1991: the USSR fell apart. To be sure, the USSR fell apart for a number of reasons, quite a few of which had to do with inept leadership. Not a single Soviet leader could match up to FDR. The combination of Glasnost and Perestroika, along with disastrous results of Operation Ring, were the final nails in the coffin of the Soviet regime. The US stood proud as the victor of the Cold War. But did the US win the Cold War, or did the US simply outlast the USSR?
Irrespective of the answer, 1991 served as a new beginning of a Unipolar World. Anyone opposing such a World was defeated or isolated. And yet it was a World that countries looked on with hopeful eyes. The Russians, including Putin, were tired of piss poor leadership of the Soviets, and wanted genuine leaders to lead the country. While the Russians turned to the West with hopeful eyes, the West supported Yeltsin, an alcoholic, someone who failed to prevent the plunder of Russia.
This was the first real post-Cold War rift that took place between the Russians and the West. After the crash of 1998, the final nail in the coffin of Yeltsinite Mafia Democracy, there was a sharp shift with most Russians viewing America as looters, having the lowest opinion of the US since 1991. Yet, Putin was not amongst that number.
He was busy ramping up the economy of St. Petersburg, before setting out for Moscow. He blamed most of Russia’s problems not on the West, but on the Yeltsinite Mafia Oligarchs, whom he set out to isolate and remove from power. However, as soon as he entered office, the Chechens, radicalized by Wahhabi Terror, struck Dagestan, an integral part of the Russian Federation.
Putin had to put his projects aside, and work to drive the Wahhabi Radicals from the Caucasian Region. 1999 was also the year that NATO bombed Belgrade, and the Russian military, underpaid by the Yeltsinite Mafia Democracy, revolted, and captured the Pristina Airport in Kosovo, in part as a result of NATO’s bombing of Belgrade. Clinton mistakenly thought that Yeltsin still had control of the military, a mistake that almost plunged the World into another war. Thankfully a British General realized that the Russian military was acting on their own initiative, and impolitely informed Clinton that he wasn’t going to start the Third World War.
Understanding Kosovo and the Caucasian Crisis is the key to understanding Putin’s Foreign Policy. In 1999 the US and Russia were at odds, and the Russian military was ready to act. However Putin needed the military in Chechnya, and a compromise was reached on Kosovo. In 2001, after 9/11, relations between US and Russia once again normalized, and the duo focused on fighting nuclear proliferation and terrorism abroad. This was the first historical reset at a time when Putin assured his military that things seem to be calming down.
At this point Putin’s foreign policy was focused on keeping what little influence the USSR had abroad, but, more importantly, keeping the Caucasian Region stable, and following Solzhenitsyn’s ideas about a post-Cold War Russia, while bringing the industries that utilized natural resources in the Russian Federation under state control.
Fast forward to 2003, where, again several key events occurred. First was the Invasion of Iraq, where the military looked at Putin and said, “told you so!” Instead of focusing on combatting the Taliban in Afghanistan, Bush was using a part of that force to go into Iraq. Second, the US supported a string of revolutions, the first of which, the Rose Revolution bore fruit in bringing Saakashvili to power in Georgia. Another brought Yushenko into power, a man who would later supply Saakashvili with Soviet made equipment to be used against Russian civilians and peacekeepers in South Ossetia. Third, Khodorkovsky tried to steal the pipelines from Putin, in favor of the Oligarchs.
The Russians were too busy in the Caucasian Region to stop the Invasion of Iraq. The rise of Saakashvili, followed by his bellicose nationalist rhetoric, and the attack on South Ossetia in 2004, caused quite a bit of concern. Additionally, Putin viewed Khodorkovsky as a thief, and promptly had him arrested over tax evasion, which Khodorkovsky clearly committed. In the gathered documents, one has but to replace the term “tax maximization scheme” with “tax evasion scheme” and the rest falls into place. Thus Putin had Khodorkovsky jailed for tax evasion. The result was a fury unleashed by the Western Press about “how dare does Putin jail a tax evader for tax evasion! The nerve!”
Tensions began to ratchet up after 2003. Putin began to question the West’s reliability as a partner. The attack against South Ossetia by Saakashvili, and the lack of condemnation for said attack from the West certainly unnerved Putin, whose policy included stabilizing the Caucasian Region. This stemmed from the 1988 Nagorno-Karabakh War, a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia that spiraled out of control, and whose consequences erupted in Chechnya, Ossetia, Abkhazia, whose consequences in turn led to terrorist attack in Moscow, and caused 90 percent of ethnic Russians to either leave, or be ethnically cleansed from Chechnya and Ingushetia. Another war like that was simply unacceptable.
