Can Moscow scale down inherited Soviet ambitions?
Great powers are a special breed. Until the First World War, the “Great Powers” were European entities. Membership in that club enabled its participants to extend their control beyond the Continent. These dependencies were by location, but also by tradition, population, and development, unlike the “mother country”. Due to the difference came the ability to discover, to subjugate and to colonize. Europe’s dominance expressed its high development. The decisive advantage, the knowledge, the institutions, the economy behind it, was concentrated in that small area. For long, these factors could not be copied outside the European culture’s sphere.
A lesson of the world wars that ended the Eurocentric era is ignored. It is that no European nation, no single traditional nation state, can be a global power. Russia is the only country that has been under the old and under modern terms a Great Power. For that reason, she could continue as a “superpower” after the old system’s eclipse.
This the British accepted without much trouble. Their influence, exerted without the illusion of global grasp, has been used with realistic wisdom. The Germans, once totally defeated, were grateful to survive and to be protected by a new, far away superpower from an uncomfortably close one. In time, through work, and the resulting economic power, they have recovered much of their international status. France had difficulties to accept new realities. The “Great Nation’s” demonstrative pretensions of might, such as expelling NATO, are symbolic signs of grandeur pasted over a lesser substance.
The rest of Europe’s went beyond the revision of outdated power postures. Adaptation led to the error of the opposite. A symptom is the national security equivalent of making a career out of living on welfare. Not acquiring the power within their means became a strategy. NATO discovered that dependency and the corresponding lack of responsibility brings benefits. The provider of no cost security was a protector that had no alternative but to act as the defender of last resort.
Here again, Russia appears as a special case. She had been the only Power in the European system with a pre-industrial base and a Eurasian location. The condition extends into our time. Her adjustment to modern realities is more complicated than that of the USA or China. Neither has been a traditional Great Power, none of them is geographically European, and both rose from insignificance to superpower status. Russia, on the other hand, became the first defeated major power of WW1. During a civil war and intervention, she lost land and sovereignty. Thereafter, as the depository of a secular faith, the Soviet Union became a superpower after initially entering WW2 on the wrong that is losing side. However, her system that received legitimacy and global goals from her ideology, collapsed under the economic consequences of that irrational faith.
The Soviet’s misfortune might be Russia’s luck. Today’s Russia has nearly shrunk to her core. In time, the blessing of shedding flab could convince even the sulkers. However, she has passed through the process without jettisoning all territories whose alien population represents in our age of nationalism, a potential ethnic-religious risk.
Russia’s future depends on the inclinations and limitations of her unbound governors. The open questions related to adaptation transcend Russia’s state boundaries. Any stable European and transatlantic order, or the security of these regions, is limited by the extent of Russia’s intentions and participation. That is a consequence of more than her dominant size, resources and population. The combination of these factors makes her into one of the superpowers. With that, she is the only global player with a partially European base.
Since we live today, and not yesterday or tomorrow, the question is how Russia’s leaders will be able to retreat from Soviet goals and how that redefinition of the national interest will affect our lives.
There are global forces that threaten Russia as a culturally Christian, and, considering her goals of development, in intent western country. Not the West is the source of this challenge. On the other hand, opposing the West because of its cold war victory stimulates local forces. By a rational assessment of their real benefit, and divorced from the dead issue of the USSR, the returns appear to be small. This is increasingly so if the gains are compared to the price of revenge that will strengthen the global forces that were alluded to above.
Changed roles that entail reduced might can be difficult to accept. Russia’s goal of world domination has been a chimera once and it is a fool’s dream today. Meanwhile, the country’s global role is unquestioned even by those that dread her motives. It is notable that hardly anyone in the USA rejects a comparable “downgrading” through leveling. Possibly, the acceptance of limited power depends on the psychological burden carried. America has always been a reluctant superpower. Total control might have been within her means: an intention it has never been.
Russia’s grappling with her changed possibilities are demonstrated by her role in Syria. Behind the policy, we detect injured pride and a visceral resistance to events beyond her control. Quite likely, the support for a locally rejected foreign autocracy has further causes. The claimed respect for “sovereignty” sounds hollow. This suggests that leadership by a KGB Colonel (Putin) suffers from a worldview that reflects a Soviet perspective. Autocrats determine Russian policies and these feel kinship for challenged dictatorships. The stubborn vetoes in the “SecCouncil” will produce international isolation and ostracism by the Arab world. The support of tyranny will strengthen regional suspicions. It will also convince states outside Russia’s sphere of facing an unpredictable entity led by an instinct to dominate that sabotages those beyond her immediate reach.
The record created in the Syrian crisis is also harmful in other ways. The efforts of Russia’s committed friends become unnecessarily burdened by Moscow’s comportment. Meanwhile, the mortgage on a future Russian foreign policy once led by the desire for security through cooperation, will grow.