial, and largely secure island nation may be struggling to downsize without slipping into a downward spiral -- but they continue to enjoy the advantage of an America ready and willing to assume responsibility for coping, from Alexandria to Abbotabad, with the aftereffects of imperial collapse.
Russia, by contrast, is on its own. The much-hyped “reset” with the US has done nothing to mitigate the tough hand dealt to Putin. Though Putin is a Kremlin fixture-to-be for at least a decade, the next few years make up Russia’s last chance at pulling out of its tailspin.
From the standpoint of liberty, those are its just deserts. America’s strategic question, however, is what now?
Unfortunately, no option is attractive. The first, a robust new policy of political friendship and economic aid, runs against the grain of American values and Russian sensibilities alike. The second, a resumption of the late-Bush-era posture between suspicion and hostility, has some merit, but doesn’t take seriously the grievous harm to American interests, aims, and security that would obtain should Russia decay into the sort of failed, fragmentary state that Pakistan has now become.
That leaves the third option – an awkward combination of challenge and support. It should be pursued in accordance with our three main global objectives: protecting Europe from mass disorder, preventing China from developing unilateral global power, and containing the cancer of violence that can be attacked in the Muslim world but not expunged from it. Whatever could happen in Russia that runs counter to those objectives – because of or in spite of Putin’s policies – must be opposed. Whatever redounds to their success, without plunging the region deeper into despotism, should be tolerated or accepted.
Greater tyranny in Russia’s neighborhood will do great harm. But calls for ‘modernization’ are flawed. As the Obama administration has shown all too well at home, large bureaucracies, growing corruption, and festering conflicts are more a hallmark of modernized governance than a threat to it. In Eurasia no less than America, basic liberties are more important than the bells and whistles of the advanced postindustrial state.
James Poulos is a commentator living in Los Angeles. He writes a column at The Daily Caller and is a contributor at Ricochet. Previously, he was the host of The Bottom Line on PJTV.