Putin also paid a great deal of attention to providing social benefits for the Russians and reversing the demographic trend, actions which caused him to bring several corporations under state control. In 2006, the de facto end to the Second Chechen War occurred, although the mop up counterintelligence operations would officially continue for three more years. It’s important to note that Putin did not unleash his military against the West in 2006, the first chance he had. He was still hoping for some kind of a compromise, albeit at this stage, with much skepticism.
On the other hand, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was a brilliant success. After overcoming a rough start, the organization pacified Central Asia, preventing another Caucasus for the Russians. It strengthened cooperation between Russia, China and the Soviet Stans. It also led the Russian turn towards Asia, and away from Europe.
2008 would prove to be the most devastating year for US-Russia relations. The recognition of Kosovo as an independent state showed NATO’s hypocrisy to Russia: why Albanians in South Kosovo, but not Serbs in North Kosovo? An even more devastating even occurred on August 7th, when Saakashvili, whom the Russians, including Putin, viewed as a Western Installation, launched a brutal, all-out war against South Ossetia, hitting Russian peacekeepers and Russian civilians with rocket launchers and Dana howitzers. Putin asked the Russian military to wait until August 8th, to show the World who really started the war.
On August 8th the Russian response came. By August 10th, Georgia’s army was forced to retreat from Ossetia, and by August 16th, the Russians scored a massive victory. And yet, despite the military victory on the ground against a clear aggressor, the Western mass media spun the story to make the Russians look like the aggressors. Putin had enough. He was ready to restart the Cold War, and had massive popular support.
Nevertheless, the elections came, the Neocons were flushed from power, and Obama, who adopted a neutral line on Saakashvili, proposed a reset. Obama was against Iraq, had no real stance on Kosovo, and looked like he was willing to compromise. Although relations slowly normalized, the Russians punished the US for Saakashvili, by destroying America’s soft power in Russia, an act that was made possible by the piss poor coverage of the Ossetian War. The second reset followed.
The first reset was made possible due in part to non-action by a British General. The second, by US elections, and Neocons being swept out of power. We are, metaphorically speaking, on a razor’s edge.
The Russians watched Obama with a wary eye. Russia had to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, again due to the 2008 assault against Tskhinval(i), and that act prevented Georgia, or any other Caucasian State, from joining NATO. Russia also had friendly relations with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Finland was never much offensively, and the Baltic militaries are a joke. Poland threatening Russia? Not really. Putin, having finally secured his borders, (especially with Yanukovich in power in Ukraine and the lease of Sevastopol extended until 2042,) Social Rights for the Russians, fixed the economy, and established United Russia’s political dominance, wanted to be treated as an equal.
The reset was a great start. Anti-terrorism and anti-nuclear proliferation cooperation resumed, at one point even making a peaceful Middle East possible. The Russians slowly began to believe that it was just the crazy Neocons who wanted the Caucasian Intervention. And then the Arab Spring occurred. Obama’s response to the Arab Spring was trying to catch it and ride the wave. That failed with the Libyan Civil War. Putin was severely criticized in Russia for letting the US run free in Libya, as the Russians questioned which dictionary interpreted “no fly zone” as “bomb the shit out of Khadaffi’s forces!”
Putin confronted the US on Syria. Despite winning the confrontation, Putin threw a lifeline to Obama, showing that, although he no longer viewed the US as unique, he was still ready to cooperate.
And then the Ukrainian Coup happened. It was intended to be peaceful, at least by its original funders, which included USAID, but when it turned violent, little rhetoric was heard from the West about Svoboda and Right Sector until Yanukovich was violently removed from power. The members of these parties even received government positions.
Putin remembered from the 2008 experience how to handle such events. He also knew that Russia controlled a good chunk of Ukraine’s economy, that Ukraine was internally divided, and that, in his eyes, NATO was committing an act of aggression against Russia. How did any serious analyst not see this coming?
2008: after the Kosovo recognition, Saakashvili tries to upset Russia’s interests in the Caucasus, by launching an all-out war. Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia preserves Russia’s interests. What’s Ukraine’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Oh yeah, Crimea!
2014: after Libya and Syria, certain members of the West try to upset Russia’s interests with one of their neighbors, by launching a coup against an elected president, a coup that eventually turned violent. How did most people not see the annexation of Crimea?
