What is Russia’s place in the world? Or would it be better – and more Russian – to pose the question of Russia’s role in the world? There are two aspects of the Russian problem that are addressed here.
The first and simpler of these can be expressed by a comparison. What is the difference between the intervention in Kosovo and that in Georgia? The Russian intervention in Georgia aimed to affect a regime change, and that was also an aim of the intervention in Kosovo. But what kind of new regime would Russia hope to achieve in Georgia? It is a government formed by pro-Russian politicians. Is it possible to achieve this by democratic means? The answer is most likely not. In the case of Serbia, it was possible to achieve a change of regime by democratic means, following which the Serbian democratic regime and other democracies are in a position to pursue their interests by democratic means, both when they differ and when they agree.
In the case of Georgia, the regime is to be changed so that it looks like the Russian one. The person who gains power must be someone who can establish a relationship of understanding and cooperation with the Russian government. This is practically impossible to achieve by democratic means. It involves instead facilitating the appearance of political entrepreneurs who will pursue this aim. Similar political circumstances will open the path to other authoritarian leaders, or to those who would like to become that, in other states and statelets of the Caucasus. Whether they will turn to Russia or to someone else will depend on the concrete circumstances and their personal skill. What is clear, however, is that Russia’s chances depend to a large extent on the spread and maintenance of authoritarian regimes, the kind of regimes which will not look for protection to the other side, out of fear that Russian proximity might swallow them up.
Russian aims in this area can be realised only by Russia establishing a relationship with these countries, of the kind that the United States enjoy, for example, with Central America. As soon as one makes this parallel, one sees that this is not a realistic strategy for Russia. That is the second Russian problem. There are no peripheral relations on Russia’s frontiers, and certainly not peripheral, isolated conflicts. This is because Russia borders upon all the key hot spots of international conflict, creating global and not local problems. Thus even a local action, such as that perhaps undertaken in Georgia, must form part of a comprehensive strategy for Russian foreign policy.
What kind of strategy is this, and what will be the consequences of the intervention in Georgia? Russia’s status as a great power depends on its influence in Europe, on its military capacity and on the importance of its natural resources, above all oil and gas. The strategy can be implemented politically in various different ways. Putin has chosen the path of conflict with the US, with the aim of establishing a common protectorate over Europe, as was the case during the Cold War. Looking at it from this angle, there is an enormous difference between the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the invasion of Georgia. While Russia is unable to arbitrate in Europe, the European Union is mediating in the Russian-Georgian conflict. This is not a great gain from the strategic point of view.
In addition, while the pressure on other states and statelets in the area will increase, the political fallout in the Baltic, in Poland and in Ukraine will be unfavourable to Russia. The Euro-sceptics will also find it difficult to explain how their countries’ security and economic development would improve in the absence of the European Union, not to speak of the dissolution of NATO. Even more important than this perhaps is the effect that all this will have on American policy. Russia’s key partners in the strategy of reviving the Russo-American role in Europe have been the American Euro-sceptics, who used to be very strong in the current US administration but whose influence has since waned, possibly for an extended period.
Why did Putin opt for a strategy of conflict? The reason is primarily domestic in nature. It was a matter of choice between democratisation, accompanied by de-monopolisation of the economy, and autocracy, with state control of natural resources. The first alternative is more risky for those holding power, in that the loss of control over oil and gas in particular makes autocratic rule possibly unsustainable. The autocratic regime seeks, of course, to impose itself on democratic countries by way of conflict, especially on those which do not wield significant military power, at least not of the kind that Russia has at its disposal. Finally, centralisation of power is necessary to make it all somehow function together, and this can best be achieved through militarisation. This is indeed the internal political construction of contemporary Russia. Its strategic aims in foreign policy follow from this.
One should stress here the role played by a section of the Russian intelligentsia, whose best representative was arguably the late Solzhenitsyn. Like so many Russian intellectuals in the past, he justified the Russian government’s rude pragmatism by a vision of Russia as a special and chosen land, whose government has a particular European and world mission. This is the essence of the Russian problem.
Translated by Bosnian Insitute