It’s scary to even think about the amount of times this could’ve been prevented. Yes, Putin and Russia overreacted in the response. But every Russian overreaction was the result of an instigation that could have been prevented, and served no major geopolitical goal for the West. Was it absolutely mandatory to make a nationalist nutjob the president of Georgia? Something the West couldn’t live without? Of course not. Bombing Khadaffi? Nope. Recognition of Kosovo? Not really. Going after Russia for jailing a tax evader for tax evasion? I mean most of the instigations wouldn’t even have brought benefits to the West had they been successful.
So, where do we go from here? Crimea’s Russian, that’s not changing. Ukraine needs to be Federalized, needs to adopt Russian as a national language, needs to institute minority rights, and ensure that any binding decisions take into account the interests of Eastern and Western Ukraine. Those are simple solutions. The real question is how do we prevent more escalation?
This could only be answered with the West adopting a universal approach for problem solving. It is an evolution of the approach that the Russians used when building Imperial Russia. When a tribe would attack borders of Russia, the Russians would counterattack the tribe, making it extremely weak. In turn the tribe would become vulnerable to their neighbors, and Russia would offer protection, followed by eventual absorption into Russia. It’s how Russia became one of the few countries with over 150 different ethnic groups coexisting with the same country.
A modern deviation of that would include consulting with countries whose sphere of influence extends to the area in question, before making unilateral attempts to coup or pressure certain governments through protests. The first thing that must be recognized is that countries and organizations consisting of countries have their own spheres of influence. Imagine Russia staging a coup in Poland using the methods that the US used in Ukraine, without consulting the EU. What do you think the response would be?
As painful as the shift might be for some countries that are used to a Unipolar World, it would be better than the alternative. The shift must recognize clear spheres of influence and work together to come to a solution, instead of pushing forth unilateral actions.
As an example of a county that is in a great position to show how the shift can work, I want to point to Kazakhstan. Not Boratostan/Boranostan. I’m talking about Kazakhstan. The country managed relations with Russia, China, the United States and the European Union with care, and as a result has positive relations with all of them, while remaining a regional power in Central Asia. I think we can all agree that Kazakhstan adopted a successful foreign policy.
A list of organization that Kazakhstan is a member of will highlight this point: Kazakhstan is one of the leading SCO members, which enables the country to serve as a mediator between other members should the need arise, as Kazakhstan has a stable relationship with all of its neighbors. Kazakhstan’s power in the SCO can be seen in their decision to bring in Belarus as a dialogue partner, the only non-Asian country to join, solely due to Kazakhstan’s political power. Kazakhstan’s ties to Russia and Belarus are bolstered by CSTO, and the Eurasian Economic Community. Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are also CSTO members. Kazakhstan is also a CIS member.
However, Kazakhstan is also a member of the EAPC, NATO-PfP and OSCE, to bolster and upkeep relations with the US and the EU. Through the Turkic Council, Kazakhstan is working with Turkey, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Additionally, Kazakhstan is one of the few OIC member states to have good relations with Israel. Anyone want to mess with Kazakhstan? Yeah, didn’t think so.
This is the working model of the future, a recognition of spheres of influence, (all countries recognize Kazakhstan’s influence on other Soviet Stans and Kazakhstan recognizes their spheres of influence in return,) and a willingness to be flexible and ready to negotiate.
In terms of spheres of influence, we must realize that, with a few exceptions, they must be shared. And by shared, I’m referring to the Kazakh version, not the Borat version. For instance, let’s take Central Asia, which consists of 9 countries: Russia, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Influence between the countries is shared, which is why the region, with the exception of Afghanistan, is relatively stable. Mongolia is not a zero sum game between Russia, China and Kazakhstan. Each country has investments in Mongolia, and each country respects the investments of other countries in Mongolia. And as a result, Mongolia wants more investments from all countries. It’s not an either/or choice.
If something like this was applied to Ukraine, we could’ve avoided this entire crisis. Federalization of Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine for closer ties with Russia, Western Ukraine for closer ties with the EU, Crimea to be given the rights it had when Ukraine became independent. All working together, jointly, for the benefit of Ukraine, without coups. Instead we have what we have. Russia can no longer go back on Crimea, Ukraine’s still going to be federalized, and the relationship between East Ukraine and West Ukraine is quite adversarial.
Unlike the Kazakh Model, the Ukrainian Model no longer works. The sooner we understand this, the smoother our transition towards a Multi Polar World will become. Personally, I’d much rather be lampooned by a clueless British comedian, than have an actual crisis on my hands. How about you?